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15/06/2003 12:50:25

The Poles Are Coming!!!

Over the weekend the Poles voted overwhelmingly in a 2 day referendum to join the European Union. This country is the most important of the ten new candidate countries. Its 39 million strong population means that it is larger than the other 9 candidate countries put together. It is almost as big as Spain, and like Spain it will have 54 seats in the European Parliament and one permanent member of the European Commission.

Most readers are aware that Poland is a Central European state with a long history and a football team that has often obstructed England's passage in the World Cup. Now Poland is the UK's closest ally in Europe and like the UK it has strong sympathetic ties with the United States, participated in the Iraqi War and is placed in charge of an occupation zone in that country. Like Britain it is a proud nation with a thousand year history which will not surrender its sovereignty lightly.

So we are likely to see a lot more of this country than we have until now. But what do we really know about Poland?

TWENTY THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT POLAND

1/ Poland was the first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools - in the XVIIIth century Poland was also the first country to have a Ministry of Education.

2/ In the XIVth and Xvth Century the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest single country in Europe. Its capital was the ancient city of Krakow.

3/ When Polish friends greet each other they kiss THREE times on the cheek. Elderly Poles still greet ladies by kissing their hand.

4/ England's most famous writer of sea stories, Joseph Conrad, was of Polish origin. His real name was Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, but his English audience found some difficulty with that name!

5/ The first written Constitution in Europe was proclaimed in 1791 in Poland. Poland's neighbours were so incensed that they invaded Poland, partitioned it and abolished the constitution. Poland ceased to exist as a separate state until the First World War.

6/ The highest mountain peak in Australia at 2228 metres is Mount Kosciuszko, in the Snowy Mountains range. It was named after a XVIIIth Century Polish national hero. I have yet to meet an Australian who knows how to pronounce it properly.

7/ Polish, one of the Western Slav group of languages, still uses the old Roman alphabet but it includes 9 extra characters and is considered to be the European language with the most complicated range of uses of Roman letters. Among the most popular consonants in Polish are K and Z.

8/ The founder of modern astronomy who first discovered that the Earth and the Planets move around the Sun, and not vice-versa, was a XVth Century Polish cleric called Copernicus. He had been a Professor at Krakow University, which was the second oldest University in Central Europe (founded in 1370 by King Casimir the Great). Incidentally, one of the largest craters of the moon is named after Copernicus.

9/ "Polonaise" is the name of a stately dance first danced at the Polish court in the XVIth Century. Among the most celebrated musicians to compose "Polonaises" was the famous Polish composer Frederic Chopin.

10/ The Polish language was the official language of the Russian court in the XVIIth Century.

11/ In the primeval forests of Bialowieza on the borders of Poland and Belarus roam the most powerful European mammals - the Polish bison. They are bigger than their American cousin - the buffalo. There are about 300 of these picturesque animals left in the wild.

12/ The most dangerous time to be in Poland is Easter Monday morning when men and women roam the streets and drench each other with buckets of water. It is an old pagan custom connected with the washing away of the old year and part of the fertility rites. The Catholic Church failed to stop it and adapted it as part of the festivities connected with Easter.

13/ The name "Poland" comes from one of the Slavic tribes which settled on the Vistula River before the IXth Century. They were farmers and herders and were called the Polanians or "people of the plain".

14/ One of Poland's more repulsive rulers was Augustus the Strong who had over 360 illegitimate children and only legitimate child.

15/ The invasion of Poland in 1939 was the reason that Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, Poland was Britain's longest standing ally, throughout the entire length of the War. Polish pilots played a decisive role in the Battle of Britain, and Polish sailors played a crucial; role in chasing the Bismarck and fighting the U boats. Polish troops fought alongside British troops in Norway, France, North Africa and Italy

16/ The effects of the Second World War on Poland was devastating. 6 million Poles died (that is 22% of Poland's pre-war population), half of them of Jewish origin. Also Poland lost its independence, more than one third of its territory, and many of its cities were in ruins, including Warsaw where 84% of its buildings were obliterated. The Auschwitz-Birkenau death-camp where nearly two million Jews, Poles, Gypsies and other nationalities were murdered by the Nazis is sited in Poland.

17/ The oldest and most picturesque salt mine in the world is at Wieliczka, in Southern Poland, founded in 1044. It is now a major tourist attraction under the protection of UNESCO and includes nearly 2000 underground caverns, including chapels, hospital and museums.

18/ Poland was the first European country to break free of Communist rule in 1989, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The existence of the "Solidarity" movement, led by the world's most famous electrician, the whiskery charismatic Lech Walesa, undermined the Communist monopoly of power.

19/ The current Pope John Paul II is Polish. He had to work as a slave labourer under Nazi occupation, wrote plays and was a Polish goalkeeper, before he became a Polish cardinal.

20/ The first Pole in English history was the Polish princess, Swietoslawa, also known as Grunhilde, the mother of King Canute. She had married first the King of Norway, then the King of Denmark, had started a Scandinavian War after quarrelling with one of her Norwegian lovers, and had two other lovers burnt at the stake. She died peacefully in an English nunnery. 

Wiktor Moszczynski, London 8 June 2003

 
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