Throughout her long reign, Queen Elizabeth visited many countries around the world. Her visit to Poland on 25-27 March 1996, came at a critical juncture in the country’s history. Poland was re-establishing itself as a free-market democracy after half a century under totalitarian foreign domination, and on the way to NATO and EU membership. During her Polish visit, Queen Elizabeth met with the BPCC (or as it was then, the British Chamber of Commerce in Poland). The first – and to date only – state visit to Poland by a reigning British monarch was hosted by Polish president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and first lady Jolanta Kwaśniewska.
Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Poland at that time, Jan Kluk OBE (standing to the left of the Queen), recalls the visit: “I was the COO of International Computers Operations in Poland, with additional duties in Central and Eastern Europe. I was invited by the British Ambassador, now retired, Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith (right), to attend a ceremony at the Warsaw Palace on the Water in the Łazienki Royal Park. It was there, for my services to British trade overseas, that I received the Order of the British Empire from Her Majesty. It was unusual to have the honour of a 15-minute conversation with the Queen, in the privacy of a room at the palace. Her Majesty was accompanied by her escort and the British Ambassador. I was accompanied by my very proud elderly mother and Polish wife. There was also a reception which I later joined in another part of the Palace. As the Queen passed me, she looked down on the OBE box I was holding, with a twinkle in her eye and smile on her face said: “You have not lost it yet?” To which I replied “I will probably sleep with it under my pillow Ma’am”.
Barbara Stachowiak-Kowalska MBE, then Executive Director of the BCCP, recalls as she puts it, “the minute that lasts a lifetime”. She believes for those who have been honoured to meet the Queen during one of her numerous royal visits, there is one thing that unites them all. “That brief encounter which will remain in our memories for ever. The Queen had the ability to put you at ease with her smiling eyes – exuding warmth and genuine interest in all those she met.” Having also had the privilege of meeting – at the time – Prince Charles, from who she received her Member of the British Empire award, and Princess Anne, who came to Warsaw to name the Sue Ryder Square, Barbara says “they take after their mother, with an air of grace combined with an exceptional gift of connectivity. The Queen touched Poland as she did the world – also addressing historical wounds while giving hope for our collective future in harmony”.
Andrzej Kinast, who was then the Chamber’s Honorary Auditor and founding partner of Grant Thornton in Poland, said: “they were wonderful times when everything seemed possible and Poland was joining the free world. The Royal visit put a seal of approval on the process.” The Queen addressed both houses of the Polish parliament. She recalled World War II. “Who knows whether the flame of freedom would not have been extinguished if Poland had not stood by us in those days. The war brought us together, but then divided us, because 1945 did not bring everyone freedom. Therefore, we were all the more happy with Poland regaining full sovereignty and with the decision you made to apply for membership in European and Western institutions. We strongly support the enlargement of the European Union and NATO; we sympathise with your aspiration to join these organisations and strongly state that this aspiration cannot be vetoed by any country … Poland needs Europe. But Europe also needs Poland,” she said, finishing her speech in Polish “żeby Polska była Polską” to an emotional ovation from members of the Sejm and Senat.