Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when Poland is mentioned? Kielbasa? Pope John Paul II? The Solidarity movement? Nazi concentration camps? Polish jokes?
When I was a boy the first and only thing that came to mind was the latter. Fortunately, somewhere along the way my brain kicked into gear. The experts call it progress – when what is believed and what is real become so far out of whack that the gap they create forces a reconsideration. In my case this began in the seventh grade with a book report on Marie Curie, the two-time Nobel Prize winning woman who discovered radium and polonium and whom I thought was French. I soon discovered that Marie Sklodowska Curie didn’t have an ounce of French blood in her; she was born and raised in Poland (and was therefore a Polock – a classmate stated). Later I learned that Copernicus, the first European to state that the Earth moved around the sun, was also a Pole. So was Chopin - and Joseph Conrad - and a host of other earth-shaking individuals including General Tadeusz Kosciusko.
Suddenly I didn’t see what was so funny about being Polish.
If you don’t know who General Kosciusko is, don’t worry. I didn’t know anything about him either until, on an autumn day in the early 1970’s, my family visited West Point, New York. There, guarding the Hudson River, stand the remains of a massive iron chain. I still recall trying in vain to budge its links; each one must have weighed twice as much as I did. My mother explained that this chain had once stretched across the river, successfully keeping the British fleet at bay. I directed my gaze to the opposite bank over a hundred yards away. Although I was only twelve years of age my brain had developed enough to marvel at the ingenuity and audacity of such a scheme. Yet to this day I can’t begin to imagine the muscle power needed to pull it to the other side. General Kosciusko did. He also developed the tactics that enabled American soldiers to win the battle of Saratoga. In return, George Washington awarded him US citizenship, granted him a sizeable tract of land, and made him a brigadier general in the US army.
Sometime later I discovered that another Pole, Casimir Pulaski, founded the American cavalry. Years afterward, during the period most adolescents begin learning about the World Wars, more information about Poles and Poland surfaced. This time the country was shown teeming with victims and survivors. Shortly thereafter it was written off by the world as a dead end communist road. No matter how it was viewed, Poland appeared to be a place where life carried on between horrors as if glimpsed through the eyes of hurricanes. Never once did I contemplate going there. Indeed, it appeared to be a good place to avoid – until 2001.
That year, having left behind a career as a business manager, I found myself in England finishing a teacher-training program. When the course ended, I was told that a new college was going to be built in Warsaw, Poland. Would I be interested in helping to start it up?
It took all of three seconds to say yes.
Poland, as it turned out, was not what I had imagined - nor did it resemble anything I was told to expect. Looking around I was reminded of the old joke about the President of France and the head of the Soviet Union each wanting to visit the other’s capital. Eventually their temptation overcomes them and on the same day they board their respective trains and set off. When both trains stop in Warsaw to take on supplies, each man disembarks, confident that he has arrived at his chosen destination. Little did I know something similar was in store for me.
Thirty days after my arrival national elections were held and a completely new government was voted into office. Overnight, the job I’d been offered vanished. Like the heads of government in the old joke, it appeared I had arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time, but Poland is a country where things can change in the blink of an eye and no sooner had this news presented itself then something else popped up.
As it happened, someone from a prestigious business school explained that a former corporate executive had just ‘pulled a runner’ (unable to plan and present a management course after signing on to do so, she’d simply run off). ‘Would you be interested in replacing her?’
Apparently, no one else could be found at such short notice.
I reluctantly agreed, even though it was three weeks into the semester and no course book, syllabus, or lecture notes were available (the teacher had run off with those too). A few weeks after I settled into the job, the students overcame their shyness and asked for my impressions of Poland. I told them I was pleasantly surprised. Next, I turned the tables and asked what they thought about their country. ‘Not much,’ admitted one.
‘The history of Poland is a history of suffering,’ said another.
‘Yes,’ interjected a third, ‘we are the Jesus Christ of Europe.’
I sat back. Without question that comment remains the most accurate description of Poland I’ve ever heard. But it is by no means wholly true. Poland is also a fighter and has had its share of conquering. Once one of the greatest powers in Europe, it can also count itself as one of the most magnanimous nations ever to grace the Earth. Indeed, it was the first country to pass laws providing for religious tolerance and it was the first to democratically elect its heads of state. In addition, it was only the second country in the world, after the United States, to draw up a constitution.
Then the country disappeared. Literally. Buried under countless battlefields and annexed into oblivion via the fine print of treaties, it was carved up by its neighbours in 1795 and ceased to exist. One hundred and twenty three years afterward it rose from the ashes of WWI. Twenty years following this rebirth, it became the first nation to fight against Hitler and Nazism. Six long years later, lied to and abandoned by the West, it once again sank under the heel of a neighbour - only to spend a decades-long struggle freeing itself from the shackles of communism.
Today Poland is still fighting, but this time it’s in the form of playing catch-up – a situation that seems to be improving despite the general feeling of malaise that pervades.
‘It’s our national disease,’ a Polish man once told me. His comment prompted me to ask a lecture hall full of Polish students if they would ever consider leaving their country for a new life elsewhere. To my surprise, every student raised a hand into the air -- every single one -- and for a moment I actually felt sorry for the rest of the world because many of these students speak three or more languages and hold an impressive work ethic.
But before I run off on a tangent, you may recall that this preface began with the question: What comes to mind when Poland is mentioned? For me, after having lived in Poland for over six years, perhaps a museum exhibit best sums up the answer.
The Polish Military Museum is an indiscriminate sand-and-cement coloured building situated near the Wisla River (also known as the Vistula River), a wide body of water lying just beyond Jerusalem Street. Plundered by the Nazis and used as a warehouse by the Waffen SS during WWII, the building was heavily damaged by aerial bombing in the latter part of the war. Today, rebuilt, it nestles quietly by the side of the Polish National Gallery. Beyond the view from the street, tanks, planes, helicopters, personnel carriers, torpedoes, and other military paraphernalia lie scattered and rusting across its grounds.
Inside, just past the main ticket windows and to the right, is the first of several exhibits containing the usual bric-a-brac found in most European military museums: suits of armour, maps, swords, muskets, pikes, and oil paintings. Here, however, there also sits a faceless figure astride a life-sized model of a horse. The figure sports a large metal helmet with articulated flaps hanging from its sides and back. Beneath a shiny metal breastplate flows a red, knee-length, padded garment. Sheaths of polished, ornate armour protect the figure’s shoulders and arms. The skin of a leopard is draped over its shoulders and thin cobwebs trail from the toes of its yellow stirruped boots. Two swords, the first a yard-and-a-half long and curved like the letter j (described as the finest cutting implement ever used in warfare), the second, six-feet long and rapier straight, are attached to a luxuriously embroidered saddle. On each side of the pommel hangs a pistol. To the right of this exhibit, clasped by an outstretched arm, is a twenty-foot lance from which dangles a red and white banner.
This is an example of a Polish Husaria cavalryman that defended Poland between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Simply put, the Winged Husaria were an astonishing fighting force. Many experts believe that for most of the over three hundred years that they existed, they were never bettered in battle. At times the mere sight of them approaching a battlefield was enough to send an enemy fleeing – not just because of their reputation, but also because they had the audacity to wear wings. Bristling with eagle feathers, these wings arched over the backs and heads of the riders, magnifying their height and bestowing upon them a breathtaking panache.
Like many other cavalry units in Central Europe, the Husaria evolved from mounted, spear-carrying Serbian mercenaries that roamed the conflict-ridden area north of the Adriatic Coast and the Black Sea around the time that Columbus was discovering the Americas. The reputation of these mercenaries for their knee-to-knee charges at a full gallop was legendary. At this point in time Poland was a loosely unified landmass equal in size to modern day France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom combined (approx. 390,000 square miles) thanks to an earlier marriage between a Polish Queen (Jadviga) and a Lithuanian Duke (Jagiello). Western Europe, however, was not impressed by the sheer mass of the Polish-Lithuanian confederation and it wasn’t until the Teutonic Knights were defeated by the Poles near Tannenburg in 1410 – a battle widely regarded as one of the most influential of the Middle Ages - that Poland gained acceptance as a legitimate entity. The Teutonic Knights (or ‘Knights of the Holy Cross’, as they called themselves) were a religious fighting force that grew out of the crusades. Ironically, they had been invited to Poland in 1226 to provide protection from pagans and partisans, but the Knights became belligerent and it took one hundred and eighty-four years of fighting before they were finally subdued and their territory (Prussia) was converted to a vassal state.
Three hundred years later the Renaissance swept across Europe. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (among others) altered the face of art. Hernan Cortez destroyed whole civilisations in Central and South America. What remained of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet circumnavigated the globe. The ‘camera obscura’, a primitive projection device, became all the rage in Western Europe. John Calvin banned dancing, medicine and certain types of clothing. Nostrodomus published his prophecies while Chinese wallpaper was imported into Europe. Queen Elizabeth I solidified her position on the English throne, tobacco was introduced to France, and the graphite pencil was invented. Not to be outdone, Poland contributed to the sum of these changes when one of her more accomplished sons, Copernicus, a qualified doctor and lawyer, ‘stopped the sun and moved the earth’ circa 1542.
While the Renaissance left an indelible mark across all of Europe, the Protestant Reformation floundered and failed within Poland itself. Freed for the most part from internal religious turmoil, the Poles were therefore able to spend a great deal of energy defending their fluctuating borders. Enter Jan Tarnovski, the Grand Royal Hetman of the Polish armies (1527-1561).
A small, energetic, bearded man with an enormous reputation, Tarnovski refashioned the Polish military into smaller mobile forces capable of travelling vast distances at a moment’s notice. He also innovated huge, six-horse war-wagons covered with iron plates that could be hitched together like the carriages of a train and formed into a circle to create a makeshift fort (a system later imitated by 19th century American pioneers). To support these moveable fortresses he then developed mobile field hospitals, created horse-drawn artillery units and logistical command battalions, formed ranks of field engineers (sappers), wrote codes of military discipline, and set up an army chaplain corps.
Nevertheless, even taking into account all of Tarnovski’s achievements, Poland’s greatest military asset remained its famed Husaria forces. Whether on deep raids thousands of miles behind enemy lines or in a galloping charge aimed straight at the heart of opposing forces, the Husaria could almost always be counted on to achieve victory -- especially against overwhelming odds.
Curiously, in Tarnovski’s time Husaria cavalrymen did not wear wings. Instead, they dressed according to their region (or financial resources) in the ‘Hungarian style’ (mostly armourless) with fur caps, loose-fitting smocks, chain mail shirts, leggings (probably with some form of chaps), while wielding painted shields and spears. No one knows exactly when the idea of wearing wings evolved. Likewise, the history behind the legendary lances these cavalrymen brandished, which rendered them virtually unstoppable on a battlefield, has also been lost – as have the stories behind a number of other weapons and tactics with which the winged warriors became famous. What is known is that these armaments appeared sometime after the death of Tarnovski – most probably between 1560 and 1600.
For hundreds of years military experts have researched and studied the Polish Winged Husaria, but to this day no one has ever provided a definitive answer to two of the most obvious questions the Husaria elicit:
Who came up with the idea of wearing wings?