Poland: the Linchpin of Europe

September is a very important month for Poland and all people with a Polish background. Two significant, yet contrasting, events occurred during this month in Polish history: the 1683 victory at Vienna, which halted the Ottoman Empire’s advance into Europe and the 1939 conquest by  Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

In both cases, Poland proved to be central in deciding Europe’s fate, a centrality that is all-too-often overlooked in studies of European and global history.

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Polish Winged Hussars like these helped stop the Ottoman advance into Europe in September 1683.

During the decades leading up to the 1683 Battle of Vienna, the Islamic Ottoman Empire had gradually been eroding Christian power in southeastern Europe. The rivalry between Christianity and Islam had persisted for centuries, and both sides had committed horrible atrocities against each other. In the summer of 1683, the Turks set their sights on Vienna, which would serve as a gateway to conquer the rest of Europe.

For months, a massive Ottoman army of 150,000 laid siege to Vienna. The city’s fortified walls and handful of brave Austrian defenders managed to impede the Turks from attaining a quick victory, but by September it became clear that, bar some miracle, Vienna would fall.

Poland would provide the miracle. Polish King John III Sobieski had long feared Ottoman encroachment into Europe and recognized that if Vienna fell, Poland might be next, followed by the kingdoms of the west. In early September, Sobieski marched an army of 60,000 men toward Vienna to relieve the desperate defenders.

On Saturday, September 11th, Sobieski’s forces, including his prized Winged Hussars, charged upon the dumbfounded Turkish camp from atop a ridge. The Ottomans were slaughtered, their leader Kara Mustafa Pasha, forced to flee for his life. After the victory, Sobieski wrote to the Pope, “We came, we saw, and God conquered.”

Exactly 256 years later in 1939, Poland’s fortune would be the opposite. On September 1st, Nazi Germany invaded Poland with 40 infantry divisions and 14 mechanized divisions. They utilized a strategy called Blitzkrieg, which relied on an overwhelmingly fast-paced armored assault.

Although the Poles mobilized around 1,000,000 men, they were technologically outmatched, especially in armor. Furthermore, Germany’s powerful air force wreaked havoc  on Polish military establishments and transportation lines.

polish soldier

To make matters worse, the Soviet Union had allied with Nazi Germany and invaded Poland from the east on September 17. Surrounded by two invading powers, it is amazing that Poland lasted as long as it did. The Polish army completely capitulated on October 5, which meant Poland had resisted for 35 days (In comparison, France lasted about 45 days against Nazi Germany alone).  The western powers failed to provide Poland with any significant military support, despite their promises to do so before the war. Along with Poland fell the flood gates, and the Nazis quickly went on to control or influence most of the European continent.

Although the results of these two historical events were drastically different, they share two major similarities: 1) In both instances, Europe was threatened by an enemy bent on total conquest. 2) In both instances, Poland was among the first to fight this grave threat, and the consequences of that struggle impacted Europe’s overall fate.

Had Poland failed to halt the Turks at Vienna, Europe would have been vulnerable to further bloodshed and destruction. Similarly, had Poland succeeded in halting the Nazis, it would have interrupted Adolf Hitler’s designs and possibly rallied the rest of Europe against him in a moment of weakness.

In that sense, Poland has been the historic linchpin of Europe. Its fate has been inextricably tied to the fate of the rest of the continent.  This is in no small part due to Poland’s central geographic location within Europe, which has time and again put it on the front lines of the immemorial struggle between east and west.

As Poles and people of Polish descent, we should be proud about our central place in history. At the same time, we should learn from our past and be prepared for the possibility of once again having to play a difficult, but crucial role in future events.

The Ultimate Sacrifice of Saint Maximilian Kolbe: Poland’s Martyr Priest

In 2016, Pope Francis visited Poland to celebrate World Youth Day, which is an international gathering of young people hosted by the Roman Catholic church every few years. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, from 187 countries, arrived in Krakow to participate, hurling Poland onto the global scene.

Although the event is meant to be a joyous occasion for young people to celebrate God, there was one somber moment that left the Pope visibly upset—his visit to Auschwitz, the German concentration camp from World War II, which is only about an hour away from Krakow.

Anyone who has visited Auschwitz knows that it’s a dark, gloomy place. The terror and suffering of the millions who died there still pervades the air. As the Pontiff alone stepped through those infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gates, the sun reflecting off his white robes stood in stark contrast to the perpetual darkness that looms over that dismal camp.

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The gates to the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz. The phrase on top says “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will set you free).

