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.


25 Signs You Have an Unhealthy Obsession with Poland

I love PolandBeing Polish is fun. For some of us it’s too much fun and we’re obsessed. It’s not our fault; it’s just the way things are. Here are 25 signs you love Poland a little too much.

1. You constantly remind people that the word “pierogi” is already plural and should not be pronounced “pierogies.”

2. You have both a Polish flag car mirror ornament and a Polska bumper sticker.
And a Polish flag key chain.

3. You observe both Fat Tuesday and Fat Thursday by eating mounds of pączki because you know you’re Polish and are special that way.

4. You buy that carbonated water stuff cause it’s big in the Motherland.

5. When the other kids drink Juicy Juice, you pull out the Tymbark carton (grape is the best).

paczki-basket6. You use Amol to cure everything because it cures everything.

7. You subscribe to Crazy Polish Guy (why else would you?)

8. You have visited more places in Poland than you have in your home country.

9. You follow Poland’s team fanatically in the World Cup even when they lose, in which case you are distraught for days.

10. You bring unpronounceable Polish beers to parties and feel more sophisticated as a result.

11. Homemade kompot is your refreshment of choice during the summer.

12. You jam to RMF FM at work causing your boss to question your national loyalties.

13. You understand that the Polish Winged Hussars were the coolest fighting force the world has ever seen.

John III Sobieski14. You take every opportunity to defend Poland’s achievements and contributions to the world. Nicholas Copernicus anyone?

15. Your dream dinner consists of pierogi, łazanki, kiełbasa, gołąbki, kapusta and naleśniki. Don’t forget kołaczki for dessert.

16. You know how to pronounce all the aforementioned foods.

17. You make Poland and Polish topics a conversation starter whenever possible, especially when meeting new people.

18. You ask people if they’re Polish when they have a Polish-sounding last name then proceed to talk about how awesome Poland is.

19. You bring Prince Polo chocolate bars to work as your lunch dessert.

20. You’re always at least a little bit germaphobic because your family made you that way.Kielbasa

21. You can name at least three types of Polish vodka off the tip of your tongue.

22. You rave about the local Polish store without ever calling it by its actual name. It’s just the Polish store.

23. When you’re in a group of people you don’t know playing a “break the ice” game, you say you speak Polish.

24. You understand that “no” means yes (only true Poles will get this).

25. You think about Poland several times per day in multiple contexts.

Have any more? Share them in the comments!

One of the Earliest Airplanes Flew in Poland in 1648

Polish invention airplane
A drawing of Burattini’s “flying dragon.”

Every school kid knows that the Wright brothers built the first successful airplane in 1903 and invented modern aviation. That doesn’t mean they were the first to try. If you happened to be in Warsaw during February 1648 and looked up, you might have seen a cat flying a mechanical dragon.
Wait. What? Let’s back up a little.
At that time, there happened to be an Italian inventor living in Warsaw named Titus Livius Burattini (Latin names were common then). Burattini had been born in Agordo, Italy in 1617 but had come to Poland in his twenties. He spent some time in Krakow before moving to Warsaw in 1646.
Burattini was a scientist and inventor who always had his eyes on the skies. Upon first arriving to Warsaw, he spent his days constructing telescopes and making astronomical observations. He even crafted lenses that fitted the telescope of renowned Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius.
Among Burattini’s interests was the concept of flight. Man had dreamed of flying since ancient times. As early as 400 BC, the Greek scientist Archytas had constructed a primitive mechanical flying device. Of course, no one had yet demonstrated that it was possible to build a machine that could fly people. The Montgolfier brothers would not invent the hot air balloon until the 1780s, and the Wright brothers were more than 200 years away.

The “Flying Dragon”

In 1647, Burattini wrote a treatise entitled “Flight is Not Impossible as Previously Commonly Believed.” In it he presented various theories on how humans could fly, including one that he put into practice.
Burattini conceptualized an ornithopter, which is an airplane that flies by flapping its wings, much like a bird or insect. However, his ornithopter would be shaped like a dragon with several sets of wings: two main wings on each side, four on top and two toward the front (perhaps his inspiration came from Poland’s famous Wawel Dragon). The device would seat a crew of two people, who would alternate operating the wings through a system of levers and springs. The tail would act as a rudder.
This “flying dragon” would be made of wood and whalebone and covered in fabric. It would include a parachute attached to the hull to soften the landing should the wings fail. The hull was even supposed to double as a boat in case the device landed in water.
To demonstrate to Wladyslaw IV, King of Poland, that the project warranted official funding, Burattini built a simplified, roughly 5-foot-long model powered by a system of levers, wheels and springs. In February 1648, Burattini put a cat inside this miniature “flying dragon,” and set it off with the pull of a string. Sources imply that the first test flight occurred without incident, but the device crashed during the second flight (hopefully the cat had some of its nine lives to spare).
A few months after the crash, Burattini built another model, designed for easy disassembly, which he sent to France for study. After that, Burattini seemingly abandoned his dream of building a successful flying machine, or at least the sources are quiet on the matter.
Burattini’s “flying dragon” is a footnote in the history of flight (I couldn’t even find any English-language sources documenting the device). However, it speaks to the talent and ingenuity coming out of Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although he wasn’t Polish, Burattini’s experiments were made possible in Poland thanks to a culture of intellectualism and discovery.
Obviously, the “flying dragon” failed in the long run. But, for a brief moment in 1648, the skies of Warsaw were 300 years ahead of their time.


