Monday, November 28, 2011

Wax and magic on St. Andrew's Eve

Tomorrow is the 29th of November, the eve of St. Andrew's day, which many European cultures associate with the telling of fortunes. In Poland, where close attention is always paid to the patron saints of a given date, we call it Andrzejki, or in some regions, andrzejówki or jędrzejki. Andrzej or Jędrzej are the Polish versions of the name Andrew.

A little pronounciation lesson is in order here: where you see the r and z come together as rz, they are pronounced as a voiced palato-alveolar sibilant. No, I don't really know what that means either, the last phonetics lesson I took was over fifteen years ago. I refer you to Wikipedia. Incidentally, the letter ż is pronounced the same way, just to make spelling harder.

We'll take a look at the Polish alphabet (of thirty two letters!) later. Let's get back to that magical night: Andrzejki.

The prophecies are usually matrimonial. We say that St. Andrew takes care of maids, while St. Catherine (whose Feast is celebrated on November 25th) worries about the bachelors. So, how exactly does one find out the identity of their future spouse?

On St. Andrew's eve, as on all magical nights, dreams gain special power. To see your future lover in a dream, place a basin of water next to your bed, and build a little bridge of twigs over it. The dream will walk across it to reach you.

Be careful, though, of attracting evil spirits into your dreams. To ward them off, rub garlic over doorknobs, doorsteps and windowsills. If you want to be extra careful, swallow a couple of garlic cloves just before you fall asleep. (I guess ghosts are afraid of stinky breath!)

Even our ancestors knew vampires don't make good lovers.

In some regions, ghosts were kept away by bonfires that burned through the night. To add to the fire's magical power, one could throw in a blessed herb, or part of a woven palm leftover from Palm Sunday. Thus fed, St. Andrew's Fires were said to cause deep sleep and prophetic dreams.

Fire was used again in lighting two wisps of unspun wool, one for each lover, and sending them flying up into the sky. If, on their way up, they should find and join each other, the lovers' fate was sealed.

108/365: The fireplace
Fire is magic. Everyone knows that.

But fires aren't a practical solution nowadays. You may prefer to write down some names on pieces of paper, place them under your pillow, and pull one out in the morning as soon as you wake up.

You can find a fence, and count the posts like you would count the petals of a daisy, repeating: bachelor, widower, bachelor, widower... Or else simply see if the number is pair; that promises a relationship.

At home, take your left shoe off. Throw it over your shoulder. If it lands with its nose towards the door, you will marry soon. If there are several single people in one house, take off your shoes and line them up, one after the other, to see whose shoe will touch the doorstep first.

These are just a few things you can do, but the most popular way to tell your fortune, and one that doesn't necessarily focus so much on finding a partner, is the pouring of wax or lead.

334/365: St Andrew's Day
My talented former flatmate Marta demonstrates

Lead, as we know now, isn't a safe thing, so grab a couple of wax candles and follow these instructions.

You will need to fill a vessel with water, and light a candle so that it casts a sharp light on the wall. You will also need a key, an older key with a large hole.

Melt some wax in a pot. Try to get a real candle, not stearin or paraffin- the magic comes from the bees who made the wax.

Take your key, and hold it over the basin. Slowly, pour the melted wax through the key hole onto the water.

St Andrew's Day 07
By the way, little drops of wax floating in the water symbolise coins. You'll be rich!

The wax will quickly cool and set into a shape. Take it out of the water and hold it up in front of the candle. What kind of shadow does it cast?

Look carefully. The shape you see represents your future.

Meta info:

Wikipedia entry for St. Andrew's Day

My former flatmate's blog (she's in one of the photos :))

Information was gathered from personal experience and this book by Dr. Barbara Ogrodowska

Friday, November 25, 2011

11.11.11 was Independence Day

11.11.11- what a date! And very special in Poland. What other countries celebrate as Veteran's Day or Armistice day is our Independence Day. In 1918, after 123 years of partitions by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia, Poland returned to the map as an independent country: the Second Polish Republic.

Where's Poland? :(
You see, though our country did not officially exist for so many years, its dispersed former leaders and elite did not sit idle. In Italy, Napoleon Bonaparte helped exiled general Jan Henryk Dąbrowski form a military group called the Polish Legions, some seven thousand strong, which initially fought alongside the French, but was ultimately destined to fight for the reinstatement of Poland. This is why our national anthem pays heed to Bonaparte, and talks about coming home from Italy and joining with our nation.

