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4997 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Moving Toward a Polish National Identity

by Jill Boyles

Fractious comes to mind when I ask my husband, friends, and students about their National Independence Day, along with a clear warning to stay home. But, I insist on attending. Their advice: go early, leave early, and watch out for hoolies and skinheads. I know, I say, they go there looking for a fight. No, they respond, they go there to fight, and be careful of Antifa, the anti-fascist group. I was confused. Aren’t anti-fascists good? In 2011, they say, this group and many of its German members confronted the nationalists and police, adding to the violence.

Initially, Independence Day celebrated the reunification of Poland on November 11, 1918 when Marshal Piłsudski pieced back together partitions abandoned by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Declared a national holiday in 1937, Independence Day, two years later, was crushed under the jackboots of Nazi Germany and further cut from Poland’s national identity by the Soviet sickle. After the defeat of communism, the newly formed Polish government reinstated Independence Day in 1990. Although commemorating the 1918 reunification, this day also, in spirit, commemorates Poland’s current state of independence.

However, Independence Day, especially in Warsaw where I live, evolved into an opportunity for demonstration marches with the largest one drawing nationalists (an extreme right-wing movement comprised of organizations and political parties with a similar vision for Poland), soccer hoolies (violent soccer fans usually dressed in track suits), skinheads (violent youth with shaven heads, dressed in flyer jackets and trooper boots), and neo-Nazis (dressed similarly as skinheads but not always associated with them). Considering themselves Poland’s true patriots, these groups openly express hostility and exclusivity, sometimes to the point of violence.

Add to this violence the belief many Poles hold that Russia orchestrated the 2010 Smoleńsk plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczyński, major members of the government, top military commanders, a former Solidarity leader, spouses, clergy, and Katyń victims’ relatives. This trip was to memorialize the Katyń massacre 70 years ago during WWII where thousands of Polish military personnel were murdered by the then Soviet Union.


At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, National Independence Day, I check the US Embassy and the Overseas Advisory Council (OSAC) websites. Two years ago in 2011, the US Embassy issued an emergency message for US citizens in Poland and last year a security message, along with OSAC, which issued an emergency message. This year, both sites are quiet.

On the way to the metro, I look around to get a feel for how Poles celebrate this day. No Polish flags hang from apartment balconies or in windows of stores, which are closed for the holiday. Streets and sidewalks are somewhat deserted, as on weekends when many people who live and work in Warsaw go back to their hometowns, only to return on Sundays with jars of food from family, earning them the dubious moniker słoiki (jars). But, in the metro station’s somber, subterranean milieu, I spot a flag before hopping on the standing-room-only subway car. The doors jerkily shut behind me. I hear the familiar whoosh and tick, tick, tick of the air compressor on this old Russian car as it prepares for the next opening and closing of the doors. I, too, prepare for the train’s takeoff by shifting my body weight to my left leg. We lurch into the tunnel where wheels screech against rails. Then the train lurches in the opposite direction before it decides to move forward again to push its way as speedily as it can down the tracks.

Before I know it, the pre-recorded Man with the Velvet Voice, a radio personality in Poland, announces “Centrum.” When the train halts, I’m one of a few people who leaves, which makes me suspicious. Did I get off one stop too early? No matter, I know my way to Piłsudski Square, home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where Bronisław Komorowski, the President of Poland, will give a speech.

As I walk through the underground, I bump into a delegation of one of Kraków’s soccer teams, Cracovia. The mostly male group in their 20s and early 30s moves in a fragrant cloud of alcohol-infused perspiration delicately balanced with cigarette smoke essence, all sweetly held together by the expletive kurwa (whore—although not necessarily directed toward a female, this word is used like fuck in the USA).

I emerge from the dim underpass, along with the Cracovia caravan, into the bright sun. We walk together until the end of the block, where I bid them a silent farewell as they turn down a side street while I continue straight on Marszalkowska Street.

As I cross Królewska Street with old people, young people, people with kids, people with dogs, I begin to feel a celebratory mood. Walking through Ogród Saski (Saxon Garden), I notice more signs of celebration: people carry Polish flags of all sizes and a few children even have balloons.

