The 5 Levels of Being Polish

20160507_132246There’s roughly 60 million Polish people living on the planet, and we come in all shapes and sizes. You could say there are different “levels” of being Polish. Here are those levels the way I see them.

Level 1: The Prodigal Pole

In the Bible, there’s the story about the Prodigal son, who ran away from home and wasted his wealth and talent on meaningless pleasures before finally hitting rock bottom.

Prodigal Poles are those people of Polish descent who have “run away” from their nationality. They have no interest in learning about their Polish ancestors, language or culture. Some of them might even know Polish and have gone to Polish school, but refuse to ever speak it out of shame. If given the choice between a vacation in Poland or getting wasted with strangers in Indiana, they would probably choose the latter. The only hope is that, like the prodigal son in the Bible, the prodigal Pole will see the light and come back…

Level 2: The Developing Pole

Out of all five levels of being Polish, the developing Poles deserve the most respect. They may be several generations removed from a Polish ancestor but are nevertheless heavily invested in discovering their Polish past. From researching genealogy, to trying out Babcia’s recipes, to reading Crazy Polish Guy, these Poles desire to know everything they can about Poland.

Although many of them don’t speak a word of Polish and have never visited Poland, they are, perhaps, the purest Poles due to their genuine desire to learn about their nationality. Their motivation comes from the heart, and that’s what matters most.

Level 3: The Proud Pole

Proud Poles are typically those who grew up in a strong Polish household or have developed in their knowledge of Polish culture to the point of showcasing it whenever possible. They speak Polish when they can, listen to Polish music, attend Polish events, go to Polish Mass and generally make Poland a regular part of their lives.

Proud Poles typically celebrate all major Polish traditions with their families—from Wigilia to Fat Thursday. They treat their colds with AMOL, gorge on Kołaczkis and have probably seen the movie Sami Swoi at least twice. Through their undying love for Poland, proud Poles ensure that the old ways will carry on.

polish heroLevel 4: The Crazy Pole

Consumed by the Polish spirit, the crazy Pole cannot go a day without doing or saying something Polish-related. He’s a nutcase who annoys his friends by bringing Polish beer to EVERY SINGLE get-together and will ramble for hours about how the Poles saved Europe in 1683.

The crazy Pole is not satisfied to live out his Polish culture and let others be (unlike the proud Pole). He actively promotes it, disseminating information about Poland whenever possible so that others too may understand the glory of that blessed nation. He takes developing Poles under his wing and does what he can to bring prodigal Poles back into the fold. A word of caution before becoming a crazy Pole: you run the risk of people viewing you as Polish and little else. If you’re ok with that, then jump on in. The water’s fine.

Level 5: The Actual Pole

The highest level of being Polish…is actually BEING Polish. You were born in Poland and Polish is your native tongue. You don’t have to do any of the other stuff because you can just say “I was born in Poland.”

Of course, just because you were born in Poland, doesn’t mean you can’t be horrible at being Polish. Although you cannot change your blood and birthplace, you can choose to ignore it. It’s possible for an actual Pole to also be a prodigal Pole if he or she has chosen to forget where they came from—that’s probably level zero of being Polish.

I guess the highest level, then, would be a crazy Pole who was actually born in Poland. But is the world ready for that?


From Polish Pilot to “King Kong” Director: The Story of Merian C. Cooper

Most of us have probably seen clips of the 1933 film version of King Kong. It’s one of the most famous black and white monster movies ever made. In the iconic final act, the giant ape carries a damsel to the top of the Empire State Building as fighter pilots circle overhead, attempting to shoot down the beast.

Today, the scene doesn’t seem all that impressive from a cinematic perspective, but it was the Star Wars of its day. The audience would have gasped not only at the giant gorilla, but also at the fighter planes buzzing around the Empire State Building, shooting at it. After all, war planes were less than twenty years old at the time, being first used during World War I.

The movie’s director, Merian C. Cooper, knew what he was talking about when he created those fighter plane scenes. He had spent his youth as a pilot during the First World War. However, his claim to military fame came largely from founding a Polish-American fighter squadron that helped defend Poland against the Soviet Union during the early 1920s.

