Book Review: Push Not the River

Push Not the River, by James Conroyd Martin, is a historic, romantic novel written somewhat in the grand tradition of Doctor Zhivago or Gone With the Wind. To call it “fiction” would do it no justice at all–it is set in late 18th Century Poland, in the years including the 3rd of May Constitution and leading up to the third partition of Poland in 1792. But it is also based on deeper history and true story, on the unpublished memoir of Anna Maria Berezowska.

In a sense, it is a grand novel of romance and intrigue, but on a deeper level, it provides a sense of the place of strong women in the history of Poland. Indeed, during the 125 years of the partition (and non-existence as a country) of Poland, it was in large part the matriarchy that kept alive the sense of Polish nationalism and pride which allowed Poland to emerge from World War I as a sovereign nation. Historic figures such as Tadeusz Kościuszko, (the last King) Stanisław August Poniatowski, and Russian Empress Catherine are woven throughout the fabric of this story, but it is the strong character of Anna and Zofia (cousins, but often at secret odds with each other), the main characters, that bring the story to life, woven around their trials and tribulations. The story is honest which makes it stark and tragic at times. Twists and turns of the storyline will keep you entertained and guessing. It’s not all pretty, it’s not all happy, but all along, you will learn a bit about late 18th century Polish culture, society, and politics–the good and the bad.

This is a heartwarming book and–good news–only the first in a trilogy of books Martin has written. I cannot wait to read the next two. This book kept me engrossed every bit of the way. I was impressed with how historical fact was interwoven seamlessly with the plot. The characters were wonderfully developed and seemed to leap off the page at me–I could almost see and feel and hear them and I felt totally drawn into the storyline, almost as if I was there, silently watching every event, every emotion, listening to every conversation.

I would heartily recommend this book on many levels. I’d previously given it as a Christmas gift to one of my sisters, and she dutifully passed it on to the others and to my sister-in-law–they all absolutely loved it (and the sequel too, which I plan to read soon). If you like romance, if you appreciate the place that strong woman have played in the course of history, and/or if you are interested (as I certainly am) in all things Polish, then you will absolutely love this novel. Once I started it, I had a hard time putting it down. It has my highest recommendation. I hope you love it, too! And by the way, it is available on Kindle, too–that’s how I read it!

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70 Years Ago Today

70 years ago today, at 5 PM local time, the Warsaw Uprising began. After 5 long years of Nazi occupation, having suffered the devastating loss of the whole Jewish Population, having suffered the loss of many Polish lives with countless others taken away as slave labor, and with the Russians (Soviet Army) just across the river, the remaining Polish people of Warsaw rose up against the Nazis. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, they held the huge German army at bay for two months. Help from the Russians never came–they were content to watch the Nazis slaughter the Poles. Help from the Allies never came either–Stalin would not allow American and British planes to use Russian bases to refuel. To his defence, Churchill pleaded with Stalin and Roosevelt, to no avail. The people of Warsaw fought on–alone in the world.

It did not end well. When the Warsaw Uprising finally ended nearly two months later, 12,000 Polish soldiers/fighters were dead, and 150,000 to 200,000 citizens were dead, many through Nazi mass executions. 25% of the city was in ruins. But that was just the beginning. Furious that the Poles resisted (and that they were so successful at it), Hitler ordered the city leveled. the remaining 700,000 or so Poles were expelled and the city was leveled, block by block. At the end of the war, no more than 1000 or so people were left in the once grand city.

And so today, at 5 PM, in Warsaw, for one minute, horns and sirens will sound, and all people will stop for a minute and remember what started 70 years ago. They stand today in one of the largest cities of Europe with a population of 1.7 million, the bustling a vibrant, totally rebuilt, capital of Poland, a triumph of freedom and human will–today Poland stand proud as a free country, but does not forget what happened 70 years ago today, nor the fact that Russia and the allies stood idly by and did nothing.  Pamiętamy! 

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Battle of Grunwald

Today, July 15, 2014, marks 604 years since the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. It was at this battle that the combined forces of the Kingdom Poland and the Duchy of Lithuania once and for all decisively defeated the German Teutonic Knights. Their crushing defeat resulting in the Peace of Toruń (1411) and finally the Peace of Melno (1422), but this battle effectively “broke the backs” of these unwelcome “visitors” and it marked the rise of the Polish–Lithuanian union as the dominant political and military force in central and Eastern Europe.