One of the most significant moments of the Pope’s visit was his solitary prayer time in the former jail cell of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who made the ultimate sacrifice to save a stranger during World War II at Auschwitz.

The Life of Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian Maria Kolbe was born Raymund Kolbe on January 8, 1894 in what was, at that time, the Russian partition of Poland.

His transformative religious experience came early in life, when he was only nine years old. He describes that while praying  before a statue of the Virgin Mary one day, she appeared before him holding two crowns—one white and one red. The Blessed Mother spoke to him explaining that the white crown represented purity and the red one represented martyrdom. She then asked him if he would accept either of them. He accepted both.

After that defining experience, Kolbe entered into a deeper religious faith than most people do over the course of their entire lives. In 1907, he joined the Conventual Franciscan Friars and was ordained a priest in 1918. It was here that he took on the religious name of Maximilian.

Kolbe2Over the course of his ministry, Father Kolbe promoted the veneration of the Virgin Mary and founded various Catholic media outlets—from a newspaper to a radio station—to spread the Gospel.

He also founded a monastery near Nagasaki, Japan on a mission trip to the far east in 1931. Amazingly, this monastery survived the atomic bomb dropped on the city 14 years later. Today, that same monastery serves as a center of Franciscan missionary activities in Japan.

In 1936, Father Kolbe returned to Poland to a monastery he had founded in 1927 in the town of Niepokalanów, near Warsaw. As Europe moved toward war, the moment at which Father Kolbe would don the red crown he had accepted from the Virgin Mary as a child drew closer.

 Wearing the Red Crown

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, many Franciscan brothers left Father Kolbe’s monastery in Niepokalanów, but not him. It’s important to mention that, although Kolbe’s mother was Polish, his father was German, meaning that he could have enjoyed greater rights under the Nazi regime. He waived those rights.

Instead, Father Kolbe actively resisted the Germans by publishing anti-Nazi writings, providing shelter to persecuted Jews and even turning his monastery into a temporary hospital for victims of the ongoing war.

Such activities did not escape the Nazi authorities for long, and they shut down Father Kolbe’s monastery in 1941 before arresting and sending him to Auschwitz. During his stay at the death camp, Father Kolbe continued to act as a priest for the prisoners, despite suffering through back-breaking labor and severe beatings by the guards.

One day during the summer of 1941, Nazi guards discovered that three prisoners had escaped from the camp. Furious, the Nazi commander ordered that ten prisoners be placed in the camp’s underground starvation cell as retribution.

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Franciszek Gajowniczek–the stranger who Father Kolbe sacrificed himself to save.

Ten prisoners were chosen at random to be starved to death. One of them, Polish army sergeant Franciszek Gajowniczek reportedly cried out in anguish that he would never see his wife and children again. At that moment, Father Kolbe, who was not among the condemned, stepped forward and asked the Nazi commander if he could  take Gajowniczek’s place in the starvation cell. Shocked, the commander agreed. Gajowniczek was saved and lived until the year 1995. Kolbe was led off to the starvation cell with the other nine prisoners.

In those last days, Father Kolbe led his fellow condemned prisoners in prayer and devotion as they all slowly starved. Eyewitnesses say he never once begged for food or water, but rather focused on comforting his cell-mates. After two weeks, nine out of ten prisoners had died. Only Father Kolbe remained alive.

At this point, the Nazis were frustrated that Father Kolbe wouldn’t die, and they decided to give him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Father Kolbe peacefully offered his arm up for the needle and left this world on August 14, 1941 at the age of 47.

75 Years Later…

Pope Francis visited this underground cell during the World Youth Day celebrations, as mentioned in the beginning of the article. The knowledge of Father Kolbe’s sacrifice doubtless moved the Pontiff as he silently prayed in the dark, underground cell.

Francis’s predecessor, Saint Pope John Paul II, had canonized Father Kolbe a Saint and named him a martyr in 1982. In the end, Father Kolbe kept his promise to the Virgin Mary. Throughout his life he had worn the white crown of purity and worked for the salvation of others as a priest. In death, he put on the red crown of martyrdom, freely choosing to die in the place of a complete stranger at Auschwitz.

As mentioned, the Auschwitz death camp continues to have an air of hopelessness and despondency. It is ironic, then, that in the deepest and darkest corner of this “hell on earth,” one Polish priest could maintain the virtues of faith, hope and love. As a strong Roman Catholic, I find Father Kolbe’s story to be inspirational evidence that no amount of darkness can snuff out God’s light.