Pułaski Reborn

When one learns that an American director from the 1930s with the last name of Cooper risked his life fighting for Poland, the first question is why. After all, Cooper was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and there’s nothing Polish-sounding about his last name. In fact, his family had been in the United States for generations. Why would an American boy like Cooper know or care about a country 4,600 miles away?

The answer lies, perhaps, with Cooper’s family connection to Polish General Kazimierz Pułaski, who had fought and died for America’s independence during the Revolutionary War. Cooper’s great-great grandfather, John Cooper had fought with Pułaski at the Battle of Savannah, during which the latter was fatally wounded. According to Cooper’s family legend, John Cooper carried the dying Pułaski away from the battlefield. If that’s true, then it’s possible that the most famous Polish-American in history died in the arms of Cooper’s ancestor.

Whether that story is myth or fact, it, along with his innate thirst for adventure, likely played a role in Cooper’s decision to help Poland. In poetic fashion, Cooper would be completing a circle of sacrifice–just as a son of Poland had once fought for America, so too would a son of America fight for Poland 140 years later.

Forming the Kościuszko Squadron

Cooper excelled as a pilot almost from the moment he went airborne. He entered pilot school in Atlanta in 1917 and graduated at the top of his class. Shortly after, he shipped off to France to serve in the United States Army Air Service, where he learned to be a bomber pilot. After his plane was shot down in flames in September 1918, Cooper miraculously managed to land and survive.

The war ended in November 1918, but Cooper wasn’t done seeking adventure. He went to Poland to do humanitarian work as a member of the American Food Administration. It’s at this time that he likely fell in love with the fledgling republic.

From 1918-1920, Poland was beginning to recover from more than 120 years of foreign rule. Prior to World War I, Poland had been partitioned by Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. All three occupying powers collapsed after the war, allowing Poland to win its independence with international support.

Trouble wasn’t far, however. Russia, the largest occupying power, had mutated into the Soviet Union and aimed to spread its communist revolution into western Europe. No sooner had Poland regained freedom than that freedom was put to the test.

Correctly suspecting an impending Soviet invasion, Poland launched a preemptive strike against Soviet-controlled Ukraine in what became known as the Kiev Offensive of April 1920. Although the Poles managed to seize the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, their victory was short-lived. The Soviets responded with a powerful counterattack that threatened Poland’s newfound independence.

Cooper was in Poland during these tumultuous times and decided he needed to act to protect his adopted country, perhaps, as mentioned, to repay the sacrifice of General Pułaski. After meeting with Polish general, Tadeusz Jordan-Rozwadowski and the leader of Poland, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, Cooper was given permission to form a fighter squadron of American pilots that would fight for Poland.

In a move analogous to the plot of The Magnificent Seven, Cooper traveled to Paris to recruit American pilots who had hung around after the war. In this case, he recruited eight volunteers and formed the Kościuszko Squadron with Major Cedric Fauntleroy in September 1919. The squadron was named after another Polish-American Revolutionary War hero, Tadeusz Kościuszko.

The Official Emblem of the Kościuszko Squadron. In the middle is a traditional Polish cap (rogatywka) crossed by two scythes representing the weapons wielded by Polish peasants during the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794. The stars and stripes represent the American flag.

Eventually, 21 American pilots joined the squadron, along with some Poles. The extra pilots enabled Cooper to create and take command of a sub-squadron, which was named after General Pułaski. Initially, the squadron primarily flew Albatros D.III fighters. It also made unique use of railroad cars that were specially designed to transport the planes.

After the Poles captured Kiev in April 1919, the Russian First Cavalry Army, under the command of Semyon Budionny, began a massive counterattack that drove them back westward. This series of events eventually culminated in the Polish-Soviet War of 1920 where, ultimately, the Poles defeated the Soviets at the Battle of Warsaw, foiling their plot to spread communism to the west.

Cooper and the Kościuszko Squadron played a key role in reconnaissance and ground attacks against Budionny’s cavalry, providing critical support for Polish troops on the ground. In most engagements, the squadron would fly low against the enemy, raining down machine gun bullets on the scrambling Soviets.

