GDYNIA, Poland (Reuters) - In 1938, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who would later be the U.S. National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, traveled with his parents on an ocean liner from Gdynia, Poland to Canada.
He trod the black-and-white tiles in the main hall of the old marine station, as did Witold Gombrowicz, an avant-garde writer who left for Argentina in 1939, just before outbreak of the World War Two, on the liner Chrobry.
They were just a few of the millions who set off from this northern Polish Baltic Sea port to seek a better life in a faraway land.
“Whenever we say that there are more than 20 million people of Polish origin worldwide, that we are the sixth diaspora in the world if it comes to the dispersion of the nation beyond the borders of a country, these numbers are always surprising,” Joanna Wojdyło, the press officer of the Emigration Museum in Gdynia, told Reuters.
The museum, which will open on May 16, is the first in Poland devoted solely to migration. However, the terms migration and emigration are understood broadly by the creators of the museum.
“The museum tells the story of emigration from the Polish lands from the beginning of the 19th century to modern times. So, firstly, there was not always a Polish state on the map, therefore we talk about the Polish lands. Secondly, of course we focus on Poles, and this is the main trend in this narrative,” Wojdylo said.
“But we also talk about the migration of people not necessarily of Polish ethnicity,” she added.
The Emigration Museum is located in Gdynia’s old marine station, commissioned in 1933 and one of the pearls of the architectonical modernism style.
The permanent exhibition in the former transit zone covers three main topics: the journey and preparation for it, the history of the marine station in Gdynia and the life of emigrants abroad.
One of the main attractions is a large-scale reconstruction of the ocean liner MS Batory, a meticulously recreated four-ton model of a vessel in 1:10 scale.
There are also histories of the commerce that grew up around emigration -- from the logistics companies to the smuggling of the migrants -- an issue that is especially timely today when people smugglers are moving thousands of illegal immigrants to Europe.
Nearly 4,000 exhibits have been collected for the permanent display, most of them donated.
”We received a piece of luggage and documents that belonged to the mother of Chris Niedenthal,” Wojdylo said, referring to the British-Polish photographer who chronicled communist times in Eastern Europe.
The exhibits also include the belongings of Polish settlers in United States, Canada, Turkey, India, and even a Polish community in Zimbabwe.
“There’s also a very interesting collection of 39 Virgin Mary pictures, each with detailed description of the family it belonged to and to which country they had emigrated to,” Wojdyło said.
Writing by Anna Jaworska-Guidotti, Editing by Michael Roddy and Larry King