Not the Beginning: Putting Polish Independence Day in Context

It’s the 101st anniversary of Poland’s independence, and celebrations are being held around the world in commemoration. This coincides with the 101st anniversary of the end of World War I on November 11, 1918 and Veterans Day in the United States.

The two events are intricately linked. The end of the Great War and collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian monarchies ushered in an age of freedom and independence for many former subjects, including Poland.

But the November 11, 1918 independence date sells Poland short. True, Poland gained its freedom after 123 years of foreign occupation, but it’s important not to forget that Poland had been a powerful, independent kingdom prior to its partitions in the late eighteenth century.

Poland’s Glorious Past

Polish Winged Hussar
A Polish Winged Hussar

Not only had Poland been independent in a distant age before 1918, it had thrived as one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe.

Its origins can be traced to the Dark Ages during the migration of Slavic people into Europe. Sometime in the eighth to ninth centuries, a tribe of the Western Slavs, the Polans, settled the Warta River Basin in the region today known as Greater Poland.

In 966 AD, the Polan ruler, Mieszko I, converted to Christianity in what became known as the Baptism of Poland. This date is traditionally taken to be Poland’s beginning as a state.

Over the next three centuries, Poland’s rulers expanded its territories to include much of modern-day Poland and beyond. Political infighting during the twelfth century and a Mongol invasion in the middle of the thirteenth threatened to destroy the fledgling kingdom, but it survived.

In the fourteenth century, Poland began an intimate relationship with its neighbor Lithuania to form a coalition against the encroaching German Teutonic Knights. In 1410 during the Battle of Grunwald, the German Knights were crushed by the Poles and Lithuanians and eventually became their vassals.

In 1569, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was officially formed. At its peak, this massive state stretched from the Baltic to the Black Seas, spanning 400,000 square miles with a population of 11 million.

During this time, Poland became one of the most advanced states in Europe politically, culturally and scientifically. It was one of the earliest states to experiment with democracy by having its kings elected by the nobility. Granted, these “Golden Liberties” enjoyed by the nobles were not shared with the common people, but Poland’s government was leagues ahead of the royal absolutism prevailing in countries like France and Russia.

Nikolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who formulated the idea of heliocentricity.

Poland was also much more multiethnic and religiously tolerant than its European neighbors at the time. Jews, who had been kicked out of virtually every western country were welcome in Poland.

Culturally, poetry and literature flourished. Jagiellonian University in Krakow was a center of learning and scholarship, producing such luminaries as Nicolaus Copernicus who formulated that the earth revolved around the sun.

Militarily, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a force to behold. The Ottoman Empire learned this the hard way when, during their Siege of Vienna in 1683, they were cut down by legions of Polish Winged Hussars, who drowned them in a sea of white and red.

This Golden Age of Poland, lasting from roughly the fifteenth through the early seventeenth centuries, is forgotten by many thanks to its collapse and subsequent repression by occupiers. Internal corruption and external aggression doomed Poland in the eighteenth century when it was engulfed by Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary.

Polish Independence Day, then, commemorates the hope and national zeal of the Polish people in 1918, a people who still had a faint recollection of Poland’s Golden Age and sought to resurrect it.

A New Chapter

Today, Poland’s near-destruction in World War II somewhat dampens the significance of its independence in 1918. After all, just two decades after regaining freedom, Poland faced not only political repression but the possibility of total extinction, first from the Germans and then from the Soviets. It emerged from those dark times, but the world had largely forgotten about it due to its enemies’ attempts to erase its history and culture.

Many look at November 11, 1918 as Poland’s beginning, not knowing what came before, but that doesn’t do this great nation and people justice. Celebrate Polish Independence Day but do so in context. It was the start of a new chapter in Polish history, not the beginning of the book.


15 Reasons To Be Thankful for Poland

One of the things my friends always ask me is why I’m so crazy about Poland when I wasn’t even born in that country. Some of them just don’t see why Poland matters. “What contributions has Poland made to the world?” they ask.