Near the fountain, sellers hawk sausages with sauerkraut, obwarzanki (round pretzels on a string), ryż dmuchany (puffed rice balls), cotton candy, and ice cream. Even the air smells celebratory. Mylar balloons bunched like flower bouquets tempt children who multiply the closer I approach Piłsudski Square.

I settle in with other people near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been cordoned off. We spill around the luxury vehicles of dignitaries in that makeshift parking lot as the chauffeurs retire off to the side to puff tobacco and exhibit their prowess in vulgarity. A child scrambles up a tree followed by another, police with green vests make the rounds, and MPs inside the cordoned-off area scan the crowd. Men dressed in period soldier costumes and armed with swords form a line leading up to the Tomb.

Periodically, the chauffeurs explode into laughter and periodically someone from the crowd turns to look at them. I look, too, not at the chauffeurs but for my husband whom I convinced to go with me. He was running late this morning and said he would join me later. I spot him making his way through the crowd and over to me.

The national anthem, Mazurek Dąbrowskiego (Dabrowski’s Mazurka), commences. I look about to see what’s customary, and it looks like standing still, no hand over heart, no removal of hats (except for one elderly man), and no singing (except for a man behind me who was quickly hushed by the woman next to him). You could hear a pin drop if not for the chauffeurs.

Cannons fire one by one, dispersing the birds circling overhead and startling babies who cry with fright.

Now a speech by President Komorowski followed by polite applause.

Overhead flies a plane. A child on his father’s shoulders yells, “The Germans are coming!” The adults chuckle.

Soldiers ceremoniously lay wreaths on the Tomb in the names of representatives, some from Warsaw’s city council, to honor those who had given their lives fighting for their country.

After the ceremony, my husband and I walk in the Razem dla Niepodległeg march where I continue to take pictures and video. President Komorowski started this march as a reminder to Poles that Independence Day is about unity, not division. So, we march with families; military officers; representatives of a high school named after Piłsudski; a women’s political party, Partia Kobiet; people holding a banner that reads orzeł może [eagle can (do)—the white eagle is Poland’s national symbol]; and others down Królewska Street.

This march of unity isn’t as apolitical as it seems. The Law and Justice Party (PiS), the opposing conservative political party, considers the marchers to be supporting the centrist Civic Platform Party (PO) to which President Komorowski belongs. PiS’s members are generally older and socialist in thinking with strong Catholic backgrounds that influence their politics. PO leans toward the liberal, and the members are generally younger. They work toward economic development, and Catholicism plays less of a role. PO’s main supporters are from those in large cities while PiS’s are from small towns and villages. Other political parties exist in Poland like the Women’s Party mentioned earlier, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), and the Farmers’ Party, which works in coalition with PO. PiS and PO, however, are the current dominant parties.


My husband and I duck out of the march and head back to Piłsudski Square, so I can take a picture of the front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A young man passes me wearing a button of a sickle and hammer crossed out. In Poland’s political landscape this button could symbolize one of two things. The first could be in support of the belief mentioned earlier that the Russians are responsible for the Smoleńsk plane crash. The second is that Poland is not a free Poland because ex-communists dominate the political and economic scene.

During the round-table talks of the late ’80s when members of the Solidarity Movement and communists met, a deal was struck giving the soon-to-be ex-communists the majority of seats in the house of representatives and allowing them to handpick a president to serve for the next seventeen months. These two actions would secure them an advantageous starting position in the new political and economic system.

Hence, a sick marriage between ex-communists and some solidarity leaders blessed by the Polish Catholic Church that wanted a bloodless transition and an opportunity to influence the government, a position lost during Russian dominance. The church regained this position in 1993 by having a concordat with the Polish government, a move initiated by Pope John Paul II. (This means that anything involving the Polish Catholic Church has to follow the laws of the Vatican, not the laws of the government. A concordat works financially and legally in the church’s favor. For example, taxpayers subsidize the building of churches, and pedophiles who are priests cannot be prosecuted by Polish law if the Vatican doesn’t agree. No other religion in Poland receives this status.)

