Fascinating history of Poland

Poland is a country in Central Europe with a rich and eventful history, colourful heritage reflected in the variety of monuments from different periods and very varied landscape, extending from the long Baltic Sea coastline in the north to the Tatra Mountains in the south. In between you will find lush primeval forests featuring fascinating species of animals including bisons in Białowieża; beautiful lakes and rivers ideally suitable for various watersports, the best known of which are in Warmińsko-Mazurskie; rolling hills; flat plains; and even deserts. Among Poland's cities you can find the perfectly preserved Gothic old town of Toruń, Hanseatic heritage in Gdańsk and evidence of the 19th-century industrial boom in Łódź.

While today Poland has a very homogenous society in terms of ethnicity, language and religion, over the centuries (when the erstwhile Republics of Poland encompassed a much different territory than today) it had been a very multi-cultural and ethnically varied country, for a period known as Europe's most religiously tolerant. In particular, Poland held Europe's largest Jewish population, which has been all but wiped out by the events of World War II, yet the immense heritage remains. Poland's western regions, including large parts of Lower Silesia, Lubuskie and Zachodniopomorskie, as well as other regions, have been parts of neighbouring Germany at different periods of time. The natural border of mountain ridges separating Poland from its southern neighbours Czech Republic and Slovakia did not stop the cultural influence (and periodic warring). Towards the east, today's Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine have centuries ago formed a continuum within a single political entity, and the cultural evidence of it can be found closer to the present-day borders. Lastly, while Poland now only shares only a small strip of border with Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast in the former's northeastern corner, the entire eastern half of Poland used to be controlled by the Russian Empire, leaving behind many traces in both culture and built heritage.

Despite losing a third of its population, including a disproportionally large part of its elites, in World War II, and suffering many economic setbacks as a Soviet satellite state afterwards, Poland in many ways flourished culturally in the 20th century. Paving the way for its fellow Soviet-block states, Poland had a painful transition to democracy and capitalism in the 1980s. In the new millennium, Poland joined the European Union and has enjoyed continuous economic growth unlike any other EU country. This has allowed it to markedly improve its infrastructure and had a profound effect on its society, who again became quite cosmopolitan but remained as hospitable as it has traditionally been. Creative and enterprising, Poles continually come up with various ideas for events and festivals, and new buildings and institutions spring up almost before your eyes, so that every time you come back, you are bound to discover something new.


Early history

The first cities in today's Poland, Kalisz and Elbląg on the Amber Trail to the Baltic Sea, were mentioned by Roman writers in the first century AD, but the first Polish settlement in Biskupin dates even further back to the 7th century BC.

Poland was united as a country in the first half of the 10th century, and adopted Catholicism as the state religion in 966 AD. The first capital was the city of Gniezno, but a century later the capital was moved to Kraków, where it remained for half a millennium.
Poland experienced its golden age from 14th to 16th century, under the reign of king Casimir the Great, and the Jagiellonian dynasty, whose rule extended from the Baltic to the Black and Adriatic seas. In the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest country in Europe; the country attracted many immigrants, including Germans, Jews, Armenians and Dutch, because of the freedom of confession guaranteed by the state and the atmosphere of religious tolerance, which was exceptional in Europe at the time of the Holy Inquisition.

Under the rule of the Vasa dynasty, the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596. During the 17th and the 18th centuries, the nobility increasingly asserted its independence from the monarchy; combined with several exhausting wars, this greatly weakened the Commonwealth. Responding to the need for reform, Poland was the first country in Europe (and the second in the world, after the US) to pass a constitution. The constitution of May 3, 1791 was the key reform among many progressive but belated attempts to strengthen the country during the second half of the 18th century.

Partitions and regaining independence

With the country in political disarray, various sections of Poland were occupied by its neighbors — Russia, Prussia and Austria — in three coordinated "partitions" of 1772 and 1793, and 1795. After the last partition and a failed uprising, Poland ceased to exist as a country for 123 years.

However, this long period of foreign domination was met with fierce resistance. During the Napoleonic Wars, a semi-autonomous Duchy of Warsaw arose, before being erased from the map again in 1813. Further uprisings ensued, such as the 29 November uprising of 1830-1831 (mainly in Russian Poland), the 1848 Revolution (mostly in Austrian and Prussian Poland), and 22 January 1863. Throughout the occupation, Poles retained their sense of national identity, and kept fighting the subjugation of the three occupying powers.

