10 Things You Might Not Know About: Poland

Poland, which borders seven other countries, is the ninth largest country in Europe. This post-communist nation has a rich history, many famous people and scientists, and varied flora and fauna, as well as a multitude of cultural treasures and sights. Poland has so many facts that it is challenging to choose the most important and interesting ones. But here they are: our ten most unusual and interesting facts about one of Europe’s most beautiful countries!

Marie Curie was Polish, not French

Marie Curie with her husband Pierre

Marie Curie was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw as “Maria Salomee Skłodowska.” Her life and achievements can rightly be described as spectacular. Even as a child, she devoted herself to learning and research. It was quite clear to her that she wanted to get a higher education, but women were not accepted at the university in Warsaw in Poland, which was at that time still occupied by Russia. In order to receive the desired education, she eventually had to leave the country.

After completing her diploma in France, one of Curie’s professors granted her a researching position to study the chemical composition and magnetic properties of steel. This project brought Marie in contact with Pierre Curie, who, like her, was a young, ambitious, and talented researcher. Together, they discovered two new chemical elements, which led Marie Curie to become the very first and only woman to win two Nobel Prizes in two different science areas. She was also the first woman ever to defend her doctoral thesis in France and is, up to this day, considered a pioneer in research on radioactivity.

Warsaw wasn’t Poland’s first capital

Aerial photo from drone. The culture and historical capital of Poland. Comfortable and beautiful Krakow. The land of Legend. Old part of town,Main square, St. Mary’s Basilica.

Warsaw has been the capital of the Republic of Poland since 1918. It is the residence of the current Polish President, the Polish Government, the Parliament (Sejm), and its highest courts. But before the city become the Polish capital, there was a small town with about 250.000 residents back then in the southern part of Poland that was the political center of the country: Krakow. But after the relocation of King Sigismund III.’s residence to Warsaw, Krakow quickly lost its political importance. Still, it hasn’t lost its national significance due to its position as the former residence of the Polish kings and burial place of influential personalities. Today, Krakow is the cultural center and “secret capital” of Poland. With 20 universities and over 170,000 students, it is also the most important university location in Poland after Warsaw. 

The Father of the Heliocentric Theory came from Poland

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, 1873, by Matejko

Nicolaus Copernicus was an astronomer at the beginning of modern times. He came up with a new way of explaining the universe. At that time, people believed that the sun, moon, and all the other planets revolve around the earth. However, Copernicus said it was the other way around: everything revolves around the sun and hence established a whole new worldview, also known as the “Copernican Revolution.”

Long after Copernicus’ death, Germans and Poles argued if he was German or Polish. He did come from a German-speaking family. In addition to German, he also spoke Polish and Latin, which often led him to spell his name differently, depending on where he was currently living: “Mikołaj Kopernik” in Poland and “Nikolaus Kopernikus” in Germany. 

For the longest part of his life, Copernicus lived in Thorn, Royal Prussia, which was a region that had been part of the Kingdom of Poland since 1466. Copernicus died at the age of 70 in Frauenburg, Poland, where the residents had set up a museum for him in the town’s “Domburg.”

A Country of Nobel Prize Winners

Since 1901, every year in Sweden, we award the Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry, economics, and literature (additional category Nobel Peace Prize) to successful scientists and artists. 

Marie Curie, born as “Maria Salomee Skłodowska,” was the first (Polish) woman to receive a Nobel Prize in 1903, together with her husband Pierre Curie in the physics department. Eight years later, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. But Marie Curie isn’t the only Polish scientist to receive this award: a total of 14 awards went to Poland, with most of them received for great literature. 

Oldest Salt Mine in Europe

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the oldest in Europe. Salt has been mined here since the 13th century. The mine is easily accessible from Krakow, so Poland decided in 1718 to open its gates to visitors, including Balzac, Chopin, and Goethe. Even though there are no more miners in Europe’s oldest salt mine, there are all the more tourists: around a million visitors dive into the salt labyrinth deep underground every year. In 1978 Unesco officially declared the “salt labyrinth” a World Heritage Site.

