Our Collections

Peasant Autobiographies from the 1930s (materials from a diary competition organized by the State Institute of Rural Culture)

This collection consists of 40 autobiographies written by young inhabitants of villages located in the Polesie region and other eastern provinces of the Second Polish Republic. Most of them are works submitted to the national competition entitled ‘Describe your life, work, reflections and aspirations’, announced in 1937 by the State Institute of Rural Culture (then headed by Józef Chałasiński and Józef Obrębski), and the journal ‘Przysposobienie Rolnicze’. A total of 1,544 entries were submitted to the competition, and they were then partly used in the classic work by Joseph Chałasiński Młode pokolenie chłopów [The Young Generation of Peasants] published in 1938. 

The aim of the competition organisers was to explore the living conditions, educational ambitions and social involvement of young people (under the age of 30) in rural areas, who were to play an important role in shaping the future of the independent Polish Republic. Most of the respondents were male. The authors were asked to provide a detailed description of their lives, including details of their family and neighbourhood, financial situation, everyday living conditions, etc. They were also asked to comment on the issue of education in rural areas and youth organisations operating in those areas. The authors were also asked to express their views on the functioning of the local community, nation and the state. 

The autobiographies in the collection vary in degree of detail, efficiency in using the written language, and the forms of narratives. They are written mostly by hand (some have type-written copies) in Polish, sometimes in Russian or Belarusian. Some take just a few pages, others are a few hundred pages long. A few of them were written in verse. All autobiographies contain annotations on the organisational affiliation of their authors (in case of non-affiliation, the symbol ‘Dz’ was placed, meaning dzikie – ‘wild’) and a preliminary evaluation of the scientific relevance of the work. One of the autobiographies in the collection (ACH1) was translated into English and published in Obrębski’s book The Changing Peasantry of Eastern Europe. Excerpts from three others (ACH4, ACH10 and ACH22) are quoted by Józef Chałasiński in the aforementioned book on the young peasant generation.

Józef Obrębski probably borrowed those works whose authors came from Polesie (24) and from the neighbouring provinces in order to use them in his own research. As a result, those autobiographies ended up in the archive at Amherst (and thus have been preserved to this day). However, not all autobiographies originated from the aforementioned competition. A handful were probably created at the behest of Obrębski himself. Of particular interest are the works written in Belarusian by Michał Zieniewicz, who corresponded with Obrębski on this issue (two letters have been preserved). Their shortened version was published in The Young Generation of Peasants as ‘A Belarusian man’s biography’.