72 Interesting Facts about Poland

By Karin Lehnardt, Senior Writer
Published January 26, 2017
  • Poland’s formal name is Rzeczpospolita Polska (Republic of Poland).[17]
  • Poland has 120,562 square miles (312,255 km2) of area, which makes the country slightly smaller than New Mexico.[17]
  • Poland’s highest point is Mt. Rysy at 8,199 feet (2,499 m); its lowest is near Raczki Elbląskie at 6.56 feet (2 m) below sea level.[17]
  • Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.[17]
  • The Polish flag has two equal horizontal bands of white (top) and red; the colors derive from the Polish emblem, which is a white eagle on a red field. Poland’s flag is similar to the flags of Indonesia and Monaco, which are red (top) and white.[17]
  • Poland’s national anthem is Dąbrowski’s Mazurka. The anthem, commonly known as “Jeszcze Polska nie zginęla” (“Poland Has Not Yet Perished”), was written in 1797 by Jozef Wybicki. The anthem was composed in Italy, where Polish troops were fighting at the side of Napoleon.[15]
  • The first Polish ruler recorded in history was Mieszko, about A.D. 963. In 966, Mieszko adopted Christianity, making Poland the easternmost country within the orbit of Latin culture.[15]
  • Poland's Białowieża Primeval Forest is home to 800,000 European bison, Europe’s heaviest land animal (Valène Aure / Creative Commons)
  • The 380,000-acre (150,000-hectare) Białowieża Primeval Forest in Poland is Europe’s last ancient forest and home to 800 European bison, Europe’s heaviest land animals.[1]
  • The Mongols’ invasion of Poland from late 1240 to 1241 culminated in the battle of Legnica, where the Mongols defeated an alliance of forces from fragmented Poland and members of various Christian military orders led by Henry II the Pious, the Duke of Silesia.[15]
  • Polish King Kazimierz Jagiellończyk, became known as the “Father of Europe.” Of his nine children, one became a cardinal, four became kings, one was canonized, and the three daughters were married off to become mothers of the heirs of the greatest dynasties in Western Europe.[15]
  • In 1573, the Poles elected their king, Henry de Valois, but the new king decided to return to France immediately after his coronation to rule as Henry III.[20]
  • The last Polish monarch, Stanisław Poniatowski, died in prison in 1798 in St. Petersburg, Russia.[15]
  • On November 11, 1918, Poland declared itself a republic, independent of Russia. Poles have celebrated their Independence Day as a national holiday on November 11th since 1937. However, public celebration of the holiday was forbidden from 1939–1989, while Poland was under a Communist government. Since the collapse of that government, Independence Day has become the most important Polish national holiday.[15]
  • In 1922, Gabriel Narutowicz became Poland’s first democratically elected president.[15]
  • On September 1, 1939, the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland without any prior declaration of war, thereby beginning World War II.[15]
  • Poland was the only European country which never officially collaborated with the Nazis at any level, and no Polish units fought alongside the Nazi army. Poland never officially surrendered to Germany, and the Polish Resistance movement in German-occupied Poland during World War II was the largest resistance movement in Europe.[15]
  • The word “Poland” is the Anglicized version of Polska, which is ultimately derived from the word or “field.” Thus, Poland means “land of the Poles”—which could be a reference to the Polans, Polanies, or Polonians, who were to eventually unite the territories of Poland and establish the first Polish national dynasty, the Piast.[8]
  • I am thankful to heavens that in all my instincts I stood Polish.

