Famous Poles

As an expat in Poland, you will soon realise, how important here is to know all the famous Poles, especially those who went abroad to make career there. On the other hand, you might have read "Solaris" (or watched the movie with Goerge Clooney) without even knowing it was written by a Pole Stanislaw Lem. We've prepared an expat's summary on all prominences. Now, you can follow all the small talks and avoid faux pas.



  • Pope John Paul II

John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła (1920 - 2005) - Pope since 1978. He read Polish Philology at the Jagiellonian University, and pursued his interest in drama (he was a student actor and has written several plays and long poetic works). During the Second World War he attended a clandestine seminary preparing for the ministry in the Church and was ordained in 1946. In 1946-48 he studied for the Doctor's degree at the Angelicum Pontifical University in Rome. He was a lecturer of the Faculty of Theology of the Jagiellonian University until it was closed down by the Communist authorities in 1954. As Pope he would later erect the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Cracow. From 1956 he was a professor and head of the Department of the Ethics in the Faculty of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin. In 1958 he was appointed a bishop, and five years later Metropolitan Archbishop of Cracow. In 1967 he received the cardinal's hat. On 16 October 1978 he became the first non-Italian for over 400 years to be elected to the See of St. Peter. The pontificate of John Paul II has been characterised by an openness to dialogue with the world at large and an extremely active, new form of evangelisation. He was the first pontiff in the history of the Roman Catholic Church to hold prayer meetings with representatives of all religions. He opened up a dialogue with followers of Judaism. He has consistently implemented the postulates of the Second Vatican Council. His pastoral work has included reform of Canon Law (1984), the publication of a new Catechism for the Roman Catholic Church (1992), the reorganisation of the Roman Catholic Curia, numerous encyclicals on a wide range of religious matters, starting with 'Redemptor hominis', new canonisations and beatifications. He has made close to 100 visits ('pilgrimages') to countries all over the world, many times to Poland, and regularly visits Roman and Italian parishes. His first visit to Poland in June 1979 provided the inspiration for the people who soon afterwards founded the Solidarity movement, which eventually led to the fall of Communism. The important messages of the pontificate of John Paul II are the protection of human life from conception to natural death, a repudiation of materialism in all of its modern guises and of the civilisation of death, respect for human rights and working-men's rights, work for world peace, opposition to totalitarianism, a new evangelism and a global evangelical renewal of the young.
On May 13th 1981 he was injured but survived an assassination attempt in Saint Peter's Square.
He died on April 2nd, 2005. (courtesy of poland.gov.pl)

  • Lech Walesa

Lech Wałęsa (born 1943) - trade union leader, politician, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1983, President of the Republic of Poland (1990-1995). He holds honorary degrees from several universities, including Harvard, Columbia and Gdańsk. In 1980 he was the leader of the strike at the Gdańsk Shipyard, and later became head of the Inter-Factory Strike Committee. From 1980 to 1981 he was head of the Solidarity National Committee. He took part in negotiations with the Communist authorities, the outcome of which was the agreement reached at the Round Table talks in 1989. In 1990 he was elected leader of the Solidarity trade union. Polish President 1990-95. He is the author of several autobiographical books, 'Droga nadziei' (A Path of Hope - 1987), and 'Droga do wolności' (The Path to Freedom - 1991).(courtesy of poland.gov.pl)

  • Jerzy Owsiak

Jerzy Owsiak (born 1953) - social campaigner, journalist, co-founder of the Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy Christmas charity orchestra, which 'played' for the first time in January 1993, when it collected money for children's cardiosurgery in the largest children's hospital in Poland. The huge public response led to the establishment of the event as a regular fixture in Poland's charity fund-raising calendar, which has been held every year since 1993. The money collected always goes for the treatment of sick children, but each year it is for a different type of disease. The money collected in January 2002 was allocated for the treatment of children with congenital disorders. Jerzy Owsiak is also an organiser of young people's events.(courtesy of poland.gov.pl)


  • Wladyslaw Bartoszewski
  • Stanislaw Lem

Stanisław Lem (1921 - 2006) - writer and journalist, theoretician and science-fiction literary critic. Studied medicine at the Jagielonian University in Cracow. He made his debut in 1946 with the 'Man from Mars' and in 1951 released a sci-fi story titled 'Astronauts'. His work became critically acclaimed, for example: 'Dialogues' (1957) and 'Summa technologiae' (1964). Today his work is among the top rank of sci-fi work in the world, translated into many languages and many times awarded. His works include: 'Solaris' (1961), 'Robots' fairy tale' (1964), 'Cyberiada' (1965) 'Stories about Pirx the pilot" (1968), 'Local vision' (1982), 'Peace on earth' (1987).
He is the winner of many awards both in Poland and abroad (including the State Prize First Class in the field of culture and art; the Austrian state prize in the field of European culture; the Franz Kafka Austrian state prize in the field of literature), and distinctions (Order of the White Eagle), and honorary doctorates.(courtesy of poland.gov.pl)

