November 6, 2018

Visiting International Scholar Shares Story of Polish-American Relations

VALDOSTA — In November 1982, 7-year-old Anna Mazurkiewicz watched from her family’s high-rise apartment in Gdansk, Poland, as a crowd of hundreds gathered outside.

Her father secretly snapped photographs of the unfolding drama from their vantage point, making sure to stay out of sight, knowing that getting caught photographing protests in a country controlled by the Soviet Union meant trouble. In the months before, they had witnessed water cannons and tear gas being used to break up the peaceful demonstrations.

On this November night, the crowd was there for Lech Walesa, a man who had just been released from 11 months of internment in a remote lodge in southeast Poland, near the border of the Soviet Union. His imprisonment was the result of his opposition to the communist regime. He was the leader of Solidarity, the first independent self-governing trade union in Poland, a group and a social movement that was pushing the country closer and closer to freedom from Russia’s totalitarian rule.

Walesa lived in the same block of flats as Mazurkiewicz, and she had attended kindergarten and primary school with his children. She watched as the crowd welcomed Walesa with cheers and adoration, hailing him as a hero in the fight for liberty.

The long winter of communism, which had gripped Poland since 1945, was finally beginning to thaw, and even as a child, Mazurkiewicz felt the shift as she watched Walesa return home to a chanting crowd.

“I remember thinking I was witnessing something major,” she said. “We were ridiculing the communist party and leaders, even as kids. We would chant funny songs about them. This was a time when we were, as a nation, no longer afraid. If you are not afraid of a totalitarian system, the system is doomed. When people are not afraid, it’s the beginning of the end.” 

Mazurkiewicz recounted these memories from her office in Ashley Hall on Valdosta State University’s campus. She is now 43-year-old Dr. Mazurkiewicz, a renowned history professor armed with advanced degrees and a recipient of multiple awards from institutions in Poland and the United States. She is a leading expert in American-Polish relations, has three acclaimed books to her name, and has been a visiting scholar at universities across the United States and Europe. 

She is teaching at VSU for the Fall 2018 semester through the Louie A. Brown Visiting International Scholars Program, a grant program coordinated by VSU’s Center for International Programs that enables colleges and departments to bring recognized international faculty to campus for an extended period of time. Her visit is also supported by The Kosciuszko Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Poland and to increasing American understanding of Polish culture and history. 

Mazurkiewicz now spends her Tuesday and Thursday mornings in West Hall teaching a popular course on the history of American-Polish relations. Her lectures and conversations are full of rich narratives explaining how the two countries have been deeply intertwined and connected throughout the centuries, more so than many may think.

Mazurkiewicz has a way of starting with a month and year and then transporting the listener to a faraway place, painting a vivid picture of the struggles, tragedies, and victories of another time. 

One such anecdote takes listeners into the world of a bright, young Polish military engineer who, in the late 1700s, fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy magnate. The young man, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, was friends with the Polish king and told him of his plans to elope with the girl.

The king, thinking this to be a foolish action, betrayed Kosciuszko’s confidence and told the girl’s father of their plans. Fearing retribution from the powerful magnate, Kosciuszko fled Poland, going first to France and then to America in 1776, where the Revolutionary War had just begun.

“The story goes that he just ventured into Benjamin Franklin’s shop, and he said ‘I want to fight for the ideals of freedom that are so dear to me,’” Mazurkiewicz said. “And Ben Franklin gave him a math test, and he excelled, so he stayed.”

Kosciuszko quickly became an asset for the colonial forces as he used his engineering skills to design and conduct a number of battles, saving many lives and advancing the revolution’s cause in the process.

“He was the one who prepared the plan for the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, and Saratoga changed the tide of the American Revolutionary War,” Mazurkiewicz said.

Kosciuszko also designed the plans for West Point. In honor of his contributions, a statue of Kosciuszko stands high atop a pedestal at the famed military academy in New York, overlooking the Hudson River.

He is just one of many Poles who contributed to the founding of America, Mazurkiewicz said. There’s also Casimir Pulaski, a Polish count who is considered the father of American cavalry.

He died outside of Savannah, Georgia, in 1779 fighting for American freedom. A statue of Pulaski now serves as the centerpiece for one of the city’s picturesque downtown squares.

In her course, Mazurkiewicz points out that Poland formed an unofficial bond with the U.S. — right at America’s birth — over shared aspirations and ideologies of liberty. Poland even created a constitution in 1791, the same year the Bill of Rights was ratified in America, that is similar to the U.S. Constitution in terms of expanding the country’s sphere of freedom and democratizing the governmental process.

“Intellectually, emotionally, sentimentally, there is a connection between us right from the start,” Mazurkiewicz said.

But while America was rising, the hopes and dreams of a free, democratic Poland began to crash as outside entities interfered. Poland’s predatory neighbors — the Kingdom of Prussia, the Russian Empire, and Austria — began to take chunks of the country. By 1795, Poland, which had existed since 966, was completely erased from the maps of Europe.

Poland has always been a place where conflicting interests collide, leading to near constant crisis throughout its long history, Mazurkiewicz said. The 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were marked by wars, uprisings, and civil and political upheaval that ravaged Poland and often left a piece of it in the hands of another country.

The early 1900s saw Poland caught in the middle of World War I. It wasn’t until the end of the war, in 1918, that Poland reemerged as an official country, thanks in large part to the lobbying of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. 

Only two decades later, Poland, along with the rest of the world, was pummeled by World War II. “First to fight” in September 1939, Poland was attacked first by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet Russia a little more than two weeks later. In the wake of the global conflict, Poland fell under the control of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. For the next four and a half decades, Poland suffered under the grip of communism as an Eastern Bloc nation behind the Iron Curtain.

This was the Poland Mazurkiewicz was born into in 1975. It was the Poland of martial law and tanks on the street, the place where the government chased down opposition leaders and slaughtered workers at random when they went on strike. It was a country without an exit. 

“All of the borders in the Eastern Bloc were militarized,” Mazurkiewicz said. “You could try to paddle your way through the Baltic Sea … good luck. You could hijack a plane. People did that, too. But there was no exit.”

Some were allowed to leave, but only after they were arrested, interrogated, and given the choice between decades in prison or permanent exile — “If you want to go, then go, and never come back,” the communists would say. 

Mazurkiewicz remembers that common goods and basic necessities were scarce. 

“Toilet paper was legendary,” she said. “There was no toilet paper, for whatever reason. Don’t ask me why. We would all be gathering old newspapers and donating them so the government could produce more. Now people stand in lines when they want the iPhone X. Back then, people stood in line for six hours for toilet paper. It was crazy.” 

Harsh conditions often led to worker strikes, but the strike in 1980 led by Mazurkiewicz’s neighbor ended with the creation of Solidarity, a free and independent trade union.

“That was a shock, that communists were allowing trade unions they didn’t control,” Mazurkiewicz said. “Poles called it a carnival of freedom. They felt they were turning into a country where you could write what you want, say what you want, and feel free. Well, that was an illusion.”

The government, fearing that Poland was becoming too free, attempted to destroy Solidarity a year after its inception. The communist regime imposed martial law and arrested thousands. The crackdown is what led to Walesa’s 11-month imprisonment.

Repression became the norm once again, but the fire ignited by Solidarity continued to burn. 

“… you have to understand that growing up in communist Poland in the last phase of communism was nothing like Stalin’s communism of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when people were interrogated by having their fingernails pulled out or being sat on chairs upside down, or were beaten to death or simply shot while in prison. By the 1980s there is violence — even murders perpetrated by the secret service — but there are also widespread protests. There is tear gas and water cannons in the street, but still it is nothing like the 1950s.”

As Soviet-era communism inched ever closer to its demise throughout the 1980s, Poland entered an “almost schizophrenic state of mind,” with many diverse narratives, Mazurkiewicz said.

One narrative that hung over her childhood was the system that “surrounded you from every single angle, controlling whatever you did,” she said. Mazurkiewicz learned from an early age to never trust what was said on the television or printed in the newspaper because most of it was regime propaganda. In school, harsh treatment was standard, as were skewed history lessons that overlooked the many atrocities of the Soviet Union.

But there was another narrative that she remembers fondly. The one of going with her friends to the Catholic church after school and being part of a Scouts’ Association, where she went on camping excursions and learned how to survive in the wilderness.

Her father was a civil engineer with a passion for recreational fishing, and she often tagged along with him on his many trips. They would also pick mushrooms and berries in the woods just for fun.

She remembers the parties her parents threw, even with the little they had. Their small apartment would overflow with family and friends, laughter and dancing. Tobacco smoke would fill the air, and the adults would drink vodka over chess and cards.

The setting was a safe place where people could talk openly, and Mazurkiewicz said she misses that deep bond of community.

“Solidarity, the name of the trade union that became a powerful social movement 10 million people strong, is more than just a fancy name,” she said. “This is how you got by. This is how you survived — with your friends, with the people you trusted, with your family and folks who supported you and helped you. It was a community underneath the surface.”

In 1989, right before Mazurkiewicz entered high school, Solidarity leaders and American diplomats reached an agreement with the Soviet Union to allow semi-free elections in Poland, which paved the way for completely free elections the next year. Walesa became the country’s first freely elected president.

The Soviet Union collapsed shortly after in 1991, bringing its long reign of communist tyranny to an end. But the ensuing years in Poland were not easy as the country struggled to recover and find its footing in a free economy.

Harsh austerity measures were put in place, state-owned enterprises began collapsing, and the price of common goods skyrocketed as the country’s currency fluctuated wildly. Eventually things stabilized, and Poland found further security in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. 

“Now we are safe, the country’s economy is booming, and we are progressing in all walks of life,” Mazurkiewicz said. “When I think about 1990 until today, I am so proud and so happy to see where we are as a country.

“I just read that we are finally considered to be among the developed countries of the world. Now think about this in historical perspective. In the previous two centuries, there was always something coming our way, hurdle after hurdle to overcome. Generation after generation, we would lose the best, the brightest, the most proactive, either by them getting killed in uprisings and wars or emigrating.

“Communism wrecked our country on many levels. But in just three decades, one generation, we made it. Just given the opportunity to make it, we can. Now we have a generation born in the 1990s that doesn’t remember communism. They can learn at school everything about their history and speak out freely without being afraid. We have not been this safe and prosperous since the wars of the 17th century started ravaging Poland.

“We still have a lot of work to do. I’m not trying to present too rosy of a picture. We have serious issues to deal with at the moment. We are very divided politically right now. It’s as divided as it is in America. But I have a feeling we’ll be OK. 

“Poland is a great nation that found a way to peacefully dismantle communism – and remember, there was no precedent to it anywhere else in the world at the time. Domestically, 1989 established a new model of using the ballot box to fix Poland. I hope this legacy will not wither away.”

Mazurkiewicz added that the affinity and bond that America and Poland established centuries ago is still strong today.

“I remember reading a Time Magazine article back in 2003, before Poland entered the European Union, that basically said that Poland is the American Trojan horse in Europe,” she said. “Fifteen years later, we are open to all sorts of cultural and economic cooperation. We are still possibly the most pro-American country in Europe.”

She added that she wants to show the VSU students in her course that “there is a country way out there where they can feel like they also belong.”

“I came here with a mission — to enchant people who want to study a little bit about Poland,” she said. “I want them to see that there is this very unique connection between America and Poland.”

Dr. John Dunn, head of VSU’s Department of History, was instrumental in bringing Mazurkiewicz to campus. He said learning the history of any country offers numerous benefits.

“Cicero, the Roman writer and politician, said that if you don’t know the story of the past, of humankind, you’re never an adult,” he said. “You’re a child always. You need to know where you came from. Whether it’s China or Georgia or Poland or Uzbekistan, studying history helps us understand where we are now.”

In between her classes at VSU, Mazurkiewicz is staying busy. As president of the Polish American Historical Association, she recently organized a conference in Chicago to commemorate the organization’s 75th anniversary, and she is planning another one for January. She is also finishing her fourth book, a work that has been years in the making.

She worked with Dunn to bring a VSU study abroad group to Poland this past summer, and the two are already coordinating a trip for Summer 2019. 

She also organized a conference on Nov. 9 at VSU to celebrate the centennial of Poland regaining independence in 1918 and the establishment of official diplomatic relations between Poland and America.

She is finding time to explore South Georgia, as well, and has gone on excursions with VSU’s Center for Outdoor Recreational Experiences. 

“I’ve been here for several months now, and I love everything about it,” she said. “I was met with nothing but kindness. I feel welcome. I have taught at a number of universities, but I have never felt at home. And this place makes me feel like home.”