History, traditions, customs and lifestyle
Contemporary Poland is driven by democracy, innovation, cultural diversity and dynamic economic market. Yet to understand where it all came from and to embrace Polish way of thinking derive from rich Polish history, customs and traditions.
Here are some of the historical examples and cultural features that make Poland stand out in the European and global patchwork of countries:
Poland’s 20th century history in brief:
In 1918 marked the end of World War I and Poland regain of its freedom after over 140 years of occupation by other countries, which constituted the country’s partition. During the World War I, in 1916, the Germans conquered the parts of Poland occupied by the Russians and declared to form a Polish kingdom after the war. Meanwhile Polish General Józef Piłsudski led a Polish army in the war against the Russians. However, he was defeated by the Germans and interned, to be released just before the Germans surrendered on 11 November 1918 and the Poles regained their country. The date marks the Polish Independence Day. Poles celebrate the Day with street parades of army vehicles or historical enactments of battles. State officials and Polish army representatives lay wreaths and salute at important monuments or historical sites that pay tribute to Polish generals or soldiers (e.g. at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw).
In the 1930s Poland was threatened by both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. In 1939 the two nations signed a secret agreement to divide Poland between them. Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 marking the break of the World War II in the world history. The Poles resisted as long as they could but on 17 September the Russians invaded from the east. Even though the Polish position was hopeless the Poles continued to fight both the Germans and the Russians for the following six years. The German-Soviet occupation devastated the country and took lives of millions of people- of Poles, Jews and other national minorities that coexisted in Poland before the war. Extermination of Polish Jews (the Holocaust) and massive genocide of Poles and other ethnicities remain the cruelest aftermath of the WW II.
Poland is dedicated to observing important anniversaries and dates relating to the WW II history. For example, on September 1, at 5pm (the hour the war broke out) Poles stop for a minute of silence to pay tribute to those who fell at the break of the war in 1939. Also, Poles observe the 1944 Warsaw Uprising date of August 1 and the 1943 Ghetto Uprising by the Jews on April 19.
When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 the Polish government in exile in Great Britain, which was led by Prime Minister Sikorski, made an agreement with the Russians. On 30 June 1941 they signed a treaty in London, which ended the war between them. Stalin promised to release Polish prisoners of war and the huge number of Poles who had been deported to Siberia. However, the relations between Stalin and the Polish government in exile deteriorated over disagreements over the border between Poland and Russia. Stalin insisted that Poland’s eastern provinces should be absorbed into the Soviet Union after the war.
In April 1943 the Germans discovered the Katyn massacre in which the Russians conquered eastern Poland and murdered 4,500 Polish officers and buried them in the Katyn Forest. The Russians claimed the Germans committed the massacre after they invaded eastern Poland (and Russia) in 1941. The Polish government in exile demanded investigation but Stalin refused and broke of diplomatic relations. Stalin was determined to impose a communist government on Poland and Polish communists were willing to cooperate with him.
In July 1944 Polish Communists formed the Committee of National Liberation led by Bolesław Bierut. On 1 January 1945 the Committee declared itself the provisional government of Poland. In February 1945 Stalin met Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta. He promised to allow free elections in Poland but he had no intention of keeping the promise. Nazism was replaced by another type of tyranny, Communism, with the provisional government being just a puppet government controlled by Stalin.
Communism was imposed on the Poles. The Communists took power in stages between 1945 and 1947. At first, the provisional government was formed with Communists in key positions – approved by the Soviet army. In June 1956 disappointment with the Communists regime in Poland led to riots in the city of Poznan, which the government appeased, by force.
In 1951 Władysław Gomułka, the First Secretary of the Party, was imprisoned. In October 1956 he was released and the Polish Communists made him their leader – without consulting Moscow. The Russians were enraged that the Poles took an independent action and they came close to invading Poland. Nevertheless Gomułka failed to carry out any fundamental reforms and Poland stagnated under his rule.
In December 1970 the government announced massive food prices. As a result demonstrations and strikes broke in northern Poland, mainly in Gdansk. Many demonstrators were killed which triggered other demonstrations and protests.
In December 1970 Edward Gierek replaced Gomułka. He froze prices and introduced a new economic plan. Gierek relied on loans from the west. As a result the living standards in Poland improved. In the early 1970s the food became cheaper and consumer goods became common. However a rise in oil prices ended the economic boom and by 1976 it was clear the loans had been squandered. Polish industry was unable to buy enough hard currency to pay back the loans. The government introduced huge increases in the price of food and the strikes broke again. Many strikers were imprisoned. However the Poles began to organize themselves in underground groups to prepare other strikes.
In July 1980 the government announced 100% rises in the price of some foods. The result was strikes across Poland. In August 1980 the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk went on strike. Led by an electrician named Lech Wałęsa the workers occupied the shipyard. They drew up a list of demands including freedom of the press, the release of political prisoners and the right to form independent trade unions. On 31 August the Communists surrendered. They made the Gdansk agreement and accepted the workers’ demands.
The workers formed the Solidarity Trade Union, which soon became a mass movement. However the Communists fought back. On 13 December 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law on Poland. Poles remember the day to date and the media mentions it every year. Under the martial law the Solidarity was banned and its leaders were arrested. General Jaruzelski declared the ‘state of war’. The economic crisis continued and the workers continued to hold strikes and Solidarity went underground.
In 1989 the Communists and Solidarity held talks, which took its name from the shape of the table at which they took place – the Round Table Talks. The government agreed to legalize the Solidarity and allow the freedom of press. The Communists also agreed that the Sejm (Polish parliament) should be partly democratically elected. The first democratic elections were held on 4 June 1989. In August 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki became first elected Prime Minister of Poland. The Communist tyranny was over. In 1990 Lech Wałęsa was elected the President of the Republic of Poland. In October 1991 the free elections to the Sejm were held. Poland entered a path to a democratic transition from the Communism to Capitalism, which serves as a famous example to be modeled, by other states that cannot enjoy full freedom and which are still admired by the developed democracies worldwide.
Poland’s position on the international scene was enhanced by two important facts in the country’s modern history – Poland joining NATO in 1999 and Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004.
Poles can be full of surprises keeping up with the international pace but it also remains faithful to its rich cultural tradition and embedded customs. Moreover, every geographic region of the country is characteristic for other features and traditions. Let us focus on those that are commonly recognized and hold true for the whole nation.
Polish people are hospitable and helpful. Whenever you are lost and need to find a way back to your house a friendly Pole would be close by to give you directions or help you find the nearest bus stop. Should you be hosted at a meal at your friends’ house you can be sure that they would go to any length to make you feel at home.
Poles appreciate culture and art. Poles benefit from a rich array of cultural and art events that thrive in the country. Poles go to the cinema and theatre, develop their artistic perspective and expand their knowledge by visiting art galleries and museums and attend different happenings, workshops and seminars. They also enjoy concerts and sophisticated musical experience of an opera or ballet. Poles are also famous for creating culture through which they contribute to the worldwide wealth as well as invite international artists and performers to Poland.
Polish people celebrate. Be it a national holiday (e.g. Independence Day or Constitution Day), a family anniversary (weddings, birthdays, baptism ceremony etc.) or a cultural event (Halloween, New Year’s Eve etc.), Poles know how to have fun and celebrate. They have a feast over a table; they throw parties, visit their families, sing and dance to manifest joy and the free day that was given to them. Indulge in the celebration with them to show respect and to have fun 😉
Polish people observe national and religious holidays. Crowds of people participate in state events and go to church. One of the religious holidays which is also visible outside of a church is the Corpus Christi day on which crowds walk in colorful processions in their neighborhoods and pray at altars decorated especially for the religious ceremony. Another example may be All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead that follows on which Poles massively visit cemeteries to pay tribute to the famous dead and pray for the relatives and friends who are no longer with them.
Christmas and Easter are the most important religious and cultural holidays observed in Poland that last a couple of days and include family visiting, dining, going to the mass and typical cuisine tasting specific for each of those holidays.
You will not get a real taste of Poland until you get typical Polish tastes. No matter if you are just passing by, visiting or staying longer you must taste Polish bread. Polish bakers make the utmost from the wealth of grains that are available in the country offering a variety of wheat, rye, whole-wheat bread, rolls and pastries. Poland is full of little bakeries, which serve coffee and sandwiches so you can enjoy a perfect breakfast.
You should not leave Poland without tasting pierogi, Polish dumplings with meat filling. The fillings can also be white cheese and potato with onion (so called ‘ruskie’) or all sorts of vegetables, for example spinach or mushrooms.
Bigos is another must in your Polish culinary adventure. It is a cabbage stew seasoned heavily with spices, all sorts of meat and mushrooms. It tasted excellent on a rainy fall day or during freezing Polish winters.
Other typical Polish meat meal is mielony z mizerią, which is minced meat cutlet with a salad of sliced cucumber with sour cream.
While in Poland you should also try delicious soups, with such classics as żurek (rye bread sourish soup served with potatoes and an egg) or barszcz (beetroot soup served most commonly with a meat croquet on a side)
A sweet tooth will delight his or her palate with Polish cakes such as szarlotka (Polish apple pie) or sernik (Polish cheesecake).
Poland accommodates all tastes and nutrition preferences offering gluten-free or vegetarian menu options, healthy eco food stores and cafeterias or fusion cuisine restaurants. You will also find your home country cuisine in every major city.