AS A boy, Antoine Skalecki had a pony or a horse as a constant companion. Together they trudged through dimly lit tunnels, transporting loads of coal in a mine 1,600 feet (500 m) below ground. Antoine’s father was injured in a mine collapse, leaving the family no choice but to send Antoine to toil in the mines nine hours a day. On one occasion, Antoine almost lost his life in a cave-in.
Antoine was one of many children born in France to Polish parents in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Why did Polish immigrants come to France? When Poland’s independence was restored following World War I, overpopulation became a serious problem. France, on the other hand, had lost more than a million men in the war and was in desperate need of coal miners. Therefore, the French and Polish governments signed an immigration agreement in September 1919. By 1931 the Polish population in France had reached 507,800, with many Polish people settling in the mining regions in the north.
The hardworking Polish immigrants brought along their distinct culture, including deep religious sentiment. “My grandfather Joseph spoke of the Holy Scriptures with a reverence that had been implanted by his own father,” recalls Antoine, now 90. On Sundays, Polish mining families donned their best clothes for church, just as they had done back home, much to the disdain of certain secular-minded French locals.
It was in Nord-Pas-de-Calais that many Polish residents first came in contact with the Bible Students, who had been preaching zealously in the region since 1904. By 1915, The Watch Tower began to be printed in Polish each month, and The Golden Age (now Awake!) became available in that language in 1925. Many families were receptive to the Scriptural contents of these magazines, as well as to the book The Harp of God in Polish.
Antoine’s family learned of the Bible Students through his uncle, who attended his first meeting in 1924. That same year, in Bruay-en-Artois, the Bible Students held their first assembly in thePolish language. Less than a month later in the same town, a representative of world headquarters, Joseph F. Rutherford, held a public meeting, where 2,000 gathered. Moved by the large, mostly Polish attendance, Brother Rutherford told them: “Jehovah brought you to France to learn the truth. Now you and your children must help the French! A great preaching work is still to be done, and Jehovah will raise up publishers for that work.”
And Jehovah God did just that! These Polish Christians were as wholehearted about preaching as they were hardworking in the mines! Indeed, some of them returned to their native Poland to share the precious truths they had learned. Teofil Piaskowski, Szczepan Kosiak, and Jan Zabuda were among those who left France to spread the good news throughout large areas of Poland.
But many Polish-speaking evangelizers remained in France and continued to preach zealously alongside their French brothers and sisters. At the 1926 general assembly in Sin-le-Noble, 1,000 attended the Polish session, along with 300 at the French. The 1929 Yearbook reported: “During the year 332 Polish brethren have symbolized their consecration [dedication] by baptism.” Before World War II broke out, 32 of the 84 congregations in France were Polish-speaking.
In 1947 many Witnesses of Jehovah accepted an invitation by the Polish government to return to Poland. Even after their departure, however, the fruitage of their efforts and those of their French fellow believers could be seen in the 10 percent increase in Kingdom publishers that year. This was followed by increases of 20, 23, and even 40 percent in the years from 1948 to 1950! To help train these new publishers, the France branch appointed the first circuit overseers in 1948. Of the five selected, four were Polish, and Antoine Skalecki was one of them.
Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France still have the Polish surnames of their forebears, who worked hard both in the mines and in the field ministry. Today, too, multitudes of immigrants are learning the truth in France. Whether evangelizers from other countries return to their native lands or settle in their new home, they are zealously following the course of Kingdom proclaimers such as their Polish predecessors.