Because of the round-table talks, many Poles believe there was little change in power. In other words, these commies turned into capitalists overnight, so they don’t represent the true voice of the people, and despite them holding few seats in the house and senate today, the former Communist Party members continue to have power and influence.

As I stand in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, I think about the interplay of Poland’s history and current politics. An image of an old tree with tangled, gnarled roots erupting above ground comes to mind. Poland, for as many wars, partitions, occupations, and Russian dominance it has endured, continues to anchor itself in the soil, and sprouting from the branches are leaves of different interpretations of historical facts. In particular, Józef Piłsudski who in 1918 created the Second Republic of Poland, ergo today’s celebration. Although some honor him, others despise him, believing that Roman Dmowski freed Poland from the three countries that had partitioned it, so this day should be about him, not Piłsudski. To make this point, the nationalist demonstration march starts at Warsaw’s Dmowski Roundabout.

Another area of contention is the actual date of Independence Day. Piłsudski arrived, with no fanfare, in Warsaw on November 11 from Berlin where he had been imprisoned by German authorities. October 15, however, was a more momentous date, for a regency government was established after WWI, meaning Poland was working toward a unified Poland while the countries that had partitioned it were in disarray. Dmowski supporters argue that a regency government was actually established two years earlier despite Poland being partitioned at that time. At any rate, Poles today wonder why November eleventh.


At 2:45 p.m., we’re on the metro to see the march that begins at three. At Centrum, we ride the escalator up to the area Poles call patelnia because it looks like a frying pan. A young man in front of us turns around and shouts, “One flag for Poland, not a rainbow flag!” His friends behind us whoop and yell. I look around to see if other Poles agree or disagree. More elevator silence, but I catch my husband rolling his eyes. In the patelnia, young men clutching Polish flags rush around and holler with an enthusiasm I’ve never seen in the USA on the Fourth of July. We wave flags, march in parades, sing the national anthem, and chow down on mini doughnuts while watching fireworks burst red, white, and blue, but this is intense. Before I head up the stairs to Plac Defilad, I take out my phone to use the camera, but it won’t turn on. No! I take out my backup, a notebook and pen.

At the top of the stairs, I see pretty much the same mix of people as I did at the ceremony except there are fewer children and more young men. Firecrackers go off in the midst of the crowd and not the charming little firecrackers from when I was a kid that my friends and I lit and then threw into the air. These are more like grounded bottle rockets with a deafening bang. To the left of me a man carries a small, wooden framework with a noose and a sign attached to it which reads “Nuremburg for round table,” possibly meaning Nuremburg-style trials for people who signed the round-table agreements after communism fell.

I move through the crowd of people and haze of firecracker and cigarette smoke. Even though I don’t see people drinking, the scent of alcohol permeates the air. What I also don’t see is a police presence. This makes me a little nervous despite what Poles have told me about the police being useless, although a friend suggested that a visible presence might set off demonstrators looking to fight. Could the police be undercover? The demonstrators, too, are supposed to have appointed their own as guards to keep the more enthusiastic ones in line. However, this strikes me as having the fox watch the henhouse. A police helicopter makes a pass.

My husband and I cross Jerozolimskie Avenue and find a spot by the metro entrance next to families with young children, some in strollers. Possibly my friends were overreacting when they told me to be careful.

Homeland’s Army from the Warsaw Uprising or rather reenactment actors march down Jerozolimskie Avenue. People jump in front of them to snap pictures as I silently curse my phone. The Army makes a sharp right at the Dmowski Roundabout and continues down Marszalkowska Street, setting the tone for the demonstration, which is Poland belongs to the people. The crowd grows, and the air prickles as we all wait for the show to start.

