WARSAW, Poland -- Tens of thousands in Warsaw marched peacefully Friday in a yearly Independence Day march organized by Polish nationalist groups that included some anti-Ukrainian and anti-European Union slogans.
The march is controversial because it’s led by far-right groups and has included violence and white nationalists in past years. But many people, including some with young children, also march, seeing the event as a way to show patriotism. Many drove hundreds of kilometers to Warsaw to take part.
“We are proud and happy to be Polish and to have an independent state and we want to celebrate that," said Miroslawa Dobiasz, 64, who drove with her family from Tarnobrzeg in the southeast.
Warsaw resident Hanna Grabek, 28, said she wasn't afraid to bring her 5-year-old daughter Maja to the event because “we are home on our own turf and we feel safe. Nothing bad has ever happened to us here.”
Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a liberal who opposes the event, said at a news conference that he was relieved that it avoided the violence of past years but was still disturbed by the anti-Ukrainian and anti-EU messages.
Many people carried Poland's white-and-red flag, and some threw smoke flares. A few held banners of the far-right National Radical Camp depicting a falanga, a far-right symbol dating to the 1930s of a stylized hand with a sword. Some chanted anti-LGBT slogans, including “Stop Rainbow Propaganda." Others also yelled angry slogans against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A large number of police officers were deployed and kept a group of anti-fascist counter-protesters separated from the march participants to avoid clashes.
One activist holding an LGBT flag, Dominik Gasiorowski, said an officer removed him and others who were chanting that they have the right to demonstrate. They were told their gathering was illegal.
The Independence Day holiday celebrates the restoration of Poland's national sovereignty in 1918, at the end of World War I and after 123 years of foreign rule. Across Poland, events were held to mark the day, including singing the national anthem in public and a ceremony led by President Andrzej Duda at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“The reality of recent years has made us very suddenly aware of what it means to have and not to have a free, sovereign state, what it means to have and not to have independence,” Duda said, alluding to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Duda was joined by Gitanas Nauseda, the president of Lithuania, which like Poland is a strong ally of Ukraine.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent a moving Independence Day greeting to Poland in a short video expressing his gratitude for Poland's help since Russia's invasion.
“Ukrainians will remember how you welcomed us, how you help us. Your country is our sister,” Zelenskyy said.
Poles have rallied to Ukraine's cause, and Poland has welcomed large numbers of refugees. But there are also lingering tensions over a Polish-Ukrainian ethnic conflict in which 100,000 Poles were killed by Ukrainians during World War II.
Some far-right groups try to keep those tensions alive. A few posters at Friday's march read “Stop the Ukrainization of Poland.”