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Do national hymns matter?

Countries have national hymns which are singed at celebrations, solemn occasions and sport events. Less known is that the Council of Europe and the European Union have the same anthem – “Ode to Joy” with words written in 1785 by the German poet Friedrich Schiller and music composed by Beethoven in 1823 (his 9th symphony).

The anthem isn’t supposed to replace the national anthems of the Member States. But no doubt the lyric of the European Anthem sounds more peaceful than most national anthems. It pays tribute to joy which unites all human beings and celebrates their brotherhood.

National anthems vary greatly in wording and usually pay tribute to the history, nature or government of the country. Countries which have been independent for centuries highlight the glory of their history. Countries which lost their independence express longings to become independent again.

This was illustrated when the Museum of the Polish-Jewish History was recently inaugurated in Warsaw. It stands in what was the heart of Jewish Warsaw before WWII. Its core exhibition is a journey through 1000 years of Polish-Jewish history.

It’s partly a conflict-ridden history where Jews and Poles lived in a kind of symbiosis with intertwined economies for hundreds of years. In many smaller places Jews were in majority. Churches and synagogues were often built close to each-other.

Jews were welcomed by the catholic kings of Poland in the 13th century or even earlier. The first coins in Poland have Hebrew letters. No expulsions took ever place from Poland. Religious tolerance was legislated.

Poland became the center of the Jewish world in Europe with a unique form of self-government during the commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the period between the two world wars the Jews in Poland had developed a multi-facetted civil society with their own schools, media, political parties and cultural organizations.

Journalist and historian Anne Applebaum – well-known for her history of the Gulag in Soviet Union – attended the inauguration of the museum and wrote a moving article. Poles and Jews share a common history that is shown in Warsaw’s new museum.

Both Poles and Jews lost their independence in the past and were dreaming about national liberation. That is also reflected in their national hymns.

”For those who live in larger nations, I’m not sure that this emotion is even comprehensible. But those who live in small nations can perhaps empathize with one another somewhat better,” Applebaum writes.

She quotes the Polish anthem, written during the Napoleon wars, which starts with the words: “Poland has not yet perished, so long as we still live.”

The Ukrainian anthem, with words originally written in 1862, from an era when Ukraine did not figure on any maps of Europe, starts with similar words: “Ukraine has not yet perished, nor her glory, nor her freedom.”

In this context, she could of course also have mentioned the Israeli anthem, Hatikva (= Hope), written in the same period when so many nations yearned for freedom. “Our hope is not yet lost, the hope of two thousand years, to be a free people in our land.”

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