Today Americans celebrate Veterans Day. We remember and pay respect to those who dedicate their lives to protect our freedoms. In other countries, such as the UK and France, will hold Armistice Day celebrations. Armistice Day celebrates the end of World War I (and our Veterans Day has the same roots) remembering those who participated in the Great War and paid the ultimate price. Poland also has a celebration today. A major celebration. November 11th is Independence Day.
Polish Independence Day also gets its start from World War I. While Poles remember their countrymen who died during the Great War, the end of the War was a time of great celebration because, after over 120 years of not existing on the map, the end of the war brought back the Polish state. Poland, once previously a great European power, had been divided up between Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. Poles relished the rebirth of their country and celebrated with relish. Of course, they only had a few years to celebrate before Hitler invaded and Poland disappeared again. After the war, Poland became part of the USSR and the November 11th Independence Day was replaced with a day marking the beginning of Communist rule. Independence Day returned when the Third Polish Republic was founded in 1989 and have continued ever since.
Today, Poles celebrate with a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, parades and the Independence Run – a massive race throughout Warsaw. The city of Poznan also celebrates the Feast of Saint Martin, the towns patron saint. This involves a parade where a man dressed as a Roman soldier who receives the key to the city. The Roman soldier represents St. Martin who was a soldier before becoming a Christian (the early church refused to allow soldiers as members) and eventually being chosen as the bishop of Tours. Also popular in Poznan is a croissant-like pastry representing the horseshoe that features in one of St. Martin’s legends.
In Warsaw, though, Independence Day often does not end happily. As the the afternoon turns into the evening, the last several years have seen more and more demonstrations from extreme right-wing groups. Poles are extremely proud of their Polish-ness and, in recent years, these groups have gone out of their way to press their ideas. These groups have had clashes with police or each other that have grown in their intensity over the last few years. Last year there were 41 criminal cases from these clashes and many people were sent to the hospital. Muslim immigrants have been spat on or attacked and last year and this year, IBM told its Polish employees that those who felt safer working from home should do so. The acceptance of Syrian refugees is not a popular topic in Poland and these feelings could serve to fan the flames. The American Embassy even put out a notice to Americans of places and times that should be avoided to keep away from the trouble. Warsaw is where all international adoptions are finalized in Poland so please keep the families there in your thoughts as much as the minorities who have come to approach what should be a day of freedom with trepidation.