Halloween is not widely celebrated in Poland, but that is not to say that the ancient Celtic festival passes unnoticed. Whilst the ancient celebration, remembered in Eastern Poland as 'Dziady' (Forefathers) has been replaced by the festival of All Saints, which is now firmly intertwined with the Catholic Church.
The first of November or Wszystkich Świętych (All Saints’ Day) is a national holiday and the official name for the holiday in the Roman Catholic Church. However, it is very common in Poland to call the day, Dzień Zmarłych or Święto Zmarłych ( ‘Day of the Dead’). These names were first used by The Soviet Union during the period of occupation in Poland and their usage remains. On this day, according to Roman Catholic tradition, people celebrate the saints, their lives and their martyrdom. It is supposed to be a joyful event, a chance to worship saints and the belief in life after death. It is traditional to visit cemeteries, light candles and lay flowers in remembrance of the departed.
Krakow is one of the most evocative places in Poland to spend All Souls. The former Royal Capital has many old cemeteries, one of which is Rakowicki. To step through the Gothic gateway of Rakowicki Cemetery as night falls is to take a step into the otherworld where the spirits of the departed wander freely. Thousands of candles in vases of every shape and color gather as if placed magically by wandering spirits on graves and at the foot of memorials. The melodic chant of priests signing psalms, echo through the silence as the messengers of god wander amongst the paths bringing peace to the departed, whilst clouds of sweet smelling incense waft over their shoulders like mists through time. The scent of fresh chrysanthemums laid by the gravestones hangs in the still night air, a sensory reminder that death is close. Families wander through the illuminated paths throughout the night and if a raven or owl passes, this visit from a departed soul is celebrated. The memorials to the departed, from the desperate periods of Poland’s history, (the Warsaw Uprising of which a picture is annotated) are flooded with light from candles of remembrance. Although the graveyard is filled with mourners there is, everywhere a hushed, respectful silence as those present join together to form an incredibly dignified tribute to the departed.
The second of November is Dzień Zaduszny (All Souls’ Day) or Zaduszki . Typically the day is spent in prayer and reflection. It is when people remember their departed loved ones. Whilst it is not a public holiday, people come after work in the evening to graveyards with fresh candles.
For more Polish history check out
The Cypher Bureau -(how the Poles solved Enigma)
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland on first September 1939, many Polish airmen, determined to continue fighting for their country’s freedom made their way to Britain. By the end of July 1940 there were over eight thousand Polish airmen in Britain. Initially they were incorporated into British Squadrons but in July and August 1940 numbers 302 and 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadrons were formed.
As a result of Nazi propaganda there was some doubt about the abilities of the Polish air force which lead Canadian Flight Lieutenant John A. Kent, who was posted to No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron, so that it had an English speaking commander, during the Battle of Britain, to comment 'All I knew about the Polish Air Force was that it had only lasted about three days against the Luftwaffe, and I had no reason to suppose that they would shine any more brightly operating from England'.
However, as Hitler’s Luftwaffe attacks on Britain increased in the lead up to a planned invasion and RAF planes where being shot down at an alarming rate with the consequent loss of pilots, there was little alternative but to allow the eager Polish pilots into the air. They had undergone intensive English lessons as most of the Polish pilots could not speak any English, and undergone training on tricycles equipped with radio, speed indicators and compasses to learn formation style flying, much to the irritation of the experienced battle-hardened Polish airmen. In total 145 Polish airmen fought in the Battle of Britain - 79 in various RAF squadrons, 32 in No. 302 (Polish) Fighter Squadron and 34 in No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron. Their bravery and skill became legendary. Just a few of the feats of the Polish airmen are as follows-
On 24thAugust Sergeant Antoni Glowacki of No. 501 Squadron RAF, claimed five enemy bombers, which were shot down over three separate sorties. He was one of only three pilots who achieved 'Ace-in-a-Day' status during the battle. (Ace being attributed where 5 or more enemy plane’s had been shot down)
On 303 Squadron’s second day in action on the 2ndSeptember 1940, 6 Polish pilots took on 150 Messerschmitts, in the dogfight which ensued, all the Polish pilots survived and 2 of them broke formation to pursue the enemy planes back to France, before returning to their base. (Exceptionally one of the rebel pilots, Josef Frantisek, who was actually Czech, was then given a dispensation to break formation and pursue enemy planes at his discretion)
303 Squadron is accredited as best scoring unit of the Battle of Britain.
On the first day of the Blitz on 7thSeptember 303 Squadron are attributed with shooting down 16 enemy planes without a single loss on their side in a record breaking fifteen minutes.