Poland returned to the map of Europe with the end of World War I, regaining its independence on November 11, 1918. In 1920-21, the newly-reborn country got into territorial disputes with Czechoslovakia and, especially, the antagonistic and newly Soviet Russia with which it fought a war. This was further complicated by a hostile Weimar Germany to the west, which strongly resented the annexation of portions of its eastern Prussian territories, and the detachment of German-speaking Danzig (contemporary Gdańsk) as a free city.

World War II

World War II in Europe began with a coordinated attack on Poland's borders by the Soviet Union from the east and Nazi Germany from the west and north. Only a few days prior to the start of the war, the Soviet Union and Germany had signed a secret pact of non-aggression, which called for the re-division of the central and eastern European nations. Germany attacked Poland on 1 September 1939 and the Soviet Union attacked Poland on 17 September 1939, effectively starting the fourth partition. These harmonised invasions caused the re-established Polish Republic to cease to exist. Hitler used the issue of Danzig (Gdańsk) as a pretext to invade Poland, much as he used the "Sudetenland Question" to conquer Czechoslovakia.

Many of World War II's most infamous war crimes were committed by the Nazis and Soviets on Polish territory, with the former committing the vast majority of them. Polish civilians opposed to either side's rule were ruthlessly rounded up, tortured, and executed. Nazi Germany established concentration and extermination camps on Polish soil, where many millions of Europeans — including about 90% of Poland's long-standing Jewish population and thousands of local Romanies (Gypsies) — were murdered; of these Auschwitz is the most infamous. The Nazis murdered about three million Polish Jews and about the same number of Polish non-Jews — not only people who actively opposed the Nazi occupation, but also people randomly rounded up and shot, gassed, or taken prisoner for slave labour under intentionally life-threatening conditions in concentration camps. Part of the Nazis' strategy was to attempt to annihilate all Polish intelligentsia and potential future leadership, the better to absorb Poland into Germany, so thousands of Polish Catholic priests and intellectuals were summarily murdered. For their part, the Soviets rounded up and executed the cream of the crop of Polish leadership in the part of Poland they occupied in the Katyń Massacre of 1940. About 22,000 Polish military and political leaders, business owners, and intelligentsia were murdered in the massacre, approved by the Soviet Politburo, including by Stalin and Beria.

Because of World War II, Poland lost about 20% of its population, the Polish economy was completely ruined, and nearly all major cities were destroyed. After the war Poland was forced to become a Soviet satellite country, following the Yalta and Potsdam agreements between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. To this day these events are viewed by many Poles as an act of betrayal by the Allies. Poland's territory was significantly reduced and shifted westward to the Oder-Neisse Line at the expense of defeated Germany. The native Polish populations from the former Polish territories in the east, now annexed by the Soviet Union, were expelled by force and replaced the likewise expelled German populations in the west and in the north of the country. This resulted in the forced uprooting of over 10 million people and delayed Polish-German reconciliation. See Cold War Europe for context.

Communism (People's Republic of Poland)

After World War II, Poland was forced to become a socialist republic. Between 1945 and 1953, pro-Stalinist leaders conducted periodic purges. In particular, members of the Polish Home Army and other partisan organizations that had opposed both Soviet and German domination of Poland were executed in large numbers. There were also pogroms after the war; the most notorious was the 1946 Kielce pogrom, which was allegedly incited by Joseph Stalin's NKVD secret police, though based on the traditional Christian blood libel against Jews and with very weak condemnation, at best, from Polish cardinals. The result of the pogroms and subsequent antisemitic policies of the communist government was that most Jewish survivors of Nazi persecution emigrated, effectively ending centuries of strong Jewish presence in the cultural and ethnic fabric of Poland.
After the bloody Stalinist era of 1945-1953, Poland was comparatively tolerant and progressive in comparison to other Eastern Bloc countries. But strong economic growth in the post-war period alternated with serious recessions in 1956, 1970, and 1976 which resulted in labour turmoil over dramatic inflation and shortages of goods. Ask older Poles to tell you about the impoverished Poland of the Communist era and you'll often hear stories of empty store shelves where sometimes the only thing available for purchase was vinegar. You'll hear stories about back room deals to get meat or bread, such as people trading things at the post office just to get ham for a special dinner.

A brief reprieve from this history occurred in 1978. The then-archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, was elected as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, taking the name John Paul II. This had a profound impact on Poland's largely Catholic population, and to this day John Paul II is widely revered in the country.

In 1980, the anti-communist trade union, "Solidarity" (Polish:Solidarność), became the major driving force in a strong opposition movement, organizing labor strikes, and demanding freedom of the press and democratic representation. The communist government responded by imposing martial law from 1981 to 1983. During this period, the country again suffered from widespread poverty, thousands of people were detained, phone calls were monitored by the government, independent organizations not aligned with the Communists were deemed illegal and members were arrested, access to roads was restricted, the borders were sealed, ordinary industries were placed under military management, and workers who failed to follow orders faced the threat of a military court.

Solidarity was the most famous of various organizations which were criminalized, and its members faced the possibility of losing their jobs and imprisonment. However, the heavy-handed repression and resulting economic disaster greatly weakened the role of the Communist Party. Solidarity was eventually legalized again, and shortly thereafter led the country to its first free elections in 1989, in which the communist government was finally removed from power. This inspired a succession of peaceful anti-communist revolutions throughout the Warsaw Pact bloc.

Contemporary Poland (Third Republic of Poland)
Nowadays, Poland is a democratic country with a stable and robust economy. It has been a member of NATO since 1999 and the European Union since 2004. The country's stability has been recently underscored by the fact that the tragic deaths of the President and a large number of political, business and civic leaders in a plane crash did not have an appreciable negative effect on the Polish currency or economic prospects. Poland has also joined the borderless Europe agreement (Schengen), with an open border to Germany, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and is on track to adopt the Euro currency in a few years time. Poland's dream of rejoining Europe as an independent nation at peace and in mutual respect with its neighbors has finally been achieved.


A number of holidays, listed below, have been designated as public by law, including many (Catholic) religious holidays and several important anniversaries. On those days, most service and retail outlets, other companies, museums, galleries, other attractions and public administration units, are required to close entirely. Do plan ahead if you need to do your shopping, use a service or have some official business to be done.

These closures do notinclude places to eat, gas stations and pharmacies. Small shops sometimes exploit a legal loophole that allows businesses run by owners themselves to remain open - this applies almost all Żabka neighbourhood convenience stores. Having said that, many may have shortened opening hours or be closed entirely, as there is no legal requirement for them to stay open. In larger cities, your options might be limited, but you should have all the usual options to eat and drink, do basic shopping et al. In smaller towns and villages, the local gas station can be your only resort.
Most means of public transport will run according to their Sunday schedule on public holidays, usually meaning less frequent operations. Some connections, e.g. peak bus lines, do not operate on such days entirely ("Sunday service").

If a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, many Poles take a day off on the Monday preceding or Friday following to have a "long weekend". Acknowledging this, many companies and public administration units will remain closed on those days as well. Roads and trains may become excessively congested on the days long weekends start or end, so beware. In tourist destinations, prices may rise and accommodation may be booked out long in advance. On the other hand, large cities often become relatively deserted, which has its advantages and disadvantages for tourists visiting them.

Catholic religious holidays are widely celebrated in Poland and many provide colourful and interesting festivities and include local traditions. Most of the population, especially in smaller towns and villages, will go to church on those days and participate in them. For Christmas and Easter, it is customary to join one's family for celebratory meals and gatherings that often bring together family members from far away, so many Poles will travel to their home towns or families out of their place of residence. Spending those holidays abroad (unless visiting a family), or having celebratory dinners in restaurants is very rare, although many hotels and restaurants would offer Christmas and Easter meals.

The following is a list of public holidays and some other important holidays with a brief description of the way they are celebrated by Poles. Please note that all religious holidays relating to Easter are movable and take place on a different date each year, and can take place within a four-week time span. Do check for exact days if you plan to be in Poland between March and June.

New Year's Day(Nowy Rok) - 1 January is a public holiday, with non-official and non-religious celebrations taking part around midnight between January 1 and December 31 of the preceding year.

Epiphany (Święto Trzech Króli orObjawienie Pańskie) -6 January - is the first day of the carnival period. In many Polish cities, merry parades are organised to commemorate the biblical Wise Men.

Easter (Wielkanoc orNiedziela Wielkanocna), amovable feast that is scheduled according to the moon calendar, usually in March or April. Like Christmas, it is primarily a meaningful Christian holiday. On the Saturday before Easter, churches offer special services in anticipation of the holiday, including blessing of food; children especially like to attend these services, bringing small baskets of painted eggs and candy to be blessed. On Easter Sunday, practicing Catholics go to the morning mass, followed by a celebratory breakfast made of foods blessed the day before. On Easter Sunday, shops, malls, and restaurants are commonly closed.Lany Poniedziałek, or Śmigus Dyngus, is the Monday after Easter, and also a holiday. It's the day of an old tradition with pagan roots: groups of kids and teens wandering around, looking to soak each other with water. Often groups of boys will try to catch groups of girls, and vice versa; but innocent passers-by are not exempt from the game, and are expected to play along. Common 'weapons' include water guns and water balloons, but children, especially outdoors and in the countryside, like to use buckets and have no mercy on passers-by. (Drivers - this means keep your windows wound up or you're likely to get soaked.) Despite its light-hearted nature, it is indeed a public holiday.

Labour Day (Święto Pracy) - 1 May is of absolutely lay nature and not of special religious or national significance, but a public holiday as well. Politically inspired parades and rallies are often organized, especially in larger cities, and it is best to avoid them as opposing political factions often collide and police will usually close off the area where parades and rallies are held. Combined with May 3 (see below), this holiday provides for a surefire long weekend in most years and will see many Poles enjoy a holiday outside of their place of residence.Constitution Day (Święto Konstytucji Trzeciego Maja) - 3 May, celebrated in remembrance of the Constitution of 3 May 1791. The document was a highly progressive attempt at political reform, and it was Europe's first constitution (and world's second, after the US). Following the partitions, the original constitution became a highly poignant symbol of national identity and ideals.Pentecost (Zesłanie Ducha Świętego orZielone Świątki) - movable feast, celebrated 7 weeks after Easter, which is always on a Sunday. It is a relatively low-key religious holiday compared to the other listed, or the way it is celebrated in predominantly Protestant countries. Since this is a Sunday, it may make little difference in some cases and some Poles do not even know it is a public holiday, but in case of establishments normally open on Sundays you may find them closed on that day. Pentecost is a two-day holiday in many countries, but the second day (Monday) is not a public holiday and not widely celebrated in Poland.

The Feast of Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) - another movable feast, is celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, orsixty days after Easter. It is celebrated across the country; in smaller locations virtually the whole village or town becomes involved in a procession, and all traffic is stopped as the procession weaves its way through the streets. Assumption (Wniebowzięcie Najświętszej Marii Panny) coinciding with Day of the Polish Military (Święto Wojska Polskiego) -15 August, commemorating the victory of the Polish Army over the invading Soviet (Red) Army in the Battle of Warsaw. The victory was attributed by the religious to the influence of the Virgin Mary. The day is thus marked with Catholic religious festivities and military parades.

All Saints Day(Wszystkich Świętych) - 1 November. In the afternoon people visit graves of their relatives and light candles. After dusk cemeteries glow with thousands of lights and offer a very picturesque scene. If you have the chance, be sure to visit a cemetery to witness the holiday. Many restaurants, bars and cafés will either be closed or close earlier than usual on this holiday.

Independence Day (Narodowe Święto Niepodległości) - 11 November, celebrated to commemorate Poland's independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitions and occupation by Austria, Prussia and Russia. Some somber official celebrations, and another slew of politically-inspired rallies are bound to be held. Neither would be of particular interest or especially accessible to most tourists. There are also big patriotic demonstrations and marches in larger cities, especially in Warsaw, where they usually end with riots.

Christmas Eve (Wigilia Bożego Narodzenia or simplyWigilia) - 24 December is not a public holiday, but for the Poles may be more important to celebrate than Christmas Day. It is definitely the year's most important feast. According to Catholic tradition, celebration of liturgical feasts starts in the evening of the preceding day (a vigil, hencewigilia). In Polish folklore, this translates into a special family dinner, which traditionally calls for a twelve-course meatless meal (representing the twelve apostles), which is supposed to begin in the evening, after the first star can be spotted in the night sky. On Christmas Eve most stores will close around two or three in the afternoon at the latest out of respect for traditions rather than the law. It is also a Polish tradition to do not leave anybody alone on Christmas Eve, so Polish people tend to be extremely hospitable on the evening and on many occasions will invite their lonely friends to participate in the traditional dinner (which is disappointing when turned down). It is also acceptable to ask your friends if you could join them if you're alone. There's also a tradition of Midnight Mass on that day (Pasterka), when Christmas carols are sung.

Christmas (Boże Narodzenie) - 25 and 26 December. On Christmas day people usually stay home and enjoy meals and meetings with families and sometimes close friends. Everything apart from essential services will be closed and public transport will be severely limited.

New Year's Eve(Sylwester) - 31 December is not a public holiday, but many businesses will close early. Pretty much all hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs will host special balls or parties, requiring previous reservations and carrying hefty price tags. In cities, free open-air parties with live music and firework displays are organized by the authorities on central squares.

Written by The Travel Valet

Photo Courtesy of Foto Polska

By Jenna Farber about Poland

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