The name sierpień August comes from the word sierp sickle, and sierpień in the past was traditionally the time of żniwa harvest and dziękczynienie thanksgiving for good crops. It’s the time of festivals and traditional jarmarki markets.
The main celebrations take place on 15th August. It’s a public holiday in Poland and many Catholics celebrate Wniebowzięcie Najświętszej Maryi Panny the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary also known in Poland as the feast of Matki Boskiej Zielnej. The churches are decorated with wieńce harvest wreaths made of kłosy żyta lub pszenicy ears of rye or wheat and other harvested plants and kwiaty flowers.
The biggest service takes place at Sanktuarium Matki Boskiej Czstochowskiej the Black Madonna Sanctuary in Częstochowa where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive on foot from all over Poland for the service of thanksgiving. The day also marks the beginning of dożynki harvest festivals across Poland.
Around piętnastego sierpnia 15th August one of the most amazing natural spectacles take place in Poland – large flocks of bociany storks are taking off from fields and meadows, leaving Poland for the warmer climes of southern Africa where they spend the winter.
It’s a truly magical moment. People stop and watch these majestic birds gliding across the late summer sky. Józef Chełmoński, one of the greatest Polish painters, captured the scene beautifully in his painting “Bociany” (1900). It’s a moment of sadness to see them go – lato dobiega końca summer is coming to an end and jesień zbliża się autumn is approaching; but it is also chwila nadziei a moment of hope that bociany will be back na wiosnę next spring. Storks form life long relationships and adult birds always return to the same nests.
However, 15th August also marks another big holiday in Poland – Święto Wojska Polskiego the Polish Armed Forces Day. The date commemorates one of the most important and the least known battles in the history of Europe. Bitwa Warszawska the Battle of Warsaw 1920 is also known as Cud nad Wisłą the Miracle on the Vistula. After 123 years of partitions, Poland regained independence in 1918 at the end of World War I. But just a year later it faced – alone – the mortal danger of the invasion by Soviet Russia. Poland was weak, abandoned by the international community and facing a many times bigger aggressor. The outcome of the Polish-Soviet war was almost a forgone conclusion. But Poland had three advantages: the great military leader – Marshal Józef Piłsudski, a group of American volunteer pilots forming the famous Kościuszko Squadron and a bunch of very clever cryptologists who managed to break Soviet secret codes (the same group of cryptologists later broke the Enigma code). The battle altered the course of the European history and polskie zwycięstwo Polish victory over the Soviet aggressors saved Europe from the terror of the Bolshevik revolution.
You can watch Hollywood star Liam Neeson talk about Miracle on the Vistula 1920.
But after the euphoria came the horror. When World War II broke out, the memory of the Polish victory in 1920 was still fresh. Indeed, veterans of the Polish-Soviet War were still alive and many fought to stop the German and the Soviet aggression against Poland in September 1939. Although ultimately they failed, the spirit of fighting for freedom was strong. Once again, in August 1944, soldiers of Armia Krajowa the Polish resistance army started Powstanie Warszawskie the Warsaw Uprising.
Following the initial successes, after 63 days of unimaginative horror, the uprising was crushed. It was starved of supplies – Stalin, in a brutal revenge for the humiliation of 1920, prevented the British and American planes from landing on the Polish territory, left by the Germans but now occupied by the Soviets. The soldiers of the Red Army were watching Poles being slaughtered in their thousands from across the banks of the Vistula.
After the war, the communist regime was determined to erase any memory of the 1920 victory from any history books and the collective national conscience. But pamięć memory survived and by now the ideal of fighting for freedom was also carried out through the memory of the Warsaw Uprising 1944. Many veterans of the Uprising survived the persecutions and had organised resistance against the communist regime in Poland. Waiting and hoping …
It was again in August, in 1980 when nadzieja hope of regaining wolność freedom from the totalitarian regime was ignited and Solidarność Solidarity was born at the end of strajki sierpniowe the August strikes. That historic moment is often called Polski Sierpień the Polish August. Although it was not the end of the communist rule in Poland, it was the beginning of the end.
The history of the struggle of Poles to be free from 1939 to 1989 is told brilliantly in the short film The Unconquered narrated by Sean Bean.
You can watch a short film about bociany here
And read a short article about bociany here
If you are interested in the Polish Soviet War and/or the Miracle on the Vistula here are some resources:
White Eagle, Red Star the Polish Soviet War 1919-20 by Norman Davies
It’s worth spending some time on practicing the pronunciation of words which, at first glance, appear to be very difficult. But appearances can be misleading.
dziękczynienie thanksgiving can be split into [dzięk-czy-nie-nie]
dzięk- relates to dziękuję thank you
czynie- comes from czynić to do something to someone as in the old Polish proverb nie czyń drugiemu co tobie niemiłe what goes round comes round / do as you would be done by
Similarly Wniebowzięcie the Assumption can be split into [w-niebo-wzię-cie]
When pronouncing cud miracle [tzut] remember that the final d is voiceless so it sounds like [t].
In jarmarki markets [yar-mar-ki] remember that Polish j is pronounced as [y]
There are so many images of polski sierpień – can you remember the English translations of the following words?