In this part of Europe borders keep changing once in a while, different ethnicities interact one with another, nations rise and disappear. A couple of top Polish historic personalities whose heritage is claimed as especially Polish can be (and often is) linked also to other nationalities. Let’s see why.
Mikołaj Kopernik (Nicolaus Copernicus)
A Renaissance polymath known primarily for formulating his heliocentric model of the universe which has changed the way we look at it forever, and also set down a quantity theory of money, a principal concept in economics up to the present day.
He was born in the Kingdom of Poland, in a region known as Royal Prussia. The region was incorporated to Poland only seven years before Copernicus’ birth, after its bourgeoisie decided it didn’t like the rule of Teutonic (German) Knights, pledged the allegiance to the King of Poland, and petitioned to the King for annexation. Arguably they were still Low German speakers but… actually Copernicus’ father came from Silesia… a previously Polish region which had been becoming more and more German and Czech. It’s unclear whether Czechs have ever claimed him but Germans certainly have.
The Polish national poet started his epic poem with words:
“Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health;
How much you must be valued, will only discover
The one who has lost you.”
The two other claimants are Lithuanians and Belarusians. Why Lithuanians – see above. The Belarusian claim leads us to a very interesting question of what was historically considered ‘Lithuania’. Judging by the area it covered it was closer to today’s Belarus, and the very place where Mickiewicz was born is today located in Belarus. Furthermore, he could speak a dialect which today would be considered Belarusian but there had still been no such standard language created at the time. To spice things up the whole thing took place in the then Russian Empire.
A Hungarian count born in the Kingdom of Hungary with an apparently Slavic name. He described himself as a “Hungarian and Polish nobleman”, on occasions served the Kings of Poland and of France. A French Governor of Madagascar, he was called by the local population the island’s ampansakebe (so claim the Polish sources – they also say it means king but I couldn’t find the word in any dictionary).
Fryderyk Chopin (Frédéric Chopin)
Born a Russian subject to a polonised French father, the composer is obviously Polish to anyone who has any idea beyond the misleading name. A child of the Romantic era, his classical piano works were deeply influenced by Polish ethnic melodies. Later in his short life he moved to Paris so the French spelling of his first name stuck internationally.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie (Marie Curie)
One of the greatest minds of the 20th century, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, she named the first chemical element that she discovered polonium, after her motherland’s name. She was born in Warsaw, governed then by the Russian Empire. On her marriage with a French scientist, Pierre Curie, she became a French citizen but still used the full name (which is not reflected in the colloquial English or French usage). In the World War One she proved a French patriot supporting the war effort financially. After the war when Poland regained its statehood, Marie helped shaping the revived nation’s science.