Though long gone from Poland, the Teutonic Knights left behind a “wonder” of Poland that is not to be missed, Malbork Castle, the largest brick castle in Europe. I was fortunate to visit Malbork on my first tour of Poland, and I posted some of my photos from that tour. It is a fascinating place.

But never forget the events of 604 years ago when Poland emerged as a dominant power in Central/Eastern Europe.

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On this day in Polish history…. June 27th

June 27th is a significant day in Polish history for two events that happened on this day, 48 years apart, in 1581 and in 1629. Both events are a source of great pride for all of us who are of Polish descent.

27 June 1581 — On this day in Mogilev, Russia, occurred one of the most lopsided battles in history. A force of about 1000 Polish troops including 200 elite Polish hussars (Cavalry) prevented a 30,000+ strong Tatar/Russian army from storming the city for seven hours. When 300 cavalry came in the aid of the hussars, along with villagers, the combined Polish force chased the enemy away, a total route. Later that year, Polish King Stephen Bathory invaded Muscovy and laid siege to the city of Pskov.

27 June 1629 — On this day occurred what is known as the Battle of Trzyciana. In short summary, the twice-larger forces of King Gustav II Adolf, by many historians considered to have been one of the most outstanding military leaders in history, was routed by the much smaller sized force let by Polish Hetman (military leader) Stanisław Koniecpolski, considered to be one of the greatest military leaders of the all time for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Their success in this battle effectively ended this particular religiously driven attempt by protestant Sweden to invade Europe. The battle was a stunning victory for Poland and her allies.

And now you know the rest of the story!

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Wolność — Freedom

As I write this, it is June 5th, what I’ll call a ‘tween day. It is the day between two historically significant days in the history of Poland.

On June 4, 1989, the Third Republic of Poland rose from the shadows of communism and 40-some years of Soviet domination. On June 4th 2014, Poland celebrated 25 years of freedom. At last, real freedom.

Poland25YearThe road to freedom for the Third Republic of Poland was a difficult one, but it came as all Poles knew it would one day. In some sense, that road to freedom began in earnest with the event we will celebrate tomorrow, June 6th–the 70th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in World War II. Some Polish troops participated in the invasion of Normandy, but even more were involved in many other aspects of World War II, from pilot who helped defend Britain during the Battle of Britain Bombardment, to the soldiers who finally captured Monte Cassino in Italy 70 years ago this May.

But, it’s not a time to dwell on war and it’s aftermath, not a time to dwell on the sad fate of post-war Poland, handed over as a prize to the Soviets, not the time to dwell on the past. Today is a day to look at the accomplishments of Poland, at one time in history the largest and most powerful nation in Europe. And today, Poland again stands strong and proud. Not only the people of Poland, but all people of Polish descent, and all people who love freedom have something to be proud of today, the fact that freedom does win. Poland is a living example. Happy 25th!

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Święty Jan Paweł II — Saint John Paul II

Today is a historic day for many Poles all over the world. On this day, the first Polish Pope was made a saint. To me, personally, this is a very amazing event, and a day for celebration not only for those of Polish heritage, but for freedom-loving people all over the world.

In August of 1978, I was just starting my first year as a teacher in a Catholic High School in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Pacelli High School. I’d never taught before and had just completed a year of seminary–I had studied to be a priest and was taking a break from that. So in that August, I walked into a classroom fresh with an attitude of hope and idealism and the part I could play in the formation of young people. I walked into this in the midst of a new Pope being elected, John Paul I. Of course there was a lot of talk about the Papacy in my classes, since the elect of the new Pope was fresh in everyone’s mind.

Image our surprise only a month later to learn of the death of this new Pope who had brought a serene and calm sense of moderation to the church. So we all watched the process for the next election of the Pope, the ceremony, the tradition, watching for the white or black smoke…it was a good learning experience.

