Nov. 11 has two meanings for Polish people
Date marks end of First World War and the return of an independent Poland
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.”