Poland's Nov. 11th celebrations dampened by memories of a massacre


In Poland November 11 is a state holiday, an anniversary of the restoration of independence after over a century of the partitions. This is a day of official ceremonies but rather few manifestations of popular joy. Michal Kubicki of Polish Radio's External Service has been finding out why.

This year's Independence Day celebrations have a particularly solemn character. Over 13 thousand Polish officers - victims of the Katyn massacre in Stalin's Russia in 1940 receive posthumous promotions during the forty-hour long ceremony at Warsaw's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier culminating on Independence Day itself. It's an unusually long event as military protocol requires that the names of the promoted officers be read out. Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, a minister of state in the presidential chancellery

'There is no individual in Poland having any doubt that this tragedy that was manipulated for so many years needs to have a clear place in the Polish memory. We can all meet in one place with families of Katyn victims and celebrate what happened in 1940'.

The Katyn massacre remains an open wound for Poles and a thorny issue in Polish Russian relations, in view of the fact that Moscow still refuses to acknowledge that Katyn was an act of genocide. It was surely one of the key events in modern Polish history, but November 11 is a joyous occasion - the day when Poles celebrate the regaining of independence in 1918, after over 120 years of foreign rule. Why are there no street parades or joyous celebrations therefore? The autumn weather may be not suitable for open-air events but as Marek Magierowski of the Rzeczpospolita daily says this is not the only reason.

'I think our independence is strictly related to martyrdom. We consider ourselves as martyrs and it's hard to celebrate martyrdom.'

For many Poles, organized parades have bad connotations.

'Parades are associated in Poland with the communist regime and so to celebrate Independence Day as under communism won't be a good idea.'

'Poles are skeptical having communist past in mind about organized events in general. They are sick and tired of mass celebrations as such.'

Over the past few years, things have started to change a bit, with the authorities in several cities organizing open-air singalongs of patriotic songs. Being proud of your national heritage is a good thing, says Janusz Cisek, the director of the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw.

'We have many reasons to be proud of our history, especially when you see that our independence was very costly and yet every generation was trying to get it, to have the opportunity of wearing the Polish flag, of being able to see the white eagle presented on various occasions.'

The mood in Poland on Independence Day is not likely to become similar to that of July 14 in France very soon but journalist Lukasz Warzecha is among those who hope that the solemn atmosphere of the day will not be its permanent feature.

'I think this will change with time. What's very striking for me is that if we have veterans who fought in the 1920 [Polish-Soviet] War, very few of them are still alive, they are very glad to see joyful parades, joyful celebrations. They want that mood, not the gloomy mood. This is very good and I think we should listen to them'.