The answer is more than they think. I have compiled the following list to BEGIN demonstrating what Poland has to offer. There is no particular order to this list (So, no, I’m not saying that pączki are better than Saint Pope John Paul II).

1. Pączki:

Pączki are one of those foods that have transcended cultural borders to become a staple of universal cuisine. Whether you’re American, German, Australian or Dutch, chances are you’ve sunk your teeth into those fluffy balls of fruit-filled delight. Just remember that you have Poland to thank.

Polish paczki

2. Vitamins:

Do you take Vitamin C when you feel like you’re getting sick? Perhaps you take a daily multivitamin to supplement your health. You can thank a Pole, Casimir Funk, for discovering the concept and existence of vitamins in 1912. Although, I’m not sure if that’s the reason some vitamins have such a funky taste.


3. Heliocentricity:

The earth revolves around the sun. Duhhhh. But we wouldn’t have known that if it weren’t for Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who proved this phenomenon in the 16th century. For centuries prior to this, the accepted theory was that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolved around it. Not only did Copernicus discover the opposite (heliocentricity), but this discovery helped spur the Scientific Revolution.

copernicus heliocentricity

4. Saving Europe…TWICE:

In its history, Poland fought back two invasion forces that had the potential to completely change the social and political fabric of the European continent. The first was in 1683 when King John III Sobieski repulsed a massive Ottoman invasion at the gates of Vienna. The second occured in 1920 when Poland miraculously defeated a Soviet onslaught into the west during the Battle of Warsaw.

John III Sobieski

5. X-Rays:

Next time you’re getting your tooth X-rayed at the dentist’s office, remember Marie Skłodowska  Curie, a Polish female scientist who helped develop X-ray technology and was the first woman ever to win the Nobel Prize. She also discovered a new element and named it Polonium, after her home country.

Curie Xray

6. Big, Beautiful Castles:

OK, OK, many countries have castles. But Poland has the largest castle on the planet at Malbork. Built by the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century and later captured by the Poles, the massive fortification stretches for 52 acres. Still, I must note that there is some friendly competition between Malbork Castle in Poland and Prague Castle in the Czech Republic, which many sources also claim to be the largest castle in the world.

Castle Malbork

7. Polish Women:

In my experience, Polish women are intelligent, resourceful, tough, moral and beautiful. Sure, you find these qualities, and lack thereof,  in all nations, but I can only speak to the great influence strong Polish women like my mother and grandmother had on me.


8. Polish Chocolates:

Forget Butterfingers and Hershey Bars. Poland offers a celestial collection of delectable confections that will leave you addicted and begging for more. From Wawel, to E. Wedel, to Prince Polo, you can’t go wrong with any Polish chocolate.

prince polo

9. Kiełbasa Sausage:

I just know I’m going to get comments asking me “Why didn’t you make Kiełbasa number one, two and three on this list, Crazy Polish Guy?” Well this list has no particular order, so maybe this is number one. Honestly, though, how could I make any list of fantastic Polish things without including kiełbasa? For some people, Poland’s whole purpose is kiełbasa.


10. Polish Grandmothers:

They’re kind, loving and willing to force-feed you in ways that would make any CIA interrogator cringe. Everyone loves their grandma, whether she’s Polish or not, but we people of Polish descent have a certain image that comes to mind when we think of our Polish grandmothers; God bless them. Check out how to tell if your grandma is Polish.

Polish grandmother

11. Alcohol:

Żywiec, Tyskie, Krupnik, VODKA. What would the world do without them? And they’re all Polish (Yes, Russia, we’re claiming the Vodka). What would you do without Poland? Give thanks, my friends! Give thanks!

polish beer

12. The Lato Font:

Lato, that font style that everyone is using these days on new business presentations and school projects, is a Polish invention. The typeface, which is the Polish word for summer, was developed in 2010 by Warsaw designer Łukasz Dziedzic.