    - Friederick Nietzsche

  • On September 12, 1989, the first freely elected, noncommunist government in a Warsaw Pact state took office, led by Poland’s Nobel Peace Prize-winner Lech Wałęsa, who was instrumental in organizing the Solidarity movement of the 1980s.[15]
  • Adam Mickiewicz is the author of the Polish national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz (Master Thaddeus) in 1834, which ironically begins with the verse “Lithuania, my fatherland!”[15]
  • The 2,121-feet- (646-m-) high Warsaw Radio Mast in Konstantynów, Poland, was the world’s tallest structure until it was intentionally collapsed on August 8, 1991.[15]
  • During World War II, the Polish town of Oświeçim was the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps, where at least 1.1. million Nazi prisoners were killed by gassing with the pesticide Zyklon-B and many more died in other ways. Ninety percent of the prisoners killed were Jewish. The first exterminations of prisoners took place in September 1941.[15]
  • Gniezno was the very first capital of Poland. The Gniezno Cathedral has been the seat of the Polish archbishops since A.D. 1000. The first Polish martyr, St. Adalbert, is entombed in Gniezno Cathedral.[15]
  • On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg made his courageous, though unsuccessful, attempt to assassinate Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair, near Kętrzyn, in northeastern Poland. The Wolf’s Lair was Hitler’s main headquarters along the German Eastern Front.[15]
  • Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose paternal Polish grandfather fought in the 1863 insurrection against Russia and was exiled to Siberia, is the most famous of the descendant of those Poles exiled or killed during that rebellion.[15]
  • It is estimated that 100 million pączki, a Polish doughnut, are consumed every year on the the Thursday before Ash Wednesday alone.[18]
  • October 8th is National Pierogi Day
  • On November 3, 1939, the first death sentence of World War II was passed by the Nazis on two Polish women who had torn down Nazi placards.[8]
  • Poland’s Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of Quo Vadis and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is buried in Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral, which also happens to bear the dedication “Decapitation of the head of St. John.”[8]
  • Napoleon Bonaparte met the Polish elite and his future mistress, Countess Maria Waleska, in the ballroom of Warsaw’s Zamek Królewski (Royal Castle) in 1806.[8]
  • Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernik) was born in 1473 in Toruń (Thorn), Poland. He was educated at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University and after that joined the Catholic priesthood. On his return home from studying in the famous Renaissance universities in Padua and Bologna, he became administrator of the northern bishopric of Warmia in 1497, also working as a doctor, lawyer, architect, and soldier. He lived for 15 years in Frombork, where he constructed an observatory and undertook his research, which he later wrote down in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium; its revolutionary contention was that the sun, not Earth, was the center of the planetary system. The work was published by church authorities in Nuremberg in 1543, the year Copernicus died. It was later banned by the papacy, but re-allowed into scholasticism in 1582 with Pope Gregory.[20]
  • Ludwig Zamenhof, from Białystok, Poland, created the artificial language of Esperanto. His first primer, Dr. Esperanto’s International Language, was published in 1887. The first world Esperanto conference was held in France in 1905, the same year Zamenhof published Fundamento de Esperanto, his main work, which became the basic Esperanto textbook and is still use today. Universala Esperanto-Asocio has an estimated worldwide membership of 500,000 speakers. There is still a thriving Esperanto-speaking community in Białystok.[25]
  • Maria Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867
  • Marie Curie (Manya Sklodowska) was born in Warsaw (Warszawa), Poland, on November 7, 1867. She moved to Paris in early 1880 and married Frenchman Pierre Curie in 1895. With her husband, she discovered the elements polonium (Po), named after her native Poland, in the summer of 1898 and, soon thereafter, radium (Ra). She is credited for coining the term “radioactivity” and won her first Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband and another colleague, Henri Becquerel, in 1903. Following Pierre’s death in 1906, Marie was appointed to her husband’s professorship and was the first woman to teach at Paris’ Sorbonne University. She won a second Nobel Prize in 1911 for her research in the isolation of pure radium.[25]
  • Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark is based on the life of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who used his business operations to shelter thousands of Polish Jews during World War II. The book won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1982 and was also made into an Academy Award-winning film, Schindler’s List, by Steven Spielberg.[25]
  • American author Leon Uris wrote the bestselling novel Mila 18, based on the tale of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1843. Mila 18 was the Warsaw address of the Jewish Resistance militia’s headquarters.[25]
  • Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a celebrated pianist and composer who became Poland’s first prime minister post World War II, as the country regained its independence from Nazi Germany.[25]
  • Mikołaj Rej is the so-called Father of Polish Literature, being the first author to write exclusively in the Polish language.[25]
  • In October 1978, the Bishop of Kraków, Poland, Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II, the 264th head of the Roman Catholic Church on October 16, 1978 at 5:15 p.m. A mountain climbing man of letters, playwright, philosopher, intellectual, and poet, Pope John Paul II is affirmed by many as one of the chief architects of the Second Vatican Council and its document Gaudium es Spes, or Joy and Hope. He was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church on April 27, 2014.[24]
  • Poles have won a total of 17 Nobel Prizes (more than Japan, China, India, or Australia), including four Peace Prizes and five in Literature.[25]
  • Polish-born Michael Marks arrived in Britain in the 1880s, fleeing persecution of the Jews in Russian-controlled Poland. In 1884, he set up a stall in Leeds’ Kirkgate open market, selling household goods for the fixed price of a penny. He would later go on to become cofounder, with Tom Spencer, of Marks & Spencer Department Stores, which officially opened in 1894.[2]
  • Born in Kraków, Poland, Helena Rubinstein can take credit for the world’s first waterproof mascara, and later for the precursor of the mascara wands used universally today, when she bought and developed a business called “Mascara-Matic.” The business was also the first to develop a professional range of suntan products.[28]
  • Built in the 13th century, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the world's oldest salt mines
  • One of the world’s oldest salt mines, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, located in the southern Polish town of Wieliczka, was built in the 13th century and produced table salt until 2007. The mine’s attractions include dozens of statues, three chapels, and an entire cathedral carved out of rock salt by the miners. Approximately 1.2 million visitors walk through the salt mine annually. The mine reaches a depth of 1,073 feet (327 m) and is over 178 miles (287 km) long. It is often referred to as the “Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland.”[4]
  • The English writer Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowski in Poland. He is most famous for the novels Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness.[14]
  • The highest mountain in Australia, Mount Kosciuszko, was named after Polish General Tadeusz Kościuszko, who fought against the Russian Empire as well as in the American Revolutionary War.[12]
  • Kazimierz (Casimir Pulaski) is a Polish-born nobleman and soldier who was recruited by Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette to fight with the colonists in the American Revolutionary War. He is sometimes called the “Father of the American cavalry.” He was killed on October 9, 1779, during the Battle of Savannah in Georgia.[26]
  • In 1912, Casimir Funk, a Polish-born American biochemist, collected all published literature on the issue of vitamin deficiency. He was the first to isolated niacin, later called Vitamin B3. He also coined the term vital amine to describe the class of chemicals he and other researchers were studying, and the word was later simplified to vitamin by 1920.[3]
  • Stanisław Leszczyński, King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 1704–1709 and 1733–1736, was the father-in-law of Louis XV of France. Leszczyński became the last Duke of Lorraine after losing the throne of Poland. He gave his name to a World Heritage City square in Nancy, then the capital of the Duchy of Lorraine.[20]
  • Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius published the earliest exact maps of the moon.[7]
  • In 1802, a Polish unit of soldiers accompanied a French force sent to quell the slave uprising in the French colony of Haiti. Descendants of the Polish soldiers still live in Haiti where they are known as negres blancs. In 1983, Pope John Paul II visited Haiti and acknowledged its place in Polish history.[20]
  • Mirosław Hermaszewski was the first Polish national in space, flying aboard the Soyuz 30 spacecraft in 1978 and spending almost eight days on board the Salyut 6 space station as part of the Intercosmos space program.[16]
  • Although he spent his adult life in France, Polish-born composer Frédéric François Chopin is Poland's most famous composer
  • Frédéric François Chopin (Fryderyk Franciszek Szopen), is Poland’s most famous composer. Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, Poland, in 1810. In the summer of 1830, he left Poland, never to return. He died in Paris in 1849 in his home at Place Vendôme 12 and is buried in Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.[15]
  • The International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition is one of the oldest music competitions in the world. It was founded by Polish Professor Jerzy Zurawiew, and the first competition took place in January 1927 in the Warsaw Philharmonic in 1927. From then on, the competition was organized to take place every five years—except for 1942, when the competition was interrupted by WWII.[13]
  • The first Olympic medal in winter sports won by a Polish national was a bronze won by skier Franciszek Gąsienica Groń in 1956.[16]