One of the squadron’s proudest moment came in defense of the city of Lwów in August 1920, where the American pilots slowed the Soviet advance, giving the Polish Army time to repulse the Red Army’s assault on Warsaw further west. Later that month, during the Battle of Komarów, the American pilots assisted in the near-destruction of Budionny’s Soviet cavalry.

Cooper himself couldn’t participate in these final acts of the Polish-Soviet War, as his plane was shot down in July 1919. Captured by the Soviets, Cooper spent nine months in a prisoner-of-war camp until he escaped and walked more than 400 miles to Latvia, where he was finally rescued. For his heroic service, Cooper was awarded the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration, by Marshal Piłsudski.

After his service in Poland, Cooper returned to the U.S., where he worked as a journalist for a time before becoming a movie director. The rest is history.

Returning the Favor

By organizing the Kościuszko Squadron and helping defend Poland, Cooper symbolically returned the favor Poland had given America in General Pułaski. The squadron itself continued into the future. During World War II, it was reorganized into the No. 303 Squadron RAF, which became the most successful squadron in the Battle of Britain.

Cooper’s story exemplifies the deep connection the U.S. has had with Poland throughout history. The two countries have long been allies in their fight for freedom and nationhood. His story is also a living testament to the allure Poland has for Americans. Whether one is Polish, or a homegrown American boy like Cooper was, it’s easy to fall in love with Poland.

7 Polish Barbeque and Picnic Ideas for the Summer

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the grilled kielbasa is calling…time for a Polish barbeque or picnic.

Probably every Pole you ask will have their own idea of what makes the best Polish barbeque, but here are my recommendations.


Mizeria (Polish Cucumber Salad)

Polish Mizeria

The perfect appetizer for a warm day outside, mizeria, or Polish cucumber salad, will refresh your taste buds.

It consists of thinly-sliced cucumbers topped with sour cream, lemon juice, parsley, and/or other tasty condiments.


Potato Pancakes


It’s hard to get more Polish than potato pancakes. They’re made of grated or ground potatoes that are fried and bound by egg or applesauce. They’ll make for a great side dish, next to your grilled kielbasa.




Now to the meat of the matter—the grilled Polish sausage, or kielbasa. Of course, it’s even better with some sauerkraut or onions on the side.


Naleśniki (Blintzes)

Polish Blintzes

This tasty dessert will leave you drooling for more. Naleśniki are essentially pancakes with fruit or cheese filling.

Popular fruit fillings include apple, peach, and strawberries. Oftentimes sugar is sprinkled on the top, and some people even add chocolate frosting.




Most people know of meat-, mushroom-, or cheese-filled pierogi, but a great alternative (or addition!) are fruit-filled pierogi. They can be filled with cherries, blueberries, plums and more!

A perfectly sweet snack for your summer barbeque.




Onto beverages. Try kompot, or homemade Polish fruit juice. I’ve found that nothing satisfies my thirst better after running around playing picnic games in the heat.

Kompot is made by boiling fruits (apples, raspberries, blueberries, etc.) in water so they can release their juice. You then add a few teaspoons of sugar, let it cool, and enjoy! There’s nothing quite like it.


Polish Beer

polish beer

Lastly, no Polish barbeque is complete without Polish BEER! Everyone has their favorites, but my top three recommendations are Perła, Żubr, and Okocim.

These beers are usually available at Polish delis or at grocery stores that specialize in ethnic foods.

Those are my two cents on what to have at a Polish summer barbeque. What are some of your ideas? Tell me in the comments!

Poland’s Oldest Songs: The Best of Polish Medieval Music and Beyond

Poland is more than one thousand years old, and its musical heritage goes back just as far. Although seldom recognized today, Poland’s earliest songs date to the medieval era and earlier.

At that time, Latin was the universal language in Europe, and the Catholic Church reigned supreme. As a result, most of the beautiful hymns from that era are religious in nature.

Below are a few of the oldest Polish hymns (embedded from YouTube), along with a brief description of each.

Gaude Mater Polonia (Rejoice, oh Mother Poland)

One of Poland’s most revered hymns, Gaude Mater Polonia was composed by Vincent of Kielcz in 1253 for the canonization of St. Stanislaw Szczepanowski, who had been martyred 200 years prior. Throughout the centuries, this hymn was sung at Polish coronations, royal weddings, and after victories in battle.

