Nov. 11 has two mean­ings for Pol­ish peo­ple

Date marks end of First World War and the re­turn of an in­de­pen­dent Poland

The Hamilton Spectator - - Comment - AN­DREW DRESCHEL Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor An­drew Dreschel’s com­men­tary ap­pears Mon­day, Wed­nes­day and Fri­day. adreschel@thes­pec.com @An­drewDreschel 905-526-3495

On Wed­nes­day night, the big HAMIL­TON sign out­side city hall glowed white and red to hon­our the na­tional colours of Poland.

In­side, the Lu­dowa Nuta choir, wear­ing tas­selled hats and em­broi­dered head scarves, wal­loped out lively Pol­ish folk songs.

About 60 peo­ple joined in the singing of the Cana­dian and Pol­ish na­tional an­thems. Father Michael of St. Stanis­laus’ Church on Bar­ton Street East de­liv­ered a prayer. Chris Cut­ler, ad­viser to Mayor Fred Eisen­berger, con­veyed of­fi­cial greet­ings.

And then the speeches be­gan, ex­plain­ing why over the com­ing days mem­bers of Hamil­ton’s 41,000-strong Pol­ish com­mu­nity are tak­ing part in other such cel­e­bra­tory events (#sto­lat­pol­sko).

The fact is, for Poles around the world, this Sun­day isn’t only Re­mem­brance Day or the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War. Nov. 11 also marks the cen­ten­nial of Poland re­cov­er­ing its in­de­pen­dence as a na­tion state. The very day the guns fell silent on the Western Front, Poland de­clared its in­de­pen­dence from the Rus­sian, Ger­man and Aus­trian em­pires that had carved the coun­try up be­tween them in the late 18th cen­tury, wip­ing Poland off the map for 123 years. All three of those em­pires col­lapsed as a re­sult of the First World War, al­low­ing coun­tries like Poland, Lithua­nia, Es­to­nia and Latvia to ei­ther re-emerge or arise from the wreck­age.

When the Great War ended on Nov. 11, 1918, most peo­ple think the killing did too. But in re­al­ity fight­ing con­tin­ued in Eastern Europe for an­other two years, prin­ci­pally against the Rus­sian Bol­she­viks bent on assert­ing com­mu­nist dom­i­na­tion over the over­thrown Tsarist em­pire.

It was only af­ter Pol­ish forces threw back the in­vad­ing Red Army at the gates of War­saw in 1920 that Poland’s in­de­pen­dence was se­cured.

Why did Poland fail as a na­tion state for 123 years? Speak­ing broadly, the coun­try hadn’t de­vel­oped a strong cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ment and mod­ern mil­i­tary like its au­to­cratic neigh­bours.

Rather than sub­mit to the dy­nas­tic ab­so­lutism that held sway in most of Europe, the pre­dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal class in Poland, a fiercely in­de­pen­dent landed gen­try, re­fused to re­lin­quish the rights and lib­er­ties it en­joyed un­der an elected monar­chy and as­sem­bly sys­tem in which leg­is­la­tion could be ground to a halt by a sin­gle dis­sent­ing vote. At­tempted re­forms came too late to pro­tect Poland from its preda­tory foes.

He­lena Gl­o­gowski, pres­i­dent of the Hamil­ton district of the Cana­di­anPol­ish Congress, says cel­e­brat­ing the cen­ten­nial of Poland’s re­cov­ered sovereignty is a “very emo­tional” mo­ment for a peo­ple who have strug­gled so long to re­tain their cul­ture against such pow­er­ful forces.

That emo­tion is also rooted in pride, says congress vice-pres­i­dent Yolanda Czyzewski-Bragues. “Poles are very sen­ti­men­tal when it comes to our his­tory be­cause Poland has suf­fered a lot, but keeps bounc­ing back.”

Bounc­ing back is right. It’s not for noth­ing his­to­rian Nor­man Davies dubbed Poland “God’s Play­ground.”

It’s one of the cruel ironies of his­tory that though Poland re­gained its in­de­pen­dence and na­tional sta­tus in the eyes of the world in 1918, it en­joyed its lib­erty for barely 20 years. In 1939 Nazi Ger­many in­vaded and con­quered Poland, trig­ger­ing the Sec­ond World War. Un­der a se­cret pact with Hitler, Stal­in­ist Rus­sia in­vaded at the same time and the coun­try was once again par­ti­tioned be­tween to­tal­i­tar­ian states.

Af­ter the de­feat of Nazism, the Iron Cur­tain fell across Eastern Europe, mak­ing Poland an un­will­ing vas­sal state of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union be­gan to im­plode in the late 1980s, the restive Poles who had drawn moral strength from Pol­ish Pope John Paul II and the Sol­i­dar­ity trade union, boldly elected a nonCom­mu­nist gov­ern­ment. Free­dom was once again re­born.

The ob­jec­tive now is never to for­get. Ac­cord­ing to Ur­sula Madej, host and pro­ducer of Hamil­ton-based Ra­dio BIS, the cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tions are es­pe­cially im­por­tant be­cause too many young Pol­ish-Cana­di­ans are un­aware of Poland’s tragic twists and turns.

“They have to know their story,” she says. “They have to know their roots.”

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