This week's big anniversaries of the Normandy Beach invasion 70 years ago, and the crackdown in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago have taken away from another important milestone: the 25th anniversary of Polish freedom from Communist rule.
President Obama marked the anniversary in a speech, but the real reason for his visit was to highlight the success of Poland in the last quarter-century, while vowing NATO support for Ukraine in its struggle for independence from Russian influence.
That message wasn't lost on Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, Consul-General of Poland in New York City, when she visited Connecticut this week to speak at an event for the Polish Studies Program at Central Connecticut State University. "For us, the symbol of being free was being a member of NATO," she said. "Here is President Obama, in Poland, a day before the anniversary of our freedom. As you know, Poles are very pro-American, because democracy that is here in the United States, that is something we want to have in our country."
Junczyk-Ziomecka said that democracy came to Poland for two important reasons: Adoption of a sweeping economic reform, and support from the many Poles who had immigrated to America. The reforms were instituted by a controversial figure, economist Leszek Balcerowicz, whose “Big Bang” theory was widely praised for lifting the country over the Iron Curtain.
Poles didn't exactly warm to his ideas, Junczyk-Ziomecka said. "The society was mad at him, because the society was suddenly very poor," she said. "We regained independence to be happy, not to take everything on our own shoulders." She said the realization came quickly that economic reform meant that there was nobody to "take care of you," and that Poles were now responsible for their own lives.
Many called this "shock therapy," a term Balcerowicz told me in 2009 that he didn't like. He preferred the term "radical reform," which included slashing the budget deficit, privatization of the economy, and the rapid untangling of communist structures.
Listen below to our conversation, conducted near the 20th anniversary of Polish democracy:
"We soon realized that the free economy would provoke us to have our own ideas," said Junczyk-Ziomecka. "How to organize a business, how to organize the neighborhood, how to organize the government, how to organize the city."
A lot of those lessons came from America, too. Junczyk-Ziomecka said the Polish-Americans who had moved to cities like New Britain and Hartford had already learned how to thrive in a democracy, and they were using their voices to help this fledgling democracy in the homeland grow.
"They were the voice of Poland," during the communist years, Junczyk-Ziomecka told me. "Years of their insistant work resulted in the freedom of Poland."
Listen below to Junczyk-Ziomecka talk about Polish democracy on WNPR's Where We Live: