The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw

A winter walk in Warsaw. Actually, a visit to just one site, but an important one – Plac Józef Piłsudski, or Józef Piłsudski Square.

A colonnade, damaged during the war, rises from the square, a fragment of the fomer Saski Palace. An eternal flame and an honor guard of soldiers stands before it. Every Pole knows that this is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
For several years there has been a custom that young couples come here after their wedding to place their bouquets as an offering to the Unknown Soldier. Such a beautiful patriotic gesture to begin their new lives.

2007 will mark the 82nd anniversary of the Pantheon of National Memory. Looking back on history, we learn that the Frenchman Frederic Simon, shocked at the immense loss his country suffered during World War I, gave us the idea of creating a tomb for the nameless fallen soldier. Just two years later, by November 11, 1920, Tombs of the Unknown Soldier were already erected in, besides France, Great Britain, Italy, the United States, Belgium, Romania, and Yugoslavia.
The Polish mausoleum was built only in 1925. There were reasons for the delay. When other nations enjoyed peace after the war, the reborn Polish Republic had to fight an additional three years to secure the borders of the independent state. Only in 1924 did the Council of Ministers decide, as a result of the efforts of General Władysław Sikorski, that the Polish Pantheon should find its place beneath the arcades of the Saski Palace.

From this moment on progress happened quickly. Fifteen battlefields were chosen. From one of them, chosen by chance, the ashes of an unknown soldier were taken to Warsaw. Fate chose the Lwów battlefield, where a bloody battle lasting more than six months began in November 1918. Unidentified remains were located after exhumation of the graves at the battlefied. The uniform and cap, characteristic of those worn by peasants from Central Poland and by Polish legionaries during the war, identifed the remains as those of a volunteer soldier on the front lines, no more than twenty years old.

Military and government representatives, chosen representatives of the families of fallen soldiers – two mothers, two widows, and two sisters, and throngs of people greeted the train from Lwów at the main station in Warsaw. The funeral procession led through the streets of the city to the cathedral, where Mass was celebrated. Father Antoni Szlagowski offered the homily, from which the following is taken:

„Who are you? – We do not know,
Who are your parents? – We do not know,
Where is your home? – We do not know,
Your greatness lies in the unknown. Take the name of these valiant Poles: Kościuszki, Puławski, Dąbrowski.
You are an eternal genius of war and we call you brave; you are the enduring strength of ideals and sacrifice; you are the victor of the independence of the nation and you are freedom.”

At 1:00 pm a gunfire salute gave the signal for traffic to stop and for quiet, throughout all of Poland. Then President Stanisław Wojciechowski lit a candle symbolizing the flame of eternal memory. At the ceremony were present Generals Haller and Sikorski, soldiers, knights of the Virtuta Militari, representatives of the Sejm and Senate, and a large crowd. Delegations from throughout the country and abroad placed flowers at the site.
Today the Tomb includes earth from all the battlefieds where Poles have fought.

Dr. Elżbieta Ulanowska
Translated by Sean Martin

Forum, 3/2007