POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
May 10, 2022
Good evening. It is an honor to be with you today. And what a day it’s been!
To the KARTA Center Foundation: gratulacje on 40-years of promoting democracy in Poland. The U.S. Embassy is proud to partner with you on this important event.
And thank you to our friends at the POLIN Musem of the History of Polish Jews for hosting today’s program. I could think of no better place for a conversation about freedom, tolerance, and peace.
Dzień Amerykánski reminds us that for hundreds of years, America and Poland have been linked in the struggle for freedom and the search for opportunity.
We need only to go to the history books to find evidence of this unique link.
Poles in Jamestown, Virginia, were the first non-English settlers to vote in the British colonies. It was Polish Patriots Kazimierz Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko who fought for freedom on both sides of the Atlantic. Kościuszko’s fortifications at Fort Ticonderoga and West Point were critical to America’s independence. And they are landmarks in New York state today.
Kościuszko’s words became forever rooted in our shared history of sacrifice, “Za naszą i waszą wolność.” For our freedom and yours. The sacrifice for the cause of American freedom and later the sacrifice for the cause of Polish freedom.
During World War I, over 300,000 Polish Americans served in the armed forces of the United States. Immigrants who had fled their homeland under imperial rule during a time when Poland as a country had ceased to exist.
When a free and independent Poland seemed possible again, the sons of Poland returned.
And one of the greatest national achievements was the number of Polish Americans, over 20,000, who served in General Haller’s army in France during World War I. The recruitment and support of these troops was a Polish American undertaking; the fight for European freedom was paid for out of pocket by these communities.
Indeed, the linkage between Poland and America was personified by Ignacy Paderewski. Through his long life, Paderewski used his musical talent to fight passionately for a free and independent Poland from Warsaw to Carnegie Hall in New York City.
He forged friendships with American presidents and used his influence to help the cause of Polish independence. After World War I, Paderewski put his talent for statesmanship into practice as Poland’s Prime Minister.
And when Nazi occupation came, Paderewski joined the Polish Government in Exile where he once again turned to his friends in the United States for help.
This outstanding musical artist and visionary statesman died in exile in New York City when the clouds of war and oppression loomed darkest over his native Poland.
America gave this great freedom fighter a place alongside our honored dead in Arlington National Cemetery. There he would rest, in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, “until Poland would be free.”
That day came a half century later, while, on a Fulbright right here in Warsaw, I was witness to his momentous homecoming.
President George HW Bush sent General Edward Rowny to escort Paderewski’s remains home to Poland in 1992 – except his heart, which remains at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. As a Polish American, it was a moving moment for me.
I remember Poles lining the street, miles from the airport to the city center, just waiting to see the horse drawn carriage. On this day Poland welcomed home part of its proud history, a great patriot, and a fierce champion of freedom.
Another chapter of our shared fight for liberty was written during World War II, when the Holocaust took its horrific toll. Poland and America made major sacrifices; to defeat fascism and defend global democracy.
In the triumph of democracy over Soviet totalitarianism, again America and Poland were linked and working together.
Here one has to emphasize the spiritual role of Pope John Paul II in supporting the victory over communism. It was he, more than any other single power, who led the way to freedom.
I can only imagine how thrilled all of Poland must have been when he first visited as Pope in 1979.
That pilgrimage set the groundwork for the Solidarity movement. The courage Poland showed to fight back in response to the imposition of Martial Law against Solidarity in late 1981 also had a big impact globally.
President Ronald Reagan rallied the United States to stand in solidarity with our friends in Poland, noting the Polish cause was our cause. There was an upsurge of “country in danger” impulses, personalized packages sent directly from the U.S. to Poland.
Every package was a strike for freedom, and it kept the lifeline going.
Two centuries after Kościuszko’s death, with NATO enlargement, Poland and America became formal allies, institutionalizing the principles and ideals that connected us since the Revolutionary War.
Today, yet again, Poles and Americans are united in another fight for freedom. This time to lend our unwavering support to a free and independent Ukraine.
We have organized an unprecedented package of sanctions to hold Russia accountable, stifling their economy. We are supplying Ukraine with weapons and aid, resources they need to fight back so democracy and freedom can triumph over dictatorship.
We are providing humanitarian support, with Poland graciously leading the way by welcoming over 3 million refugees across their borders. And high-level visitors from the United States are traveling to Warsaw on a weekly basis as we continue to find new ways to respond, together.
Poland and the United States are also discussing a collective agenda for the future. How can we embrace Pulaski’s and Kościuszko’s legacy in the fight for Ukraine’s freedom?
United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said while visiting Poland last month that we must see the international community more united, especially NATO, that we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the things it has done in Ukraine again.
We will also need to help Ukraine rebuild and Poland’s success in the free market provides a useful model for a post-Russian invasion Ukraine, when the fight has been won.
Above all else, our nations must have a common shared set of values. Liberal democracy tries to capture the essence of the autonomy of the individual. Spelled out in terms of the crisis now, it means helping a neighbor who is hungry, or a nation fighting for its freedom.
It means taking up the banner Americans and Poles alike have held for two centuries and carrying it as our standard as we fight for freedom and independence in this region. America and Poland share the same freedom, but Ukraine does not. It’s our responsibility to do our part. A responsibility we have accepted for the greater good.