Bogurodzica (Mother of God)

This Polish religious hymn, dates to the thirteenth century. It is a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary and was most famously sung before the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, when the Poles fought and defeated the German Teutonic Knights. It was also played at coronation ceremonies during Poland’s Jagiellonian dynasty.

Breve Regnum (Brief Kingdom)

Composed in the 15th century, Breve Regnum was originally sung by Krakow’s students during a week of debauchery that occurred every October. Students would take over the streets, elect their own “king,” and partake in several festive activities similar to Carnival. The original hymn was sung in Latin, and the title appropriately translates to “brief kingdom.”

Oj Chmielu, Chmielu (Oh, Hops, Hops)

While the other songs on this list are religious, Oj Chmielu, Chmielu is the oldest known Polish folk song, dating to the pre-Christian era. It’s a wedding song performed during the custom of Oczepiny, where a young lady was symbolically transitioned into the married life.

It was sung for centuries in Polish villages and continues to be sung today in certain parts of Poland that have either held on to the old traditions or are trying to revive them.

Hac Festa die (This Feast Day)

The oldest-known text of this Polish-Latin hymn dates to around the year 1300, although it is believed to be older. Its verses describe the martyrdom of Poland’s patron saint, Adalbert of Prague, at the hands of the Prussians in 997 and the Poles’ purchase of his relics.

Pieśnią Na Narodziny Królewicza Kazimierza (Song For The Birth Of Prince Kazimierz)

This Latin hymn was written in the early 15th century by one of Poland’s most famous medieval composers, Mikołaj of Radom. As the title suggests, the piece was composed to commemorate the birth of Prince Kazimierz, the son of King Władysław Jagiełło.

Modlitwa, Gdy Dziatki Spać Idą (Prayer When Children Go to Sleep)

This hymn is written as a prayer to God for protection before bed. It was composed during the 16th century by Wacław of Szamotuł and is technically a Renaissance song as a result. The words are in Polish.

Of course, there are many more centuries-old songs from Poland, and I will be adding to this list as time goes on. In the meantime, comment what your favorites are below!

Uncovering Poland’s Mysterious Krakus Mound


Krakus Mound ViewOn the southern bank of the Vistula River in Krakow lies one of the city’s most ancient mysteries. Anyone could mistake it for a large hill, but it’s not—at least not a naturally-made one. 

Known as Krakus Mound, or Krak Mound, this 52-foot pile of earth has overlooked the city for centuries. It’s Krakow’s much-smaller answer to the pyramids of Egypt, although historians have a far greater understanding of the pyramids. 

Who built Krakus Mound? When was it built? Why was it built? Archaeological digs in and around the mound have uncovered conflicting answers to these questions.  

Theories range from the mound being the burial place of Krakow’s legendary founder, to an ancient Celtic monument.

The Legend 

King Krak
King Krak, the legendary founder of Krakow

The oldest legends behind Krakus Mound state that it is the burial place of King Krak, Krakow’s legendary founder. According to accounts by Poland’s earliest historians, Krak was crowned king by his people after fighting the ancient Gauls in central Europe sometime after the fall of Rome. 

Most famously, King Krak is tied to the legendary slaying of Krakow’s infamous Wawel Dragon, who terrorized the people.  Some versions of the story give Krak’s sons credit for killing the beast, while others claim Krak did it himself (There are still other versions of this story that claim Krak was a mere boy when he slew the dragon and then became king). 

When King Krak died, the legends say Krakow’s inhabitants constructed a mound overlooking the city and buried him in it. Tradition holds this became Krakus Mound. 

Digging up the Mound 

For centuries, Poles wondered if King Krak was truly buried in Krakus Mound. In the 1930s, an archeological expedition decided to find out. 

Excavators from the Polish Academy of Learning dug into the mound in 1934 hoping to find evidence of King Krak’s grave and figure out when it was constructed. 

At the base of the mound, excavators uncovered pottery from the Lusatian people, who inhabited modern-day Poland from roughly 1500 BC to 500 BC. This pottery, and other flintstone tools found at the site, would mean the mound was more than 2,000 years old.  

