Polish Exiles in Istanbul: Living with the Levantines

Polish Exiles in Istanbul: Living with the Levantines

In this third chapter on my Great Great Grandfather Theodore Puchalski’s revolutionary adventures, I focus on his final exile to Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire. Theodore arrived in Istanbul around 1850 and spent the rest of his life there. Although very little documentary evidence about him survives, his life can to some extent be re-imagined through the evidence of other Polish exiles and the events that took place which he would have been a part of.

Arrival in Istanbul

Many of the Poles exiled in France from the 1830-31 revolt took up arms again in 1848 when a tide of Revolts swept across Europe, fighting in campaigns in Italy, Austria and Hungary. We do not know for certain which Theodore joined, except that the vast majority of refugees who ended up in Turkey, were participants of the Hungarian Revolution.

Michał Czajkowski aka Sadyk Pasha. Public domain.

Although initially a refuge, for many Turkey became a permanent home due to its proximity to their main enemy, Russia, and potential further opportunities to make incursions to restore the state of Poland in the future. The Polish government in exile, Hotel Lambert in Paris, did nothing to discourage this and had in fact established the Agency of the Polish Eastern Mission (Agencja Główna Misji  Wschodniej) in Istanbul, headed up by Michał Czajkowski (aka Mehmed Sadik Pasha) to organise the Poles and liaise between Paris and the Sublime Porte (i.e. Ottoman government administration in Istanbul). Michał Czajkowski was the principle negotiator in the purchase of land for the establishment of the Polish colony of Polonezkoy in 1842 and he also established an Ottoman Cossack military unit which saw some action in the Balkans during the Crimean War.


Ottoman Cossacks at Shumla 1854 with Sadyk Pasha

In 1850, Czajkowski was a key figure in securing the transfer of Polish refugees to Istanbul from the camp at Shumla in Bulgaria. He and his wife used their house in Cihangir as a receiving centre for the new polish emigrés, acting as a go between for them and the Sublime Porte. Theodore is not listed in the census of Polish refugees in Istanbul which was sent to the Sublime Porte  in March 18501, so he probably arrived a little later.

Polish Life in Pera

Arriving in the European part of the city, Theodore would have found himself living in a real melting pot of different nationalities, religions and cultures. Paulina Dominik’s review of polish emigré experiences in Istanbul2  provides a detailed account of the Polish community that emerged.  Their arrival marked a massive influx on the local Levantine population which was dominated by French and Italian communities. The number of exiles was estimated to be as high as 7000 in the 1850s. However the Turks tended to see all Hungarians, Slavs, Dalmatians, Romanians and Poles etc as one homogeneous group so the actual number of Poles may have been much lower.

Many of them settled in the Pera district (now Beyoğlu) in an area that became known as leh mahallesi (Polish neighbourhood) which formed around the side street Leh Sokagi (Polish Street or Rue de Pologne, now called Nur-i-Ziya) which was just off the Grand Rue de Pera (now Istiklal Kaddesi). This street used to house the Polish legation to the Sublime Porte and later a recruiting office for Poles signing up for the Russo-Ottoman War in 1877. None of these buildings survive today but the street is still there.

Wooden houses typical of Istanbul. Stéphane Passet 1912.

The emigrés also settled in a number of other districts including Tatavla and Yeni Sehir (now Kurtulus) and the village of Bebek on the Bosphorus which was considered a little Polish colony. Here they built their wooden houses in the Polish style. A few also went to the already established Polish community of Polonezkoy about 15km outside the city.

The Polish community were real nationalists and liked to congregate in Polish bars and cafes such as the Bulbul cafe on Grande Rue de Pera and the family homes of compatriots. Here they would listen to poetry recitals, lectures on Polish literature or discuss politics.

Notre Dame de Lourdes (The Georgian church).

They were mostly Roman Catholic. The churches they frequented included St Antony of Padua on the Grande Rue de Pera, which was also popular with the Italian community, the St Esprit Cathedral, situated around Pangalti/Sisli (the composer Donizetti is buried there), and the Georgian church of Notre Dame de Lourdes, also in the Sisli district north of Taksim Square. The first record found for Theodore in 1853 comes from the church of St Mary Draperis, also on Grande Rue de Pera which suggests he lived in Leh Mahallesi neighbourhood. A few years later family records appear in the St Esprit Cathedral in Sisli/Pangalti.

Click on the icons in the map below for the location of some of these Polish haunts.

There was little social contact between the Poles and their Turkish hosts. The Poles were grateful for the support they received from the Turks and saw them as allies, but had no desire for assimilation. A small number of army officers from the Polish campaigns had converted to Islam in order to protect themselves from extradition and probable execution including Michał Czajkowski. The Sultan encouraged this further by offering them lucrative positions in the Ottoman army, the administration and the major industries but it was very unpopular with the rank and file Polish who regarded this as apostasy and a betrayal of their nationalist cause.