  • Ryszard Kapuscinski

Ryszard Kapuściński (born 1932, died 23.01.2007 in Warsaw) - reporter, journalist, essayist. In 1962 he became a Polish Press Agency's correspondent in Africa, Latin America and Asia. He is fascinated by political conflict and war. He is the author of many collections of reportage, including: 'The Polish Bush' (1962) - reportage from his homeland; 'The Soccer War' (1978) - on changes taking place in Africa, where he travelled up to the end of the 1960s, to the Congo; 'The Emperor' (1978) - about the magnificence and the fall of Haile Sellassie in Ethopia; 'The Shah of Shahs' (1982) - about the court of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlava in Iran; 'Imperium' (1993) - after travelling around the crumbling Soviet empire in 1989-91; 'Heban' (1998) - a synthesis of works on Africa. His photographic album 'Out of Africa' came out in 2000. Winner of the 1996 Jan Parandowski Award for the best Polish writer. In 199 he was awarded the Ikara statuette. His work is translated all over the world.(courtesy of poland.gov.pl)

  • Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) - poet, prose writer, essayist, translator. Nobel Prize-winner in 1980 and Polish Nike Prize-winner in 1998 for ‘The little wayside dog’. Has been awarded many honorary degrees, including from Harvard University and the Jagiellonian University. After 1951 he has lived outside Poland. In the 1990s he returned permanently to Poland, to Cracow. He was professor at the Department of Slavic Literature and Languages at the University of California at Berkeley, later a professor at Harvard University. His most important collections of poetry are: ‘Rescue’ (1945), ‘Daylight’ (1953), ‘A Treatise on Poetry,’ (1957), ‘The City Without a Name’ (1969) and ‘That’ (2000). Author of wonderful essays, journalism and prose, for example ‘The Captive Mind’ (1953), ‘Family Europe’, ‘The Land of Ulro’ (1977), ‘A history of Polish literature’ (1969) and ‘Second space’. (courtesy of poland.gov.pl)

  • Wislawa Szymborska

Contemporary poetry also has a special place in Polish literature. One of the most recently acclaimed writers is Wislawa Szymborska - a great poet, essayist and translator. Long cherished by the Polish nation, she achieved international recognition after becoming the 1996 laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Often described as a modest and shy figure, she obviously reflects her personality in her works, making them sensual and intellectual, tender, feminine and human. She is also known for employing literary devices such as irony, contradiction, paradox, which transport her creativity into a different dimension. She is believed to turn everything into golden poetry. Among her great collections we can find: "Koniec i Poczatek" ( 1993, 1996 ), "Ludzie na moscie" ( 1986 ), "Poezje wybrane" ( 1983 ), "Wielka Liczba" ( 1976 ) and many more. After her distinction " for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality", Czeslaw Milosz ( her Polish literary contemporary ) said: "The high ranking of Polish poetry has been confirmed." (courtesy of polish-dictionary.com)


  • Maria Curie-Sklodowska

The first is Marie Sklodowska-Curie who achieved international recognition in Paris for her scientific discoveries. Along with her husband-Pierre Curie, she began a search for the source of radioactivity and discovered two highly radioactive elements: radium and polonium. For her outstanding discovery, she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1903. But that wasn't the end of her achievements. The continuity of her work on radioactive elements resulted in her winning another Nobel Prize in 1911 for chemistry, for isolating radium and studying its chemical properties. Weird as it may sound, though, her extraordinary discoveries contributed profoundly to the understanding of radioactivity but not only to that. Marie Curie died due to leukemia, a disease which is now known to be caused by exposure to the penetrating radiation. Call it irony or not, but she died from the radium that made her famous. (courtesy of polish-dictionary.com)


  • Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki (born 1933) - composer and conducter. A professor at the of Music, and lecturer at Essen and Yale. His career began in 1959 at the the Young Composers' Competition of Polish Composers' Union, where he was awarded three prizes, for 'Emanations', 'The Psalms of David' and 'Strophes'. His other works include his 'Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima' (1960), 'Passio et Mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Lucam'(1965), 'Magnificat' (1974), 'Symphony No. 2' (The Christmas Symphony - 1980), 'Viola Concerto' (for viola and orchestra, 1983), 'The Seven Gates of Jerusalem' (1996), 'Mass' (1998) and 'Credo' (1999). He has been honoured with doctorates from many European centres of learning. He is the winner of prestigious awards, including the prestigious Prince of Asturia arts award (2001). His innovative talent as a composer, which has allowed him to combine different types of music, is highly esteemed.(courtesy of poland.gov.pl)

