What Makes Polish
PolAm musings during Polish-American Heritage Month
By Robert Strybel
Polish / Polonian Affairs Writer
An anecdote from the time when there was still no Poland back on the map said the Nobel Prize Committee had announced an essay contest on he subject of the elephant. The eroticized French submitted a piece titled “The elephant and its loves”. the mega-scholarly Germans – “The elephant and its relationship to the key historiosophical problems of the natural sciences” and the ultra-practical Americans – “The Elephant and how to make it Bigger and Better.”
The Polish essay was entitled: “Słoń a sprawa polska” (The elephant and the Polish question). Such Polonocentrism was understandable when Poland was under triple foreign occupation prior to 1918. But in less precarious times? We’ll get to that further down. In the meantime let’s focus on a few Polish virtues:
COURAGE, BRAVERY, HEROISM: The bravery of Polish fighting men actually altered the course of European history. In 1241, the armies of Prince Henryk Pobożny stopped the Mongol invasion of Western Europe, and in 1683, King Jan Sobieski’s forces routed the invading Turks. In 1920, Poland rolled back the Bolshevik hordes attempting to spread the communist revolution across Europe. Tadeusz Kościuszko, Kazimierz Pułaski and many others personified the Polish motto: “For your freedom and ours.” More recently, Poland’s peaceful Solidarity revolution of the 1980s led to the collapse of communist rule across Europe and of th USSR itself.
PATRIOTISM PLUS TOLERANCE: Polish patriotism has usually lacked the chauvinistic intolerance often associated with that term. Poland did not engage in the religious wars that gripped Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and heretics were not burned at the stake, In fact, Poland became a haven for Jews and religious dissidents (Protestants) fleeing persecution in the West. The only denomination ever expelled from Poland were the Aryans, not for religious reasons but because they had disloyally sided with the invading Swedes. Nevertheless, most Poles are fiercely proud of their country and heritage, largely within the familiar traditional context of “God, country and family.”
HOSPITALITY DEIFIED: The Polish proverb “Czym chata bogata tym rada” (Our home is happy to share all it possesses) is roughly comparable to the Italians’ “Casa mia…casa tua” and the Hispanic “Mi casa tu casa” (My home is your home). But Poles are probably the only nation on earth to have actually deified their proverbial gościnność with the saying: “Gość w dom, Bóg w dom” (When a guest enters the home, God enters the home). US-born PolAms visitng Poland for the first time are often overwhelmed by the lavish, can’t-do-enough-for-you hospitality of their Polish relatives. The visitors are feted with more food and drink than anyone could possibly consume, and the householders may well offer their bed to their PolAm cousins while sleeping on air-mattresses themselves.
PEASANT ROOTS AND PARTITIONS: Poland’s pre-partition society comprised about 10% szlachta (gentry) and an overwhelming majority of peasant farmers. What was lacking was an indigenous Polish burgher (town-dwelling middle) class. Germans and Jews accounted for the bulk of the artisans, merchants and entrepreneurs of most Polish cities. In the late 1700s Poland, when got wiped off the map for the next 123 years by its three aggressive neighbors, that lopsided structure was freeze-framed for more than a century. The industrial revolution did occur on Polish soil, but it was governed by foreign invaders who also imposed their culture on the hapless Poles. It should be remembered that it was largely Europe’s middle class that designed castles and cathedrals, built industry, created great art and composed symphonies. As a result of foreign occupation, Poland was largely forced to sit out the economically and culturally vibrant 19th century.
NOT ONLY VIRTUES: Even Poles’ worst enemies have never accused them of lacking courage or hospitality but, like all other nations they also have their faults. Poles and PolAms alike are often exasperated by Polish “straw enthusiasm” (“słomiany zapał”). Poles are known to get all fired up about some idea or plan which bursts into flame like a straw fire, only to soon die out for lack of follow-through. Another Polish vice is disinterested envy (“bezinteresowna zawiść”). Resenting rather than rejoicing at a compatriot’s good fortune. But even worse is the divisiveness and discord (“niezgoda”). that has plagued Poles for generations. And, true to form, Poland is now probably Europe most politically polarized nation, divided into a majority that backs the present conservative government and a minority that vehemently opposes it. The only recent comparison that comes to mind is America’s antagonistic pro- and anti-Trump camps.
Have your own personal experiences reflected any of the above situations? Maybe it’s something worth discussing with family and friends.