The Poles did however successfully integrate with their Levantine neighbours, through their shared Catholicism and political interests. For instance like Theodore, many of the Poles  had lived in exile in France or fought alongside Italians during the 1848 Revolts so were familiar with their languages and traditions too. Marriages between these communities was not uncommon as exemplified by Theodore’s own marriage around 1852-3.

A New Life and Family in Istanbul

Theodore married Angela Ainis (aka Ainisi) who came from Messina in Sicily. She was very young at around 15 years old while he was about 41. The marriage record has not been found but it is assumed from other records that it took place in Istanbul.

So what was Angela doing in Istanbul and how did she get there? The name Ainis turns out to be quite rare and is almost entirely confined to Sicily, specifically around Messina, apart from a few families in Northern Italy and the USA and a small concentration found also in Indonesia! There are civil records online for Messina3 which so far have turned up three birth records for Angela Ainis/Ainissi in Messina, that tally with dates and her age as recorded on her death register. These are:

  1. Angela born 18 February 1836 to Domenico Ainis and Nicoletta Allegra.
  2. Angela born 20 September 1837 to Giuseppe Ainis and Santa de Francesco, occupation trafficante (translates as dealer). At least one child from this family emigrated to the USA. It seems unlikely family members would migrate in opposite directions.
  3. Angela born 27 September 1837 to Rosario Ainis and Emilia Nascio, occupation proprietor (property or business owner).

So, one possibility is that she was the daughter of a family who migrated and became Levantine traders. There was a major industrialist in Messina called Gaetano Ainis, born 1840. According to the Italian National Biography4, he ran a very large textile business, established in the 1830s by his father, with trade links in the Middle East, but at this stage it is impossible to say if there is any connection to the families above.

Another possibility is that her parents joined the 1848 Revolts and also ended up as refugees in Turkey. One of the first of the 1848 Revolts took place in Sicily and particularly focused around Palermo and Messina. As was observed in my last post however, the Italian refugees were largely dispersed to Gallipoli.

I have commented before on the great age disparities seen in marriages of this period which often amounted to contractual arrangements between families.  By modern and particularly western standards, the very young age at which girls were married off would be considered completely inappropriate, but in those days women and children had the status of “chattels” or property and their own wishes and desires were completely subordinate to the patriarch of the family. Their options were very constrained and their financial security was precarious. The circumstances around Theodore and Angela’s marriage are a mystery. It seems unlikely that this was a marriage for love, but was it for status or protection? What perhaps it does tell us is that Theodore had managed to establish himself as a reasonable prospect by 1853. Many of the refugees had nothing more than the clothes they stood up in when they arrived in Istanbul. A man could not expect to find himself a wife unless he had a means of supporting her.

Theodore and Angela went on to have four children:-

St Mary Draperis in Pera where Christina and Leonard were baptised. Photo: Jude Mulcahy

Christina Josephine (my Great Grandmother) was born 9 December 1853. She was baptised on 22 January 1854 at the church of St Mary Draperis in Pera, Istanbul. Her Godparents were Jozef Ratynski and Regina Ozerski.

Sophia (known as Sophie) born 21 July 1857, baptised 9 August 1857  at St Esprit Cathedral. Her Godfather was Joannes (John) Lizorksi or Zicorski and Godmother Zofia Ratynski (nee Gorcynska, Jozef’s wife).

Maria (known as Marie) born 31 July 1860, baptised 11 November 1860 also at St Esprit Cathedral. Her Godparents were Charles and Maria Theobald.

Leonard Roman born 10 February 1867, baptised 24 February at St Mary Draperis. His Godfather was Placido Ainis (possibly a brother, uncle or cousin of Angela) and his Godmother was his eldest sister, Christina.

By all accounts, the family life of the Puchalskis was for many years quite comfortable. My grandma passed down  stories of hunting trips and picnics in the forest which she thought had taken place in Poland but must actually have been in the Belgrade Forest north of Istanbul or around the wooded farmlands of Polonezkoy.

The children appear to have been well educated with all three girls able to read, write and draw fluently, to sew and to play musical instruments. A photo survives somewhere of Christina with a violin while an old letter talks of Marie playing the harp. As was typical of the Levantine families in the eastern Mediterranean, Christina and her siblings spoke several languages. This was of course an absolute necessity when your mother is Italian, your father Polish, and your community French-speaking. It’s believed Christina also spoke Russian. The language she spoke least well was English!

The Ratynski Connection

Jozef and Zofia Ratynski, Godparents to Christina and Sophia Puchalski. Photo c/o G. Buldrini.

The presence of Jozef and Zofia Ratynski as godparents to two of the children is significant and very interesting. Jozef was another Polish refugee from the Hungarian Revolt who became a prominent and very wealthy entrepreneur and member of the Polish establishment in Istanbul, sufficient to warrant an entry in the 47 volume Polish National Biography5. A key question is whether he was chosen to be a godparent as a family friend or as a patron. Often families would ask a parish priest, doctor or a community leader to be a godparent as a sort of insurance policy for the child.

My feeling is that Jozef was a family friend because he and Theodore seem to have had a few more things in common than just their nationality. Jozef was born in Kamieniec Podolski (then part of Greater Poland, now Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine).  According to one family member (Frank Calleja b.1892), the Puchalskis originally came from the Kiev area, also part of Ukraine on the border with Galicia. He and Theodore both started out in Istanbul as woodworkers, Jozef was a carpenter and Theodore was a cabinet maker. These were valuable skills when they arrived because Polish (and Ottoman) houses were always built in wood and the Polish community had to set to work to build their own communities.

As an example, in 1861, the Georgian church, Notre Dame de Lourdes, was built in the Feriköy/Sisli district of Istanbul. Jozef Ratynski is known to have designed and made the altar piece which includes an image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa which was paid for by the Polish community (Dominik).

Carving of the Madonna of Czestochowa in the Georgian Catholic Church by Ratynski. Source. A Georgian Church in Istanbul

In an interesting blog about this church its author questioned what a Polish altar piece was doing in a Georgian church and this provides the answer!

Henryk Groppler (1822-87).

Jozef Ratynski soon moved on from carpentry. He went into partnership with another Polish emigré called Henryk Groppler. Now Groppler had a house in Bebek that like Michał Czajkowski’s, also acted as a receiving house for new Polish arrivals. It was also renowned as one of the cultural meeting places for Polish recitals and debates. It seems likely therefore that if Theodore knew Ratynski, he must also have come into contact with Groppler, perhaps in the early days of settlement.  Groppler was a watchmaker and jeweller by trade but he and Ratynski branched out and became co-owners of a marble mine in Bandirma, exporting across the Mediterranean. They both became extremely rich to the extent that they were able to buy their own fleet of ships! When eventually the marble trade went into decline, they moved on to mining gypsum.

Polish Politics in Istanbul

Although we have no further documentary evidence on Theodore’s life in Istanbul, an enduring family legend has been that his involvement in the Polish revolts led to him leaving his children in an orphanage for safe keeping. As we can now be fairly sure that Theodore was involved in the two Revolts (1831 and 1848) that took place before any of his children were born, we can safely assume his interest in Polish politics did not disappear when he settled in Istanbul and it is indeed likely that he participated in some way in the later actions.

Crimean War

Adam Mickiewicz 1842. Public domain.

In 1853-56 during the Crimean war, the Polish national poet, political activist and all round national Polish hero Adam Mickiewicz arrived in Istanbul to meet with Michał Czajkowski. His mission was to recruit Poles in support of the Ottomans against Russia. The bigger picture was to remove Russia from Crimea and then move on to reclaim Poland. Consequently Mickiewicz visited and spoke at many of the Polish cultural haunts and would have been a massive draw for patriotic Poles. It seems highly likely Theodore would have attended one of these meetings and Ratynski and Groppler are certainly believed to have been involved. Did Theodore take up arms again, we don’t know? At that time, his wife was expecting their first child, my Great Grandmother Christina. Maybe on this occasion he provided support in some other capacity.

Unfortunately, on 26 November 1855, Mickiewicz succumbed to the latest cholera epidemic that had broken out in Istanbul and died. The Poles along with the wider Slav community in Istanbul were utterly devastated by the news. A letter from one of his friends describes the scene of his funeral procession down to the port for his transportation back to France6 :

“A pair of oxen pulled a plain casket through the muddy streets of Beyoğlu. I assumed there would be nobody but us Poles taking part in the procession, but it wasn’t long before we understood how wrong I was. A teeming mass of mourners wearing black filed in behind us, covering the street. People from all nations were present, Serbians, Dalmatians, Montenegrians, Albanians, Italians, with Bulgarians in the majority. This was their way of showing respect for the genius of the Slavic poet.”

Temporary grave in Adam Mickiewicz house in Istanbul. Source: Darwinek

Years later Mickiewicz’s wooden house burned down. Groppler suggested building a memorial to the poet on the site but Ratynski was determined to go one better and built a stone replica of the original house. Some of Mickiewicz’s internal organs are buried in a tomb in the basement of the building. The house remained in the ownership of Ratynski’s descendants until very recently. In 1955 it was made into the Mickiewicz Museum and in the 1990s was bought by the Polish government7. Sadly, it has now permanently closed.

