Interview with Alex Storozynski

alex_storozynskiThe Polish Weekly recently interviewed Alex Storozynski – the bestselling author of The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Era of Revolution. Mr. Storozynski is the President and Executive Director of The Kosciuszko Foundation and has contributed significantly to New York Polonia. He is also a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a former member of the New York Daily News editorial board, a founding editor of amNewYork, and a former city editor for the New York Sun.
On Tuesday, October 20, 2009, Mr. Storozynski will visit the Piast Institute’s headquarters in Hamtramck, MI, to discuss his book and meet members of Detroit Polonia. Tickets are limited, but may be purchased through the Piast Institute. On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, Mr. Storozynski will also visit Border’s Bookstore at 612 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor, MI, at 7:00 PM, to discuss his book and conduct a question-and-answer session. This event is free and open to the public.

Thomas Mikulski: You’ve recently written a highly-acclaimed English-language biography of Thaddeus Kosciuszko entitled, “The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution”.  By writing his biography, Publishers Weekly  says that you pulled him “… back from the brink of obscurity by including almost every documented detail to create the first comprehensive look at a man who once famously symbolized rebellion.”  Why do you think it’s taken over two hundred years to tell Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s story to an English-language audience?  Why should anyone care about him?

Alex Storozynski: Kosciuszko was an amazing military man whose strategy won the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the American Revolution. Up until that point, the Continental Army had not won any major battles. Kosciuszko also designed the impregnable fortress at West Point, which the British were afraid to attack. It was Kosciuszko’s plans for West Point that Benedict Arnold tried to sell to the British, in the most infamous act of treason in American history. Kosciuszko then gave his salary from the American Revolution to Thomas Jefferson and asked that the money be used to buy black slaves and free them. His exploits in America alone should put Kosciuszko into American history books, but he also led a revolution in Poland, and stood up for the rights of peasants enslaved by serfdom, blacks, Jews, Native Americans, women, and all those who were disenfranchised. He was a prince of tolerance who deserves to be in our history books.

TM: Why do you call Thaddeus Kosciuszko, “The Peasant Prince”?  For someone who fought against the British and Russian Empires to support democracy in America and Poland, doesn’t it seem odd to call him a “prince”?

AS: In Polish military tradition of the late 18th century, military commanders would show their appreciation of the most successful platoon in battle by putting on the jacket and insignia of that unit. Because the peasants were the most successful unit at the Battle of Raclawice, Kosciuszko put on a sukmana, a peasant robe, after that battle and wore it for the rest of the uprising. His princely behavior towards the serfs, and their adoration of Kosciuszko, is why I decided to call the book, “The Peasant Prince”.

TM: Thaddeus Kosciuszko arrived in Philadelphia in  1776 to support the American Revolution; and he –  among other contributions – led efforts to build West Point and defend Saratoga, NY.  He was among the most well-known and devoted revolutionaries to the American cause; and, for his efforts, the American government granted him citizenship and the rank of Brigadier General.  What do his efforts say about the Polish commitment to the United States; and, do Americans nowadays sufficiently appreciate Polish contributions to our country?

AS: Americans know little about Kosciuszko and the Polish contributions to the American Revolution by people like Pulaski, and that is why I wrote this book.

TM: In response to the United States’ decision on the European Missile Defense Shield, President Lech Kaczynski presented President Barack Obama with a copy of “The Peasant Prince”.  What do you think about the United States’ recent decision; and, how do you feel that President Kaczynski used your biography to make an overt political statement?

AS: President Obama in particular should know about Kosciuszko. Remember that two out of our first three presidents, Washington and Jefferson, owned black slaves. Kosciuszko knew them both, and spoke up to them about slavery. Kosciuszko was not only one of America’s first abolitionists, but he donated his own money for the manumission of slaves. And Kosciuszko wanted his money to buy and free slaves, but also to provide for their education, and to purchase land, cattle and farming tools for them so that they could make a living as free citizens in the United States. This was an incredible gesture which showed that Kosciuszko put his money where his mouth was.

TM: You are a highly-respected leader of New York’s Polish-American community.  As a member of the Kosciuszko Foundation, you’ve helped strengthen the relationship between Americans and Poles; and, although you were born in Brooklyn, Przeglad named you one of the “100 most influential Poles living abroad.”  What should Polish-Americans learn from your experience and success; and, how can Polish-Americans in Detroit emulate the success of their counterparts in New York? Can we learn any lessons from the success or failure of other cultural groups?

AS: Unfortunately, most Americans don’t know about the Polish contributions to America and Europe. As Polish Americans, the best thing we can do is learn as much as we can about our rich heritage, such as the May 3 Constitution, King Jan Sobieski’s rescue of Vienna, and heroes such as Irena Sendler so that we can teach Americans about this as well. For too long, Polish Americans have let others control the narrative of our story. We should be telling our story, and write articles, books, and create films and art about it.

TM: Before Soviet Communism disintegrated approximately twenty years ago, Polonia often devoted its efforts to promote freedom and democracy in Poland.  But, the Third Polish Republic has now existed for two decades; and, Poland has successfully integrated itself into the world community – most notably, through its membership in the European Union, NATO, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  Furthermore, global attention has recently shifted from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Southwest Asia.  Given these circumstances, is Polonia relevant in the modern world?  What should Polonia stand for nowadays?

AS: Now that the Cold War is over, Poles can finally concentrate on following our own economic dreams, educating our children and helping each other to become more successful in America and in Europe. Part of that is charity work, such as what the Kosciuszko Foundation does in providing scholarships and promoting Polish culture. We are lucky that we are no longer fighting a war, hot or cold, or trying to rid Poland of tyranny. So let’s take advantage of that, and all the energy that we used to fight communism should be used to creating the next computer geniuses like Steve Wozniak, or the next entrepreneurs, like Martha Stewart, or medical advances such as those of by Madame Curie and Dr. Maria Siemionow.

TM: Thaddeus Kosciuszko was born in Poland; but, he also led an incredibly multi-cultural life.  At various points in his life, he lived and worked in Poland, America, Russia, France, Germany, and Switzerland; and, he’s considered a national hero in Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and the United States.  From a nationalistic perspective, how do you think Thaddeus Kosciuszko viewed himself?  Can Polish-Americans today draw any lessons from his sense of nationalism?

AS: Patriotism and pride in one’s own heritage is important. But we must be careful not to become too nationalistic, because that can lead to chauvinism. Kosciuszko was proud to be Polish, but he also stood up for tolerance for all. I am proud to be Polish, but I also speak out about bigotry when it is aimed at others as well.

Thomas Mikulski

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