Wednesday, June 4, 2008

May 3rd Polish Constitution Day, Update

I got an email from a friend after my last post. He wanted to know how my father celebrated May 3rd, Polish Constitution Day.

Here's what I wrote my friend:

My dad celebrated by going to the big Polish parade in Humboldt Park. The parade wound through the park, and it always seemed like every Polish-American Boy Scout troop and civic organization and parish was represented. Some of the groups had floats, but most were just Poles walking dressed in Red and White, the Polish colors, or costumes from the old country.

The parade wound through the park and finally ended up at the statue of Thaddeus Kosciusko, a Polish hero of the American Revolution. That's where people would come to hear speeches. And these were big deal speeches by big shots!
It seems like I heard Bobby Kennedy one year and Walter Mondale the next. Senator Muskie and LBJ? Yeah, I'm sure they were there too. Mayor Richard J. Daley? Absolutely. And the governor of Illinois, and the state senators and representatives, and Cardinals and Bishops and Monsignors by the bus load. If you were anybody, you'd want to be giving a speech to the Poles in Humboldt Park on May 3rd.
These speeches were Cold War speeches, speeches full of anger and fury and blood. Poland had been taken over by the Russians at the end of the Second World War, and the Poles wanted it back; and they wanted some American politician to say he was with us in wanting it get it back. My father and his friends and thousands of other Poles stood before the statue of Kosciusko riding a riding a high stepping cavalry charger and listened to speeches about charging into Soviet-controlled Poland and fighting to make it free. These were speeches full of steel and rubble and blood. They were full of anti-Communist vitriol and calls for the US to bomb the stuffing out of Moscow, unleash those American tanks with their nuclear-tipped artillery shells.

You'd hear Polish soldiers who had fought the Nazis in Poland in 1939, in France in 1940, in England in 1941, in Italy in 1943, in France in 1944, and at the gates of Berlin in 1945 stand up and talk about how the USSR was a paper lion, that when the Reds came into Poland in 1945 they were riding shaggy ponies and the Russian soldiers had rags on their feet instead of shoes.

My dad would talk about this all the time. He would talk about how the Reds he saw in 45 (he was in the eastern half of Germany) were as emaciated as the Poles he suffered along side with in the slave labor camps. My dad never figured that the West's war against the USSR would be a walk over, but he always felt that the West owed it to Poles to help them regain Poland. It was only right because the Poles shed more blood in the fight against Hitler than the British and the French and the Americans combined. They had shed that blood and been betrayed by their Allies. The only reward the Poles received for fighting against Hitler was to have their country turned over to the Soviets.
After listening to the speeches, groups of people would come back to our house for more speeches and drinking and reminiscing and singing. They loved to sing the song about the red poppies on Monte Cassino and the Polish National anthem. They loved to sing about how "Poland will never fall so long as we were alive."
And there was always some guy who would bring out his accordion, and he would start playing, and there would be more singing and more weeping. And it would never seem to stop.

(The photo of the Polish accordion player is by John Vachon, a UN photographer who followed and photographed the Poles who returned to Poland. His superb pictures are available in his book Poland, 1946.