Most Americans know “The Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. Most of us, I assume, also know at least most of the words, even if we sometimes injure ourselves in our efforts to carry the tune.

The song commemorates the battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, after which, “by the dawn’s early light,” Francis Scott Key was inspired when he saw that “the flag was still there.”

One could argue fairly convincingly that the song came into being just as the country itself was coming into being, though it wasn’t officially declared the national anthem until 1931.

In Poland, it’s the opposite.

That is to say, the Polish national anthem, “Dabrowski’s Mazurka” (“Mazurek Dąbrowskiego” in Polish), was written by Józef Wybicki in 1797, two years after the final partitioning of the country led to its total obliteration from the map.

That’s right: the Polish national anthem came into being a couple of years after there was no country to sing it to.

Somehow, knowing this makes the opening lines of the song even more powerful . They can be translated in several ways, the most common of which are these:

     Poland has not yet died / So long as we still live.

     Poland is not yet lost / So long as we still live.

     Poland has not yet perished / So long as we still live.

Whichever English version you prefer, you can feel the hope, the spunk, the spirit of these people. They were not giving up on their country just because it didn’t currently happen to exist.

In fact, Adam Mickiewicz explained to his students in 1842 that the opening lines of the song “mean that people who have in them what constitutes the essence of a nation can prolong the existence of their country regardless of its political circumstances and may even strive to make it real again.”[1]

You might say that while Americans were celebrating the birth of a new nation and in search of people to fill it, Poland—or more accurately, Polonia—was comprised of many people in search of a place they could freely call home while still maintaining their Polish identity.

Poland’s physical presence was re-established at the end of WWI in 1918, and the Mazurka became the unofficial anthem then. It was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1926.

You can listen to it here (with lyrics in both Polish and English).