And then it happened, there was white smoke, a signal that a new Pole had been elected! But the news was even more astounding to all of us–the new Pope was not only Polish, but a man who had visited Stevens Point two years early as Cardinal Karol Wojtyła! For many people of Stevens Point who had seen and heard him speak and offer mass two years earlier, this was indeed a memorable and joyous occasion.

Stevens Point is a heavily Polish town, many are descendants of the Kashubs of northwest Poland, and more from other areas of Poland. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła visited the area because of it’s heavy Polish descent. He visited a local farm, gave a lecture at the University, said Mass at a local predominantly Polish parish, and visited with religious sisters, some of whom were a Polish order, the Felicians. It was at the time a memorable visit, but made all the more so by his election to the Papacy.

I remember at the time, the great excitement and sense of pride felt by my students and the people of Stevens Point. It was pride as a person of Polish descent, pride that for the first time ever, a Pole had been elected Pope, and pride by many that they’d been fortunate enough to meet/see him previously. It was a great feeling.

Through the years, I’ve followed the comings and going of Pope John Paul II. He visited many countries, always preaching a message of peace. As Pope, he set a lot of “firsts.” He visited 129 countries. First Pope to visit the White House. First Pope to visit the western wall in Jerusalem, and the list goes on.

But the story of his most amazing journey is not widely known, though it’s consequences literally changed the world. In 1979, he visited his native Poland for the first time. It was, truly, a visit that changed the course of history. The communist government of Poland was anxious to show Poland–a deeply and devoutly Catholic country–that event though there was a Polish Pope, that did not diminish their capacity to govern, oppress, and direct Polish society. Boy, were they wrong! In the estimation of many scholars, it was his trip to Poland in 1979 that lead to the formation of the Solidarity trade union (Solidarność) and the eventual fall of Communism.

But here in the USA, we really don’t know much about what really went on during that first visit to Poland, nor the scope of it. The Communists were interested in using his visit for their own propaganda–to show that they were still in charge. The movie Nine Days that Changed the World really tells the whole story. And I have heard the story told by people in Poland who lived through it, and people who saw the Pope when he was there. This is the rest of the story.

When he arrived in Warsaw, the first thing Pope John Paul II did was kiss the ground, the ground of his native land. The motorcade through Warsaw saw the streets lined with two million people. 2,000,000. The open air Mass at Victory Square was attended by 250,000 people. To see him during that first  visit to Poland (and subsequent visits), people walked dozens of miles, waited patiently in huge throngs of people, if only to hear a few words or to catch a glimpse of the Pope. Polish pride was enormous.

The Pope’s visit to Poland culminated 8 days later in Kraków, the city in which he’d been Cardinal/Archbishop. That day, June 10, 1979, began with a Mass on the Krakow commons attended by a crowd of two to three million people. During his visit to Poland, it’s estimated that 13 million people saw him. He brought a glimmer of hope to a nation that had been oppressed by communism for 35 years, a nation that has time and again risen from the ashes. And he set helped set in motion and support the underpinnings of what would eventually become the Solidarity Trade Union and helped lead to the eventual downfall of Communism and the freedom of Poland and many other countries.

So, today, as a Polak myself (American by birth, Polish in my heart), I am proud to see a new saint, Saint John Paul II. I did not always agree with his rather conservative church policies and views, but I wholeheartedly agree with his humanistic views. I, too, am a proud Pole today.

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Walentynki — Valentine’s Day in Poland

Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in Poland in recent times–since the collapse communism and the opening of Poland’s borders. Poles were very quick to adopt Valentine’s Day, and now it’s very popular, as much in Poland as anywhere else.

Poles celebrate Valentine’s Day (Walentynki) with heart-themed items including greeting cards, candies and cookies and other gives. Many restaurants and resorts offer special romantic packages as well.

Some Poles make a pilgrimage to Chełmno, a small town in west-central Poland where some relics of the real St. Valentine have been preserved for hundreds of years at the local church. In fact, it has become a multi-day event in Chełmno where the main square becomes a fairyland with a huge electronic heart that glows in the night. The festivities end with a spectacular fireworks display.

Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji Walentynek!  Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Map of My 2010 Tour of Poland

Today I began work on a map of my 2010 tour of Poland. You can see that map here: On the map are links to some of the pictures I took as well as many of the cities we were in. It was a 10-day tour, we put on a lot of miles and saw a lot of stuff. It was the most fantastic time I’d had in my life to date (later surpassed by my next tour of Poland, but that’s a map for a different day. Take a look, you can relive my tour with me. If you’d like you can start with what I wrote here in this blog beginning with day 1: Or you can see the whole tour as one document from here:

Next up, to create a map of the amazing journey I had in 2011 when I visited my cousins Alicja and Wojtek (and a lot of other family) who live near Gdańsk. With Alicja, Wojtek, and Filip, we journeyed 3000 kilometers and visited our relatives in Ukraine, and saw many other historic sites there. Now that map will be really something. Stay tuned…. You can read about that 2011 trip in my blog starting on Day 1 here:



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Trail of the Eagles’ Nests

Are you interested in seeing a great view of “old Poland” along with some of the new? Well, you can. The Trail (route) of Eagles’ Nests (in Polish, Szlak Orlich Gniazd) is a marked hiking/bike trail in southwestern Poland generally running from Kraków to Częstochowa. It is a chain of about 25 castles built in the 14th century by King Kazimierz the Great and marked and protect what was then the southern border of Poland. Most of the Castles (along with some other defensive watchtowers) were built high atop tall rocks and cliffs, hence the name “eagles’ nests.” The trail is about 161 kilometers (101 miles) long and is the most popular trail in Poland.

Would you like to visit it? Well, you can, from the comfort of your own home. A great video of the trail and its environ is posted you YouTube here:

Some of the castles are but ruins today, some restored, some in between. Some have activities, some just silently stand guard these hundreds of years later. The commentary in the 13-minute is in Polish, but that does not matter. Just sit back, enjoy the music, tune out the dialogue, and get a wonderful glimpse into the past and the present. Many of these places are not directly accessible by car and are definitely “off the beaten path.” Or, if you’d like, see some of the photos of these and learn a bit more in this Wikipedia article. However you do it, you owe it to yourself to take a few minutes to enjoy this wonderful footage, a glimpse into the 14th century, life in Poland, as well as a bit of today’s modern Poland. You will not regret the time spent.

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Opłatek — A Polish Christmas Tradition

Today is December 24th, Christmas Eve. In many Polish households in Poland and throughout the world, tonight they will celebrate Wigilia, a traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal. Traditionally, once the youngest child see the first star in the sky (gwiazdka), the traditional, meatless meal begins. You can read more about Wigilia itself here.

Wigilia begins with the sharing of the opłatek, a thin, wafer-like piece of unleavened bread, similar to the catholic communion host. The opłatek is a rectangular piece, often embossed with a scene from the Nativity or such. At the beginning of the Wigilia celebration, the head of the house says a short prayer, thanking God for the blessings of the past year and asking for God’s continued blessings for health and prosperity in the coming year, and hoping that the group will be again together to celebrate the next Wigilia, next year. Then the opłatek is passed around. Each person takes a piece and shares it with those around them, giving wishes for health and prosperity.

There are various traditions surrounding the sharing of the opłatek. In my family, my grandfather would say a prayer as described above in Polish. Then, the opłatek would be passed around. Each person would take a small piece, dip it in honey, and say “daj Boże miłoszerdzie“–God have mercy.

Tonight, in my home, we will have Wigilia, and will begin with the sharing of the opłatek. A similar scene is taking place this Christmas Eve in millions of homes in Poland and throughout the world. In my sister’s home, they’ll share the opłatek. My folks are hosting a good portion of my family. They will begin their Wigilia by sharing the opłatek. My cousins are doing the same, and second cousins likewise, as are aunts and uncles, and many, many more. And in Poland, my cousins there will be doing likewise. We’ll all be thinking of each other, wishing each other the best in the coming year, celebrating a tradition that is many centuries old:

Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji Świąt Bożego Narodzenia,
zdrowia, szczęścia, miłości i pomyślności.
Niech się spełnią wszystkie Twoje marzenia,
niech nie zabraknie ciepła i rodzinnej, wspaniałej atmosfery.

Pozdrawiamy serdecznie,


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