>> Inżynierowie Polsce w XIX I XX Wieku
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Warm those Wintertime Chills with this Polish Spiced Beer Recipe

Polish mulled beer recipe
Some of the ingredients needed to make grzaniec are nutmeg, ginger and, of course, quality Polish beer!

If you ask most Americans, the idea of warm beer is repugnant, perhaps even blasphemous to the beer gods. We do everything we can to keep our precious pilsners, porters and pale ales as cold and refreshing as possible because, let’s face it, no one wants a Bud Light that’s been out in the sun for too long (it’s questionable if anyone wants a Bud Light at all).

But Poles and Eastern Europeans have been drinking beer that is not only warm, but hot, for centuries, in the form of spiced, mulled beer. When I first heard this, I questioned the sanity of my Polish ancestors, but then decided that they’ve been at it longer than us Americans, so maybe they know what they’re talking about. In fact, this was a popular drink even among Polish noblemen in the 16th and 17th centuries.

So I set out to make this spiced beer, called grzaniec, for myself. I ended up discovering that it’s the perfect wintertime drink if you want to warm yourself up, especially if the temperatures are colder than a Russian Gulag, like they are this year.

This is the recipe I ended up using, but you’re free to take it or leave it. The internet is full of different variations.

The Recipe

You will need:
• A bottle of your favorite Polish lager. I personally like to use Tyskie or Perła.
• 2-3 tablespoons of water
• 1 teaspoon of whole cloves
• ½ teaspoon of ground ginger
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 1 pinch of nutmeg
• 3-5 tablespoons of honey

Polish spiced beer recipe
The grzaniec as it’s heating up in the saucepan.

1. Place the water in a saucepan, followed by all the ingredients, except for the beer.
2. Simmer the ingredients until the water has evaporated. Be sure to regularly stir the mixture.
3. Once the water has evaporated, gradually pour the beer into the saucepan.
4. Stir until the beer is hot, but not boiling.
5. Strain into a glass and enjoy!

Don’t wait for the grzaniec to cool off. Drinking it warm is the point! In fact, the root of the Polish word grzaniec is “grzać,” meaning “to heat.” The taste of all those spices coming together creates a type of refreshment in your mouth that even cold beer cannot. From someone who was skeptical at first, I can honestly say it’s worth a try.

If you like it, there’s another type of grzaniec that uses wine instead of beer as the key ingredient. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s next on my list!

Polish mulled beer recipe
And now, some nice, hot grzaniec to get rid of those winter chills.

The Pole Who Would Eat Anything

Charles Domery like set a Polish record for appetiteThe phrase “I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant” doesn’t seem all that over-the-top when you hear the strange story of Charles Domery (aka Charles Domerz), a Polish soldier serving in the Prussian army during the late 18th century.

Details about Domery’s early life are scant, but he was reportedly born in the village of Benche in Prussian-occupied Poland around 1778. One of nine brothers, he shared an unusual trait with all his siblings—an inhuman, insatiable hunger. We don’t know what happened with his brothers, but we do have a record of his disturbing tale.

The outside world first learned of Domery’s frightening appetite when he was thirteen years old serving in the Prussian Army (Prussia controlled part of Poland at that time and enlisted Poles into its military). At the time, Prussia was fighting France in the War of the First Coalition. Starving because of food shortages in the army, Domery defected and entered a French town searching for sustenance. He surrendered to the local French commander who offered him a giant melon to eat. Domery devoured it, rind and all, before enlisting in the French military, which wasn’t ready for its new recruit.

Eating anything that moves

Over the course of his service in France, Domery reportedly ate 174 stray cats in one year because the army rations were not enough for him (I’ll stick with pierogi). Sometimes, he was so hungry that he ate the animals live, leaving only skin and bones. Dogs and rats endured the same fate, according to one of Domery’s comrades. Shockingly, despite preferring to eat the meat raw, Domery did not get sick. On the contrary, his appearance was described as “six feet three inches high, thin [with] a pale complexion, gray eyes and long brown hair.”

catDisgusting as this was, it got worse. Once, when aboard a ship, food was scarce. It got so bad, Domery couldn’t even rely on catching an unlucky stray dog or cat for supper. During a battle, one of his comrade’s legs was shot off. Domery reportedly grabbed the dismembered leg and started munching on it before his shipmates wrested it away.

In 1799, Domery, then serving on the French frigate the Hoche, was captured and imprisoned by the British, who studied him and wrote an official medical account. While imprisoned, Domery fascinated his captors with his appetite and was eventually granted the rations of 10 men. This was not enough. He supplemented his diet by devouring the prison cat and at least 20 rats, in addition to several candles. Whenever a fellow prisoner refused to take his medicine, Domery graciously volunteered to take it for him, not for healing, but as food.

The Experiment

Stunned by what they observed, the British called in two doctors to run tests. At 4:00 a.m. on the morning of these tests, Domery was fed four pounds of raw cow udder, which he finished without issue. About five hours later, he was served five pounds of raw beef, 12 large candles and a bottle of porter. Again, he consumed all this without difficulty. Less than four hours later, he ate another five pounds of raw beef, one pound of candles and three large bottles of porter. No sweat.

The doctors reported that he was healthy throughout all the tests. While most other human beings would have probably been vomiting, Domery was reportedly in a good mood and went out for a smoke.

To this day, no one can explain Domery’s alien appetite. Although there is a medical condition called polyphagia in which sufferers have unusually large appetites, it is not known to be as severe as whatever Domery had. This has caused some experts to speculate whether he suffered from brain damage. Nobody knows what became of Domery after his imprisonment.

Strangely, despite his voracious appetite and ability to consume large quantities of raw and sometimes inedible or diseased objects, Domery hated vegetables.