Frédéric François Chopin was, unlike his name, Polish, not French

“Chopin plays for the Radziwiłłs,” 1829 (painting by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1887)

Chopin’s birthday is controversial – for Poland, it is February 22, the date of Chopin’s baptism and birth certificate. Paris, where the artist later truly gained fame and success, on the other hand officially begins with the Chopin celebrations on March 1. This is the date that the composer himself gave as his date of birth and which most sources consider the most likely. But it’s indeed a fact that in 1810, a boy named “Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin” or “Frédéric François Chopin” was born in Żelazowa Wola, Warsaw, to a French man and his Polish wife. His whole life took place between these two countries or “worlds,” as Chopin once put it himself: Childhood and studies in Poland, success, and fame as a musician in France. He eventually died on October 17, 1849, at the age of 39 in Paris. 

Polish TV is dubbed

Anyone who has ever seen a film on Polish television for the first time will immediately have a most visionary voice, the dialogues in Polish “narrator” parallel to the original language. Foreign movies and series are not dubbed in Poland, nor are there Polish subtitles. What others might find unusual or funny (and maybe even quite annoying) is entirely normal in Poland. The same lector reads out all dialogues, regardless of whether the protagonists are male or female, a child or a 90-year-old – it’s all part of Poland’s everyday television life. Instead, it is intended that the lector is more or less a shadow of the protagonists and only conveys the content since he is not supposed to replace the actors.

Polish is one of the trickiest languages to learn

A formal-tone informative sign in Polish, with a composition of vowels and consonants and a mixture of long, medium and short syllables.
Credits: Mohylek

Sources such as the Foreign Service Institute of the USA include the Polish language among the most difficult European languages, along with Czech, Albanian and Hungarian. Languages ​​like Arabic and Chinese, however, are still much more difficult in this ranking.

Polish has many phonemes (41 in total) that must be learned and practiced. Many people find it also challenging to deal with grammatical cases (like in almost all Eastern European languages, such as German). You have to take your time to comprehend them. The most challenging task for someone learning Polish is writing texts without making any orthography or grammar mistakes. Even native speakers struggle with that. So, as someone who’s still trying to learn the language, it’s nice to know that Poles do not expect you to speak perfect Polish and are happy if you know even a few words or phrases.

Poland once disappeared for 23 years from the map of the world

By “Halibutt” – Corresponding maps available online: http://wlaczpolske.pl/pliczki/2030Map https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40646

Poland is a confident nation with an eventful history. Often torn between the West and the East’s geopolitical forces, Poland developed into a master of the art of survival. When the rivalry between Russia, Austria, and Prussia was heading for war in the 18th century, they found a monstrous solution: they simply divided powerless Poland between them. So on January 3, 1795, diplomats from Russia and Austria met in St. Petersburg and signed a treaty that completely wiped Poland off the political map – for more than 120 years. Poland had been divided into three states. It was not until 1918, after the First World War, that a separate Polish state was established again.

Polish men still observe the protocol of chivalry

Polish hand kiss by Johann Joachim Kändler, 1740s, National Museum in Warsaw

There’s a thing that is rarely experienced in any other country but is still widespread in Poland – the kiss on the hand. It is a traditional symbol of respect and is also a typical greeting, especially on official occasions. But there are also some rules to be observed when kissing the hand. The kiss on the hand should only be “hinted,” and, under no circumstances, should the man smack his lips. You also shouldn’t pull the lady’s arm up but rather bow low as a man. Initially, the kiss on the hand originated from kissing the signet ring by nobles or high clergymen. This courtly custom was adopted by the upper bourgeoisie in Poland in the 19th century and is still practiced today. Friends, however, often greet or say goodbye with indicated kisses on the cheek. The “brother kiss” from socialist times, however, has gone out of fashion.