  • The beginnings of Polish football, or soccer, can be traced back to a seven-minute-long game played on July 15, 1894. The first real Polish football club was called Sława Lwów, later Czarni Lwów, formed in 1903. The first international match Poland played was against Hungary in 1921 in Budapest, which Poland lost 0-1.[16]
  • Poland contributed 144 fighter pilots to the Allied effort during World War II, most notably in the RAF 302 and 303 squadrons. It is claimed they are responsible for shooting down 204 German planes and probably another 35, which was 12%–14% of German losses during the Battle of Britain in 1940.[26]
  • Poland’s Stanisław Lem is known as one of the world’s greatest science fiction writers. His novel Solaris was made into a movie in 2002.[26]
  • Poles consider the Battle of Monte Cassino, a Benedictine monastery in Italy, their most important military action during World War II. After repeated Allied failures to take the monastery, Second Polish Corps commanded by General Władysław Anders succeeded, although with heavy losses. The battle was increasingly commemorated after 1989, with streets in Poland being named after it.[26]
  • Polish-born Pola Negri, born Apolonia Chałupec, became a great Hollywood starlet, especially of the silent film era. Her most memorable roles were in historical epics such as Ann Boleyn and Madame DuBarry.[26]
  • Krąków’s Jagiellonian University was established by King Casimir III the Great in 1364 and is the oldest university in Poland and second oldest in Central Europe.[15]
  • Kraków has always been considered to be the “benchmark of Polish culture”
  • The American Academy of Motion Pictures recognized the outstanding merit of Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s most famous contemporary film director, awarding him a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in March 2000.[26]
  • Polish-born Mariusz Pudzianowski is a five-time winner of the “World’s Strongest Man” title.[11]
  • President Woodrow Wilson set out Fourteen Points in January 1918 as the basis for a peace settlement at the end of World War I. The Thirteenth Point laid down the requirement for an independent Poland, with secure access to the sea.[26]
  • Barbara Piasecka Johnson, of Johnson & Johnson Company fame, was born in Staniewicze, Poland. In 1971, she married John Steward Johnson, who left her the bulk of his fortune when he died in 1983. In 2007, she was listed on the Forbes 400 World’s Richest People List with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion US, making her the 149th richest person in the world. She died in Sobótka, Poland, in 2013, and was buried in Wrocław.[27]
  • Poles drink, on average, 92 liters of beer a year, which places Poland third in consumption in Europe behind Germany and the Czech Republic.[5]
  • The first surviving cookbook of Polish recipes dates from 1682 with dishes influenced by strong Lithuanian, Tartar-Turkish, and German influences.[6]
  • The Polish alphabet consists of 32 letters.[23]
  • Pierogi, or Polish dumplings, are one of the most recognizable Polish dishes outside of Poland.[15]
  • Ronald Reagan named his 1982 speech “Let Poland Be Poland” after the song, “Żeby Polska była Polską,” a protest song written in 1976 by Jan Pietrzak.[22]
  • Poland has a history of producing high-quality vodka for more than 500 years. The first Polish vodkas appeared in the 11th century when they were called gorzalks and used as medicines.[9]
  • The “Piwnica Swidnicka” is the oldest restaurant in Europe
  • Located in Wrocław, the “Piwnica Swidnicka” is the oldest restaurant in Europe, open since 1275.[15]
  • Pizza, or zapiekanka, in Poland does not contain tomato sauce. It is a popular street food served on a baguette with melted cheese, mushrooms, and ketchup.[15]
  • Inspired by and named for the original Woodstock rock festival, Pryzstanek Woodstock, an annual free rock music festival in Poland, is the largest open-air festival in Europe.[5]
  • In Poland, bananas are peeled from the blossom end not the stem end.q[16]
  • Roman Catholicism is so popular in Poland that there is a television channel dedicated to the pope.[25]
  • Important Dates[10][19][20][21] 
    DateEvents 
    9th Century ADFormation of first Slavic states on the Oder (Odra) and Vistula basins.
    Early 10thThe Piast dynasty consolidates in Greater Poland and conquers Mazowsze.
    966Poland adopts Christianity.
    972Mieszko I annexes West Pomerania..
    1000Gniezno Archbishopric is founded; Emperor Otto III recognizes Polish independence.
    1025Bolesław the Brave is crowned King of Poland.
    1138-1306Period of feudal disintegration.
    1247First Mongol invasion is halted despite Polish defeat at Legnica.
    1364Kraków University founded.
    1386Władysław Jagiełło, Grand Duke of Lithuania, marries Jadwiga of Poland; founds Jagiellonian Dynasty, which lasts until 1572. As a result of the marriage, Polish-Lithuanian Union is established.
    1410Teutonic Knights are defeated at Grunwald.
    1466Treaty of Toruń (Thorn) establishes peace between Poland and Lithuania and the Teutonic Knights.
    1505Nihil Novi statute establishes a Polish “nobles’ democracy.”
    1569Union of Lublin creates a single Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
    1573Polish elective monarchy is established. Confederation of Warsaw is enacted, which guarantees religious toleration.
    1596Union of Brześć (Brest) breaks Polish Christian Church relations with Patriarch of Constantinople and enters into communion with and places itself under authority of the Roman Catholic Pope.