Mickiewicz’s house (1880) rebuilt in stone by Jozef Ratynski.

1863 January Rising

“The Battle” – Artur Grottger dedicated to the January Uprising. Public domain.

The January Uprising of 1863-4 was largely a guerilla campaign of Polish insurgents involving numerous small units of badly trained men from the artisan, lower gentry and intelligentsia.  It emerged in the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a reaction to greater Russification and suppression of Polish culture culminating in a law forcing conscription of all young men into the Russian army. The Uprising involved around 1200 battles and skirmishes against a standing Russian army of around 300,000.

The leaders found some diplomatic support from the other Western powers but nothing in the way of concrete financial or military help. However in Istanbul, many members of the Polish diaspora did try to help. It was this conflict that I think gave rise to the family legend that Theodore had his young children placed in an orphanage in order for him to return and fight for his country. His compatriot Ratynski was involved in securing munitions and helped to organise a unit to return to Poland. This contingent left Istanbul in 1863 and got as far as Moldova before being beaten back. We just do not know if Theodore was actually part of this action but it is interesting to note that Christina and Sophie would have been 10 and 6 years old respectively while Marie was just a toddler. The story has come down Christina’s line but not Marie’s but she would have been just too young to have any memory of this. As it happens there are no records for any of the children being placed in an orphanage at this time so it appears this story has been mixed up with other unrelated events that happened later on.

The revolt in Poland was completely defeated in 1864 and once again led to massive and very harsh reprisals against insurgents causing a fresh wave of refugees to flood into Istanbul.

Russo-Ottoman War

The last conflict involving the Poles was the Russo Ottoman War of 1877-78 in which the Ottomans were soundly beaten. It seems unlikely that Theodore took any role in this as he was by this time quite elderly. The failure of this campaign and waning support from the Ottoman regime however caused many Poles to give up all hope in further insurrections and become completely resigned to the terminal loss of their homeland.

Final Years

The loss of hope in the Polish national cause seems to have coincided with a decline in the Puchalski’s domestic fortunes, as the family sadly fell apart and into penury.

Angela died aged just 36 in Sept 1873, cause unknown. She was buried in a “temporary” grave in the Ferikoy Latin RC Cemetery, so the family clearly did not have any money to buy a plot and perhaps Theodore was unable to work or make enough to make ends meet.

Christina age 21 (1874)

At this time, Christina was working as a dress designer and living above the shop at Madame Demilleville’s, 303, Grande Rue de Pera. Her sister Sophie was 16 so may have worked there too but she was soon to marry (in February 1874 to a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Burguy).

This left their 61 year old father with Marie age 13, who had lifelong eyesight problems and was possibly blind, and 6 year old Leonard.  My Great Grandfather Henri Callus had been ‘courting’ Christina around this time, but years passed and by the age of 30 people must have long considered her “left on the shelf”. It is now clear that this was because she had a duty as the eldest child, to look after her father.

St Joseph’s Orphelinat entrance on Boğazkesen (Throat slitter Street)! Istanbul.


In July 1874, Marie was placed in the St Joseph’s orphanage on Boğazkesen Caddesi where she was to remain until March 1876. Her brother Leonard was known throughout his adult life as Leonard Brossart, which makes me suspect that he may have been fostered out or even adopted by another family.


St Joseph’s Orphelinat (now The Secret Garden). Photo: Jude Mulcahy

In the early 1880s scandal rocked the family.  Marie was given an eye operation by a very famous ophthalmologist of international repute and standing called Dr Edwin van Millingen. This took place at the St Joseph’s orphanage where perhaps she had gone back to, to work. In the old fashioned sense of the word, he seduced her and she became pregnant. Marie’s baby called Mary, was born in Graz in Austria in June 1880. As Edwin had done his medical training in Vienna he must have sent her there for her confinement as Marie would certainly not have had the means to do so on her own. Inevitably, when she returned with the baby the truth got out.

It must have been a huge scandal at the time, as for one, Edwin was already married and for two, he resolutely refused to give her up despite the class divide and the approbation of his family and society at large.  He must have set her up in another house because in 1882, they had a second child together, which they called Edwin. It seems (in what must have been quite a rare state of affairs), the seducer did not abandon his quarry because he was in fact madly in love with her. (Her grand daughter Cora told me she also happened to be incredibly beautiful)!

Meanwhile Sophie was abandoned by her husband who went to live in Marseille, presumably with another woman, leaving her with 2 young children to feed on her own and no income. So she found work in the Pera district as a seamstress and “modiste” (bonnet maker).

Both situations must have been very hard for Theodore to take and it seems likely led to estrangement from his youngest daughter. He died in 1882 aged 70 and was also interred in a temporary grave in Ferikoy cemetery.

In 1884 the law in France was changed to allow divorce and Sophie immediately instigated it. The same month her divorce came through, Christina was finally able to marry Henri at the church of St Peter and St Paul in Galata. Unusually the marriage is also registered with the church of St Anthony of Padua and when the couple moved to Cardiff in the UK the following year, they registered the marriage again with the British Registry Office. It seems they were determined to ensure that no impediment would be allowed to separate them again.  Finally in December 1884, Edwin’s Austrian wife Johanna died and just 10 days later, he married Marie (with their third child on the way)!

So what to make of my revolutionary forebear?  It is puzzling that his children did not provide a decent burial although of course it may be that it was genuinely beyond their means. Or it may be that they found their father hard to love – a romantic idealist forever looking back to an imagined golden age and wishing for a future that could never be realised? Such people can be hard to live with; uncompromising in their goals, inflexible and dogmatic in their values and beliefs. Maybe they felt as a family they had already sacrificed enough. Can it be a coincidence that all the children changed their surnames to a Frenchified version – Pouhalski/y apart from Leonard whose name changed to Brossart (also French)! Surely something that Theodore the patriot could not possibly have tolerated in his lifetime?!

Ultimately though I feel rather sad that Theodore and Angela ended up in pauper graves. Theodore was one of many exiles who took big risks, traveled enormous distances across Europe and made great sacrifices for the Polish cause yet died penniless and in obscurity, far from his beloved homeland.  I hope therefore that my retelling of this story will serve as a way of providing some recognition for his and his compatriots’ efforts.


I would like to thank the very long list of individuals who have helped me with this research including: Guido Buldrini, Marie Ann Marandet, Craig Encer, Andrew and Armina Callus, Judith Mulcahy, Archives of St Vincent de Paul & the Sisters of Chariteé in Paris, Paulina Dominik, Beata Page, Magda Glodek at the Bibliotheque Polonaise Paris, members of the Citi-data Forum.


1 List of Polish Refugees sent to the Sublime Porte, March 1850, Archives of the National Ossoliński Institute in Wroclaw, AZNiO 6514/I.

2Dominik, P. (2015), From the Polish Times of Pera: Late Ottoman Istanbul through the Lens of Polish Emigration. History Takes Place: Istanbul. Dynamics of Urban Change, (eds.) Anna Hofmann & Ayşe Öncü, Jovis Verlag, GmbH, 2015, 92-103.

3Civil Record Archives for Messina at: Antenati – Gli Archivi per la Ricerca Anagrafica

4Italian National Biography at: http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/gaetano-ainis_(Dizionario-Biografico)/

5Polski Slownik Biograficzny (volumes 30 and 34).

A Georgian Church in Istanbul at: https://georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/a-georgian-catholic-church-in-istanbul/

Letter excerpt from T.T. Jez at https://humaozay.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/adam-mickiewicz.html

7 http://poloniaottomanica.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/polish-seyfeddin-istanbul-tribune-des.html

More maps of Polish Istanbul at: http://polskistambul.blogspot.co.uk/ (English language version no longer available).

The Forty-eighters: Polish Exiles and the Spring of Nations

The Forty-eighters: Polish Exiles and the Spring of Nations

Welcome to the latest instalment of my family history exploring my Polish roots dating back to the late eighteenth century.  My last post started with my Great Great Great Grandfather Theodore Puchalski (born c. 1780s in Poland), in the Polish Partition and Napoleonic eras, then described what happened to his son, also called Theodore (b. about 1812) after the 1830-1 November Uprising and his exile to France. In this post I will explore Theodore II’s possible role in the 1848 Revolutions and how he ended up moving to Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire.

Background to the 1848 Revolts

In the year 1848, a number of revolutions known as the ‘Spring of Nations’ swept across Europe. The first was in Sicily, centred around Palermo and Messina, and made Sicily an independent state for 16 months until it was retaken by the royalists. France followed with demonstrations in Paris which resulted in the abdication of King Louis Phillippe in favour of the Second Republic (Gessner, 1998). These successes inspired nationalist uprisings seeking constitutional change further afield; in Italy, Germany (Prussia), the Austrian Empire which included Hungary and parts of what was formerly Greater Poland (Galicia, Belarus, Ruthenia, Ukraine). To a more limited extent, the revolutions spread to parts of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, the UK (in the form of Chartism) and even to parts of Latin America. The revolutionaries became a cause célèbre across Europe and participants became known as”Forty-eighters”.