Krakus Mound Excavation
Excavators dug into Krakus Mound in the 1930s to determine its age and purpose.

However, historians haven’t accepted this date, citing the possibility that the ancient pottery was already inside the earth when it was used to build the mound. Of course, there’s no way to prove or disapprove that. 

Near the top of the mound, a child’s skeleton was discovered, along with traces of a large hearth. The hearth has led historians to believe that the mound could have been used as a cremation burial, which was a common practice by pagans in that part of Europe between the 8th and 10th centuries. This fact challenges the idea of the mound being a tomb. 

Further down in the mound, root fragments of a giant oak tree were found. Experts estimated the tree was 300 years old when it was cut down. They theorized it could have been a “sacred” oak used in worship by Poland’s pagans and was chopped when Poland converted to Christianity during the second half of the 10th century. However, the roots were never officially dated, so this is speculation. 

At the lowest levels of the mound, traces of wooden fences were found, as well as evidence of a large post. The purpose of the fences and posts is unknown, although experts have proposed they were included to stabilize the mound. A large amount of stones was also found deep inside. 

Although excavators uncovered no evidence of a grave holding King Krak, an Avarian belt-fixture was found dating to the 8th century, as were coins depicting Czech prince Boleslaus II from the 10th century. The Avars were a tribe of Central-Asian, Turkic-speaking nomads who moved through Poland in the 7th and 8th centuries in their campaigns against the Franks. These items have led many historians to date the mound to between the 8th and 10th centuries. 

At the end of the day, the excavations failed to yield any certain answers. Historians generally believe the mound was used as a Slavic cremation burial or ceremonial lookout during the early middle ages, but the variety of conflicting archeological finds casts its origins into doubt.

The Celtic Connection 

Popular culture tends to associate the ancient Celts with Britain and Ireland, but they are also known to have settled in southern Poland beginning as early as the fifth century BC.  

Sketching of Krakus Mound from 1860, showing the Rękawka festival, which takes place on the Tuesday after Easter. The wealthy would throw food down the mound at the peasants, who would collect it.

Historians believe the Celts were drawn to the fertile farmland in southern Poland. They brought many technological advances with them, including the potter’s wheel and iron tools, that would set the stage for future civilizations on the Polish lands. 

Some experts theorize that Krakus Mound, as well as Wanda’s mound, which is another ancient mound in the city, served an astronomical purpose for the Celts.

If you stand atop Krakus Mound on May 2 or September 10, you can see the sun rise directly over Wanda’s Mound. If you stand atop Wanda’s Mound on February 6 or November 4, you can see the sun set directly over Krakus Mound. These dates all closely correspond to important Celtic religious observances. 

Some historians have also noted an ancient festival involving Krakus Mound called Rękawka. For centuries, the well-off people of Krakow would gather atop Krakus Mound on the Tuesday after Easter and throw bread, eggs, apples and other types of food at peasants gathered at the base of the hill as a form of charity.

Experts have connected this festival to ancient Slavic and even Celtic practices. It’s possible that when Poland was Christianized, the Church replaced the pagan version of the festival with a Christian one.

Although the evidence linking Krakus Mound with the ancient Celts is circumstantial, it provides a strange coincidence at least, and at most a connection to an ancient culture.

An Enduring Mystery

Krakow View
View of Krakow’s Wawel Castle.

Clearly, no one knows for sure the age or purpose of Krakus Mound, despite a detailed excavation and numerous archeological finds.

The various items discovered, from the Avarian belt-fixture, to the Lusatian pottery, point to conflicting periods of time when the mound could have been constructed. 

No grave was found, although Professor Leszek Paweł Słupecki argues that Krakus Mound is the remnant of a much larger system of mounds, based on Krakow city plans he has studied from the 18th century.  

This opens the possibility that it was part of a “mound cemetery” that has not survived to this day. Furthermore, the mound was not excavated in its entirety, although most historians believe enough of it was explored to rule out there being a grave. 

There is also the matter of the remains of the large hearth atop the mound, which implies the mound was a cremation burial from the early middle ages. Most scholars seem to favor this theory, or the one that argues the mound was ceremonial. 

