Beachcombing has always had a bit of a thing about the Poles: a nation of warriors and survivors. It is difficult not to get a little teary-eyed then when, in 1918, Poland officially becomes, after 120 years of dreaming, a nation again. Unlike Italy’s pretend risorgimento – to have a ‘resurrection’ you need to have originally existed – here there really was a return to life. There had been a Poland in 1000 and there had been a Poland as recently as 1795 – before it was butchered by the Russians, Prussians and Austrians – and now, until 1939, there would be a Poland again.
The anecdotes about the rebirth of Poland are as delightful as the event itself. Padereweski playing Chopin to Wilson in the White House in 1916 and so, according to legend, convincing Wilson to include Poland in the 14 points. The tale of the Polish patriot who climbed up on the statue of Bismarck in Posen and placed a fourth-class train ticket in the great Prussian’s brass hand. The Polish establishment going to an official British shindig in Warsaw in 1919, but boycotting the dance in protest at the lack of British support over huge portions of ‘Czech’ Poland: duelling challenges shot back and forth. But best of all, surely, is the reminiscence of the English diplomat Esme Howard concerning an unusual wine-drinking experience on the night that independence was celebrated. A Polish noble family had been keeping by a bottle of wine from 1772 the date of the first of the shameful partitions that had destroyed Poland.
‘We were given a bottle of Tokay wine which had not left the cellar since 1772… and drank it to a resurrected Poland. Strange to say it was drinkable.’ 342, n.1.
It must be an extraordinary experience to drink grapes that had grown in your great-great-great-great grandfather’s childhood and still be able to enjoy them. Are there other examples of such historic toasts: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com? Wine bottles preserved on sunken ships (another post, another day) are not quite the same thing.
In any case, almost as soon as the toasting ceased the fighting began. Poland’s notorious anti-Semitism was somehow kept in check at the beginning, but in the Baltics, on the Czech border and with its new German minorities Poland would now find reasons for arguments. Then already in 1919 and 1920 Poland’s very existence would be tested as the Poles joined that select group – essentially Mannerheim’s Finns and Bin Laden’s jihadists – to have met and to have defeated the Soviet Union in the field. An act that, of course, the Soviets would revenge in their own characteristic way at Katyn in 1940…
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