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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.3 (Summer 2015)
Poland’s New Century III
Polish-American Relations: “American Day” in Historic Polish Town Eleven Years Ago
During June to August 2004, I spent three very memorable months in Poland.
On Saturday, July 3, 2004 (on the eve of the July 4 American national holiday), I attended a large, informal celebration called “American Day” at the small, historic town of Nieszawa, which lies near the Vistula River, about 200 kilometers northwest of Warsaw, in the Kujawy-Pomorze (Kuyavia-Pomerania) region or wojewodztwo (voivodeship). Currently with about 2,200 residents, the town has been in existence since the 15th century. The locality has seen, in the Twentieth Century, the emigration of considerable numbers of persons rather far afield—for example, to America.
The American Day in Nieszawa was organized by Michael (Mike) Drobniewski, an ex-pat from the United States, who was then in his sixties. He had left the town in early childhood, but had now come back for his retirement, after a successful American career in real estate. Obviously, his U.S. savings and pensions stretched a lot further in Poland. Indeed, he had built a ranch-style bungalow on a choice piece of land in the town, at the top of a large hill, with a fine view of the Vistula River and the dark-green forests at the opposite side of the river. He had also brought over his elderly mother—who required homecare that was available at a small fraction of the price that it would have cost in America.
I was driven to the American Day event from Ciechocinek by my female relative, in her elegant Peugeot 206. Ciechocinek is a spa and resort town of about 14,000 permanent residents, which is about 10 kilometers away from Nieszawa.
We stopped a short distance away from where the American Day event was being held, the building of the Volunteer Fire Department.
We walked towards the building, and soon found ourselves inside, going up a flight of steps to the main hall. The place was packed! It was a rather warm and humid late afternoon. A cold beer or soft drink along with a good-quality hotdog was available for everyone for a nominal price. The children were attracted by the “Sock Hop” contest that Mike had devised, along with a local Polish radio station that was sponsoring the event. The station had brought in a few local folk/pop bands. The children were to get various small prizes based on how fancy their socks were, as they danced the so-called “sock hop” (played by a local band).
Mike had also set up a few American and Polish flags, as well as a large bristol board on a stand where there was a map of the United States, and portraits of Kosciuszko and Pulaski. Mike had also gone to the considerable trouble of putting on the get-up of a stereotypical American hillbilly, with very funny blue and white socks and oversize, clod-hopper shoes, blue overalls, and a large straw hat.
I was glad to see that someone was trying to do something to enliven the daily routine in the town. It is little known in Canada and America that the poverty in much of Poland, outside of Warsaw and a few other large cities, is rather grinding indeed.
Perceptive current-day observers have noted that East-Central Europe, and especially Poland, are far friendlier to America and Americans than most Western European countries. Indeed, these friendly relations go back a long time, as two first-rank heroes of the War of American Independence were Poles. Casimir Pulaski was in Poland one of the leading Confederates of Bar (konfederaci barscy)—named after a small southeastern town where they had initially gathered in 1768—who have been dubbed by some historians as “the Polish Jacobites.” (The Jacobites were the doomed Scottish insurgents led by “Bonnie Prince Charlie” in the 1745 Rising.) The Confederates of Bar were crushed from 1768 to 1772 by the Czarist Russian armies that were tromping through Poland at that time. Pulaski, reaching America in 1777, became the most prominent commander of the American cavalry, and died of his wounds on October 11, 1779, after a bravura charge on October 9 at the battle of Savannah, Georgia.
Thaddeus (Tadeusz) Kosciuszko was also in exile in America, serving mainly as the leading military engineer in the American army. His fortification of West Point was a major element in the American victory. He then returned to Poland to lead an Insurrection against the Partitioning powers (especially Czarist Russia) in 1794. The Insurrection failed, brutally crushed. As the English poet wrote, “Freedom shrieked, as Kosciuszko fell.” It is not often remembered that Kosciuszko had committed his entire, substantial personal fortune in America—which he had received in recognition of his military accomplishments—to the purchase out of bondage of as many black American slaves as possible, immediately setting them free.
It has been argued that the Polish First Republic was, at its time, one of the most democratic countries in Europe, as about ten percent of the population had full political participation at a time when many Continental European countries had few elements of democracy—with most political life in those other countries confined to a fraction of a percentage of the population. Had the Constitution of the Third of May (1791) been fully enacted into its political life, Poland would have successfully reformed many of the earlier institutional problems of the First Republic that had impeded the effective functioning of the state. The constitution was greatly admired, for example, by one of the leading British political thinkers and statesmen of the age, Edmund Burke. Unfortunately, the Partitioning powers killed the Republic at the threshold of its revival.
For the long Partition period between 1795 to 1918, while America mostly went from strength to strength, Poland mostly languished under foreign occupation—punctuated by desperate uprisings, for example, in 1830, 1846, 1848, 1863, and 1905.
The Polish immigrants to America who arrived in great waves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were mainly poor peasants. The poverty and unfortunate ignorance of some of these immigrants gave rise to the rather cruel and vicious “Polish jokes” in American popular-culture.
Apart from the iconic figure of Bobby Vinton, it is difficult to think of many prominent Polish-Americans in American pop-culture. One supposes that many Polish-Americans follow the Martha Stewart (born Kostyra) model of total assimilation as the path to success. The most prominent Polish-American statesman is probably Zbigniew Brzezinski—who is especially remembered as Jimmy Carter’s resident hawk.
Relations between Poland and the United States have markedly improved in the last several years, most likely as a result of Poland’s sending of troops to Iraq. There has been some reduction of the negativity towards Poles in some of the American media. However, there has been little movement on the issue of visa requirements for Polish citizens coming to the United States. At the same time, Poland’s relations with Germany and with France have markedly cooled, especially under President Lech Kaczynski (2005-2010). Poland today may be looking to the United States as a possible counterweight to Germany and France, and as a bulwark against feared Russian aggression.
Mark Wegierski is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. He has made frequent contributions to these pages on matters relating to popular culture and political theory.