Polish Lato font

13. Legendary Classical Music:

You may recall the famous funeral march song that they always used to play in cartoons. That happens to be one of the most widely recognized musical pieces by Polish composer  Frédéric Chopin. Not only is he the most famous Polish musician of all time, but he is right up there in the same league as Ludwig van Beethoven and Peter Tchaikovsky when it comes to legendary composers.

chopin statue

14. Saint Pope John Paul II:

One of the most cherished figures in Poland, Saint Pope John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyła, is beloved and respected worldwide for having lead an exemplary life of piety and forgiveness, while simultaneously helping rip apart the fabric of communism in Eastern Europe. Among his most saintly acts was visiting the person who tried to assassinate him and offering him forgiveness. All across the world people revere his name, and Poland gave him to us.

Saint Pope John Paul II

15. Polish People

The world’s estimated Polish population is 60 million. Those 60 million people can be found anywhere from  Albania to Zambia, and if you count the people who are part Polish and part some other nationality (which I do), the number is likely far higher. Poles and people of Polish descent make important contributions to all aspects of global society, from politics, to coal mining and from sports to scientific research and development. I can assure you that this 0.8% of the world’s population packs a powerful punch.


50 Things I Miss About Poland

A Polish Kiosk

My last trip to Poland was slightly more than one year ago, and sometimes I find myself reminiscing and missing my time there. Today, as I walked into a large Polish store in the Chicagoland area, I was struck with “the feels” for Poland. It was a full force collision with the nostalgia train, or, shall I say, the nostalgia pociąg.

In any event, I thought I would share short phrases of things I think about when I miss Poland.  I hope that some of you identify with a few of these thoughts as well. Although many are very specific to me, others are more universal. Even if you’ve never visited Poland, perhaps they  will trigger memories of your busha growing up or of those delicious pierogi your mom used to make.

Here are 50 things I miss about Poland (no particular order)

…my grandma looking out the second story window as I play in the backyard.

…Polish Nesquick cereal in the yellow bag

…the small kiosks on the street corners

…walking, instead of driving, to the town center

…encountering random stray animals

…Polish MTV

…a kotlet dinner

…having a different soup for “pierwsze danie” every day

…grandma listening to Msza Święta on the radio

20150901_143144…medieval churches and cathedrals

…picking cherries in my grandma’s yard

…picking raspberries in my grandma’s yard

…picking red currant berries in my grandma’s yard

…picking gooseberries in my grandma’s yard

…picking plums in my grandma’s yard

…shelling peas with my grandma

…walking in to visit neighbors or relatives at a moment’s notice

…neighbors or relatives visiting me at a moment’s notice

…taking the bus to town

…grandma bringing me a large, delicious loaf of bread, freshly baked, before a long trip

…helping my grandma walk to the kiosk down the street


…deciding whether to watch TVP 1, TVP 2 or Polsat

…feeding chickens on my relatives’ farm20150903_170803

…having a goat try to eat my clothes

…walking all day

…riding in my uncle’s Fiat

…homemade pierogi

…buying fresh vegetables from an old lady on open market day, aka “na targu”

…Kinder eggs with the surprise toys inside

…watching Dobranocka before bedtime

…walking up the stairs of an old kamienica (tenement)

…being struck by how beautiful Polish girls are

…listening to that Polish narrator that seems to dub every foreign film

…homemade naleszniki

20150907_170915…watching the rural countryside while taking a train

…seeing rolled hay on farmland

…lying in a hammock near my grandma’s garden

…that feeling  after exchanging dollars for złoty at the Kantor

…playing with the latest kitten at my grandma’s house

…buying a Prince Polo

…reading Kaczor Donald magazine

…hearing the legends surrounding a local castle

…freshly-cooked kielbasa

…watching the old Godzilla movies, dubbed in Polish, with my grandma at night

…getting up early because I couldn’t sleep but not being able to watch TV because it was still off the air

