Polish Language Blog

September 1st in Polish History Posted by on Sep 1, 2008 in Uncategorized

Today is September 1st and if you ask any Polish kid about its significance, they will give you a blank stare as an answer. I’ve just tried it.
It was a bit different in my days. Now, I don’t know what they teach you about the starting date of WW2 (druga wojna światowa) in your countries, but in Poland it’s generally understood that the war started on September 1, 1939.

Unfortunately, when I was a high school student this sad anniversary was normally overshadowed by a more immediate, also sad event, which was the beginning of a school year. Which, incidentally, also took place on September 1st.

And this is what I remember from my high school history classes:
Something something Czechoslovakia, Hitler, something something… stuff happened, blah blah.
On September 1st, 1939 at 4:45AM the German battleship “Schleswig Holstein” started to shell the Polish garrison on Westerplatte. It was the beginning of Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the beginning of WW2.
Westerplatte, despite its very German-sounding name, was the location of a Polish Military Transit Depot (WST), sanctioned within the territory of the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk). 180 Polish soldiers under the command of Major Henryk Sucharski defended their position for seven days against overwhelming odds. When they finally surrendered, Maj. Sucharski, as a sign of respect from the German dude in charge, was allowed to keep his officer’s sword while being taken prisoner.
Blah blah blah, France blah blah blah England… the Soviet Army… blah… more stuff happened. WW2 was gaining momentum.

I’m ashamed to admit that even though I lived quite nearby Gdańsk and Westerplatte, I never visited the site. These days it’s a touristy place with a museum and monuments, and that sort of thing.

One September 1st my high school organized a field trip to Westerplatte to participate in the memorial ceremonies, which were held there annually. And here, I’m again ashamed to admit that instead of going there like all good students should, together with a friend we decided to skip it. We went to a musical instrument store instead, where we played guitars and drums for most of the day. And then of course, we lied about it. What can I say? It was the 80s. We wanted to be rock stars.

photo: Wikipedia. Major Sucharski surrenders.

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  1. Zebedee:

    Polish children giving you a blank stare if you ask about the significance of the first of September? I would have thought every single one could tell you it’s the first day of the school year.

  2. Anna:

    Hi Z!
    Exactly! They probably think I’m totally brain damaged if I have to ask about it 😉

  3. Gary Sroka:

    I am quite surprised Anna, how you relate to us about the knowledge of Polish history and laxadazical approach to it by Polish school students. I know (at least at one time anyway) the expression “Nigdy Nie” was widely used and seen on posters etc… loosely meaning “never again” relative to keeping history alive in people’s minds so as to never repeat itself again, because, as the saying goes, “history repeats itself”. This is all the more surprising as it’s in reference to a historical event as catastrophic to Poland as World War 2 was.

    I do enjoy all your blog entries, besides the language aspects itself, they also give insight into Polish life and culture.

  4. Anna:

    I think the problem is that for most young kids this is “ancient” history. To most of them even communism is something they’ve only heard about from their parents.
    But Polish youngsters are not unique in their relative ww2 ignorance, though. It seems to be a rather common trend in the UK, too (not to mention the US – there it’s a total disaster!).
    Sad but true.

    PS. I should add here that it’s not that the kids don’t know what happened on Sept 1st, they do, but since it’s not a top priority to them, ww2 is not something that immediately pops into their minds when asked about the date.

  5. Thomas Westcott:

    History is wasted on the young as they think only about now.

    And furthermore; youth is wasted on the young as they do not know what to do with it.

  6. Gary Sroka:

    Regarding WWII knowledge amongst Polish youth, I noticed on the Kino Polska movie channel I receive on Dish Network, there were several movies shown throughout last week regarding the onset of WWII in Poland. “Agent Nr 1”, Sasiedzi and Westerplatte are three that I saw. Not sure this channel is seen in Poland or is it something just for overseas satellite viewers. Of course, just because they’re being aired, doesn’t mean the kids are tuning off Swiat Wedlug Kiepskich, or whatever they seem to watch.

  7. Miss Tokarski:

    it is a very funny thing. I have recently found out that I am related to henryk sucharski, we were both born on 11-12, although me 96 or so years after him.

    I know what 9-1 is because my parents let me stay home from school as if it were a holiday then. my school starts in august so I am not missing the first day.