Coming down Marszalkowska, a man shouts and someone from his group hands me a leaflet. A guy in a wheelchair takes one, glances at it, and then promptly throws it in the garbage can next to him. I try to read mine, but my Polish is lacking. I turn it over and notice an English translation. The leaflet instructs that I should “read before it’s too late.” This group called the Polish Defense League is “opposed to the islamisation [sic] of Poland.” Furthermore, their “activities are designed to make society aware of the dangers from [the] spread of islam [sic] and multi-culti [sic] ideas and to develop suitable solutions....” I envision air quotes around those last two words.

Firecrackers pop and flares smoke red in autumn’s early twilight as more groups perform in front of their audience—their rants and posturing filling invisible powder kegs that could explode from one punch, one verbal altercation, one wrong look. Does everyone else here feel this tension, or has my imagination been fueled by the warnings from my husband, friends, and students? But what if this isn’t my imagination and those powder kegs blow?

Here comes a group with two signs in English, Solidarity 2010 and Polish President murdered in Russia, both in reference to the Smoleńsk plane crash. Another group has a Freedom is within Ourselves banner followed by another with a guy in a vehicle yelling into a microphone, “Pride, pride, national pride, away with communism.”

Across Jerozolimskie Avenue at Plac Difilad, a man speaks in English into a megaphone, which is followed by another man translating into Polish. I catch words like “climate,” “natural resources,” and “environmentalists”—maybe these two are associated with the UN Climate Conference taking place in Warsaw. If so, they’re brave to come here and spout their green politics in what is a morass of antipathy. Competing with them in the plaza are chants one would hear at a soccer match, although I can’t make out what is being said.

Men with hoods pulled over their heads and scarves or balaclavas on their faces prowl down Jerozolimskie Avenue toward the demonstration march. I watch to see if they turn right onto Marszalkowska Street to join the march, but I lose them. Before I do, though, people pop in front of them with their phones and cameras to take pictures. This early in the demonstration, these young men seem innocuous and appear not to mind the attention.

It’s getting darker and still no police from what I can see. One of my Polish friends explained that police weren’t to be trusted during communism’s reign because they worked for the state and that sense of distrust continues today, and some, like the extreme nationalists, will show this distrust in the form of bullying and strong arm tactics. Other Poles talk about the incompetence of the police. Only those with poor IQs and few job prospects enter the force, they say.

A couple of weeks ago, I dragged my husband to a national march of labor unions that protested Prime Minister’s Tusk’s policies. Police stood on Ujazdowskie Avenue and everything seemed orderly except for a few drunken participants. As my husband and I had watched, one such participant yelled to my husband that instead of taking his wife out for a Sunday stroll, he should be marching, and then called him a Warsawian (a mild insult meaning: people living in Warsaw have lucrative jobs and live lavishly). I wanted to yell back that my husband is not from Warsaw, but my husband said not to engage.

As we left, we turned off the march route and down a side street where we saw police officers and a police car. Walking toward us was a group of three young men, all of them drunk, one barely able to stay on the sidewalk who shouted at my husband and me for not marching. We moved off the sidewalk to let them pass. As they did, the man continued to shout, looking my husband directly in the eye. A police officer off to the side watched. After the men had moved on, my husband gave the police officer up ahead an exasperated look, so that officer asked the other one why he didn’t intervene to which he responded, “Because that would constitute something like work.”


The demonstration march continues with more white-power groups on flatbeds shouting into microphones and megaphones their pro-white chants about a true Polish nation and what makes a true patriot while others walk alongside. Red smoke from flares lit here and there eerily add to the rancor. An image of white-hooded KKK clansmen chanting in front of a burning cross flashes in my mind.

Using my husband as an interpreter, I ask the man in the wheelchair if he was frightened to come here. He replied that he wasn’t and that he keeps a safe distance away just as he had for the last two years. I ask what National Independence Day means to him. “It’s an important day,” he says, “because after 123 years, we regained our independence. This is a great thing to celebrate and be happy about and this march has nothing to do with it.” My husband nods in agreement.

