Traveling exhibit showcases Herbert Hoover's humanitarian efforts in Poland

Courtesy of the Hoover Institution American Relief Administration

After World War I, the American Relief Administration, established by Hoover, fed 2 million starving Poles daily, including the children pictured here.

The story goes that in 1892, Herbert Hoover, a member of Stanford's Pioneer Class, invited Polish composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski, one of the leading pianists in the world, to give a benefit concert. Due to problems with scheduling and publicity, only a few people attended. Hoover asked the pianist not to play, but he performed anyway, waiving his concert fee. And when Paderewski discovered that Hoover owed thousands of dollars for rental of the concert hall, the musician covered the bill. That incident marked the beginning of a friendship between the two men that would last 50 years.

During and after World War I, when Poles faced massive starvation, Hoover repaid his debt to Paderewski, who became Poland's prime minister, by organizing the largest relief operation ever mounted in Europe, said Zbigniew Stanczyk, East European specialist at the Hoover Institution.

Between 1914 and 1922, it is estimated that the American Relief Administration (ARA), established by Hoover, fed 200 million people. In Poland alone, more than 1.5 million people were being fed six months after the ARA entered the country in 1918. Later, during World War II, Hoover led the Commission for Polish Relief, which assisted hundreds of thousands of Poles. And in 1946, Hoover visited Poland to draft another plan that would aid Poles for the next three decades.

Hoover's long relationship with the Polish people is revealed in the exhibit "Herbert Hoover in Poland: Pioneer Humanitarian at Work," on display at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion through Aug. 26. The exhibit richly illustrates Hoover's work in Poland through rare photographs, correspondence, news accounts and video testimonials by people who survived thanks to America's support. The exhibit was first shown in 2004 and 2005 in Warsaw, Krakow, Katowice, Lodz and Poznan. It attracted huge crowds in each of the Polish cities.

"In one museum in Poznan, 12,000 people visited in one month," Stanczyk said. "That was huge."

Between the world wars, Hoover was a household name in Poland, Stanczyk said, and he was honored with parades, university diplomas and honorary citizenship in cities. In 1922, the Legislative Assembly of the Polish Republic passed a resolution granting Hoover national citizenship, the first foreigner ever to receive this distinction. The same year, a monument honoring Hoover was erected in a central part of Warsaw that portrayed two women holding children as a symbol of life. The monument was destroyed during World War II, but there are plans to rebuild it in Skwer Hoovera (Hoover Square), the site of its prewar location, according to Stanczyk.

"After World War II, he co-founded two major world humanitarian organizations, UNICEF and CARE, which are still feeding millions of people around the globe," Stanczyk said. "He truly deserves the title of first global humanitarian."

The exhibit is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion.

Hoover in Poland