50 Things I Miss About Poland

kiosk
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

…castles

…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

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.

Orłowski_Husaria's_attack
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.

10 Polish Fun Facts You May Not Have Known

Each country has fun little tidbits of information that set it apart from others. Poland is no exception, except it’s often not the first country that comes to people’s minds.

warsaw radio tower
The Warsaw Radio Tower

Here are 10 fun facts about Poland you may not have known about–no particular order. If even one or two of them surprise you, I’ll consider my mission accomplished.

1. At 2,120.7 ft tall, the Warsaw Radio Tower was the second-tallest man-made structure ever built.

2. Not counting Russia, Poland is Europe’s 8th largest country in both population and land area.

3. At its peak in the early 17th century, Poland, along with its partner Lithuania, controlled 450,000 square miles. That’s roughly 3.7 times its current size.

Castle Malbork
Malbork Castle

4. Many consider the Polish constitution of 1791 to be the world’s second oldest—after the United States.

5. Malbork Castle in Poland is the largest castle in the world by surface area.

6. The Polish flag is the exact opposite of the Indonesian flag.

7. Poland is one of the world’s most Catholic countries—92.2% of Poles follow the religion, according to a Pew Research poll.

8. There are an estimated 60 million Polish people in the world. More than one third of them live outside Poland.

polish-indonesia flag
Polish flag (left), Indonesian flag (right)

9. Mount Rysy is the highest point in Poland, standing at 8,199 feet.

10. Poland’s Białowieża Forest is one of Europe’s last primeval forests and the last remaining home of European bison.

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.

Auschwitz-lores
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.

220px-Franciszek_Gajowniczek_(Auschwitz_5659)
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

Pokemon GO Hits Poland: Why Poles Should be Careful

pokepoland

Pokemon has hit Poland. While the viral mobile phenomenon known as Pokemon GO made its global premier on July 6, it didn’t become available in Poland until July 16. Since then, it has spawned the same level of obsession and hysteria among Polish people as it has in people the world over. It’s even leaving social media sites like Twitter and Instagram in the dust in terms of number of users.

For those not familiar, Pokemon GO is a free mobile game that uses GPS technology to create a virtual world where players can hunt and capture fictional monsters called Pokemon. For example, if you are walking down the street and you turn the game on, it will show a virtual version of that street with Pokemon walking around. There are also certain hotspots, known as “gyms“ and “PokeStops” around the world where people congregate.

The game, released by Nintendo, is based on the Pokemon games and TV shows that reached global popularity in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Those who were childhood fans back then are now adults, many of whom are downloading and playing Pokemon GO for nostalgic reasons. Within four days of its release, Nintendo made $14 million and its stock prices soared.

Now, the same Pokemon GO craze is infecting Poland where sometimes groups of 20 people or more are seen traveling through parks and in town centers searching for the digital monsters. One Polish marketer observes that these are typically males with smart phones who have an interest in the latest gadgets and technology.

man with smartphoneThose are the facts of the game, and people’s reactions to it range from total fascination to absolute horror.

On one hand, the game is positive in that it encourages movement. If you don’t physically walk around, you won’t find Pokemon and won’t be able to progress in the game. In the U.S. where there’s an obesity crisis, experts have been searching for ways to get people off the couch for years. Now, Pokemon GO has done it in days. I’ve personally seen more people than ever frequenting parks, trails, forests and other areas where they think they’ll find Pokemon.

But for me, the negatives might just outweigh the positives. While people are, in fact, out and about more, they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. For example, there’s been an increase in people visiting cemeteries, not to pay their respects to loved ones, but to capture so-called ghost-type Pokemon. In Poland, there have been reports of people visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial to capture Pokemon. This is sick and wrong, and I applaud the people who run the Auschwitz memorial for their recent ban of Pokemon GO on the premises.

Furthermore, even though Pokemon GO players are technically being more active outside, they’re still staring at a screen. The problem here, aside from people’s eyes not getting a break from that artificial lighting, is that players are all too often totally oblivious to their surroundings. Since Pokemon can appear anywhere, people have been caught trespassing onto others property, walking through oncoming traffic and even DRIVING while playing the game.

There are further reports of people driving into trees, falling into ditches and off cliffs and getting mugged all because they are watching their phone screen for Pokemon and not paying attention to their surroundings. Don’t believe me? Check out some of these stories. So far, I haven’t heard of any serious accidents in Poland, but it’s only a matter of time if this hysteria keeps spreading.

I’m not trying to be  negative here, but it’s this Crazy Polish Guy’s opinion that anything can be fun and positive as long as it’s played responsibly–unfortunately we have a lot of totally irresponsible Pokemon GO players out there. Poland is coming into the craze comparatively late, I hope and pray that they learn from the mistakes made by people in the rest of the world.