Short of further research, Krakus Mound will remain an intriguing mystery, as it continues watching over Krakow into the next millennium.



Click to access SMS_02_Slupecki.pdf

Click to access 09_Florek.pdf


Strangest Polish Christmas Eve Superstitions

Polish Christmas OrnamentChristmas Eve in Poland, known as Wigilia, has some very beautiful traditions. Breaking the Opłatek wafer, caroling, opening gifts, the midnight mass, or Pasterka–these are practices beloved by every Pole and person of Polish descent, including myself.

But there exists a stranger side to the way Poles used to celebrate Christmas Eve, filled with mystery and superstition.

Most of these beliefs have not been taken seriously for well over 100 years. When I ask Polish people today, especially younger ones, they haven’t even heard of them.

Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to travel back in time and study some of the odd beliefs our ancestors held. For that reason, I present to you some of the strangest Polish Christmas Eve superstitions.

Wigilia Predicts the Rest of the Year

An old Polish belief claims that whatever you do on this day will affect your entire year. If you fight with your loved ones, it’s a sign that the upcoming year will be filled with strife. If you stay fit and healthy on Wigilia, you will stay fit and healthy all year long. Lending out money or objects to others was once avoided for fear that the upcoming year would find you lacking food or other necessities.

When you consider how perilous life was in old Polish days—harsh winters, the chance of crop failures, etc.—you can begin to understand why such beliefs existed. Any form of reassurance that you would make it in one piece to next Christmas was embraced. Acting properly on Wigilia gave you a feeling of greater control over life’s unpredictabilities in the coming year.

There should be an even number of people and an odd number of dishes at supper time.

Even Numbers

Wigilia tablePoles used to strongly believe that at supper time on Wigilia, there must be an even number of people seated around the table or else there would be bad luck in the upcoming year.

Having 13 people was the worst scenario because the number 13 represented Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ. Odd-numbered families would place an extra plate anyway, just to keep things even.

Interestingly, an opposing belief held that there should be an odd number of dishes served. Poles somehow believed that this would create “room” for things to even out in the upcoming year, bringing greater food or wealth.

The Spirits are Coming

Here’s where things get sketchy from a Roman Catholic perspective. Poles used to believe that spirits walk among the living on Christmas Eve. The spirits would enter your home in the form of animals, mysterious strangers or invisible entities.

As a result, Poles would be careful not to sweep the floor or dust a chair during Wigilia for fear of disturbing a spirit while it was chilling in the house.

At supper time, an extra place would be set at the table for a wandering spirit. Food and drink would be served to this “person” like anyone else. After supper, the party was over. Everyone in the house would start banging loudly on pots and pans to chase the spirits out.

The belief in spirits is probably a holdover from pagan days. In the past century, though, it has become more symbolic.

During Poland’s many wars, at least one family member was always absent. The extra spot was reserved just in case that loved one might miraculously reappear. An extra plate also symbolizes charity to the less fortunate. It’s believed that if a poor person, or someone who has lost their way, knocks on your door asking for food or company, you will already have a place set for him or her.

Talking Animals

Toward the end of Wigilia, as midnight approached, things got bizarre as heck, or so Poles believed. This was the one night during the year that animals would talk like humans.

It’s hard to say why this belief existed, but it’s possible that animals were given an elevated status on this night because of the animals that were present in the stable during Christ’s birth.

When I was little, I had a dog, and at midnight on Christmas Eve I would always try to start a conversation with him. Unfortunately, it was always pretty one-sided.

Waking the Trees

An old rural Polish custom involved “waking up” the trees right before midnight mass. The head of the household would go outside and tie the trees around the house with straw or hay. Then, he would knock on the trees three times and shake them shouting “Do you not hear? The Son of God is born!”

Notable Mentions

  • Supper could only begin once the “First Star” or “Star of Bethlehem” was observed in the sky.
  • It was once believed that people would die in the same order as they sat down to supper during Wigilia.
  • Leaving the table before everyone finished their meal was considered bad luck.
  • Toward midnight, water in the house would turn to wine, almost certainly a reference to the biblical Wedding at Cana.

But wait, there’s more strange Polish Christmas Eve superstitions!

For further reading on this, check out