“All, that which gains immortal life in song" - the Polish-Lithuanian freedom fighter Emilia Plater

23 December 1831, the Polish-Lithuanian freedom fighter Emilia Plater, heroine of the November Uprising, died in Justianiów, 90 miles southwest of Vilnius, at the age of 25.

“Was unsterblich im Gesang will leben,
Muss im Leben untergehen.”

(“All, that which gains immortal life in song, To mortal life must perish!“, Friedrich Schiller as quoted by Adam Mickiewicz in his preface to “Konrad Wallenrod“) 

Polish nationalist painter Wojciech Kossak’s (1856 – 1942) imagination of a cavalry skirmish fought by Emilia Plater near Šiauliai in Northern Lithuania with the heroine in the centre firing her saddle pistol at a Russian cossack (1904)

It happened back in the day, when Romantic poems moved people not only to tears but, more often than not, to rather drastic actions, from committing suicide to taking up arms and trying to free Greece – or one’s own subjugated pastures. And so it happened with the young, well-educated, hero-worshipping and, naturally, quite Romantic Polish-Lithuanian aristo Emilia Plater. Once a proud European major power, Poland as a state had ceased to exist since 1795 and did, after a short summer of semi-independence as Duchy of Warsaw by the grace of Napoleon, groan under the yoke of Russia, Prussia and Austria since then. Consequently, armed rebellion broke out in November 1830. And young Emilia, raised in arms along with revolutionaries, trying to emulate Laskarina Bouboulia, heroine of the Greek War of Independence, Schiller’s “Maid of Orleans” and, of course, the Romantic Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz's creation, the beautiful and tragic warrior princess Grażyna.

Jan Rosen (1854 - 1936) "Emilia Plater" leading peasants armed with scythes (ca 1890)

Emilia cut her hair, slipped into a captain’s uniform and gathered a group of patriots from her estate near Dźwińsk in southeastern Latvia to fight the 115,000 Russians under Field Marshal Hans Karl von Diebitsch who had marched into Poland in February 1831 to re-establish the Tsar’s order. Whether Emilia’s insurgents saw any fighting at all is doubtful, despite heavy combat taking place while Diebitsch advanced westward towards Warsaw during the spring, but she seemed to have been present at the Battles of Prastavoniai, half way between Riga and Kaunas, and at Maišiagala near Vilnius in Lithuania. When the Polish army of General Dezydery Chłapowski came into the area in May, Emilia her people were integrated, her rank of captain was confirmed and she became c.o. of the 1st company of the Polish–Lithuanian 25th Infantry Regiment. Naturally, she had refused Chłapowski's advise to pack up her things and go home. The old warhorse, once a lancer who served under Napoleon himself, sensed the inevitable outcome of the uprising, but accepted the latter-day Grażyna's decision. He had, in all probability, read Mickiewicz as well and would love Chopin later. After an unsuccessful attack on Russian-held Vilnius and a few more defeats of the freedom fighters' cause, most notably at Ostrołęka in May 26th, Chłapowski decided to march west towards the Prussian territory around Königsberg to get his army interned there and save the lives of his men. Emilia outspokenly refused Chłapowski’s orders, wanted to fight on and tried to battle her way through to Warsaw in the southwest, some 350 miles away, with a few men of her own. And then her romantically weak constitution got the better of her, she fell seriously ill and died near the Lithuanian border in the manor of a local noble where she had found refuge.

Contemporary portrait of Emilia Plater

After the Polish November Uprising had ended in October 1831, Mickiewicz, in his Parisian exile, made Emilia his own Polish-Lithuanian Joan of Arc with his poem "Śmierć pułkownika" (Death of a Colonel), a more or less fictional account of her deeds and her death during the war. However, Emilia Plater did become a heroine in Poland, Lithuania and Belarus and not least because of Mickiewicz’ fiction, painted, sung about and finally depicted on a złoty note, but, what is far more important, she was an inspiration to all those who fought against occupation and oppression over the following century in the region’s turbulent and often very unhappy history.

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