The Polish Connection
07 Sep 2016
At Downside we are very proud of our Polish heritage. Founded in 1606 at Douai in France and based in Somerset, England, since 1814, the School has continuously provided an elite education for talented young Catholics from across the world. The first Polish boys began arriving at Downside before the First World War, and today we welcome both boys and girls each year.
One of the first was Prince Maria Alfred Sapieha, who treasured his time at Downside between 1908 and 1913. He was killed in action in the trenches of Sapanów near Krzemieniec in Wolhynia on June 5th 1916, in a break from military action on April 6th 1916 prior to this, he wrote to one of the monks.
“ You don’t know what immense pleasure your letter gave me.
At last a piece of news from Downside after almost two years [….].
I am always so glad to hear something of Downside”
That same year, another Polish boy, Count Stefan Zamoyski, arrived at Downside. He went on to the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Where he took a doctorate in Law. Following a distinguished record in the War, fighting at Narvik, in France in 1940 and with General Maczek’s Armoured Division, as well as a spell as aide-de-camp to the Polish Prime Minister and Commander-in-chief General Władysław Sikorski, he settled in London, where he became a prominent figure in the Polish Emigration.
Two of his brothers followed him to Downside. During the Second World War, Count Zdzisław Zamoyski served with the Polish Air Force in England. He lost his life when his Wellington bomber, in which he the Navigator, was shot down over the Belgian coast and ditched in the North Sea. His brother, Count Władysław Zamoyski, fought with the Polish 25th Lancers in September 1939, and in the Home Army (AK). He was killed in the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944 and posthumously awarded the Virtuti Militari.
They are commemorated in a stained-glass window with which all Downside boys are familiar as they make their way to the Abbey church.
They were not the only Polish pupils who lost their lives in the Second World War. Prince Leon Sapieha was killed on the Marne in France on 13th June 1940 while serving with General Maczek’s 10th Motorised Cavalry Brigade. He was awarded the French Cross of Valour. His brother, Prince Karol Sapieha, known as Charles when he was at Downside from 1929 to 1935, died as a member of the Free French Air Force in 1941. Count Władysław Żółtowski, who left Downside in 1927 was murdered by the Russians at Katyn in 1940. Other Polish Downside alumni (‘Old Gregorians’) distinguished themselves in several arenas in the great conflicts of the Twentieth Century and the School is extremely proud of its connection with Poland’s heroic struggle for independence. This connection did not cease after the war.
Post-war Polish alumni included not only the next generations of the Sapieha and Zamoyski families, but also the sons of some of the most distinguished soldiers, sailors and airmen of that war. Many of those who attended Downside after the war went on to play prominent roles in various spheres. Other Polish alumni work in a variety of areas world-wide, from hedge-funds to the IT industry, from Medicine to Law.
Polish Scholarships at Downside
More recently, Downside set about developing its historic relationship with Poland by offering St John Paul II Scholarships to Polish students of the highest calibre. For over twenty years the school has been providing places for some of the most talented students from Poland. Through a highly competitive selection process coordinated in Poland, pupils are selected in a final interview. The current Head Master, Dr James Whitehead, has been visiting Poland since 2005 to conduct the interviews, building up links within the country and supporting past scholars: there is an annual Downside Polish Old Gregorian dinner in Warsaw. Customarily, these scholars attended the school during the Sixth Form and then progress on to the top universities in the world, to Oxford, Cambridge, British Medical Schools or the American Ivy League universities.
A good example of what a Downside education can do for a bright young person from Poland is provided by Rafał Milczarski, one of the first two scholars. He came to Downside after attending VI L.O. im. Jana Kochanowskiego in Radom, and from Downside he went on to study at Cambridge University. Because he wanted ‘to be involved in building a better Poland’ after the collapse of communism in 1989, Milczarski returned to his home country. He founded an independent train company and campaigned for a better deal for Poland’s railways, and for the new generation of railway operators. He founded the Association of Independent Railway Operating Companies (ZNPK) and was one of those instrumental in setting up the “Pro Kolej” Foundation.