We cross Jerozolimskie Avenue back to Plac Defilad. Smoke from flares and firecrackers forces us to cover our faces. I’m reminded of when I visited Churchill’s Britain at War Museum in London where a replica of a bombed area allows museum goers to experience what it’s like after a bombing. Both the smoke, which burned my eyes and throat, and the dim light made it hard to see while the noises made it difficult to think where to step next. It was chaotic. A tiny experience compared to the real thing but enough to give a taste of what people in bombed cities endured. Warsaw, like London, was bombed during WWII, but unlike London, Warsaw experienced almost complete annihilation.


The last group prepares to march. Polish flags and black flags with a cross and a white circle around it fly above white supremacists’ heads. A few marchers in the back chant that Legia (one of Warsaw’s soccer teams) is someone’s bitch. The Palace of Culture and Science, a gift from Stalin to the people of Poland, looms behind them.

At 4:00 p.m., my husband and I leave and take the escalator down to the metro. Again, the metro is crammed with people, and again, the doors thud shut. I hear an announcement, but not from the Man with the Velvet Voice. I’m worried that hoolies or skinheads have boarded the metro, drunk and eager to fight, so I gauge the reaction of the people—a skill I’ve developed since traveling to foreign countries—but everyone appears relaxed.

The city of Warsaw declares the march illegal at 4:42 p.m. due to violence. Fire has been set to cars, the guard post at the Russian Embassy, and a rainbow sculpture, which was recently repaired from a previous burning. The extreme national right attacks two squats {buildings occupied by squatters who are often anarchists}.

By late evening, many people are injured, including police officers.


The next day, Tuesday, military police patrol the metro probably because of last night’s violence. I don’t feel particularly safer. My husband and I take the metro to the Polytechnika station and walk to the burned rainbow sculpture. Along the way, we notice loosened and missing stones from the sidewalk where hoolies the night before had dug them up to throw at the sculpture.

The blackened frame of the rainbow arcs across the square. Behind it is the white Church of the Holiest Savior. A news channel reports the damage, and a professional photographer crouches at one end of the scorched rainbow with his camera pointed up. A few international students take pictures. Passers-by stop and look and then move on. I wonder if the artist of this sculpture, Julita Wójcik, anticipated that the rainbow would be burned, yet again. From what I’ve read, she says that the rainbow is not a symbol for gay rights, but for open-mindedness; however, those against and those for gay rights interpret the sculpture for their own agendas. Her contested rainbow sits on Plac Zbawiciela (Savior Square).

After visiting the sculpture, we head over to the squat on Skorupki Street that was attacked by extreme right-wing nationalists during the march. In front of the corner is a press conference, and in the center are a woman with aqua hair and a man wearing a yellow t-shirt, which reads Resist in red. The squat’s battered exterior exposes brick in one area, and on the ground floor, windows have bars, save for two unbarred ones that are broken. Painted below these broken windows is a mural—mirror images of a young, smiling woman, hands open as if expressing agreement with someone. Other street art, mostly text, runs along the ground floor below the windows. Two in English read GO VEGAN and THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT. From the roof hangs a banner partly twisted, its text difficult to read.

I learn from my husband that these two young people who take turns speaking are representatives from collectives. Although I know very little Polish, they seem to be articulate, their speech conveying a sense of passion and confidence. An official-looking woman makes her way through the crowd. Our eyes meet and she offers a friendly smile.

The press conference breaks, so I go to interview the young woman about her understanding of last night’s attacks and her perspective on being female in a collective, but she’s being interviewed by someone else. I stand nearby waiting for the interview to end, but it’s taking a long time and people are leaving. The other collective representative walks by, and I ask him in English if I may interview him. He consents and says that two other English-speaking people want to interview him also, so he’ll find them and come back.

He returns with the journalists, and I ask Grzegorz Prujszczyk about the attack on the squat. Mr. Prujszczyk said that he was on the roof when a group from the marchers on Marszalkowska Street, which is about “200 meters from here,” broke away and attacked it. What started out as a small group mushroomed “up to 200 fascist thugs” who threw firecrackers, cut chains, smashed windows, and tried to open the door, in addition to setting one car on fire and damaging two others. The police, located a half-minute away, took over 20 minutes to respond. Mr. Prujszczyk tells me that the Przychodnia Collective was attacked because most of the members are anarchists. He goes on to explain that the act of squatting itself is an “anarchist concept,” and most people at the squat call themselves “squatters.”

