From Queen Jadwiga to Marshal Piłsudski: Polish National Heroes

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National identity is perhaps more important in Poland than many other places in Europe due to the country’s long history of partition, invasion and occupation. The First and Second Partitions of Poland, in 1772 and 1793 respectively, saw Polish lands diminished, while the third and final partition saw the remaining territory divided up between the competing forces of the Germanic Prussian Empire, Austrian Habsburg Empire and the Russian Empire, and from 1795 Poland no longer existed as an independent nation. In the turmoil of the First World War the country regained its independence, but the German and Soviet invasions of 1939 led to a systematic persecution of the Poles and ended with Poland becoming a Soviet satellite state. Only after over forty years, and a decade of struggle by the Polish freedom movement, did the Communist era end and a new era dawn for Poland. The Poles are proof that peoples robbed of their nationhood often have an intense patriotic interest, and today Polish pride is often articulated through the honoring of their national heroes. Here are brief histories of the people who have shaped Poland and who are integral to its national identity today.

Polish Heroes: Queen Jadwiga
Queen Jadwiga – Image via Wikipedia

Queen Jadwiga

This fourteenth century monarch and saint of the Catholic Church will be familiar to visitors to Kraków’s Wawel Castle, where she once lived and is now buried. The daughter of a Hungarian king and Bosnian queen brought up in Hungary, there was little distinctively Polish about Jadwiga. However, from her coronation as Polish monarch at the age of just ten, she gained a reputation for nobility, generosity and piety, and became well-loved by the Polish people. Her death in childbirth in her mid-twenties only added to her air of holiness and legends about her began to spring up. The crucifix she prayed before in the Wawel Cathedral was said to have spoken to her (it hangs there to this day), and she was also said to have selflessly smuggled food to the poor, despite her husband’s disapproval. When caught red-handed by him one day, the food was said to have miraculously turned into roses. Her sarcophagus shows a beautiful Jadwiga lying peacefully with a dog (a symbol of faithfulness) at her feet. Her status as a Polish national hero was confirmed in 1997 when she was canonized by Pope John Paul II, and you will find her depicted in many Polish churches today.

Polish Heroes: Józef Piłsudski
Józef Piłsudski – Image via Wikipedia

Marshal Piłsudski

Statesman Józef Piłsudski’s greatest achievement, and what he is chiefly remembered for today, was becoming the leader of an independent Poland in 1918 after 123 years of partition, and he is seen as being largely responsible for re-establishing the Polish nation at this time. Born in 1867 to a Polish noble family with strong nationalist views in the face of increasing Russian influence, Piłsudski became involved in anti-Russian activity during his time as a medical student and was exiled to Siberia for five years. After this period of great hardship he returned to Poland, joining the Polish Socialist Party and  playing a key role in the underground nationalist resistance. In 1904 he formed a paramilitary unit to fight against the Russian authorities, and he later created the Polish Legions, who fought for Poland in the First World War to try to defeat Russia. Poland emerged from that conflict in a position where, on 11 November 1918, Piłsudski was able to proclaim the country an independent state. As Chief of State between 1918 and 1922, First Marshal from 1920, and leader of the Second Polish Republic from 1926 to 1935, Piłsudski is remembered and honored as the founder of modern Poland.

Polish Heroes: Marie Curie
Marie Curie – Image via Wikipedia

Marie Curie

Born Maria Skłodowska in Warsaw in 1867, Marie Curie was one of the greatest scientists in history. Brought up by ardently pro-Polish parents, she first studied the sciences at Warsaw’s Flying University – a secret organization continuing the traditions of Polish scholarship in defiance of the Russian authorities. Maria later studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she met her future husband, Pierre Curie. They worked together on researching radioactivity, jointly winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. The first woman to win the prize, eight years later she won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry too. Her greatest discovery was the identification of the radioactive elements radium and polonium, and when she discovered the latter in 1898 she chose to name it after her native Poland, at that time still partitioned. She hoped that this would draw attention to Poland’s continuing occupation, and it seems that the influence of Polish nationalism on her early life ran deep. Although claimed almost as much by the French as the Poles (both she and Pierre are interred in Paris’ Panthéon – the last resting place of French national heroes), she remains a very important figure for the Polish story.

Polish Heroes: Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II – Image via Wikipedia

Karol Wojtyła

The first Polish pope, who took the name John Paul II on his election, Karol Wojtyła had first-hand experience of the tragedies of recent Polish history. Born in the southern Polish town of Wadowice in 1920, he was studying at the Jagiellonian University when the Nazis invaded. Forced to work in a quarry and then a chemical factory to avoid deportation to Germany as slave labor, he studied to become a priest at a clandestine seminary in Kraków. Ordained in 1946, he later became Archbishop of Kraków and was elected Pope in 1978. With Poland under a totalitarian Communist regime, Wojtyła used his position to argue for the freedom of his native land and the other countries of the Soviet Bloc, and his visit to Poland in 1979 was a crucial event for the Polish freedom movement, as well as the country’s religious life. As a strongly Catholic country, Poland took this Polish Pope to their hearts and his wounding in an assassination attempt in 1981, and death from Parkinson’s disease in 2005, were both greeted with nation-wide grief. Today almost every town has an Aleja Jana Pawła (John Paul Avenue), weaving his memory into the very infrastructure of the country.

Polish Heroes: Lech Walesa
Lech Walesa – Image via Wikipedia

Lech Wałęsa

An electrician at Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyard, Lech Wałęsa was an unlikely leader, but in 1980 he co-founded Solidarity (Solidarność), the trade union that soon became a national movement for Polish freedom. From the late 1960′s, Wałęsa had been involved in trade union activity, illegal under the Communist regime of the time, and he was central to the negotiations that led to the Gdańsk Agreement of 1980, which gave the Lenin Shipyard workers the right to strike. Wałęsa quickly shot to international fame, and despite incarceration during the period of martial law in Poland in the early eighties, and the outlawing of Solidarity, he continued his activities and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. With the fall of the Communist regime, Wałęsa emerged as a candidate for the presidency of a democratic Poland, and he was elected as such in 1990. Still involved in politics, despite ill-health, he is considered by many to be the greatest living Pole.

One Response to “ From Queen Jadwiga to Marshal Piłsudski: Polish National Heroes ”

  1. Tuq says:

    Your post was very informative thank you for that

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