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OPINION

Poland still eager to defend freedom with US

By ADAM BIELAN | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: May 17, 2019

The cherry trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington have blossomed, marking the return of spring to America’s capital. Whenever I visit Washington, I am captivated by the beauty and symbolism of the many monuments along the National Mall, which remind us of the sacrifice made by the men and women of the United States armed forces. The nearly 60,000 names enshrined on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are a testament of valor, duty, honor, and love of one’s country. Many of these fallen warriors’ surnames engraved in the reflective, ebony granite reveal their Polish descent: Dankowski, Maczulski, Owczarczak, Wojcik …

On Memorial Day, as Americans pause to reflect on those whose ultimate sacrifice preserved the freedoms we all enjoy, we remember and pay tribute to the Polish American men and women who died defending the United States. From the very inception of the republic, Poles had a critical role in making America what it is today. During the Revolutionary War, two legendary figures within the Continental Army were Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the architect of West Point, and Casimir Pulaski, dubbed “The Father of the American Cavalry.” Upon arriving in America, Pulaski wrote to Gen. George Washington, “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.”

Pulaski’s note was prophetic; in October 1779, he died of injuries he suffered after leading a cavalry charge against the British in Savannah, Ga. To honor him, Washington ordered the password challenge for military checkpoints to be “Pulaski” and the response “Poland.”

Like Pulaski, Kosciuszko was also willing to lay down his life for the revolution’s cause. Speaking of America and Poland, he once said, “For the freedom of both of these countries, I offered to sacrifice my life.”

Pulaski and Kosciuszko are names of legendary prominence, but they are not alone. Throughout American history, thousands of Polish Americans answered their country’s call, and made the supreme sacrifice. From Saratoga to Yorktown, from Shiloh to Gettysburg, from Cantigny to Belleau Wood, from the Ardennes to Iwo Jima, from Chosin Reservoir to Khe Sanh — sons of Poland nobly fought and died to advance the cause of freedom.

There were times when the fate of the American GIs who liberated Europe during World War II intertwined with individuals of the Polish resistance. One of those heroes was Wladyslawa Poniecka, who in 1945 was a prisoner of Neu Rohlau concentration camp and forced on a “death march” to Dachau. She miraculously escaped and came across an American soldier. Having identified herself, the soldier exclaimed: “I am Polish too! I’m from Texas!” Wladyslawa recalled, “This American soldier of Polish origin from the great state of Texas assured us that he would lead us to General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower himself.” While at a displaced persons camp in postwar Germany, she met Marian Wojciechowski, a member of the Polish underground who cheated death in several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Marian and Wladyslawa married and in 1950 came to the U.S. and settled in Toledo, Ohio. They became U.S. citizens in 1957 and were active in the Polish American community. Their son served in Vietnam.

On Memorial Day, we honor the memory of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. We remember the thousands of Polish American soldiers of the U.S. armed forces who gave the last full measure of devotion, and also pay tribute to Polish and American soldiers who lost their lives over the years in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Poland and its warriors have always stood by our closest ally, the United States, and we will continue to work tirelessly to strengthen NATO, to ensure that the alliance is ready to face any threats from those who would attempt to harm our citizens and our way of life. Among NATO countries, Poland is at the forefront of defense expenditures as a share of GDP. We are upgrading our defense systems and modernizing our military. Poland welcomes the stationing of American troops on our territory, and we want this presence to become permanent.

This year, as we will mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, we will pay special tribute to the Polish soldiers who were the “first to fight” against Adolf Hitler’s war machine. The impressive site of the World War II Memorial in Washington stirs the same humbling emotions I feel in Poland when visiting the Monument to the Defenders of the Coast at Westerplatte. As we look back on the past, let us remember that it is up to us to ensure that the nightmares of totalitarianism never haunt our world again, and that our young people can live their lives without having to fight on foreign lands.

Adam Bielan is deputy speaker of the Senate of Poland and former vice president of the European Parliament.

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