Why Do I Love Poland? Let Me Count the Ways

I often get asked about my passion for my Polish heritage and what sustains it. Usually, I just respond with some generic statement such as “Oh, I have family there.” But, honestly, I also have family in Arizona, and you don’t see me writing a blog about cactuses.

The truth is, I don’t often think about why I love Poland so much; I just do. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, however, I’ve decided to get to the bottom of this.

Why do I love you, Poland? Let me count the ways…



For me and many other people of Polish descent, Poland provides a sense of identity and belonging. Deep down, everybody wants to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s why, I believe, some people follow a sports team so religiously, while others maintain close ties with their college fraternity or sorority.

As someone of Polish descent, I share a close bond with others like me. We understand each other and our ways. Whenever I attend the Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago, I am happily swallowed up by that sea of red and white; people from all over, and from all walks of life, come together and are joined in their common Polish identity. It’s beautiful. I don’t really follow sports, but I get that same feeling of excitement and unity whenever I’m around other Poles.


Breaking Opłatek during Wigilia

In many ways, the modern world has instilled in us a common material culture which often shuns the past  and  instead encourages constant advancement toward our own personal enrichment. It’s all about “living for today” (YOLO). The result is that we lose our roots. Many young Poles I’ve met actively forget, ignore or even mock their ancestors’ traditions.

It’s the opposite for me. I embrace Polish traditions, such as Wigilia, Zaduszki, Święconka, etc. They keep me grounded and connected to something much older and bigger than myself. To me, modernity is often cold and devoid of any deeper meaning or emotion. Honoring tradition is not simply liking old stuff,  but rather respecting the immemorial wisdom and solidity that the past can offer us in this crazy world.


town-Wytrzyszczka castle
Castle in Nowy Sącz

Polish history fascinates me because it’s so much older and deeper than U.S. history. After all, there are many churches and castles in Poland two or three times older than my country. To be sure, I’m a history buff at heart and enjoy all history, but having physically visited and touched some of Poland’s most historical places, like Wawel Hill, makes it so much more real for me. Going back to identity, I feel like I am a part of that history, that my roots go back centuries and are evident in the towering Saint Mary Basilica in Krakow or the mysterious ruins at Ogrodzieniec. U.S. history is my history only because I live here. Polish history is my origin.


polish cows
Yes, this literally happened. Proves Poland still has some country charm.

Before I go further, let me be clear that Poland is NOT the potato growing, babushka-wearing backwater that many foreigners might envision it to be. It is a first world country with modern infrastructure and technology.

At the same time, when you get away from the big cities like Warsaw and Krakow and into small hamlets like Lipnica Murowana in southern Poland, the atmosphere and tempo becomes very different.

In some Polish hamlets, time does in fact seem to have paused—it’s history and tradition thriving in the modern age. I remember having to stop our car while driving down a rural road to let a farmer and his cows pass by. I also remember taking a walk down a bucolic dirt path with nothing but the sound of wind rustling through the grass and the sight of pure, hilly  farmland for miles. True, maybe you’ll see scenes like this in certain rural parts of other countries, but I saw them in Poland, which is what made the difference for me.


familyMost important of all, I’ve always felt a sense of belonging to Poland because I have so many family members there. None of the other points would matter as much if it wasn’t for this personal connection. I’m also part Italian, and I’m sure, if I visited Italy, I would get plenty of identity, tradition, history and simplicity. But, to my knowledge, I have no family in Italy so it would be a temporary crush instead of a long-term love.

My late grandmother was always the reason I visited Poland as a child and, along with my mom, played the most important role in building my love of that country. Aside from that, the hospitality I experienced in Poland always made an impression. Neighbors would visit at a moment’s notice and sometimes even walk in without knocking. Everyone would always bring each other gifts, even if it was a bouquet of flowers.The warmth and love I felt there, and continue to feel there, is amazing and serves as the cornerstone of my love for Poland.

Of course, I still kept things somewhat general on this list  ( You can check out 50 specific things I always miss when I leave Poland here). Unlike an article that might list out individual Polish things I like, I hoped to reach a deeper level here. Why do you love Poland?

Want to know more about my Polish story?

The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 1: The Pierogi Rises

The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 2: Kittens and Pigeons and Dragons, Oh My!

The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 3: Journey to the Past

The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 4: The End of an Era



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.

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 Beginnings and Baptism of Poland

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

Mieszko 1
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.