November – solemnity of death and joy of independence

Listopad November takes its name from a combination of two words: liść leaf and opadać to fall down. In Poland, like in many countries in the northern hemisphere, the days are short and often gloomy with rain, sleet or snow falling out of grey skies.  

It is perhaps not surprising that the beginning of the month is dominated by reflections on death. The 1st November is Wszystkich Świętych  All Saint’s Day while the 2nd November is Zaduszki All Souls’ Day.  Both holidays have been celebrated in the Catholic Church since the 9th and 10th century respectively. These are very important days for Poles. 

Wszystkich Świętych All Saints’ Day is celebrated on the 1st November, and it’s a day when all saints of the Church, that is those who have attained heaven, are commemorated. The tradition stems from the belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven and the living. 

All Saints’ Day is a public holiday in Poland, as traditionally, Poles visit the cemeteries and decorate the graves of family and friends with flowers and lanterns.  Many travel long distances to observe this ritual. The tradition has always been so strong in Poland that even the communist regime didn’t dare abolish it, although it made its best to secularise it and call it Święto Zmarłych Holiday of the Dead. 

candles on a grave







If the 1st November is all about saints who attained heaven, the 2nd November is about all those who await in purgatory to atone for their sins before they enter heaven. Zaduszki All Souls’ Day is the day of remembering and pray za dusze for souls of all Christians who have died. 

cemetery angel









But listopad is not all about sadness and melancholy.  

On 11th November is Narodowe Święto Niepodległości National Independence Day. It’s a day when Poles celebrate regaining sovereignty for Poland  from German, Russian and the Austrian Empires after 123 years of partition. It’s important to remember that Poland has existed as a sovereign state for over 1000 years, and is one of the oldest democracies in the world. On the 11th November, Poles celebrate odzyskanie niepodległości regaining of independence.  In 2018 the celebrations are especially important as it is stulecie odzyskania niepodległości centenary of regaining independence. Watch a short message from Mel Gibson to mark the occasion.

Polish flags








World War I was a tragic event which brought a catastrophic loss of life and material destruction. For Poles it was particularly tragic, because they were forced to serve in the armies of occupying forces and therefore during battles, Poles who served in the Russian army were often forced to kill Poles serving in the German army.  

In 1795 Poland ceased to exist as a sovereign country as a result of neighbouring German, Russian and Austrian Empires annexation of territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  For the following 123 years Poles had to endure brutal suppression of national insurrections, imprisonment, political repression, increasing Russification and Germanisation policies. Despite this, Poles never gave up on their ideal of regaining independence. 

During the tumultuous years 1914-1918, the ‘Polish question’  arose once again. The occupiers of Poland were now bitter enemies engaged in a war.  Members of the Polish intellectual and political elite lobbied Western governments to recognise the demand for Poland’s independence.  Thanks to the action taken by Ignacy Paderewski, a popular and highly respected famous pianist and politician, many in the West began to support the Polish cause. In January 1918, in his speech addressing Congress, American President Woodrow Wilson announced the reconstruction of an independent Poland with access to the sea, stating it as one of the conditions of a permanent peace.  

In the final weeks of the war, in October 1918 it became apparent that the old world order was crumbling.  Poles started to disarm the occupiers and creating the institutions of an independent state.  Game for independence was won. 

On 10th November 1918, Józef Piłsudski arrived in Warsaw, released from prison in Germany to take control of the newly created  Polish state. 

Although the leading Polish politicians, Józef Piłsudski, Roman Dmowski, Ignacy Paderewski and Wincenty Witos, known as the Fathers of Polish Independence, had very different ideas about what the new state should look like, and how it should be governed, they all came to a compromise and sacrificed their individual ambitions for the sake of a greater good.  However, they all agreed that Poland should be a republic, and among many other things, that women must have equal voting rights with men. 

 Fathers of Polish independence







The regaining of independence was just the beginning of a difficult road for Poland. Poor, exhausted, plundered by the occupying powers, deprived of the intellectual power (many brilliant Polish scientists were forced to emigrate), Poland had to be rebuilt almost from scratch. In the following 30 years, it achieved astonishing progress, only to be crushed by Nazi Germany in 1939.  In 1945, the German occupation was replaced by the Soviet one. It is only now that the Poles can celebrate true independence, and they are passionate about it.  On the 11th November 2018 about 250,000 people – men, women, the old, the young, families with children, united together and marched through Warsaw under a sea of white and red flags, honouring the sacrifice of the many generations of Poles who gave their lives for Poland to be free and independent again. 

Polish tutor tips:

Find out more here why Poland ceased to exist as a country in 1795.

You can watch Stefan Tompson explaining why Poles are so passionate about the march. 

You can also watch a short film called Rebirth about Poland from 1918 to 2018.