In fact, the anthem we sing to this day was written by one of the creators of the Legions, to the tune of a cheerful military march, and began with the hopeful verse:

Poland has not yet died,

So long as we still live.

What the alien power has seized from us,

We shall recapture with a sabre.

Poland has not yet died. This motto returns again and again in our history. And in 1918, with the conclusion of World War One, she was reborn again.

November 11th was chosen as the commemorative date 19 years later. We only got to celebrate it twice before WW2 broke out.

After that war, Independence Day did not return. We had become the People's Republic, a satellite of the USSR, and our communist government took the holiday out of the calendars as its celebration stirred up too many patriotic feelings which were not 'appropriate' in a country so tightly linked to Soviet Russia. In fact, attempts to honour the date were often brutally punished by the Military Police, and the participants risked arrest and investigation by the Security Service.

In 1989 when we once again regained full independence, the holiday was reinstated, amplifying its significance as a day when we celebrate our country's freedom, as it now also symbolised the triumph over communism and its brutal propaganda.

315/365: Independence Day
Scouts join the parade. Scouts are awesome!

That was twenty two years ago. Today, the traditional and government-organised celebration is a wonderful thing to see. It starts every year at noon at the grave of the Unknown Soldier, where government officials, the military, and renowned citizens pay their respects at the symbolic tomb.

Then begins a military parade, which is in greater part a presentation of historical reconstruction groups. You will get a chance to see all sorts of military formations from many historical periods, such as various instances of the famous Uhlan cavalry.

Independence Day Parade, Warsaw
The song goes, uhlans, uhlans, pretty painted boys, many a girl will run after you.

Piebald horse
...and your pretty, pretty horses.

The parade traditionally walks through the city to the Polish Army Museum, where it concludes with a historical picnic and many interesting exhibitions.

Tactical bicycles
Tactical bicycles...
Tactical bicycle with rifle mount
...with rifle mounts. 
Young soldiers from the 1944 Uprising- yet another fight for independence.

Unfortunately it just so happened that I was traveling this Independence Day, and wasn't able to make the celebrations in Warsaw, so the best I can offer you are these photos from 2009. It was a very rainy day, but that didn't keep the crowds from showing up.

A policeman and children watching the Independence Day Military Parade.

N.B. You may or may not have heard that there were riots in Warsaw this Independence Day. This bothered me so much that I did not post this on the date. It took me this long to decide whether I wanted to post it at all- I was so disappointed and upset by what happened. Independence Day should not be celebrated with violence. 

I didn't write about the two clashing marches this year, or about the shameful and misguided conduct we saw on the 11th, because that is NOT awesome. Also, this blog is not supposed to be about my political views, and I would not be able to avoid expressing them in such a post. But if you're interested in what I think about it all, or would like to know more about what prompted the fighting, shoot me an email.

Meta info:
The Polish Army Museum:

Map of partitions taken from Wikipedia CC file:

Wikipedia page for Polish Independence Day:

Wikipedia page for the Polish Anthem:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A story of two wars

This is a true story and I never tire of hearing it.

My paternal grandfather was born in 1899 in what was then Prussian territory, and so at seventeen, he was drafted into the Prussian army to serve during World War One. He was Polish, of birth and of heart, which he later proved through his actions in the Uprising of 1918, but being born in bilingual territory, he spoke the cleanest German. He was an officer, a professional soldier, and his name was Stanisław Bryll.

Grandpa Staś
In 1939, he fought under General Kleeberg in the last large battle of the September 1939 defensive campaign.

This battle was fought by the small town of Kock (pronounced Kotsk) in the Podlasie region, close to the present Belarussian and Ukrainian borders. Grandpa Stanisław was a scout, mainly on account of his excellent German. Kleeberg's Corps was in fact the last organised unit of the Polish Army left standing, and his men fought fiercely to defend their position, hoping for the aid promised by the French and English Allies.

The Allies, however, never came, and Kleeberg was running low on supplies. My grandfather took part in one desperate skirmish fought with bayonets- the soldiers had no bullets left. But the mad advance was such a shock to the Germans that they retreated. The hopeless charge turned into another victory.

