Kosciuszko Day 2018
Guest Speaker
Captain Michael Matulewicz, Master Mariner

It was a hot and humid late afternoon in August 1797, one very different from the cold we experience today, when a struggling, recuperating Pole of 50 years of age, stepped off a ship named the Adriana at the docks not far from this very spot. Having just endured two years in a Russian prison, and a seventy-day tumultuous ocean voyage, he looked the shadow of the younger man who had last stood on the quay over a decade earlier. During his last time in America, he had achieved celebrity status, lauded popularly as a hero of the American Revolution, a genius for military innovation, and the engineering savior of the ragtag American Army. Abroad however, apart from his countrymen and freedom loving admirers, he was labeled as a rebel and a traitor by the crowned autocrats of Europe. His Russian imprisonment was due to his fight for a better Poland, one reborn in the spirit of liberty and enlightenment. However, this spirit was too much of a threat for Poland’s neighbors and internal factions to allow. The result: His uprising crushed, his nation dismembered, her noble name wiped clean from the map of Europe.

Still, to anyone who knew or saw him, deep in this gaunt man burned the amber flame of an undiminished spirit, one which made his friend, then Vice-President Thomas Jefferson describe him as: “the purest son of liberty I have ever known.” This man of course was Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the man in whose name we pay tribute today.

To anyone who extends even a cursory glance at Kosciuszko’s long resume of accomplishments as an engineer, military tactician, statesman, and humanist, it is hard to believe that one man could be capable of such remarkable feats. Yet, I believe the lessons of Kosciuszko for us today lie not in his military accomplishments, rather in his unshakable belief in the value of people, their individual liberty, and the unwavering, nonnegotiable fight for the oppressed and against injustice.

Through all of Kosciuszko’s life we find this one ideal: men must be free from oppression. I believe if he were here today he would tell us one thing: Always follow what you know in your heart to be right. It cannot be understated enough that Kosciuszko’s heroics here in America were not to reestablish any semblance of the mistakes of the Old World. He believed that there can be no end to challenging the established social order, no backwards movement to the comfort of failed systems of living. No ignorance to the sufferings of our fellow man. Our Polish ancestors, my own included, likewise came to these shores, stepping onto the same docks as Kosciuszko because they wanted to bring freedom to their lives. It was not to contribute to a society that engineered oppression. Indeed, the history of Polish-Americans has at most times been a story of struggle against a system set against them. Polish immigrants to the United States wanted to return to Poland with the gift of freedom as did Kosciuszko, but because of the cruel treatment of history towards Poland they were forced to establish a new ideal homeland here in American cities and towns: Polonia. That they did so in the face of a different kind of oppression, one of exploitation from the business and social magnates of their day, is how they honored their Inner Kosciuszko.

As all of you here probably realize, it is in the preservation of our traditions that we often find the expression of our Polish spirit, and, as I have termed it, our Inner Kosciuszko. I have also come to understand that the true Polish spirit, is one that walks hand in hand with the same amber flame of liberty that burned in the heart of Tadeusz Kosciuszko in every battle he fought, be it physical or intellectual.

I believe that Jefferson’s observation of Kosciuszko’s purity of liberty led also from his personal deficiencies in this regard as a slaveowner. It has only recently been the sad lesson of our American History that many of the forefathers and builders of the United States have been called out for hypocrisy as men who trumpeted the claims of “liberty” “equality” and “freedom for all” while maintaining slaves and disenfranchising women, immigrants, and those of lesser station. This flies in the face of their contemporaries such as Kosciuszko who backed up noble words with noble actions.

Before leaving the United States for the last time to carry on the fight for Poland’s independence yet again, Kosciuszko famously left a Last Will and Testament earmarking his estate for the purchase, freedom, and education of African-American slaves including Jefferson’s own. In this will there is a passage that I believe gives us a blueprint for the expectations of our citizenship and is, in a sense, Kosciuszko’s specific instructions for us today: “the duty of a Citizen in the free Government, [is] that he must defend his Country against foreign as well [as] internal Enemies who would wish to change the Constitution for the worst to enslave them by degree afterwards, to have [a] good and human heart sensible for the sufferings of others.”

We have a special duty as Poles and Polish-Americans to preserve and honor Kosciuszko’s memory and celebrate his accomplishments, but also to recognize how in our own time we are living up to his pattern for living liberty. For chasing out oppression whenever it rears its ugly head both home and abroad, for calling out ourselves, our neighbors, and our leaders to be real and better people who respect the lives and liberty of all. Our duty to the present and future generations is to teach them to honor their own Inner Kosciuszko, one that I know has potential in every Polish soul, and to fan that same amber flame of liberty that always glowed brightest in his heart.

A Polish historian once described Kosciuszko as “the most famous Pole in history.” We should be so honored that such a noble life is recognized as the ultimate expression of us. Each of us are called to live up to this fame and to attempt to equal the deeds that earned him this tribute. Be proud to be Polish. Learn our history and traditions. Insist on pronouncing our beautiful Polish surnames and popular words correctly and with authority. But just as important, challenge oppression and injustice wherever it is found and do what we know to be right. On that August Day in 1797, his arrival was accompanied by the crowd’s nonstop chanting of “Long live Kosciuszko!” His carriage was unhitched from its horses and pulled by the enthusiast populace from the waterfront to this very spot. Only by being true to our Inner Kosciuszko do we fulfill that chant here today so that by his example each one of us may rightly be called pure sons and daughters of liberty.

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