To learn more about Saint Maximilian Kolbe, visit:

http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=370

http://www.catholic-pages.com/saints/st_maximilian.asp

Finding Hope in the Tragedy of Poland’s May 3rd Constitution

May 3rd Constitution

Today, May 3, 2018 marks the 226th anniversary of the second-oldest constitution in the world—the Polish Constitution of 1791. Its emphasis on achieving more equal rights and protections under the law for all Poles preceded that of any other major country, except for the United States.

>>Click to read the Polish Constitution of 1791

The constitution, among other things, granted townspeople the same rights as nobles, gave legal protection to peasants and provided for a national army to protect this First Polish Republic.

Tragically, this historic document was short-lived. For decades, Russia had taken advantage of Poland’s internal weaknesses, essentially turning the Polish government into its puppet state. The Polish King, Stanisław August Poniatowski, had even been a lover of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, and owed his power to her. For the Russians, then, this new constitution was seen as a revolt that needed to be squashed.

As a result, the Russian army, in concert with the treacherous Targowica Confederation, a group of Poles loyal to the Russian Empress, descended upon Poland in the Russo-Polish War of 1792-1793. Despite a victory at  Zieleńce on June 18th, 1792, the Poles were numerically outmatched and defeated. The Polish king, who had briefly asserted himself, recoiled. Between June and October 1793, Russia forced the Poles to rescind the constitution.

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Polish revolutionary, Tadeusz Kościuszko, fought valiantly  to defend Poland and the principles of the May 3rd constitution, but he was numerically and technologically outmatched by the Russians and Prussians.

After this monumental defeat, Poland’s last stand came with the bold insurrection led by Tadeusz Kościuszko against the Russians in 1794. The uprising had some early successes, such as the famed Battle of Racławice, where an army of Polish serfs armed with scythes defeated a technologically and numerically superior Russian force. Ultimately though, the Russians, together with the Prussians, brought the full strength of their empires to bear upon Poland and destroyed her. The consequence was the third partition of 1795 and the end of an independent Poland until 1918.

The May 3rd Polish constitution, then, was like a flickering candle flame in the dark and windy night of the partitions. Although that spark of enlightenment was quickly extinguished, it burned a permanent imprint on the Polish national consciousness and continues to be a source of inspiration and pride for Poles today.

For it was those democratic ideals that gave Poland something to fight and die for in the coming centuries. It was that affirmation of Poland’s unique identity and existence that kept its glorious past in the hearts and minds of its citizens, no matter where life took them. Finally, it was that memory of what Poland could accomplish that instilled hope and faith in Poland’s future survival.

Happy Polish Constitution Day. Long live Poland!

>>Click to check out images from last year’s May 3rd Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago

The Beginnings and Baptism of Poland

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Mieszko I, chief of the Polans, converts to Christianity on April 14, 966, founding Poland.

On April 14, 966, the Polish ruler converted to Christianity, transforming Poland into a recognized European state.

Poland had existed prior to this in some form, of course. As the Roman Empire collapsed in the early centuries AD, Germanic and Slavic tribes moved in and began to take over lands in central and eastern Europe. Already by the sixth century, western Slavic people began to settle throughout what is today Poland.

These western Slavs broke off into various tribes, such as the Vistulans, who settled in Krakow, and the Polans, who settled around Gniezno and Poznan. Poland grew out of the Polans. The Polan rulers were known as the Piasts.

The Conversion

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Mieszko 1, Chief of the Polans

In the year 960, Mieszko I became the Piast ruler of the Polans. He wasn’t a king, but rather more of a chieftain who found himself in a difficult political position.

To Mieszko’s west, the German ruler Otto I had consolidated his power, having been crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. His imperial title made him the defender of Christendom, successor of Rome and, arguably, the most powerful man in Europe. Otto had the means and authority to conquer and convert pagans, such as the Polans, to Christianity.

Mieszko knew that the longer the Polans remained pagan, the greater the chance they would be violently subdued by their Christian neighbors and forced to convert anyway. At the same time, Mieszko had married the Czech princess Dobrawa, who was a Christian (the Czechs had converted to Christianity a century earlier).

Early historical sources claimed that Dobrawa played a significant role in converting Mieszko to Christianity. That may only have been part of the story. More likely, Mieszko saw the writing on the wall—the threat of forcible conquest and conversion by the Germans—and made a deal with the Czechs to convert to Christianity in return for Dobrawa’s hand in marriage.

Whatever his motivations, on Holy Saturday April 14th, 966, Mieszko I, chief of the Polans, was baptized into Christianity. At that time, when a ruler converted, it was assumed all of his people would follow suit, which is why that moment is known as the Christianization of Poland.

