Well, chalk up another first for me, today I have seen the president, live and in person. Oh, not the one you’re thinking of. No, I saw the president of Poland, closer than any of you will probably ever get to any US president. But it was for a somber occasion, the remembrance of the beginning of World War II, 71 years ago today.
Yes, 71 years ago today a great battle started. A German battleship opened fire on a Polish garrison at Westerplatte, a small piece of land that protects the entrance to the harbor at Gdansk. It was defended by about 200 Polish soldiers. The Germans attacked it with a battleship’s bombarement, then wiht 1500 SS troops as well as 225 marines, and then with dive bombers. It took them 7 days to conquer this small Polish force. The Poles lost 12-18 men killed and maybe 50 wounded. The Germans lost 200-400 or more killed and wounded. The story of the battle is one not of great heroism, but of heroic defense of one’s country. There are other great stories of the defense of Poland when the Germans invaded, but all tell of a nation that is very proud.
Today I was at a ceremony that commemmorated this event. The festivities started at 4:48 AM, so our bus left the hotel at 3:20. There were a lot of people there. There was a mock re-enactment of some of the battle’s hightlights and it was broadcast on big screens for all to see. There were some fireworks to simulate all the bombardment. Then eventually there were speeches, first by the President of Poland, Bronislaw Komorowski then by some other dignitaries including the Archibishop who actually prayed. Aloud. At a public function. With public officials present. That made me proud to be of Polish ancestry.
The ceremonies and festivities were impressive. I did not have to understand what all they were saying to know of what it was they were speaking: a love of freedom, a love of independence, and a fierce loyalty to their nation and culture. It was very moving, especially when they played the Polish National Anthem, Mazurek Dąbrowskiego, often known as Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła. A very powerful moment. Later on they played taps. And then there was the ceremony of the wreath laying. Many officials, politicians, historians, consuls, etc., laid wreaths, beginning with the President. And even our delgation was represented. Chris had arranged with the mayor of Gdansk and he and several veterans in our group laid a wreath on behalf of the people of Lublin and Wisconsin. It was a touching moment.
So, it has been a busy day already. A very moving day as well. I have always been very proud to be an American of Polish ancestry, and never more so than today. Knowing what I know of the history of Poland and the Polish people is….well….it’s amazing, there are not words to describe a country that has been through all Poland has been in the last 500-1000 years and still bounces back from tribulation and leads the world in its love of freedom.
Yesterday was a celebration of Solidarnosc and the fall of Communism, triggered by Poles, today a celebration of the spirit which helped the west triumph over the enemies of freedom in World War II, led by Poles. Wow, how much better can this trip get?