Map 1848 Revolutions. Source: ThingLink

Map 1848 Revolutions. Source: ThingLink

Poland as a sovereign nation had ceased to exist by this time, having been absorbed between the 3 major powers of Russia, Prussia and the Habsberg Austrian Empire after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. After the failed Polish Revolt of 1830, thousands of Poles were living in exile, the majority in France (many also in the UK), where they continued to agitate for reinstatement of their homeland through their government in exile, directed from the Hôtel Lambert in Paris.

The Polish exiles were grateful for their refuge in France but typical of refugees’ experience the world over, they were treated with a degree of suspicion and distrust by the authorities and the communities they lived in. Some of the anxiety was, not unreasonably, because there was concern that their political activism might spread and precipitate a further revolution in France.  When revolts started spreading outside of France therefore, the French authorities strongly encouraged the exiles to join up.

In 1837 my Great Great Grandfather, Theodore Puchalski, was one of those Polish exiles living in France at Troyes, about 93 miles south east of Paris, but by 1853, he was living in Istanbul in Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire. It is clear therefore that he was one of those who responded to the call to arms. What his life had been like in the intervening years is not known. He was certainly not a professional soldier at the time of the 1830 Revolt, family legend claims he was from the Polish nobility but later documents reveal him to have been a cabinet maker. As he was about 18 years old at the time of the 1830 Revolt, he may have completed an apprenticeship by then or it may be that this was something he took up on his arrival in France in order to start afresh. In 1848, he would have been about 36 years old.


Houses in Troyes, Aube. Source: Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Which Action?

The exiles in France could have joined any number of different campaigns across Europe so trying to work out which one Theodore was involved in and also proving it, is quite a challenge.

The exiles took  their lead from Hôtel Lambert in Paris. For instance, in March 1848, a Polish legion of about 500 men was formed in Rome on the initiative of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz who also recruited volunteers in Paris. Its aim was the liberation of the Italian people from Austrian (Habsberg) rule (Ref: Wikipedia-Mickiewicz Legion). This detachment of Polish exiles was led by Mikolaj Kaminski.

Another campaign took place in Prussia, where the exiles from France joined the Greater Poland Uprising in Berlin with their leader, Prince Adam Czatoryski.

There was also  a revolt in Austria. The Polish General Jozef Bem was despatched to Vienna in Oct 1848 with a contingent of Polish volunteers from France and arrived just in time to take charge as insurgent forces took up arms against the city. They held out for just a few weeks before the Imperial army surrounded the city and forced their surrender (Gessner, 1998).

My research has revealed however that the vast majority of Poles who arrived in the Ottoman Empire in 1849/50, were those that took part in the Hungarian Revolution.  This is further suggested by church records in Istanbul that reveal Theodore was a close friend or associate of a fellow Polish exile, Jozef Ratynski, who is known to have been a participant in this campaign.

The Hungarian Revolution 1848-9

Lajos Kossuth, President Hungarian Republic. Public Domain.

Lajos Kossuth, President Hungarian Republic. Public Domain.

In 1848, the Kingdom of Hungary was part of the Austrian Empire but had its own parliament, the ‘Diet of Hungary’, and largely  managed its own administration. However liberal idealists drew attention to many of the inequalities in Hungarian society and called for democratic parliamentary representation, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and association, religious freedom, equality in law and taxation, and the abolition of serfdom and other feudal land rights which privileged the nobility and exempted them from taxation. They also called for Transylvania to be reinstated as part of Hungary, an objective not supported by the majority of Romanians who wanted proportional representation and so sided with Austria.

The Revolution was led by Lajos Kossuth, who secured much support in Vienna where he gave a speech shortly after the Paris uprising.   Many of the Polish exiles were drawn to supporting the Hungarian Revolution due to the historical ties that existed between the two nations but also by the fact that the Revolution was directed at two of Poland’s historical adversaries, the Austrians and their supporters, the Russians.

The Polish Legions and the Transylvanian Campaign

Jozef Wysocki by Karoly Rusz. Public Domain.

Jozef Wysocki by Karoly Rusz. Public Domain.

In 1848 two Polish legions were established in Hungary under the command of Generals Jozef Wysocki and Jozef Bem. General Jozef Wysocki published a memoire of the Hungarian campaign in 1850, a copy of which is kept at the British Library and is a public domain publication. Although it seems to be only available in Polish, (which means sadly I cannot read it), it lists over 700 Polish officers, soldiers and civilians who made up his Legion. Theodore Puchalski and Jozef Ratynski are not listed which seems to reinforce the likelihood that these two fought under General Jozef Bem instead.


General Jozef Bem (aka Murad Paşa/Pasha.

General Jozef Bem (aka Murad Paşa/Pasha.

Jozef Bem was born 1794 in Galicia, Poland. He was rather a small man, but he was considered a very charismatic leader. He was educated at the Warsaw military school and joined the Polish division of the French forces.  A veteran of Napoleon’’s Grand Armée, he was awarded the Legion d’honneur in 1813 for his role in the defence of Danzig (Gdansk). He  took part in the 1830 Uprising and escaped to France where he was  a key player in the activities of the Hôtel Lambert. He was also was a mathematician, teacher and an engineer interested in research, and published works on history, technology and the military.

In 1848, after escaping from Vienna, Bem was put in charge of the Hungarian Székely forces in Transylvania. The reintegration of Transylvania as an autonomous region of Hungary was a key objective of the Hungarian Revolution and the Székely were an ethnic sub-group of Hungarians living in Romania who strongly supported this (Encyclopedia at Theodora.com).  This campaign in Transylvania was supplemented by Polish and Italian volunteers.

Although frequently heavily outnumbered, Bem’s forces had some notable victories and recovered Transylvania for Hungary in February 1849. After relieving Transylvania he successfully attacked the Austrian forces in the Southern Banat region around Orşova, but had to return to try to take back Transylvania when Russian reinforcements arrived there. Fierce fighting continued through the summer, but by the end of July his army was annihilated by overwhelming numbers in the Battle of Segesvár (near Segesvár, now Sighişoara, Romania), Bem escaping only by feigning death (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Battle of Segesvar, 1849.

Battle of Segesvár, 1849 by László Bellony. Public Domain.

The Revolution was failing elsewhere too. There was an attempt to consolidate all the Hungarian forces for a final push in August, which failed due to the incompetence of the commander in chief, General Dembinski, who was relieved of his command as a consequence (Szabó, 1999). He was replaced by Bem.

Battle of Temesvár 1849. Lithograph. Public Domain.

Battle of Temesvár 1849. Lithograph. Public Domain.

The last major engagement of the Revolution took part at the Battle of Temesvár (now Timişoara, Romania), on August 9.  When Bem was injured falling from his horse, there was no-one left to take overall command and they were defeated. At this point some soldiers deserted and decided to return home. The Hungarians formally surrendered on 13 August 1849 at Világos in Romania.

Surrender at Vilagos 1849.

Surrender at Világos 1849. Painter unknown. Public Domain.

According to János Szabó, defeat was followed by a large-scale and brutal put down of the Hungarian rebels by the Austrians, whose commander in chief von Haynau declared:

“I shall uproot the weed. I shall set an example to the whole of Europe of how rebels should be treated and how order, peace and tranquillity should be ensured for a century.”

The retribution started with the execution of Hungary’s former first prime minister, Batthyány, who died before a firing squad on October 6 and the hanging of 13 Hungarian Generals. On Haynau’s orders, more than 100 people were executed, 1,200 Imperial officers fighting on the Hungarian side were sentenced to imprisonment, and an additional 40,000 to 50,000 officers and soldiers were drafted into the Imperial army.

Execution of the Hungarian Generals (update titles)

Execution of the Martyrs of Arad by János Thorma. Public Domain.

The Fate of the Refugees

The majority of the defeated rebels fled south as a single unit, crossing the Danube to reach the border of the Ottoman Empire around the end of August. Among them was General Bem, who although seriously wounded,  managed to escape with his officers.  There, about 5000 of the remaining forces, which included Hungarians, Italians and around 1000 Polish volunteers, were offered asylum by the Turks. Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarian Revolution’s leader escaped on 17th August by a different route but was picked up and escorted to the same camp by the Turkish troops (Csorba, 2002).

On arriving at the border, the fleeing soldiers were met by Ottoman soldiers and officials who asked them to hand over their horses and weapons. A number of memoirs describe this as a traumatic experience even though the Turks promised that they would be returned. For many this added to the humiliation of surrendering to the enemy and also deprived them of their only possessions.  They were interned in a camp in Vidin in Bulgaria while it was decided what to do with them. A number of camp followers including the wives and children of soldiers also made it to the camp and others trickled over the border in the weeks that followed the surrender. They received preferential treatment in the allocation of tents and provisions (Toth, 2014).

However conditions in the camp were terrible. Many soldiers were destitute and for much of the time were cold and hungry. Cholera broke out and many died of this or other disease (Csorba estimates as many as 400-600). The camp was strictly guarded and only the higher ranked officers and civilians were allowed to enter the town of Vidin for any kind of respite. The rest had to spend their time kicking their heels or playing cards (Toth, 2014). About 50 Hungarians tried to escape but were recaptured and brought back. When threatened with court martial for desertion they replied:

“We left, as it were, because we preferred to be shot to death at home rather than die here of hunger, cold or the cholera.” (Veress, quoted in Toth, 2014).

Negotiations with the Austrians and Russians were tense and protracted but it was eventually agreed that the rank and file could return to Austria on condition that the men were conscripted into the Austrian army. On 21 October, about 3156 Hungarian, Polish and Italian soldiers returned home under the Austrian terms (Csorba, 2002).

Apostasy – the Islamic Conversions

An amnesty for General Bem and his officers was however definitely not on the cards. The Austrians demanded their extradition and if they had got their way, then these men would almost certainly have been tried and executed for treason. Instead under international rules, if they converted to Islam and assumed Turkish citizenship they could not be returned.  In all, around 250 refugees took this step including 216 Hungarians, 7 Polish and 15 Italian. They included Bem who took the name Murad Pasha and around 15 women who were camp followers (Csorba, 2002).

The Polish community was strictly Roman Catholic and the decision of some refugees to convert to Islam was not received favourably by their countrymen, at home or abroad, for whom such an action was beyond the pale. It was also seen as a denial of their Polish identity. Many of the converts were derided and ostracised thereafter. General Wysocki forbade any of his soldiers from converting saying it would stain Polish honour for generations to come (Dominik, 2015).

As it happened, the Sultan advised the converts that they would be free to convert back to Christianity in due course but in practice few did because in return, the Turks gave them lucrative positions in the Ottoman military and administration. Jozef Bem was made a Pasha and given the Governorship of Aleppo. He died there of malaria in 1850 but was eventually buried in his birthplace of Tarnow in Galicia.

Moving On: Exile and Settlement

In early November 1849 the remaining Polish and Hungarian refugees were moved from Vidin to Shumla (Shumen, in Bulgaria), while the Italians were transferred to Gallipoli.

Eventually, it was agreed to settle the Hungarians in the Turkish interior where they could not easily make their way back to the Russian and Austrian borders. They were sent to Kutahya and Konya. One of Kossuth’s key concerns was that the Hungarian refugees should not be dispersed. Their revolution, like the Poles, had been one of national identity and culture as much as constitutional change and dispersal would have encouraged assimilation. He wanted to establish a Hungarian colony near Izmir like the one the Poles had established near Istanbul as Polonezkoy but this never came to pass. Kossuth and 50 of his comrades left Shumla in February 1850, arriving in Kutahya in April. Shortly after the American Congress invited them to the USA and about half left including Kossuth. Many also moved to the UK (ibid).

Meanwhile the remaining Poles were directed to leave the Ottoman Empire altogether. The majority of refugees however stayed in Shumla with support from the Ottoman Empire but others made their way to Istanbul. Some of these went to the small Polish colony of Polonezkoy or Adampol which had been established by Michał Czajkowski in 1842 with land bought by Prince Adam Czartoryski from the French Lazarists community near Istanbul.

In 1853 my Great Great Grandfather Theodore Puchalski turns up in the records in Istanbul as a Polish exile along with Jozef Ratynski.  It seem probable that both would have been interned at Vidin and Shumla and come to Istanbul via that route, although some soldiers may well have escaped individually or in small groups and made their own way inland. There is no record of either having lived at Polonezkoy.

So why did he not return to his homeland after an amnesty was offered, or return to France, his original place of refuge? I think the answer must be that many of the Polish exiles still clung to the hope that they might yet get another chance to fight and also many of those who had rebelled back in 1830 did not believe they would be safe returning home. The Ottoman Empire had had many run-ins with Russia and was much closer geographically to the disputed territories for those hoping to fight on. As for France, presumably Theodore did not have any dependents or ties there.


Csorba, György, (2002), Hungarian Emigrants of 1848-9 in the Ottoman Empire, Ankara.

Dominik, P. (2015), From the Polish Times of Pera: Late Ottoman Istanbul through the Lens of Polish Emigration. History Takes Place: Istanbul. Dynamics of Urban Change, (eds.) Anna Hofmann & Ayşe Öncü, Jovis Verlag, GmbH, 2015, 92-103.

Encyclopedia Britannica at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jozef-Zachariasz-Bem

Encyclopedia at http://www.theodora.com/encyclopedia/b/josef_bem.html

Gessner, P.K. (1998), General Josef Bem: Polish and Hungarian Leader (1795-1850). Website: http://info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/bem.html

Szabó, János B. (1999), Hungary’s War of Independence. Military History, August 1999. (reproduced at History.net).

Letter: A E Callus to Frank Callus dated 11 June 1965, pp 1-6, c/o Mr A. Callus.

Tóth, Heléna (2014), An Exiled Generation: German and Hungarian Refugees of Revolution, 1848-1871, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 38-9.

Wysocki, J. (1850), Pamiętnik Jenerała W. dowodzcy Legionu Polskiego na Węgrzech z czasa Kampanii węgierskij w roku 1848 i 1849. British Library Historical Print Collections.