The YMCA is a Christian charity committed to helping all young people, particularly in times of need. It has been delivering personal development opportunities since 1844. The growth and transformation of our youth in body, mind and spirit lies at the heart of the YMCA ethos, which is driven by a genuine motivation to serve others and to encourage each person to aspire to excellence.
The origin of the Polish YMCA owes a great deal to the American YMCA, which served the American and French armies during the First World War. The Polish and Polish- American troops of Gen. Joseph Haller, organized as a unit within the French army, had witnessed this group of American welfare workers in active service. Gen. Haller was so impressed, he requested that the American YMCA accompany him to Poland. In the late winter of 1918, this Polish army was to help free Polish territory from enemy elements and to further the restoration of Poland as a free and independent republic.
The Poles’ widespread desire to have a YMCA of their own, to do for the Polish youth what they had seen the American YMCA doing for soldiers and refugees, led to the formation of a civilian Polish YMCA. December 8/9 1923 were the dates of the first national convention attended by the President of the Republic, Stanisław Wojciechowski, and this has ever since been regarded as the birthday of the Polish YMCA even though the Association had been granted its charter twenty months earlier. Notwithstanding its utterly alien look, since no Polish words begin with Y, the Poles insisted that their movement should be called “Polska YMCA” because tens of thousands of Poles had a deep affection for the name.
The rapid growth of the Polish YMCA as a self-governing and independent organization for the young and the young at heart came to a sudden halt in September 1939. There was a total ban on all YMCA activity. Despite this, thanks to an international agreement, past YMCA officers and volunteers managed to provide reading matter from Poland, amongst other recreational and sporting equipment, for prisoners of war in German camps.
Despite the ongoing war, the Polish YMCA worked in adverse circumstances developing various programs of direct aid, first for internees and refugees in Rumania and Hungary, later with newly formed Polish Army units in France, Great Britain, the Middle and Near East. Spread over nineteen countries and three continents, this was a distinguished chapter in the history of the Polish YMCA.
Immediately after the war, the YMCA surfaced in many parts of Poland. Work on a wide scale began to rekindle the spirit of young people who had been so devastated by the war. Sadly this work of the YMCA in Poland came to another sudden interruption as a result of the Communist régimes decision to outlaw the organization for spurious doctrinal reasons, however continued in different parts of Europe. In 1953 this led to the recognition of a national movement in terms of culture rather than territory, a decision unique in the history of the World’s Alliance of YMCAs. Today, more than half a century later, the Polish YMCA GB, through its various clubs and activities, is the continuation of this proud tradition and achievement.
During the period when the YMCA was absent in Poland, it remained active and vigilant in Great Britain, particularly in providing help and support for newly arrived Poles, to aid in their settling. While the Polish YMCA GB is best known for the organisation of annual horse riding and summer youth camps and Mazury Dance Company, the story does not end there.
Whatever the future may have in store for the Polish YMCA, there is no denying the rich and crucial role the charity has played, and furthermore continues to play in the lives of tens of thousands of young people of Polish origin.