Insecurity holds the key to why Poland still clings to its anniversaries


Letter from Krakow: It seemed at first like a concert for tourists visiting Krakow's old town square, Rynek Glowny, said to be the biggest medieval market square in Europe.

However, many of the 500 or so people gathered in the square started to wave small Polish flags. Others began to light candles as they sang along with the performers, who were dressed in early 20th-century costume.

A young local woman explained: "It is the 91st anniversary of the day Polish troops went from Krakow to the front, in the first World War," she said. But who marks the 91st anniversary of anything?

She opened her 32-page programme with a cover picture of a Polish soldier in first World War uniform. "We have many anniversaries in Poland and they mean a lot" she said, as she pointed to page three which stated "91 lat" or years.

The remaining pages contained an exposition of the bravery of Polish troops and the lyrics of a number of traditional Polish songs of the era.

For more than an hour the sounds of the military and patriotic songs reverberated around the square, where earlier a military band had played some of the same tunes while Krakovians had marched behind, to the entertainment of visitors.

The small commemoration is just one of many, particularly in August, marked in Poland.

August 1st saw a commemoration of the Warsaw uprising in 1944, when the capital's citizens rebelled against the Nazis, only to be defeated and have their entire city reduced to rubble.

August 31st will be commemorated as the 26th anniversary of Solidarnosc, the day Lech Walesa signed the Gdansk Agreement, giving workers in the eastern bloc the right for the first time to form unions and to strike.

But the biggest date will be marked today, for religious and military events.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will make their way to Poland's main pilgrimage site at Czestochowa, the shrine of the famed Black Madonna, an icon of the Virgin and Child, for the national holiday of the feast of the Assumption.

Many of those pilgrims have walked the 100km (60 miles) from Krakow to the shrine, whose reputation developed because the area was one of the few places to withstand the invading sieges of the Swedes in the 17th century.

The date is also a huge military occasion as the 85th anniversary of the "Miracle of the Vistula", the day in 1920 when Josef Pilsudski, later Poland's leader, led his troops to victory against the Soviets.

Academics also cite the date as a little Polish "revenge" on the Soviets. During the communist era, army day was marked on October 12th to remember a 1943 battle when Russian and Polish soldiers fought the Germans.

However, after independence in 1989, army day was moved to August 15th to mark that Polish victory over the Soviets, according to social anthropologist

Dr Annamaria Orla-Bukowska.

The associate professor at Jagiellonian university's institute of sociology points out the significance for Poles of commemorating anniversaries.

"In modern Polish history, seen as starting in 1750, Poland has had only three short spurts of independence: 1750 to 1795; 1918 to 1939; and 1989 to now. When Poland was subjugated, or off the map altogether as part of surrounding empires, the only way to survive was to remember who did what to them, when and where."

In sociology it is called lieux de mémoire, or places of memory. There are monuments to everything, especially in Warsaw, where every three steps you take brings you to a plaque - "at this place was a Gestapo station", or "at this place seven Poles were executed by the Germans".

In other countries, distance from a nation's history relaxes the necessity for all but the biggest anniversaries. Not so for Poland.

"Deep down, Poles do not feel secure with the freedom they got 16 years ago," says the academic. "They believe that anything could happen and in another five years, things could be out of their control again."

So they commemorate their military and religious events, sometimes the two together.

During the Soviet era, the church was as much a political as a religious institution. At a time when it was illegal for more than three people to meet, the Catholic Church was the only place where Poles, including those of Jewish and other non-Catholic faiths, could freely congregate in large numbers and where underground meetings could be held.

And while religious events had a political significance, political and military events had religious connotations. Dr Orla-Bukowska points to the revelations this month in Poland's main national daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.

The front-page lead story was that there was "No Miracle at the Vistula River". Until now the only references on what actually happened during that 1920 victory over the Soviets, referred to the "really wise military tactics" of the Polish army. "I've never seen an in-depth chapter on it in any history book I've read," says Dr Orla-Bukowska.

But for the first time, it was revealed that the Polish army had broken the Russian cyphers or codes and found out how many troops they would face.

It is said that it takes two generations or 40 years for mindsets to change. In the meantime, Poles will continue to mark such anniversaries.

As the young woman at the 91st anniversary event put it: "It is very important to remember all our events. It is our history."