From childhood I’ve always felt a special bond with Poland, as Granny used to tell me about our Polish ancestors. In fact, her mother’s family name was Polish: Wojciehowski. Granny told me they had come from Poland to South Africa, where her mother has already been born. She also told me about her Polish grandmother, a statuesque lady or 1, 80, and I – also very tall for a Portuguese woman – consoled myself thinking I had taken after her.
A book about Poland
Then years later one day I found a book by James Michener called Poland, and I bought it so that I might learn a little more about the country’s history. Which I certainly did. Although a novel, it is based on historical facts. Spanning more than 700 years, it tells the stories of three families and their several generations throughout that period, namely during the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, the invasion by the Swedes and the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century and, last but not least, the Nazi occupation, the holocaust and the horrors the Poles suffered during World War II and their heroic resistance, only to be dominated by the Soviets for many years after the war was over. Written in the early eighties, the book could not add the happiest chapter, that of the country’s true liberation in 1993. I was impressed to see how the Poles had been invaded so many times, but had always keep their spirit and their religious faith intact, and all through foreign invasion and domination, had always dream of and fought for, independence.
So when the occasion presented itself to come to Warsaw on a business trip, it was inevitable that I should make the most of the occasion and stay over for a weekend and Nuno agreed to come with me on my first trip to the land of my ancestors.
Everyone told me I should not expect too much of Warsaw as the city had been almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War. At first I thought it had been due to bombing, but while I was there I was shocked to discover this destruction had happened after the Warsaw uprising of 1944. The city was under German occupation but there was a nucleus of underground resistance, mostly anti-communist. As the Soviet army was preparing to attack the city they were also keen to eliminate this last focus of resistance (even if at the time they had become improbable allies), so they cynically broadcasted a radio call for upheaval to the Polish resistance inside the city. 50.000 Poles answered that call and rose against the German occupiers, but something went very wrong as the Soviet army did not come to their rescue as expected, nor did they allow the other Allies to drop food to help the resisting group, who were eventually crushed by the Germans and had to surrender after a 44 day heroic struggle. This event became know to History as the Warsaw uprising and as punishment the Germans systematically destroyed most of the city’s historical buildings and equipments (of around 1.000 less than 100 were left!). Warsaw was destroyed and the historical part of the city left in ruins. What you see today as the old city was painfully reconstructed after the war and the city has done a great job, but you know it’s not for real.
Still, it’s a lovely city, which I very much liked. The old part had been meticulously recovered, and in the new quarters tall, mirrored buildings have created a new, attractive skyline. In other quarters several buildings of the soviet era still remain, but the streets are wide and there are nice public gardens. We were lucky to have wonderful weather that allowed us to walk around a lot; we found most people nice and welcoming even if the elder people do not speak English. The food was delicious: just to name a few delicacies, I would recommend the Zorek soup (made of soured rye-flour with meat, usually sausages), the roasted duck with beetroot sauce or the incomparable hot chocolate at E. Wedel, a delightful chocolate shop near the old city. Ah, and the inevitable white sausages, that I ate with eggs for breakfast thus broking all my rules about eating sensibly!
A story of resilience and faith
After the war more than forty years of Soviet domination of Poland followed, so it’s no wonder the Poles hate Communism, the Soviet Union and all they entail. Even regarding the destruction of their capital city, the Germans did it de facto, but the Russians crossed their arms and did nothing to help their allies, whom they had incited to rebellion. The simply left them to their fate.
I truly admire the Polish resilient spirit. Through the centuries they resisted military invasion and domination, but also the attempt to strip them of their faith. They are deeply religious, a Catholic nation in the midst of Christian orthodox countries. And the symbol of this faith had been, for several centuries, Our Lady of Jasna Góra, a sanctuary in Czestochowa where a beautiful icon depicts an image of a Black Madonna, considered to be miraculous and also instrumental in protecting the country against the many perils it had faced over the centuries.
One cannot of course talk about Poland and its resilience and faith without remembering Pope St. John Paul II, one of the great figures of Polish history and the 20th century. One might say he represented the true essence of Poland – its faith and its resilient spirit. Always a fighter against communism and for freedom of worship in his country he faced many hardships but never faltered. Once he was elected Pope he brought new hope for his beleaguered country and no doubt much contributed to its freedom due to the fall of the Soviet Union. He is much beloved and remembered by his people and you can see many references to him in Warsaw but especially in Jasna Góra, where no doubt many times as a simple pilgrim he prayed for the liberation of his country, as also many times he must have come back to wholeheartedly think the Lady for having allowed Poland to finally, after so many years of struggle, attain its long awaited freedom.