Nine of 303 Squadron's pilots qualified as 'aces.'
Sergeant Josef Frantisek, of 303 Squadron shot down 17 enemy planes, the highest scorer of the Battle of Britain.
Four Polish officers were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses after the Battle of Britain.
During the Battle of Britain, Polish pilots serving in all RAF squadrons achieved a remarkable score of 203.5 destroyed, 35 probably destroyed and 36 damaged.
Twenty-nine Polish pilots, including Josef Frantisek, lost their lives in combat against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.
Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding said after the battle: 'Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same'.
Another major contribution by the Poles to Allied victory was first breaking the Enigma code an achievement credited with saving thousands of lives.
Author The Cypher Bureau-(How the Poles solved Enigma)
The famous white eagle of Poland, Orzeł Biały, one of the best known symbols of Poland, stares outwards to the right in search of truth, whilst its wings are spread out as widely as possible to protect all Poles and people of Polish descent, wherever they may live.
The legend of the Polish eagle is entwined with that of Lech, Poland’s mythical founder. One day, many centuries ago when Lech was travelling across the area now known as Greater Poland, he stumbled upon a nest containing a white eagle and her two eaglets. Lech decided to steal one of the eaglets and raise it for his own. The mother eagle rose in defense, spreading out her great white wings across the red light of the setting sun. She was wounded by Lech’s sword and her red blood began to stain her white feathers. She was clearly prepared to fight to the death to protect her young. Lech was so moved by the eagle’s courage and dedication to her young that he abandoned his attempts to capture an eaglet. In recognition of the eagle’s bravery Lech established the first Polish city of Gniezno, meaning nest at the site and adopted the white eagle as the symbol of the new land. The eagle was assimilated onto the Polish flag where the red background of represents both the red of the sun setting over the Polish plains and the blood and sacrifice suffered by Poles over the years.
The Polish eagle made its historical debut on Polish coins during the reign of King Bolesław I (992-1025). Its use extended in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when it began to appear on emblems, shields and flags. It would have represented the Poles charging into battle against the German Teutonic Knights in 1410 and at Vienna against the Turks in 1683.
When Poland was torn apart in the eighteenth century, the eagle became a call to arms to unite Poles in the battle for their independence. Ironically, the empires that conquered Poland—Russia, Prussia and Austria—all had black eagles as their symbols. The Polish white eagle, represented hope that their nation’s light would not be extinguished by the darkness of the invaders.
Poland again adopted the white eagle as its official coat-of-arms, on regaining independence in 1918. German invasion and occupation during World War II meant the eagle came once more a call to arms and a sign of hope to represent courage and sacrifice both to the Polish resistance and the government-in-exile, both of which retained the flag.
When Poland fell under Soviet control after World War II, the white eagle suffered one of its worst humiliations—it lost the golden crown that it had worn for centuries. The bare-headed white eagle represented a Poland subservient to the ruling Soviet regime.
After communism fell, the Polish eagle regained its crown in 1990 and was adopted as Poland’s official symbol.
Author The Cypher Bureau-how the Poles solved Enigma
I was particularly thrilled to visit Bletchley Park earlier this year. It was my interest in the Polish Codebreakers and Marian Rejewski in particular which took me to Bletchley.
The memorial to the Polish Codebreakers in the grounds reads:-
“This plaque commemorates the work of Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski mathematicians of the Polish Intelligence Service in first breaking the Enigma code. Their work greatly assisted the Bletchley Park Codebreakers and contributed to the Allied victory in World War II.”
This year The Bombe Breakthrough exhibition opened in Hut 11A. The exhibition will run until 2028 and features the first electro-mechanical deciphering device-the bombe machine invented my Marian Rejewski in 1936, a device combining 6 Enigma rotors which was capable of working through possible settings for an Enigma machine and reaching a solution within two hours.
