11 Symbols of Poland
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There are places, people and artefacts that symbolise Poland better than anything else. Here's our subjective list of Polish symbols.
The Battle of Grunwald
One of the largest battles of Mediaeval Europe took place on 15th July 1410 – a date known to every Polish schoolchild. On this day, a joint army made up of 20,000 Poles, 10,000 Lithuanians and Ruthenians, and about 1,000 Tatars, all under the command of King Władisław Jagiełło defeated 21,000 cavalry and 5,000 infantrymen called up by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen. The Polish-Lithuanian victory paved the way for the rise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose influence in the following centuries spread from the Baltic to the Black sea. The battle is the subject of a large scale painting by Jan Matejko.
Listen to an episode of our podcast Stories From The Eastern West about how the Nazi Germans tried to destroy Matejko's famous painting during WWII:
One of the greatest composers in history and one of the most famous pianists of his time, Frédéric Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola in 1810. In 1830, Chopin left Poland for Paris, where he spent most of his adult life. Although he never returned to Poland, in his work he constantly drew inspiration from Polish memories: using stylistic patterns found in traditional Polish music (the mazurkas and polonaises) and alluding to events from Polish history – the most famous of them being the Revolutionary Etude, composed upon news of the collapse of the November Uprising in 1831.
National uprisings: the struggle for independence
After the three partitions of Poland erased the country from the map of Europe at the end of 18th century, Poland experienced a long period (123 years) during which it was governed by foreign powers (Prussia, Russia and Austria). This period, marked by oppression of Polish political and cultural life, resulted in a series of national uprisings against the occupants: the Kościuszko Insurrection (1794) was followed by the November Uprising of 1831 and the January Uprising in 1864. Poland eventually regained independence in 1918.
Warsaw destroyed & rebuilt
During World War II, Warsaw became the scene of two heroic liberation efforts: the Ghetto Uprising in April-May 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising in August-September 1944. Both efforts were brutally crushed by the Nazis, leaving Warsaw utterly destroyed.
The city was then rebuilt in an unprecedented reconstruction effort by the whole nation, which took many decades, but which eventually resulted in such incredible feats as the meticulous reconstruction of Warsaw's Old Town (now on UNESCO's national heritage list).
White & red flag
The first national ensign featuring Poland's national colours – a white eagle on a crimson background – was introduced in the 13th century, following the coronation of King Przemysł II. Interestingly, in those days the crimson dye in Europe was produced using the dried larvae of the scale insect known as the Polish cochineal (Porphyrophora polonica). Red and white were officially adopted as the colours of the national cockade by the Sejm in 1831, during the November Uprising. The Day of the Flag is celebrated in Poland on 2nd May.
Ryszard Kapuściński = Polish reportage
As a reporter, Kapuściński witnessed 27 revolutions and was at the fronts of 12 wars, he was also sentenced to death by firing squad at least four times. His endless curiosity and stamina in establishing the truth resulted in books like The Emperor or The Shah of Shahs, which for many decades helped to explain the political conflicts of the 20th century. But Kapuściński is also part of a wider literary tradition often referred to as the Polish School of Reportage, a typically and exclusively Polish kind of non-fiction, which continues today.
Symbols of Poland
Within the last 35 years, Poland has had two Nobel Prize winners in literature – and both of them poets: Czesław Miłosz (1980) and Wisława Szymborska (1996). Poland has a strong tradition of poetry , which in this country has been considered a powerful tool of national resistance and redemption, with poets like Mickiewicz and Słowacki taking the role of prophets.
The Miracle on the Vistula
The battle fought in August 1920 on the outskirts of Polish capital is often referred to as one of the most important battles in world history. It shattered Lenin's plans to spread Bolshevic Revolution into the Western Europe and helped to maintain Poland's sovereignity in the inter-war period.
Bigos & other Polish dishes
Most foreigners associate Polish cuisine with żurek (sour barley soup with egg and kiełbasa), pierogi (dumplings), gołąbki (stuffed cabbage rolls), and of course bigos. Bigos stew is a one-pot, stick-to-your-ribs dish made of pickled cabbage, sausage, and bits of pork stewed with mushrooms, onions, dried prunes and spices. It tastes best after slowly cooking for three days.
Created on 17th September 1980, the Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity” was the result of a series of strikes and crises which shook the country that year. Very soon, Solidarność, which at its peak counted 10 million people among its members, became a serious threat to the regime. The “Carnival of Freedom” ended 15 months later when the Polish authorities, under pressure from the Kremlin, introduced Martial Law. All independent organizations were made illegal and their leaders interned, among them Lech Wałęsa.
But the social resistance triggered by Solidarity could not have been suppressed. In 1989, when the negotiations between the authorities and opposition began, the activists of Solidarność – which all this time has been operating underground – played an important role. That same year on June 4 the Solidarity-backed candidates emerged victorious in the first partially free parliamentary elections. Next year Wałęsa was elected president of the Republic of Poland.
Białowieża's unspoiled nature
Poland has an extremely diverse landscape – and the usual definition 'Mountains in the south, sea in the north' just doesn't cover the beauty and complexity of Polish geography. Poland has 14 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, defined as exceptionally precious natural areas that represent exemplary harmony between man and nature. One of them is Białowieża National Park, considered the last primeval forest in Europe, and home to the world's largest population of European bison (Polish: żubr).
Other UNESCO reserves include areas in Karkonosze and the Tatra Mountains, Łukajno Lake (home to the largest population of mute swans in Europe), Słowiński National Park (famous for its shifting sand dunes) and the West Polesie Reserve – a land of peat bogs, quagmires, and karst lakes.
The article incorporates material from the book Symbols of Poland
published in 2015 (Bookmark SA), which includes 120 symbolic people, places and things.