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Rockwellian Pol-Americana

General Józef Haller (touching the flag) and his Blue Army 1918-1922
General Józef Haller (touching the flag) and his Blue Army, 1918-1922

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Last Saturday, I attended the funeral of my post commander, Antoni Chrościelewski. He was 97. A Gulag survivor and a veteran of the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, he served in the Free Polish Army in the West during the Second World War, settling in America afterward. Heavily involved in charity services and community organizing, in his capacity as the head of a veterans’ organization, Mr. Chrościelewski was a major donor to The Institute of World Politics in general, and the Kościuszko Chair in particular.

As I was standing miserable in inclement weather during the graveside service at the cemetery of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Doylestown, PA, I reflected about the many layers to his story, which is both American and Polish simultaneously.

The convoy with his coffin arrived from New York. I think that was Mr. Chrościelewski’s domicile for about 70 years. He shuffled between Greenpoint and Manhattan. Greenpoint is an old Polonian neighborhood where Polish Catholics and Orthodox Jews collude to stem the invasion of progressive hipsters who have been invading their spaces. Manhattan is a different world.

However, in both locations, there are various Polonian institutions, most notably (for this story) separate posts of the Polish Army Veterans’ Association of America (PAVA). Mr. Chrościelewski had been involved with the organization for a number of years. He became post commander in Manhattan in the early 2000s.

PAVA was founded in Cleveland in May 1921. But its roots go back to Polish-American sports and community organizations of the early 20th century. They were the main source of about 60,000 volunteers from America, who stepped up to fight for Poland’s independence during the First World War and its aftermath, including the Polish-Bolshevik War. Ultimately, over 28,000 ended up going to the Old Continent. Some saw action in France, on the Western Front in 1918. All of them were transported to Poland as part of General Józef Haller’s “Blue Army” in 1919.

From the point of view of American law, it was a highly dubious enterprise. When the recruitment commenced, in Chicago, New York, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, the United States was still a neutral country.

Yet, President Woodrow Wilson, who was sympathetic to the cause of Polish freedom, not just looked the other way, but gave his blessings to the endeavor. The American Poles pulled that one off in no small measure thanks to their secret weapon, pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a superstar pianist, who had the U.S. President’s ear.

The volunteers were dispatched to Canada, where they trained before being shipped off. After Poland’s victory, most resolved to return home to the U.S. About 14,000 of them were shipped on U.S. transport ships to New Jersey.

But much of this was kept off the books. The Polish Americans who served in the “Blue Army” are not listed anywhere in U.S. armed forces registers, except those who later volunteered to enlist directly in the U.S. Army upon their return home. All others are ghosts. Their struggle remains largely unacknowledged.

That had serious implications for the returning veterans. Since the Polish state had not existed before 1918 and they were not officially a part of the U.S. Expeditionary Force, the American Poles were denied the status of combatants. So, a Belgian ex-serviceman who moved to the U.S. after 1918 was guaranteed medical care at the Veterans Administration, but not a Polish-American who fought often until 1920.

At any rate, that is also why PAVA was founded. In many ways, it was a fraternal organization, providing aid and assistance to veterans, who could not count on federal or state assistance.

After the Second World War, PAVA opened its doors to new arrivals: Polish soldiers who could not go back home. America embraced them; they, in turn, embraced America and became American, like Mr. Chrościelewski. Of course, they never forgot their beloved Poland, which was enslaved by the Soviets. Nor did they miss the opportunity to remind America about their proud roots.

It always amazes me how immigrant groups in the U.S., to make themselves more at home here, restore chunks of the Old Country for themselves and others. The most universal sign is, of course, the ethnic cuisine. Sushi anyone? Or kiełbasa?

Each group also has its own peculiarities, of course. The Poles, for example, first build their churches before anything else. The places of worship are both Polish and American.

Come to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Doylestown, PA, and you will see for yourself. The church is massive. In addition to religious themes, the parish center contains patriotic references: both Polish and American. There is an art exhibit on 9/11. At the cemetery, there are American and Polish flags. At the center, there is The Avenger, a fantastic monument to commemorate the Katyn Forest Massacre, where Stalin’s secret police murdered thousands of Allied Polish POWs.

Mr. Chrościelewski was buried next to his wife, also a Gulag survivor. Their only son Marek, who soldiers on at PAVA, was there of course, as was their daughter, Julia. My heartfelt condolences go to them.

At the funeral, I spotted a lone Marine in full uniform. There were plenty of others, including the PAVA veterans, some of them from the U.S. armed forces, and a military delegation from the Polish Embassy in D.C. and from the Polish Military Mission to the United Nations. Polish and American flags fluttered. An honor guard fired off a volley. Everyone saluted. A bugler played. We prayed.

Only in America. Like Norman Rockwell’s painting. Antoni Chrościelewski, RIP.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 24 April 2021