Poles celebrate independence day - without Walesa

12th November 2008, Comments 0 comments

The Nobel peace laureate and anti-communist icon was not invited to an evening gala because of long-standing tension with Kaczynski.

Warsaw -- Poland marked 90 years of modern-day independence Tuesday with tears, patriotic speeches and a gala that left former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa off the guest list.

The national holiday included Roman Catholic church services, parades and ceremonies at monuments to General Jozef Pilsudski, who led Poland toward freedom in 1918 after 123 years of partition by Austria, Germany and Russia.

Presidents of Afghanistan, Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania were among 15 leaders invited for the day-long events in the polish capital.

Tadeusz Albekier, 82, said the holiday had special meaning because of Poland's long history of invasions and occupation.

"From what I remember of history, Poland was always in foreign hands," he said. "There were Turks, Germans, Russians. It's about time we can celebrate this holiday."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where President Lech Kaczynski paid tribute to Poles who fought to establish the new republic after World War I.

"Fighting on many fronts, for over three years, we managed it ourselves," Kaczynski said. "Nobody gave it to us. Our country is developing and we realized our strategic goals - to enter NATO and enter the European Union."

But the spat over Walesa's absence sowed discord - and criticism by several politicians - on what Kaczynski portrayed as a day of unity.

The Nobel peace laureate and anti-communist icon was not invited to an evening gala because of long-standing tension with Kaczynski.

Walesa led shipyard strikes in the 1980s that helped bring down communism. Kaczynski and former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president's twin brother, accuse him of spying for the communist-era secret police - a charge Walesa has dismissed.

Walesa's defenders included Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has had political fights of his own with the rightwing president.

Red-and-white Polish flags filled Warsaw's Pilsudski Square, where crowds laid flowers and candles under a statue of the general.

One man kissed the base of the statue and quickly walked away with tears in his eyes.

Meanwhile, protesters rallied against Poland's agreement to host part of a US missile defense system and took aim at the European Union demands for Poland to restructure Baltic Coast shipyards where Solidarity was launched.

Another crowd gathered to sing patriotic songs at Pilsudski's monument and carried banners with the general's quotations about fighting for freedom.

Zofia Mlotek traveled from western Poland to attend the ceremony with her two young children.

"For the young one, it was an incredible experience," she said. "The most important thing is memory - that (my children) remember these events and pass the memory on to their children."

Mlotek recalled growing up in communist Poland, where history books portrayed Pilsudski as an enemy of the state.

"This part of history wasn't in the books," Mlotek said. "During communism, the books said the Soviet army saved us and we should be grateful."

Dominika Maslikowski/DPA/Expatica

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