There is of course something for everyone at Bletchley. The mansion house itself is worthy of a visit, with intricate carved staircase, sweeping entrance hallway with marbled pillars and oak panelled rooms. The mansion was constructed by Sir Herbret Samuel Leon. The British Government moved their on 15thAugust 1939 when the site was established as an ultra secret code breaking base- Station X. All staff were required to sign The Official Secrets Act 1939 and were constantly reminded the importance of secrecy and not to discuss their work with anyone. Not their colleagues, not their spouses, not their friends. At its height, during WW2, there were around 10 000 personal operating from Bletchley and despite some security breaches, the secrecy of the operation was maintained following the war up until 1973 when books began to be published on the subject. Notwithstanding that many of the Bletchley staff took the secret of their codebreaking work with them to the grave. The extraordinary success in maintaining the secrecy of the operation at Bletchley led Churchill to refer to the Bletchley staff as “the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled.”
In 1992 Milton Keynes Borough Council declared the majority of the park as a conservation area. The Bletchley Park Trust was formed and the site was opened to visitors in 1993. In June 2014 a substantial renovation project was completed.
Present days guests pass through a guarded barrier with first port of call a war time train station- the method of arrival for many of the staff at Bletchley. As visitors wander the grounds, it is all too easy to drift back in time as the sounds of ancient conversations can be heard, a spitfire drones in the sky above, tennis balls whizz across the tennis courts and voices call from the boating pond.
In the huts, some of which are set up as they were during the war years, wooden desks with sephia figures tell their stories, in another, colossus clanks through her work.
Current exhibitions include Bond at Bletchley which reveals new research into author Ian Fleming’s connection to Bletchley Park and suggest how his work with Navel Intelligence helped inspire the creation of the James Bond books!
The National Museum of Computing is also housed on the Bletchley site. All in all there is a lot to see, however if you begin to suffer information overload-there is always afternoon tea !
author The Cypher Bureau (How the Poles solved Enigma)
In the spring of 1942 following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, Stalin released thousands of Polish civilians, initially deported to gulags or work camps in the Soviet Union following the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. The released prisoners formed into the Anders Army, which was a Polish unit, and refugees journeying from USSR to Tehran. During a rest stop, one of the refugees, eighteen year old Irena Bokiewicz persuaded one of the Polish solidier’s to trade a tin of meat for an orphaned bear cub. The adopted cub spent the next three months in a Polish refugee camp near Tehran and was then given to a Polish unit, the Second Transport Company which later became the Twenty Second Artillery Supply Company. The unit christened the bear Wojtek, a popular Polish name meaning “joyful warrior.” He soon became of the lads and enjoyed the occasional beer, wrestling with the soldiers and swimming. Wojtek learned to salute, weighing around 35 stone and standing at over six feet tall, this was an impressive sight. The bear soon enjoyed celebrity status and became the unofficial mascot of the unit. He accompanied the unit when it left Iraq to go to Syria, and then on to Palestine and Egypt.
When the unit sailed with the rest of the Polish II Corps from Egypt to fight alongside the British 8th Army in the Italian Campaign, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the twenty second Artillery Supply Company in order to ensure his place on a British transport ship.
As an enlisted soldier of the company, with his own paybook, rank and serial number, he lived with the other men in tents or in a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Italy (also known as the battle for Rome in which the Allies sustained heavy casualties) Wojtek helped by carrying 100-pound crates of 25-pound artillery shells, all without dropping a single one. In recognition of the bear’s dedication and bravery, the Polish army approved a depiction of a bear carrying an artillery shell as the official emblem of the Twenty-second Company.
Following the end of The Second World War in 1945, Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire in Scotland with the rest of the Twenty-second Company. They were stationed at Winfield Airfield near the village of Hutton in the Scottish borders..
Following demobilisation on Fifteenth November 1947, Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo,
where he died in December 1963, at the age of twenty one. He received many visits from his former comrades in arms and was a frequent guest on the children’s television program Blue Peter.
Having experienced Soviet repression first-hand, many of the Polish soldiers who had fought for their freedom during the Second World War refused to return to Poland which fell under Soviet control and chose instead to remain in Scotland in exile.
Unveiled on Seventeenth November 2015, a bronze statue commissioned by the Wojtek Memorial Trust was erected in Edinburgh’s West Princes Street Gardens, it presents Wojtek and a fellow Polish Army soldier walking together. The statue commemorates not only the much-beloved bear, but also the Polish soldiers who shared the same harrowing journey and ultimately sought refuge in Scotland.
Author The Cypher Bureau-how the Poles solved Enigma