The collective helps disenfranchised people, from immigrants to middle-class families, evicted from repossessed buildings. After WWII, the first president of Poland, Bolesław Bierut, signed a law nationalizing all property in Warsaw to avoid property disputes. This way, Warsaw could be rebuilt with relative ease.

After communism, though, previous owners or their heirs pressured the government in an effort to reclaim their land and, if still existing, the original buildings on those lands, some of which now have tenants. One scenario leaving tenants without a home, especially single mothers and the elderly, is when the previous owners or their heirs kick them out and then sell the land to developers who usually raze the buildings to build offices or condos.

Mr. Prujszczyk explains that the police wanted to prove that they’re needed and therefore require a bigger budget or, conversely, that they don’t oppress the nationalists. He goes on to say that the collective was used as an example: “We’re just, like, disposable, whatever, for them.”

When the squat was attacked, they fought back. Mr. Prujszczyk does not elaborate on how they did so because he doesn’t want the media to focus on violence. However, he says, if people were not on the rooftop from the start, “We’d be fucked.” The police had visited the collective twice yesterday and advised them not to be on the roof, which might provoke the marchers. A few from the collective did anyway, but being that the street was far away, they were certain the marchers wouldn’t see them. The marchers, though, claim people on the roof threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at them. The media then pit one against the other, according to Mr. Prujszczyk, simplifying a dangerous situation by reporting that it’s the far right against the far left, and that the “truth is somewhere in the middle” and no one should really concern themselves with what happened, because “it’s just hooligans fighting against each other.”

Mr. Prujszczyk contends that there has been an increase in neofascist activity and wants people to be aware of this. He also states that the media, for their part, do little and refuse to call the people engaged in this type of activity, but instead refer to the organizations to which they belong. However, the media labels the collective as leftists, which “hint that somebody isn’t serious. Or, leftist the media had a huge part in, like, setting up what happened.” Not only does Mr. Prujszczyk skewer the media, but also the parliamentary politicians who have a hand in allowing the march to grow “radically.”

In reference to the squat’s damaged banners, Mr. Prujszczyk says that the police, using submachine guns, attacked the one that read solidarity is squat. The marchers attacked the other one about patriarchy, which was “directed at the school actually because we got a primary school here so this was just aimed that everyone deserves an equal education.” Mr. Prujszczyk also points out that the attackers tried to uproot the young trees growing in frame supports along the sidewalk.

When I ask what he wants people outside of Poland to think about last night’s attack and what’s in store for the collective’s future, Mr. Prujszczyk responds that the “far right is growing extremely fast and all too often being accepted by...the mainstream media.” A meeting will be held on Thursday, and the collective will work toward getting more people involved in it.

The interview ends with Mr. Prujszczyk reiterating his distrust of mainstream media and tells us to check out Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model about mass media’s role in serving government and business interests.


On Friday, a demonstration march takes place on Nowy Świat, an expensive shopping street in Warsaw, but this demonstration protests the hate displayed on National Independence Day and many of the banners are in support of gay rights. Police officers and an anti-riot squad walk alongside the peaceful marchers and a police helicopter flies over. Are the police there to protect the marchers from far right extremists? Or, to keep the protesters in line in case they themselves become extreme? Or, to show the public that the police are doing their job? Understanding their motivations can be as complicated as understanding Poland’s history.

On Savior Square, the rainbow sculpture also shows divergent sides of the country. People have made a statement of optimism by laying colorful bouquets of flowers in the sculpture’s badly charred frame.

SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Jill Boyles

Work by Jill Boyles has appeared in Toasted Cheese, The Ilanot Review, and Calliope Magazine, among other publications. She holds an MFA and was the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant and a finalist for the Jerome Grant. She’s currently working on a novel.

Author’s website:

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury