• February 6, 2015
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Walking down the Vilnius streets: Pelczar – a figure worth commemorating

Several years ago, there appeared many new streets near the Santoryszki District of Vilnius. One of them was named after Kazimierz Pelczar – the great Polish oncologist, the professor of the Stefan Batory University.

That is not a coincidence. There is the modern Institute of Oncology near this street, and Pelczar established the basics of this branch of medicine. The portrait of the professor is placed in the Institute. There are located many research institutions at the street named after Pelczar.

 Kazimierz Pelczar was born on August 2nd 1894 in Truskavets near Lviv. He studied medicine at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He was called up into the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War and captivated by the Russian army. After the First World War, Pelczar joined the Polish army. In 1920, he came back to the newly independent Poland, where he joined the army as a doctor and continued studying medicine at the Jagiellonian University. He obtained his PhD degree in 1925. After that, he worked in the Jagiellonian University Medical College, where he conducted research on neoplasia and cancers. After receiving a state scholarship, Pelczar moved to Berlin and studied there; he became a specialist in hematology and transplantation of cancer tissues. In the Pasteur Institute, he studied the biology of neoplasia and conducted research on immunity in neoplasia.

In 1930, Kazimierz Pelczar was invited by the Stefan Batory University. Enjoyment after regaining independence of Poland and a few other factors contributed to the fact that many notable figures settled in Vilnus in the period before the Second World War. Pelczar was the director of the Faculty of Bacteriology the Department of General Pathology at the Faculty of Medicine of the Stefan Batory University. Morever, he performed the function of Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. In 1936, he held the 4th International Congress of Fight against Cancer in Vilnius. At that time, apart from research on neoplasia, Pelczar used to study other illnesses, for example tuberculosis and diabetes. He also conducted experiments on new ways of neoplasia treatment.

Ordered by Pelczar, kephalin injections were produced in Berlin in the factory named Chemische Grünau Fabrik and ampoules containing this medication were labelled as ‘Nach K. Pelczar’ (in English: according to the K. Pelczar’s recipe). The new health care centre at Połocka street 6 in Vilnius – the Clinic and Institute of Oncology, founded by Pelczar in December 1931, enabled him to implement his methods of treatment on a large scale. In 1930s, the clinic gained radium, a radioactive element, with a view to using it in neoplasia treatment. Pelczar himself engaged in the work in the clinic both as an  coordinator, supervisor and physician.

During the interwar period, Kazimierz Pelczar was an active participant of social and academic life, not only in his homeland, but also abroad. He spoke fluently a few languages what enabled him to participate effortlessly in international medical conferences in England, Germany, Italy, Spain, where he gave lectures. His articles were often publicised by radio and national press.

Stanisław Lorentz, the prewar conservator in the Vilnius and Navahrudak (Nowogródek) Voivodeships, the lecturer of Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, wrote in ‘Album Wileński’: ‘Kazimierz Pelczar, the oncologist and professor of Stefan Batory University in Vilnius since 1930, the outstanding scholar of worldwide fame. In 1940, he was proposed to arrive to New York, to London to join a faculty of its university, to Rome – everywhere he was offered to perform responsible functions. However, he did not want to leave Vilnius. He was the leader of Polish Section of International Red Cross and the Polish Committee in Vilnius, he saved thousands of Polish refugees, he was hiding Jews and members of Home Army. He was executed by Lithuanians as one of ten Polish hostages  in Ponary near Vilnius on  September 17th 1943. The extraordinary man of great character.

Just after their wedding, in 1930, Kazimierz and Janina (usually called Dzidka), his wife (and the close relative of Józef Dietl, the president of Krakow City) – a beautiful, handsome and slender woman expecting a baby (daughter Zofia) – moved to Vilnius. Soon after their arrival, on a Sunday noon, the marriage went to Rudnicki’s pastry shop; then we met them and soon we became friends’.

Janina and Kazimierz Pelczar, as the rest of the Vilnius intelligentsia,  were active participants of cultural and social life of Vilnius. For example, they were members of the ‘Smorgon’ club. Kazimierz Pelczar was also an active member of the Society of Friends of Science in Vilnius; moreover, he was the president of the Vilnius-Navahrudak Medical Council. Apart from Zofia, the abovementioned daughter, Janina and Kazimierz Pelczar had two more children born in Vilnius: Zenon and Maria. Maria, who was only 8 months old when her father died, lives in Paris now. Another son of the marriage, Wojciech, was born in Krakow, as his father participated in the international conference in Italy and he left his wife under the care of Mr Szymanowicz, a professor.

Massive arrests made on the night from September 16th to September 17th 1943 were a kind of revenge for killing a certain Marijonas Padaba, the officer of ‘Saugumas’ (the Lithuanian Security Police), a few days earlier. He was shot dead at Kalwaryjska street. As a retaliation for executing a sentence imposed on the officer by the Home Army, 140 hostages were taken. Ten of them were executed in Ponary, and they are people worth remembering: Kazimierz Pelczar, the prodean of Faculty of Medicine at the Stefan Batory University, the professor of general pathology; Mieczysław Gutkowski, a lawyer, the professor of finances and financial law at the same university; Mieczysław Engiel, a solicitor, the president of the Christian Trade Unions Association (Stowarzyszenie Chrześcijańskich Związków Zawodowych), the member of the Catholic Action, the notable and merited social activist; Kazimierz Antuszewicz, an engineer; Eugeniusz Biłgorajski, a captain, the officer of Army Recruiting Command in Vilnius; Stanisław Grynkiewicz, a chemist; Kazimierz Iwanowski, the lieutenant of military reserve force; Tadeusz Lothe, an actor; Władysław Manrik, an office worker; Aleksander Orłowski, a master gunsmith.

The rest of hostages was carted away to the camp in Prawieniszki (Pravieniškes) in Lithuania.

Kazimierz Pelczar’s execution was particularly disgraceful, as he was the scientist of European fame, the expert on cancer treatment and the man of outstanding moral values…Nazi officers in Berlin, informed about Pelczar’s apprehension in a phone call, decided to set him free immediately. However, the execution had been carried out few hours earlier.

After the execution of Polish hostages, many dwellers of Vilnius wore black armbands.

A month after the tragic death of her husband, Janina Pelczar returned to Poland together with her four children and she stayed with her parents. Janina Pelczar (later on, Janina Umiastowska) recalled with fondness time spent in Vilnius, despite the tragedy she experienced there. Thanks to these memoirs, her children felt like home while visiting Vilnius for the first time.


Thanks to Krystyna Rotkiewicz, PhD, the oncologist and Vilnius dweller, the memory of Kazimierz Pelczar is still kept alive in the city. In 2003, on her own initiative, the bilingual commemorative plaque was unveiled. The plaque is placed at Połocka street 6, where The Clinic and Institute of Oncology, created by Pelczar, was located before the Second World War. Moreover, Ms Rotkiewicz was the brains behind holding the international conference (in October 2003) dedicated to the 60th anniversary of Kazimierz Pelczar’s execution in Ponary. Last but not least, thanks to her efforts, one of the Vilnius streets was named after the famous Polish professor.

Translated by Joanna Stępińska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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