  • Witold Lutoslawski

Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) - one of the greatest 20th-century composers. He graduated in Piano and Composition from the Warsaw Conservatory (he also read Mathematics). He was awarded honorary doctorates from universities in Warsaw, Cracow, Toruń, Chicago, Glasgow and Cambridge. He lectured in many centres of learning around the world, including Essen, Copenhagen and Stockholm. In 1959-65 he was a member of the board of the International Society of Contemporary Music, and later for 4 years its vice-president. His most important works include 'Mourning Song' (1958), 'Venetian Games' (for orchestra - 1961), 'String Quartet' (1964), 'Concerto for Cello and Orchestra' (1970), 'Four Symphonies' (1988). On the 80th anniversary of the prestigious Polar Music Prize (also known as the musical Oscar), he was a triple winner of the first-class state award. In 1994 he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle.(courtesy of poland.gov.pl)


  • Krzysztof Kieslowski

Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) - film director and script writer. His career started in 1966 with short films, for example ‘Workers ‘71’ (1972) and ‘Resume’ (1975). His subsequent films brought him his first film festival awards, such as ‘The Scar’ (1976) from the Gdansk festival and ‘Camera Buff’ (1979) awarded in Moscow and Chicago. However, the ‘Ten Commandments I - X’ made in 1988-89 marked his permanent position in the film world (FIPRESCI award). He had similar successes with ‘The double life of Veronique’ (1991), ‘Three Colours: Blue’ (won the Golden Lion in Venice), ‘Three Colours: White’ (Silver Bear in Berlin) and ‘Three Colours: Red’ (nominated for an Oscar), made in 1993-94 with Polish-French collaboration. He won dozens of awards and distinctions for his work in film, for example the ‘Felix’ from the European Film Academy. (courtesy of poland.gov.pl)

  • Andrzej Wajda

Andrzej Wajda (born 1926 - 2016) - director, member of the ‘Immortal Circle’ of the French Academy of Fine Arts. He was honoured with the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1998 for his contributions to cinema. He also won a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2000. He has served a wide range of social and political functions. He was for many years the president of the Association of Polish Film-makers (1978-83) and a senator in the Polish Senate (1989-1991). He is the main representative of the so-called Polish film school. He best films are: ‘Generation’ (1955), ‘Canal’ (1957, won the Silver Palm award at Cannes), ‘Man of Marble’ (1977), ‘Promised land’ (1974, nominated for an Oscar, won awards in Gdansk and Moscow) and ‘Man of Iron’ (1981, Golden Palm at Cannes), ‘Danton’ (1985, won Prix Delluc) and ‘Pan Tadeusz’ (1999). He has also director plays based on works by Slawomir Mrozek, Dostoyevsky, Witkacy and Shakespeare. He has been awarded the French Legion of Honour and Japanese Order of the Rising Sun. In 1996 he was awarded the Silver Bear award in Berlin. In 2001 the German president awarded him the Great Cross of Merit. (courtesy of poland.gov.pl)

  • Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland (born 1948) - film, theatre and television director. Since 1981 she has been living and working abroad. She is a member of the European Film Academy and was nominated for an Oscar for ‘Bitter harvest’ (1985). Her best known films are: “The provincial actors’ (1978, won the FIPRESCI at the Cannes film festival), ‘Temperature’ (1980, won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival), ‘Lonely Woman’ (1981), ‘To Kill a Priest’ (1988), ‘Europa, Europa’ (1990, Golden Globe), ‘The Secret Garden’ (1994), ‘Total Eclipse’ (1995) and ‘Washington Square’ (1997). (courtesy of poland.gov.pl)

  • Roman Polanski

Poland has revolutionized the world in the field of film making as well. Who doesn't know Roman Polanski- an Academy Award winning film director, writer, actor and producer of Polish origins? He started making first movies during his study at the film school in Lodz, Poland, which gained him considerable recognition. In these first years of his career he was considered a brilliant person on the verge of genius. Later in his life, though, his tumultuous personal life ( brutal murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate, rape of a 13-year old girl ), caused the media to focus on that instead of his film making. Despite all this, Polanski is believed to have created an amazing body of work. Best-known for films such as "Chinatown" ( 1974 ), "Tess" ( 1979 ), "Rosemary's Baby" (1986), and "The Pianist" (2002), he established himself as a major Polish filmmaker. (courtesy of polish-dictionary.com)

Fashion World:

  • Maciej Zien

One of the most famous Polish designers. His first big job was to become the designer of the First Lady Jolanta Kaczynska. Since 200o he markets his collection under his own brand Zien and is also involved in desiging costumes for theatre plays and opera.

  • Anja Rubik

Anja the top model is a Polish star on the international fashion arena. She is considered a iconic model by the models.com. She works with the biggest fashion designers, photographers. She has been a face of Hugo Boss, Fendi, and YSL for multiple seasons.