    1600-29First Swedish wars take place.
    1648Bohdan Khmelnytsky leads a Cossack rebellion in Ukraine, which turns into a war of liberation from Poland.
    1652Władysław Siciński uses the first liberum veto to break up the Polish Sejm (lower house of parliament).
    1655-60Swedish “Deluge” and occupation of Poland takes place; miraculous defense of Jasna Góra Monastery at Częstochowa.
    1667Truce of Andruszowo is enacted.
    1683King Jan Sobieski defeats Turks at Vienna
    1702Swedes invade Poland for the third time.
    1704King Augustus is dethroned; he is replaced by Stanislaus Leszczyński.
    1709Leszczyński is dethroned; he is replaced by Augustus.
    1733-35Leszczyński and Augustus III struggle for the Polish throne. Leszczyński is defeated, forced to leave the country, and spends the rest of his life as the Duke of Lorraine in France.
    1766-72Russia supports the reactionary Confederation of Radom.
    1772First partition of Poland takes place to end the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
    1773Commission for National Education is established.
    1791Constitution of May 3 is passed by Polish Sejm.
    1792Confederation of Targowica (Russian loyalists) opposes the Polish Constitution.
    1793Second partition of Poland takes place.
    1794Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s national uprising is suppressed.
    1795Third partition of Poland takes place.
    1797-1803Polish legions fight for revolutionary France and Napoleon.
    1806Warsaw is occupied by France after uprising in central Poland.
    1807Duchy of Warsaw is established; Napoleonic Code is introduced to Poland.
    1809Duchy is extended after Napoleon’s defeat of Austrians.
    1812Polish troops participate in Napoleon’s Russian campaign.
    1815Kingdom of Poland and Free State of Kraków are established.
    1816Warsaw University is established.
    1846Kraków Free State is abolished after peasant uprising.
    1864Slavery is abolished in the Russian partition.
    1886Polish League is founded.
    1892Polish Socialist Party is founded.
    1895Polish Democratic Party is founded.
    1905-07Revolution occurs in the Russian Partition.
    1914Polish legions form within the Austrian Army. Supreme National Committee is established in Galicia.
    1915Russian Poland is occupied by the central powers.
    1917Polish Legions are dissolved.
    1918Poland regains its independence. Józef Piłsudski becomes Head of State on November 11. Ignacy Daszyński forms the first independent government in Lublin.
    1920Victory in the Polish-Soviet War preserves Poland’s independence.
    1922President Gabriel Narutowicz is assassinated.
    1926Piłsudski seizes power in May.
    1932Poland signs nonaggression pact with USSR.
    1934Poland signs nonaggression pact with Germany.
    1935Piłsudski dies on May 12.
    1939September 1, Hitler invades Poland and begins World War II. September 17, Russia invades Poland and partitions it on the basis of the pact with Germany. Polish government-in-exile established in Paris.
    1941Hitler invades USSR. Polish government-in-exile allies with USSR.
    1943Katyń massacre provokes breaking off of Polish-Soviet relations. Warsaw Ghetto Uprising takes place.
    1945Yalta Conference and Potsdam Agreements confirm provisional governments and de facto Poland’s eastern and Oder-Neisse western frontiers.
    1970West Germany legally recognizes Poland’s western frontier.
    1978Karol Wojtyla elected as Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II.
    1979John Paul II makes his first papal visit to Poland.
    1980Waves of strikes against price increases occur. NSZZ Solidarity Party is formed on August 31 at the Gdańsk Shipyard under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa.
    1981Polish government declares a state of war in order to suppress the Solidarity movement.
    1983Lech Wałęsa receives the Nobel Peace Prize.
    1984Father Jerzy Popiełuszko is murdered by Polish Secret Police.
    1988Lech Wałęsa sets up Civic Committee (KO).
    1989Civic Committee candidates win 99 of the Senate seats and all of their allotted seats in the contractual Sejm election.
    1990Lech Wałęsa is democratically elected as president of Poland.
    1991Poland’s first fully free election produces a fragmented Sejm.
    1993Wałęsa dissolves the existing Sejm after Suchoka government is defeated.
    1994Poland joins NATO partnership for peace.
    1999Poland becomes a full NATO member.
    2004Poland enters the European Union (EU).
    2010President Lech Kaczyński is killed in plane crash on his way to Smolensk.
    2010Bronisław Komorowski elected president, replacing Kaczyński.
References

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