By SUSAN MANUS
The long history of Polish-American relations was the subject of a special program on May 2 held in the new European Reading Room in the Jefferson Building. The Library was honored by a visit from the prime minister of Poland, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, and a lecture by noted historian Piotr Wandycz of Yale University. John Van Oudenaren, chief of the European Division, was host of the program, which was organized by Ronald Bachman, Polish area specialist in the European Division. The Federation of Polish Americans Inc. and Amplico Life S.A., the Polish subsidiary of AIG Inc., provided financial support for the event.
Dr. Billington welcomed the large audience and said, "It can only be seen as poetic justice that Poland, which played such a critical role in bringing about the end of communism in so many parts of the world and opening the way to a new European order, should be honored in the first public event in the new European Reading Room."
The centerpiece of the program was the first public showing in more than 70 years of "A Polish Declaration of Admiration and Friendship for the United States of America, Presented to President Coolidge on the 150th Anniversary of American Independence." Dr. Billington described the 111-volume gift as "possibly the largest expression of affection one nation ever made to another." The set contains signatures of some 5.5 million Polish citizens -- one-sixth of the total population in 1926. The volumes are ornamented with brilliantly colored original illustrations by prominent Polish artists of the interwar period.
Prime Minister Cimoszewicz thanked the Library for recognizing the volumes of signatures on this special occasion, the eve of May Third Constitution Day. He described the gift as "proof of the deep commitment of the Polish people to the democratic ideals of the American people." The prime minister was particularly interested in pages from his home district, where his wife identified members of her family.
Polish Ambassador Jerzy Kozminski and other embassy officials delivered copies of a congratulatory message from President Aleksander Kwasniewski, which concluded with the words, "I am convinced that this 'emblem of good will' will remain a symbol of the consolidating excellence of relations between the United States and Poland."
During his discussion of U.S.Polish relations, Professor Wandycz commented on the historically different national psyches of the two countries. "The Poles are history-conscious," he said. "The burden of the past, often an unhappy past, weighs on them heavily. ... By contrast, Americans tend to look more toward the future. ... During the last 200 years, the American story has been a success story. The corresponding period for the Poles was totally different."
Mr. Wandycz noted that the Polish presence in America dates to the Jamestown colony in 1608 and that Polish national heroes Kosciuszko and Pulaski made important contributions to American victory in the Revolutionary War. "What is less well known is the important role the Americans played ... at the Warsaw parliament, which adopted the May 3, 1791, constitution."
Contrasting the United States and Poland in 1795-1918, when Poland ceased to exist as a state, he said, "the Poles, deprived of their statehood and rising against the partitioners again and again, were worthy of sympathy ... but did not figure as a political factor. ... In the last decades of the 19th century, the Polish question largely disappeared from the agenda of international politics."
The two world wars broadened the U.S. global outlook and brought greater attention to the Polish cause. According to Mr. Wandycz, President Wilson's championship of an independent Poland at Versailles "proved very important for the rebirth of the Polish state." During World War II, Poland "was an occupied country divided between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, whose inhabitants lived under a regime of terror. ... The only chance of success that the Polish diplomacy had was to convince Great Britain and particularly the United States that victory over Germany would be incomplete if Soviet Russia were to rule over half of Europe. But such arguments fell on deaf ears. ... The Polish question became part of a larger problem: that of the division of Europe and of the Cold War."
Mr. Wandycz briefly highlighted various American initiatives during the postwar years, praising President Kennedy's assistance; noting that President Johnson "emphasized trade, the flow of ideas, visitors and humanitarian aid"; and citing President Nixon's visit to Warsaw. "The American role in the Solidarity crisis was on the whole positive and imaginative. The American stand may well have prevented an invasion in 1980." Remarking on current cultural trends, he said, "We are witnessing an Americanization of Poland."
Mr. Wandycz concluded by stressing his optimism for the future of U.S.-Polish relations, that Poland wants only to be a "European country remaining true to its old heritage while building a better future."
Ms. Manus is a Music Specialist for the National Digital Library Program.
A color brochure, by Zbigniew Kantorosinski of the Order Division, presents several dozen images from selected volumes of The Polish Declaration of Admiration and Friendship. Free copies can be obtained by writing to: European Division, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Avenue S.E., Washington, D.C., 20540-4830. The online version can be viewed at here.