Five More Poles Who Changed the World

In a previous article, I discussed five Poles who I thought had made a global impact throughout history. You can read that article by clicking here.

Now here’s five more Poles whose lives arguably affected people across the planet. Inevitably, some of you will agree and some will disagree with this list, as you did with the last one. That’s great–it makes for awesome discussion.

My criteria were that the Polish person had to have made a global impact beyond one or two countries or made a major humanitarian contribution. Also, there’s no order. In other words, I’m not saying Chopin was more important than Irena Sendler, for example.

Here we go:

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

Important PolesThe name Chopin is right up there with Beethoven and Mozart when it comes to household recognition of famous musicians. Born near Warsaw in 1810, young Frédéric was a musical prodigy from an early age. By age 10, he had written a Polonaise in G minor and played numerous concerts, including one for the Russian Tsar.

At 16, he began formal training at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music and, three years later, traveled to Vienna to begin his professional career. After the failed Polish uprising against the Russians in 1830, Chopin decided to remain outside Poland, basing himself in Paris where he interacted with some of the greatest composers of the day, including Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz.

Over the course of his career, Chopin produced many works that are today recognized around the world—from his Nocturne op.9 No.2, to his Fantaisie Impromptu, to the famous Funeral March.

Sadly, Chopin died young, at only 39. To this day, experts disagree as to what illness caused his death, although the traditional explanation has been tuberculosis. His body was buried in Paris, but his heart was sent to the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw, where it remains to this day.

Jan Karksi (1914-2000)

greatest polesJan Karski, born Jan Kozielewski in 1914 in Łódź, is the reason the west found out about some of the German Nazis’ most horrible atrocities in Poland and Europe during World War II.

He was an officer in the Polish cavalry during the German invasion in 1939. At the end of the campaign, he was captured by the Russians and handed over to the Germans; but he managed to escape and join the Polish resistance movement. Kozielewski changed his surname to “Karski” as a pseudonym to avoid detection.

As a member of the Polish resistance, he completed many courier missions between Poland and the Polish government in exile in Paris, and later Great Britain. One of his most daring missions was infiltrating the Warsaw Ghetto to observe the German Nazi-inflicted genocide against Polish Jews. Because of Karski, the Holocaust was exposed to the entire world.

After the war, he moved to the U.S. where he became a citizen and taught at Georgetown University. Among his students was a young Bill Clinton. He died in Washington D.C. in 2000.

Casimir Funk (1884-1967)

Important PolesDo 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 (born 1884 in Warsaw), for discovering the concept and existence of vitamins in 1912.

After noticing that beriberi disease became less likely in people who ate brown rice, Funk studied and isolated the substance responsible, calling it a “vitamine.” Today, it’s known as Vitamin B3. Following this discovery, he theorized the existence of other vitamins, including Vitamin C and Vitamin D.

He eventually became a U.S. citizen and president of the Funk Foundation for Medical Research. He died in 1967 in New York.

Irena Sendler (1910-2008)

Greatest PolesIrena Sendler is responsible for saving more Jews from the Holocaust than any other person. She was born in 1910 in Otwock, Poland and moved to Warsaw on the eve of World War II.

After the war broke out, Sendler dedicated herself to saving as many Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto as possible, risking her own life in the process. She started out by bringing food, medicine and clothing to the victims inside the ghetto. After observing the horrific conditions inside, she was moved to smuggle as many children out as possible.

She helped them escape over time using ambulances, potato sacks, body bags, coffins, anything that would fool the Nazi authorities. After their escape, the children were often given new identities and sent to religious establishments for safekeeping. She saved 2,500 children this way.

In 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis and tortured to reveal the identities of the rescued children. Despite having her legs and feet broken, she never revealed anything. She was sentenced to death but managed to escape and was pursued by the Nazis for the rest of the war.

Most amazingly, before her capture, she had stored the true identities of the children she saved in jars, which she buried under an apple tree. After the war, she dug up the jars, tracked down the saved children and reunited them with their families. She lived a long life afterward, dying in 2008.

Lech Wałęsa (1943-)

lech walesaAlthough his name has become mired in politics and controversy today, Lech Wałęsa remains a symbol of communism’s fall in Eastern Europe and is recognized around the world.

An electrician by trade, Wałęsa co-founded the Solidarity Movement in 1980, a Polish labor union that placed huge pressure on communist authorities to implement social change in Poland. Through strikes and protests, the movement gradually exposed the communist government’s shortcomings to the rest of the world.

In 1989, Solidarity forced the communist government into the famous Round Table negotiations that paved the way for free elections in Poland. Then, in 1990, Wałęsa became Poland’s first freely-elected president since before World War II.

Recent evidence has come to light implying that Walesa collaborated with communist authorities in the 1970s. If that evidence is true, everyone can form their own opinion about whether that means he was a traitor, or just trying to survive the grim realities of life to fight another day. None of us was there. Regardless of his possible shortcomings, the Solidarity movement he created became globally significant in revealing and plucking out the rotted core of communism, and that’s why he’s on this list.

Saint Faustina Kowalska: The Pole Who Met God

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Poland has no shortage of Saints. Saint Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyła), Saint John Cantius and Saint Maximilian Kolbe are some prominent examples. Another Polish Saint, who reportedly had visions of Jesus Christ Himself, is Sister Mary Faustina Kowalska.

Born in Głogowiec, Poland in 1905, Helena Kowalska was stirred from an early age to join religious life. At the age of seven, she already knew she wanted to be a nun, though her parents didn’t support the idea. Still, religious life drew her like a magnet, and her parents would ultimately prove unable to counter its force.

At age nineteen, while attending a dance, Helena had a vision of Christ, who told her to drop everything and immediately travel to Warsaw to join a convent. It was a testament to her faith and piety that she set off for the capital in obedience. She joined the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy and received her habit and religious name of Faustina in April 1926.

In 1930, Sister Faustina was transferred to a convent in Płock, Poland, an assignment  that would have an inconceivable impact on her life and on Roman Catholics everywhere.

Christ’s Visit

Faustina home
Sister Faustina’s residence in Vilnius, Lithuania

One February night, Sister Faustina was in her room when she said Jesus appeared to her, dressed in white, with red and white rays emanating from His heart. He told her to paint an image of the way He appeared, signing it with the phrase “Jezu, ufam Tobie” (Jesus I trust in you). Initially, few took her story seriously. It wasn’t until after Sister Faustina took her final vows in 1933 and was transferred to Vilnius (today the capital of Lithuania) that she was able to begin fulfilling Christ’s request of her.

While working as a gardener in Vilnius, as part of that city’s convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Sister Faustina met Father Michael Sopoćko, who was the nuns’ confessor. She told him about her conversations with Jesus, and he was initially skeptical, going so far as to order that Sister Faustina undergo a complete psychiatric evaluation. After taking all the necessary tests, she passed and was declared mentally sound.

After that, Father Sopoćko was fully dedicated to helping Sister Faustina complete the mission given to her from above. He tasked an artist, Eugene Kazimierowski, to paint a picture based on Sister Faustina’s vision of Christ.

At one point, Sister Faustina had written in her diary that Christ elaborated on His image proclaiming,

The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls. These two rays issued forth from the very depths of My tender mercy when My agonized heart was opened by a lance on the Cross. These rays shield souls from the wrath of My Father. Happy is the one who dwell in their shelter, for the just hand of God shall not lay hold of him. (Diary of Sister Faustina, 299)

Divine Mercy Image
The original Divine Mercy image, depicting how Sister Faustina saw Christ.

The artist painted the original Divine Mercy image, which today can be visited in Vilnius. It is meant as a “vessel” to remind people to continuously ask for God’s infinite mercy.

Painting the image wasn’t enough, however, as Sister Faustina had received further instructions from Christ to ensure that it would be publicly venerated and that the second Sunday of Easter become a feast day called Divine Mercy Sunday. Unfortunately, Sister Faustina would not live to see all of this come to fruition.

In 1935, she had another vision, which inspired her to write the Divine Mercy Chaplet, a rosary-based prayer recited by faithful Catholics to this day. Not very long after, Sister Faustina was diagnosed with tuberculosis and moved to a sanatorium in Krakow, Poland. She died on October 5, 1938. She had reportedly spent her last moments praying in ecstasy.

The Road to Public Veneration

Before her death, Sister Faustina had predicted a terrible war. World War II more than fulfilled that prediction. Despite this, veneration of the Divine Mercy image was spreading across the globe. Father Sopoćko, who had gone into hiding during the war, founded a new religious congregation afterward, based on the Divine Mercy message. Today it is called the Congregation of the Sisters of the Divine Mercy, and the image is recognized by Catholics everywhere, whether or not they know the story behind it.

In 1965, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Krakow began the investigation to determine whether Sister Faustina could eventually become a saint. In April 1993, Wojtyła, now Pope John Paul II, beatified Sister Faustina. Seven years later in 2000, he canonized her a saint. From that point forward, the Catholic Church declared the Sunday after Easter to be Divine Mercy Sunday.

