A Monument to a King and a Nation


Bogdan Horbal

The Polish Pavilion at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, which was located next to the British, Italian, and Dutch exhibitions, was opened on May 3, 1939 to commemorate the 148th anniversary of the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791. This is generally regarded as Europe’s first and the world’s second constitution, following the 1788 ratification of the United States Constitution.
At the entrance to the Polish exhibit stood a replica of a monument of the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Władysław Jagiełło/Vladislaus Jogaila (c. 1362 to 1434). The original was prepared by Stanisław K. Ostrowski (1879 to 1947) and stood in Poland’s capital, Warsaw. The monument appears to represent an event that took place before the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. The 26th Grand Master of Teutonic Knights, Ulrich von Jungingen (1360 to 1410) whose army was about to clash with a coalition of Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian forces, sent two messengers to King Jagiełło. They delivered two swords. King Jagiełło accepted the gift and the challenge. In his 1900 novel Krzyżacy (Teutonic Knights) Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz depicts the scene and has one of the messengers say that if the King and his uncle Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas lack courage, they may want to use these two swords. Sienkiewicz’s King answers that although his country has enough swords, he accepts these as an omen of victory.

Polish Americans lay a wreath at the base of the statue of King Jagiello at the Polish Pavilion.

Polish Americans lay a wreath at the base of the statue of King Jagiello at the Polish Pavilion.

The Battle of Grunwald was one of the largest battles fought in Medieval Europe. According to varying sources, between 26,000 and 56,000 soldiers took part in the battle. Both sides were aided by mercenaries from various countries. Twenty-two different peoples, mostly Germanic, joined the Teutonic side which still suffered a decisive loss. The Grand Master of Teutonic Knights, along with numerous Teutonic dignitaries and soldiers, perished.
The swords delivered by the Teutonic messengers were later placed in Poland’s Royal Treasury at Wawel Castle in Cracow and were subsequently carried in front of Polish kings during their coronations as symbols of their power. Unfortunately, in 1853, the swords were confiscated by Russian troops and never found again.
On September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany attacked Poland and Polish personnel at the World’s Fair had no choice but to stay in New York along with everything that was presented at the Polish Pavilion. Shortly thereafter, the original Jagiełło monument in Warsaw was destroyed and converted into bullets by the Nazis. A similar monument to the Battle of Grunwald erected in Cracow for the battle’s 500th anniversary was also destroyed during World War II by the Germans (although that one was rebuilt in 1976).

King Jagiello's statue at the Polish Pavilion.

Virtually all of the content of the Polish exhibition at the 1939-1940 Fair was eventually sold to the Polish Museum of America in Chicago, except for the pavilion’s murals, currently on display at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, and the Jagiełło monument. On October 11, 1939, New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia dedicated the new Pulaski Park in the Bronx. During the ceremony Robert Moses, Commissioner of Parks, supported by La Guardia, proposed that the Jagiełło monument remain permanently in the city — an idea emphasized by the fact that no similar requests were made for any other foreign exhibit. On July 15, 1945 the monument was unveiled on the edge of the Great Lawn in Central Park, near 5th Avenue and 79th Street behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it stands today as a gift of the Polish government in exile. Parks Chief Consulting Architect Aymar Embury II designed the granite pedestal. On both sides of the plinth the word “Poland” is inscribed. The monument was conserved in 1986 by the Central Park Conservancy.
A day after the official opening of the Polish Pavilion at the World’s Fair, The New York Times pointed out that during the opening, Count Jerzy Potocki, Polish Ambassador in Washington, said, “Over this miniature Poland with its story of peaceful pursuits and achievements, there stands on guard the symbol of armed might which once before saved Poland from an armed invasion. It is a symbol the lesson of which is understood today and will remain many, many years after the Polish Pavilion and the New York World’s Fair have receded into distant memory.”

A large crowd assembles at the Polish Pavilion for Kosciuszko Day.

A view inside the Polish Pavilion.

Exterior of the Polish Pavilion.

New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia speaking at the Polish National Alliance Day celebration.

Sources Cited

“Jagiello Statue Accepted by the City.” The New York Times (1923-Current file); Jul 16, 1945; ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times (1851-2007), pg. 20.

“La Guardia Pays Tribute to Poland,” The New York Times (1923-Current file); Oct 12, 1939; ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times (1851-2007), pg. 18.

Porter, Russell B. “Poland's Pavilion at the Fair Dedicated by Count Potocki,” The New York Times (1923-Current file); May 4, 1939; ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times (1851-2007), pg. 1.

Poland. Official Catalogue of the Polish Pavilion at the World's Fair in New York, 1939 (Warszawa: 1939) (503 pp.) [VC (New York, 1939) (Poland. Komisarjat generalny, Nowojorska wystawa światowa,1939-1940. Official catalogue of the Polish pavilion at the World's fair in New York, 1939)] and the same publication in Polish: Katalog oficjalny działu polskiego na Międzynarodowej Wystawie w Nowym Jorku, 1939 (Warsawa, 1939) (506 pp.) [*QPZ 04-6247].

Zimnica, Elizabeth. “Making History: Poland at the 1939 World's Fair in New York,” A thesis submitted to the Department of Art History in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada January, 1999 [prepared with the cooperation of the staff of The New York Public Library], http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/ftp01/MQ37993.pdf.

Bogdan Horbal, Head of Technical Processing at NYPL's Science, Industry and Business Library, was born and raised in Poland but has lived in New York since 1990. He has worked for NYPL since 1997. In addition to an MLS, he also holds a degree in history and researches Lemko Rusyn history.

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