…giving and receiving gifts with friends and relatives

…Tymbark juice

…the reklama announcement before a set of television commercials started

…that moment I step off the airplane onto Polish soil

My Wigilia Wishes To You

opłatekOn this Wigilia, I would like to share an opłatek with all of my readers and social media followers. For those who may not know, breaking the opłatek  wafer at Christmas Eve is an age-old Polish tradition occurring right before supper. First, the father breaks the opłatek in half with the mother. Both wish each other health, joy, or whatever  else they might desire before eating it. Afterward, the rest of the family follows suit in a ceremony of hope and love. They even make colored opłatek for animals!

This is a day to not only reflect on the previous year, but anticipate the next one.  I have written about various Wigilia superstitions, and most of them involve setting the standard for the upcoming year—from avoiding arguments, to keeping a clean house, to behaving courteously and hospitably. You may or may not buy into these superstitions, but you have to admit that they certainly encourage you to act in accordance with the Christmas spirit (and it would be great if we could act like that all year).

I’m especially thankful for your continued interest and engagement with my blog. Nearly 4,000 Facebook followers and often thousands of website views per day is humbling, yet inspiring. I am continually motivated to bringing you a host of educational content about Poland and Polish culture, as well as some crazy humor.  I’ve never specialized in one theme about Poland, and I never will. I love all aspects of Poland, and I hope that passion comes through in my writings, photos, and videos.

Now, without further adieu, here are my Wigilia wishes for you:

Health: This is always what I wish everyone first. Without it, no other wishes matter. Indeed, nothing else matters. So, may God heal you of any ailments and keep you safe from disease and accidents in the coming year.

Happiness: I don’t know all of you, so I can’t get specific as to what will make you happy. While some of you might want a private yacht, others would be happy with kołaczki right about now. So think of something that makes you happy, and that is what I wish you (as long as it’s nothing bad, of course).

Unity: A major goal of my blog is to bring Polish people together from around the world to learn about the culture and traditions of that great nation and share their stories. The Polish diaspora is among the largest in the world. Poles are in every country. So on this Wigilia, remember who you are, no matter where you are. And if you’re not Polish, we’re happy to adopt you 🙂

Wesołych i Radosnych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia


Wesołych Swiat

Why the U.S., Poland and France Share a Special, Unbreakable Bond


Friday’s horrific terrorist attacks on Paris were a global tragedy. They reminded us that no one is safe anywhere, not even while unwinding on a Friday night after the work week. It really hit home, no matter where you live.

At the same time, the solidarity displayed around the world has been amazing and will hopefully lead to the defeat of the evildoers. As Poles and Polish Americans, especially, we share  a bond with the French people that not everyone does.

The United States, Poland and France together pioneered the concept of constitutional liberty and democracy in the late 18th century. Effected in 1789, the U.S. Constitution was the first of its kind, espousing the principles of individual freedom in an age when monarchical rule was the norm.

Two years later, on May 3rd, 1791, the Polish Constitution was signed, granting greater political equality and  popular sovereignty across the land. Sadly, the partitions of Poland a few years later caused many to forget that Poland codified the second democratic constitution in the world.

A few months after the Poles, the French adopted their own constitution. Although it was also short-lived (Napoleon enacted imperial rule a few years later), the French Constitution of 1791 legalized the French Revolution’s principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Thus, the U.S., Poland and France are sisters in freedom. Together, they set the standard for  liberty and democracy that has been adopted around the world in succeeding centuries. During World War II, all three countries joined forces, bravely combating the totalitarian evil of Nazism. Although Poland and France were defeated, their resistance movements were the largest in the war, relentlessly fighting the Nazis until the Americans landed in Normandy.

For this reason, Americans, Poles, and the French must support each other in this time of need. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us and on the values we collectively fathered over two centuries ago. As individuals, we can only do so much, but a good place to start is with a prayer for the victims of this catastrophe.

Viva la France.