Based on words that Christ reportedly told Saint Faustina, Catholics believe that souls who receive Holy Communion and go to Confession on that day receive a full pardon for their sins. With that, Christ’s request of Saint Faustina was fulfilled, 62 years after her death.

For more information on Saint Faustina Kowalska, what Christ told her and everything associated with Divine Mercy, please visit https://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/mercy/backgr.htm

Sarmatia: Poland’s Mythic Golden Age?

In the 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays a man lost in his time. His heart longs to have been born in 1920’s Paris, which he idealizes as an age grander, more magnificent than his own. His chief antagonist in the film dismisses this longing as “Golden Age Syndrome,” or the irrational, nostalgic belief that another time was better than one’s own.

Many of us look to the past to escape the present. We sometimes think we were born 50, 60 or even 150 years too late. Our minds reach back into the murky waters of history, hoping to retrieve some sunken treasure that has been lost to the ages. What we often don’t realize, and what Midnight in Paris, makes clear, is that if we were miraculously able to travel back to our idealized past, we would find some people looking back to an even earlier time as an antidote to the poisons of the present.

Poland underwent  a collective, nationwide “Golden Age Syndrome” between  roughly the 16th and 18th centuries called Sarmatism. Today, many of us who have studied Polish history may romanticize the age of the Polish Schlachta, or nobility, as an exciting time of winged hussars on horseback, grandiose noble estates and lavish Baroque-era parties and dances. But those very nobles were looking back and trying to model a group of people who had been extinct for more than 1,000 years—the Sarmatians.

Sarmatians

Ancient Ancestors of the Poles?

The Sarmatians were an Iranian people from Central Asia who migrated to parts of Eastern Europe between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. This was long before Poles, Russians or any modern Slavic people roamed that part of the continent. The Sarmatians’ origins are not agreed upon, but the ancient Greek historian Herodotus believed they were descended from the legendary Amazons of Greek mythology (a tale which may have been based off real women living in a land called Scythia).

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The Greek historian Herodotus connected the Sarmatians to the mythic Amazon female warriors from Greek mythology.

Hippocrates believed that Sarmatians were really part of the Scythian tribe, writing that their “women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies.”[i] It’s difficult to ascertain how much of this is true, but the ancient historians seemed to believe the Sarmatians to be a fierce, war-like group of people.

 

Over time, it’s conjectured that the Sarmatian tribes filtered across eastern Europe, especially during the Germanic invasions of the early centuries AD. Because of  this, some have speculated that this warrior race is connected to Poland.

The Schlachta of the 16th-18th centuries sure thought so. In fact, they believed that what united them as nobles was their common Sarmatian lineage. The narrative went something like this: Centuries earlier, ancient Sarmatians had reached modern day Poland, conquered the local people and established themselves as the ruling class. Over time, they assumed the local Slavic language and culture, but the fierce Sarmatian blood continued to run in their veins.

It was the perfect origin story for the Polish nobility, which prided itself on its military excellence. It also helped legitimize the nobility’s superiority to the peasants, who, according to this narrative, did not descend from the Sarmatians.

Polish Sarmatism

Polish nobles took it one step further than merely thinking themselves as being descended from Sarmatians. They consciously sought to live and act like the ancient people to distinguish themselves from, not only non-nobles in Poland, but everyone else in Europe.

In fact, if you traveled to Poland during this time period, you would think that the noblemen looked and acted oriental instead of western. They  wore, long, ornate robes called kontusze with decorative buttons and a wide sash. A similar robe, called a Żupan, was often worn underneath the kontusz, or by itself. Loose pants, often associated with Turkic people, called Szarawary, were worn, along with knee-high boots. On the head was worn a kołpak with feathers. Nobles often grew out long, distinctive mustaches, which one can notice on many portraits from the era.

schlachta2
Polish noble dress.

Polish noblemen replicated oriental styles in their military lives as well. The cavalry adopted weapons and armor used by the Ottoman Empire, such as command batons. This was also the age of the famous winged hussars. Warriors wore tall, wooden frames covered in eagle, ostrich or goose feathers to resemble wings, which would terrify the enemy from afar.

Socially, the Polish nobility behaved sumptuously and without much restraint. As discussed, the noble dress itself was very elaborate, meant to make a special impression on visiting foreigners. Noble mansions and palaces contained exotic items and animals from around the world. Gold and silver literally lined the walls, The degree to which the Polish nobility flaunted its wealth was unsurpassed anywhere on the continent.  Of course, the lack of restraint applied to drinking alcohol as well. Vast quantities of beverages were consumed, and crazy parties were held on a regular basis.

John III Sobieski
King John III Sobieski’s dress and mustache was typical of the nobility’s obsession with orientalism.

When looking back at how the Polish nobility acted and dressed during these three centuries. It’s clear that, even if they were descended from the ancient Sarmatians, they weren’t truly copying them as much as they were copying Turkish, Arab and near-Eastern culture of their own day.  Historical Sarmatians would have been a nomadic, tribal people, without the level of flaunted wealth as the Polish Schlachta. Furthermore, although the Polish nobility was a major military force for a time, social and political decay, which some historians attribute to the nobility’s loose lifestyle, eventually led to Poland’s decline and subjugation in the 18th century. So much for military excellence.

So do the Poles descend from the ancient Sarmatians? The evidence isn’t concrete, but it’s possible that the Sarmatians had some sort of influence on Slavic people in general during the early centuries AD, which would have included the earliest ancestors of modern Poles.

As far as the Schlachta were concerned, it was a true case of “Golden Age Syndrome.” As many of us do when romanticizing the past, the Polish nobles used the Sarmatians as a starting point for their idealized way of life. They created an elaborate origin story and imposed their own vision of what the glorious past was like, perhaps leaving out the historical facts that did not fit that narrative.

It’s an eye-opening lesson for those of us who long to live in the past. Are we truly longing for the past as it was, or as we want it to have been?

Further Reading:

http://www.krakowpost.com/1940/2010/03

http://visegradinsight.eu/sarmatism-and-polands-national-consciousness26022015/

http://www.silk-road.com/artl/sarmatian.shtml

[i] http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=GreekFeb2011&query=Hipp.%20Aer.%2019&getid=2

John Cantius: Poland’s Philosopher Saint

saint-john-cantius
The painting hanging above the Saint John Cantius Church altar in Chicago.

On the northwest side of Chicago, near Milwaukee Avenue and what locals often call the “Polish Triangle” for its strong Polish roots, stands a gorgeous baroque church, known for its traditional liturgies and sacred atmosphere.

Resting amidst the ornately decorated High Altar is a painting of an old man, adorned in scholarly black robes, handing a kneeling girl a jug. In the background, bystanders observe the man and girl, seemingly with awe and wonder, and behind them two princely church steeples overlook the entire scene. Those who have visited  Krakow will immediately identify those steeples as belonging to Saint Mary’s Basilica.

Why does this very Polish painting hang above the altar of a Chicago church? Even the name of the church—Saint John Cantius—doesn’t sound particularly Polish. When one learns that it was founded in 1893 by Polish immigrants, however, and that the name John Cantius translates to “Jan Kanty,” the connection becomes clear.

But who was Jan Kanty, why was he so revered, and what’s going on in the altar painting? In the spirit of All Saints’ Day, let’s learn a bit about this Polish Saint.

His Life and Works

Born to a wealthy family in the small Polish town of Kęty, near Auschwitz, in 1390, Kanty was christened after Saint John the Baptist. Little is known of his childhood. Indeed, he first appears in the historical record as a student in Krakow’s famed Jagiellonian University in 1413, where he studied philosophy before entering the priesthood.

After ordination, he spent eight years as rector of a clerical school in Miechów. During this period in history, priests and monks dedicated much time to quiet study, and, most of all, copying manuscripts. In this age before the printing press, the only way to replicate anything, was to manually write it out. Kanty spent many hours of his life copying down Holy Scripture and other theological writings. Today, 18,000 hand-written pages survive, and that’s only believed to be a small fraction of his life’s work.

In 1429, he got a job in the Philosophy Department at Jagiellonian University and worked on earning his doctorate. Soon after, he became director of the school’s Theology Department.

Kanty’s intellectualism was matched only by his piety and dedication to his parishioners and fellow priests.  He developed a reputation as a great listener and mentor, and as one who “lived the Gospel.” He rejected material desires, living in a small room and fasting often. In one story, he was hosting a dinner when a beggar entered the room. Kanty rose from his seat shouting  “Christ is coming!” and offered his seat to the guest. As a priest, among his holy passions was cultivating the Sacrament of the Eucharist and encouraging the faithful to adore and partake in it.

The Miracle of the Jug

One of the most famous stories surrounding Kanty is the supposed “Miracle of the Jug,” depicted in the painting hanging above the altar in Chicago’s Saint John Cantius Church.

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Saint John Cantius Church in Chicago

In June of 1464, an elderly Kanty was walking through the market square in Krakow when he observed a weeping girl with a broken jar. It was a servant girl who had been carrying a jug of milk for her stern mistress when she had dropped and broken it. She was crying for fear of punishment. Moved with compassion, Kanty took the broken jar from the girl’s trembling hands and prayed upon it. Miraculously, when he fitted the pieces together, they remained whole and the jug was fixed! He then told the girl to fill the jug with water from a nearby spring. When she did so, Kanty again took the jug and prayed upon it. When he returned it to the girl, the water inside had turned to milk.

Other miraculous tales surround Kanty. In one, as he was walking the streets of Krakow on a cold winter’s night, he saw a beggar freezing on the roadside. Without thinking, Kanty threw his robe over the shivering man. Later, when he arrived home, he found the same robe back in his room. Had the beggar been Christ in disguise?

Kanty died on Christmas Eve in 1473 and was interred in Jagiellonian University’s Collegiate Church of Saint Anne. In 1767, he was canonized a Saint by Pope Clement XIII. Today, he remains a very popular Polish Saint, in the same league as Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Pope John Paul II. His feast day is typically celebrated on October 20.

Click here to check out the website of Saint John Cantius Church in Chicago.

For Polish readers, click here to check out more information about Saint John Cantius.

A Polish Nightmare: 8 Horrific Creatures from Poland

We’ve all heard of vampires and werewolves. BORING! Few people realize that Polish and Slavic mythology has its own collection of horrific creatures straight out of your worst nightmares. If you dare, keep reading to discover why you should probably avoid walking deep in the Polish woods alone.

Rusałka

scary-rusalka

You’re taking a peaceful autumn stroll in the woods. As you approach a calm little creek, you observe a beautiful woman playing with her hair. Turn around. NOW! It could be a Rusałka, the ghost of an unmarried girl who drowned. Rusałki have long light-brown, red, or green hair and often wear white dresses with flowers on them. Although extremely pale, they are very beautiful and completely irresistable to men. If a man happens across one, she will seduce and try to drown him. Learn more about the Rusałka

Południca

When it comes to Polish monsters, you’re not even safe during the day. Meet the Południca, also known as the Noon Witch. She appears amidst whirling dust clouds during the hottest part of the day, carrying a scythe. Oftentimes, she will ask people very difficult questions or quiz them. It’s a high stakes game because if they answer incorrectly, the Południca gives them a haircut down to the neck. In centuries past, peasants used to blame the Południca for heatstroke.

leshyLeshy

Although not the meanest monster on this list, you would still be well advised not to cross paths with a Leshy. It’s a giant woodland spirit who can shapeshift into anything. Oftentimes, Leshy leave people alone, although they are known to lead travelers astray and sometimes abduct children. Some people believe they are evil, while others just think they are moody. I wouldn’t take the chance to find out.

Strzyga

If you are ever stuck wandering the woods at night, be wary of this vampire-like creature that can transform into an owl to appear unnoticed. When one does meet a Strzyga in its true form, it may be too late, as the undead being sucks the blood of humans and sometimes even devours their insides. Strzyga are born human, but die prematurely and return to haunt the living. Polish peasants once believed that if a child was born with teeth, it would become a Strzyga.

baba-yagaBaba Yaga

Common throughout Poland and other Slavic countries is the tale of Baba Yaga, an old witch who lives in the forest, waiting for someone to get lost and stumble upon her hut, which sits on chicken legs and is surrounded by a fence composed of human bones. The keyhole on her door is filled with sharp teeth. When she catches you, she will kill and eat you, adding your bones to her fence. Her favorite meal? Small children.

Wila

Wila are nymphs who inhabit the winds. They are the spirits of women who acted loosely or frivolously during their lifetimes. Now they are forced to haunt the night, leading young men astray with their seductive charm. If the wind is heavy, it means the Wila are dancing; if it’s loud, they are singing. So watch out, because those thin wispy clouds under the full moon on a chilly autumn night may actually be the vague outlines of the Wila.

kikimoraNocnica

Beware of the Nocnica, or night hag, who is probably the most frightening monster on this list. Composed of shadow, the Nocnica is an evil spirit who visits people during sleep to draw their life force. Those who sleep on their back are especially vulnerable, as she will sit on their chest while slowly sucking their life out over the course of many nights. Her favorite victims are defenseless infants. In fact, she is to blame for babies having trouble sleeping at night. Their cries are due to the night hag tormenting them….

Czernobog

Czernobog is the king of all Polish and Slavic monsters. His name literally translates to “black god,” and in Slavic mythology, he was the accursed brother of Bielobog, the “white god.” The source of all evil in the world, Czernobog regularly enjoys stealing and devouring souls. He is also responsible for the most creepy Disney cartoon ever made called “Night on Bald Mountain.” Don’t be too afraid, though, as he hides like a wimp from the sunlight.