Thus, though outnumbered, the Polesie Group, as they were called, continued to win battle after battle- but their time was running out along with their provisions and ammunition. And when Bolshevik airplanes roared in from the East, Kleeberg was forced to make the difficult decision to disband the Corps.

General Franciszek Kleeberg
So, on October 6th, after sending his men away through the forest, Kleeberg capitulated. He had not lost a single battle in that campaign, and was the last Polish general to surrender in 1939. He did so knowing that there was no hope of winning another battle, and that if his men would be captured by the advancing Bolsheviks, they would no doubt be executed. He was right- by the end of the war, thousands of Polish officers were murdered by the Soviet Secret Police in one of the many attempts of the aggressors to eliminate the Polish elite.

Kleeberg died as a prisoner of war,  but his men escaped through the thick, primeval forests of the Podlasie region. Alas, the hunt was on, and finally, grandpa Stanisław was taken prisoner. Luckily- as it turned out- by the Germans.

Along with a few others, he was marched West, to an unknown fate, under the supervision of a man only slightly older than him. Since he knew German, he began to chat with this Wehrmacht officer, who was after all just another man and not the barking Hollywoodian stereotype Nazi we have come to class all German soldiers as. They talked about the battle, about weapons, this and that- and it was not long before the German noticed something curious about Stanisław. This Pole, he observed, did not only speak perfect German, but he used a particular military jargon.

A very familiar military jargon.

This is the coincidence that saved my grandfather's life. It turned out that Stanisław and his German captor had both served in the Prussian army in 1916. They had practically been brothers in arms, fighting the same battles and skulking in neighbouring trenches at Verdun. They spoke the same language; the instantly recognisable, very particular jargon of WWI soldiers.

I don't know how long the Wehrmacht officer thought about what he did next, and how he rearranged his loyalties. I don't know exactly what went through his mind when he asked Stanisław where he lived.

Fifty, maybe sixty kilometres from here, was the answer. Not too long a walk, for a soldier.

"Kameraden," said the German. "I will turn around, and I will not look. And you will run home."

Who knew whether he would keep his word? As Stanisław turned and made away through the forest, he feared a bullet in his back, as any fleeing prisoner would. Maybe the German was playing a cruel game?

He was not. No shot was fired, no chase given. Out of sentiment, or perhaps out of some complicated loyalty towards his fellow soldier, the German had let my grandfather go.

I never met my grandfather- he died before I was born, in 1969, still hiding from socialist repression towards Home Army soldiers. But in October 1939 he did make it home to his wife and son, exhausted and ill, crawling with lice and wearing a disguise of rags pulled from clothes lines and scarecrows- his uniform would have been a death sentence. He went on to fight in the underground, often working as a spy, using forged papers to pass as a German and gather information.

Here is his grave, which I visited this week for All Souls' Day. He is buried in Falenica, a district of Warsaw, where he died unexpectedly while walking to the train station to meet my stepbrother, and my grandmother. Her name was Helena, and I remember her as she outlived him by nineteen years. She is buried beside him, and it is worth mentioning that she, also, worked for the underground, gathering information while working as a translator in a hospital for German soldiers.


They were both remarkable people. But so was that German officer, whose story we'll never know, at the very least in that moment when he decided to turn his back, and let my grandfather escape. He must have been quite aware that he would not only risk being tried for treason if his deed was discovered, but that the man he had let go would never cease to fight against the invaders.

Whatever it was that made you do it, thank you, unknown German soldier.

Meta info:

Wikipedia page for General Kleeberg's Corps, the Independent Operational Group Polesie:

General Kleeberg's photo taken from a Public Domain file:

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Zaduszki, or a night at the cemetery

Nighttime at the Powązki cemetery in Warsaw...spooky!

If you happen to be in Poland around the time when October turns to November, you will have a hard time finding a Halloween party. Although the custom is gaining popularity thanks to the commercial world's neverending quest to introduce the same holidays and feasts everywhere and thus cut bulk production costs on plastic pumpkins, it is not in Polish tradition to dress up and go trick or treating. 

Instead, we light thousands and thousands of candles in the cemeteries:

All Saints' Day
I once knew a woman from England who spent a year in Poland- shortly after her arrival, she bought
 several candles just like these, thinking they would brighten up her apartment.
Don't do that. These are 'znicze', or graveyard votives, and yes, people will know the difference.