The Rise of Poland

Once this occurred, the Polans essentially became “Poland” because their state earned recognition and respect from the Germans, Czechs and other European kingdoms. For this reason, 966 is also considered Poland’s birthday.

From that point forward, Mieszko I and his successor Bolesław the Brave (Poland’s first king) turned to conquest themselves, vastly expanding Poland’s borders. This is when the Vistulans of Krakow, parts of Silesia and parts of Pomerania fell under Poland’s control. Eventually, the Poles conquered territory as far as modern day Slovakia and Ukraine.

Poland would grow to become a major European kingdom in the coming centuries. Although it would suffer from internal strife, invasions and plagues throughout its history, Poland never lost its identity for very long. There’s a reason it still exists 1,053 years later and will, we pray, continue to exist for another 1,053 years.

Casimir Pułaski: George Washington’s Hero

pulaskiIf it wasn’t for one Pole, the United States of America would not exist in its present form. That Pole was Casimir Pułaski, who helped save George Washington’s life at the disatrous Battle of Brandywine during the American Revolutionary War and contributed to the training and strengthening of the Continental Army.

Unfortunately, for many Americans, Pułaski is best known for the three-day weekend  his commemoration gives to school-age children in certain parts of the country.

It’s always sad when great historical figures’ lives and accomplishments are overshadowed by their public holidays. Many American children probably don’t fully understand the reason they get Presidents’ Day or Martin Luther King Junior Day off. This is especially true for Pułaski, whose foreign-sounding name and lack of presence in history books means many don’t know who he was.

Polish Patriot

Casimir Pułaski was born in 1745 to a Polish kingdom in decline. Internal corruption, wars and disunity had gradually weakened the once powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth over the past century. Now, the Russian, Prussian and Austrian Empires were closing in for the kill.

As a young man, Pułaski joined the Bar Confederation, which opposed the Polish King Stanisław August Poniatowski, who had become a political puppet of Russia (not to mention the lover of the Russian queen, Catherine the Great). The Russians had been gaining greater and greater influence in Poland through political intrigue and force, and the Bar Confederation was a last ditch effort to stop them.

From 1768 to 1772, Pułaski fought many battles against the Russians, distinguishing himself as one of the most effective military leaders in Poland. Unfortunately, the Bar Confederation was too small and ill-equipped to defeat the mighty Russian Empire and collapsed. Pułaski was forced into exile, and, although he tried to mount successive campaigns against Russia, nothing came of it. This great Polish patriot had lost his country.

American Hero

In 1777, American inventor and statesmen, Benjamin Franklin, who had been conducting American diplomacy in Europe, invited Pułaski to the United States, which was in the middle of its revolution against Great Britain. Although Pułaski had failed to win freedom for the Poles, he saw the opportunity to help attain liberty for another group of people—the Americans.

He soon met General George Washington and became  a volunteer in the Continental Army Cavalry. His American military premier came at the Battle of Brandywine, where the British crushed Washington’s army. Washington was forced to retreat, but almost failed when the British nearly cut him off.

Pułaski and his cavalry played a significant role in distracting the British Army, while Washington escaped with the army. Had it not been for Pułaski’s cavalry charge at this crucial moment, the American army might have been utterly destroyed and Washington might have been captured or even killed. Therefore, it’s not  an exaggeration to claim that Pułaski played a necessary role in the United States developing as it did.

After these heroics, Pułaski became a celebrity in the American army and was promoted to Brigadier General. In 1778, Pułaski’s legion was established, consisting of lancers, dragoons and light infantry. Over the next year, Pułaski partook in various battles and contributed to training and strategy within the Continental Army.

On October 9th, 1779, Pułaski led a cavalry charge against the British at Savannah, Georgia. The charge failed and Pułaski was struck by grapeshot and killed.

Legacy

In many ways, Casimir Pułaski represents not only the close union between Poland and the United States from the very beginning, but also the universal values of freedom and sacrifice shared by both countries throughout their respective histories.

Kazimierz_Pułaski

Although he was forced to leave his home country, Pułaski understood that the values he fought for in Poland transcend any one nation and apply to people around the world. He happened to fight for the United States, but Pułaski would likely have fought just as fervently for any group opposing tyranny and oppression anywhere.

Pułaski must have loved Poland until the end and, at the end, the greatest gift he could offer her  was his life for a people facing similar circumstances. He helped create a country where, in succeeding decades, millions of Poles would emigrate to and create a better life for themselves, while continuing to support the cause of Poland’s freedom from abroad. You could say that he laid the groundwork for Polonia, which, I believe, has made Poland more powerful and influential than it ever could have been on its own.