A boy lights a candle by a monument to all soldiers and civilians
 who died fighting the oppressor in WW2.

All Hallows' Eve, with its roots in pagan festivals, has evolved in Catholic Poland into a solemn and respectful celebration of the departed. The Slavic and Baltic pagans called the night of October 31st 'Dziady', a night of meetings with the dead. Candles were lit to guide the souls home, so that they could spend that one night out of the year with their loved ones. The pagan custom of performing rituals to help lost souls find their way into Nawia, the Slavic afterlife, eventually became the Christian prayer for souls remaining in Purgatory. Borrowed from the pagans is the custom of light: a grave without a candle is a grave forgotten, and a soul left without aid.

Four unknown soldiers. Someone has lit a candle for them, even though no one knows their names.

The grave of Maria Kownacka, a beloved children's author. Fans of her books covered the tomb with candles.
She wrote a fantastic story in the form of the Diary of a little plasticine man who lived in a
pencilcase. It was later made into a sweet tv series: Plastusiowy Pamiętnik

Top right you can see a little statue of plasticine-man Plastuś on the gravestone.
Someone has placed a real plasticine figurine on the pages of his diary.

On November 1st, we celebrate All Saints' Day, a public holiday, and November 2nd is 'Zaduszki' or All Souls' Day. 'Dusza', pronounced doo-shah, is the Polish word for 'soul'. In socialist times, the government tried to change the name of the holiday to a more secular 'Day of the Dead', but it didn't really stick.

The days between October 31st and November 2nd are the most common dates for visiting cemeteries. Many people will travel across the country just to clean up a loved one's grave, and light a candle for their peaceful rest.

This boy lived for two short years, dying in 1879. His name on the grave is shortened to
the endearing, childish 'Staś' instead of Stanisław.
 Does anyone remember him, or did a visitor to another grave take pity, and light candles over the forgotten crypt?

The particular thing is that during these three days, cemeteries are open past their regular hours, which are usually dawn til dusk. In Warsaw, areas of the city where the largest necropoliae lie are closed to regular traffic, and accessible only by walking or riding special 'Cemetery' public transport lines.  These measures are taken to reduce accidents due to unusually high traffic- this year, 48 people have been killed and nearly 500 have been hospitalised. In their rush to honour the dead, too many people end up joining them...

You should brave the odds anyway, and try to go to a cemetery after it gets dark. Don't be afraid- you will probably not be alone.

A ghostly crowd of the living visits the grave of Czesław Niemen, one of our most famous and influential musicians.

If you are in Warsaw, try the famous, two hundred and twenty year old Powązki cemetery, where generation upon generation of Warsavians, and many famous people are buried; poets, musicians, writers, but also wartime heroes, charitable doctors, brilliant scientists. Their graves will usually be covered in candles left by fans and appreciators.


Take your time strolling through this beautiful place- the gates won't close until very late, and in any case, there is a special hole in the fence left open for stragglers. You will walk in the darkness and light alike, with little, flickering flames guiding you among the graves. If you look up, you will see autumn leaves slowly circling down, and statues of saints and angels standing guard over the dead.



If you meet charming men and women asking for donations, drop a coin in their boxes. They are Polish actors, writers and other celebrities, who volunteer every year to collect money for the upkeep of this beautiful, historical place.

And when you are chilled through and tired of walking the maze of this huge cemetery, step outside the gate to buy some 'lord's skin'.

This gruesomely named little candy of uncertain origin, half-taffee, half-marshmallow and all sickening sweetness of a cousin to Turkish Delight cannot be bought in stores. You will find it only at church feasts and cemeteries. It is handmade, though no one knows where and by whom. Sometimes it's tinted pink. It comes wrapped in plain, white wax paper. Its name is 'pańska skórka', literally 'lord's skin', which supposedly used to be 'lady's skin', and was a reference to its delicate, smooth texture, and the pale colour. Why is it sold only by Warsaw cemeteries? What, exactly, is it made out of?

No one really knows.

The 'other side' of the cemeteries: porta-potties, overflowing dumpsters,
flower vendors with alcohol on their breath, and the ubiquitous 'lord's skin' candy seller.

Meta info:

The Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia article on All Souls' Day:'_Day

More of my photos from Powązki: