The Polish Mission Commemorates the 72nd Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz at West Point
Tadeusz Kościuszko is a name that may be familiar, but also one about which few details can be recalled by many today. Though his figure in bronze and stone adorns many beautiful places in in our country, few are aware of his great patriotic legacy that proved an invaluable contribution to the cause of American Independence in the Revolutionary War. Kościuszko came to America from Poland in 1776 as a brilliant young military engineer, inspired by the cause of American independence, and compelled to volunteer his service. His primary tasks focused on fortifying and improving strategic military posts. The most notable of all these, was West Point. For two years he directed a series of innovative improvements there, which allowed the United States to retain control of the Hudson River, a lifeline to the fledgling American republic struggling for independence from the British Empire.
Today, the figure of Kościuszko still overlooks the Hudson River from atop a tall stone pedestal, from the very apex of West Point, surrounded by the Military Academy so renowned for excellence today. Even though the monument itself takes up only a small section of real estate on the grounds of The United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, the bronze statue together with the enveloping complex of West Point’s fortified buildings makes up a broad image that is indeed a fitting testimony to Polish-American cooperation. It was Thomas Jefferson who said “He is as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.” That’s why we at The Polish Mission were drawn to bring our most successful educational program, in cooperation with Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (A-BSM), to the place where Kościuszko’s legacy is most well-known.
After the Revolutionary War, it wasn’t long after his return to Poland that he was compelled to once again draw his saber in defense of freedom in the Polish-Russian War of 1792, and the subsequent Kościuszko Uprising in 1794. The Founder of the Orchard Lake Schools Fr. Józef Dąbrowski, shares a unique connection to the heroic exploits of Kościuszko. Through he was born 25 years after Kościuszko’s death, the young Józef Dąbrowski took up arms for his beloved Poland, just as Kościuszko did when he returned to his first country after the American Revolution. Both Kościuszko and Dąbrowski fought against Imperial Russian rule in Poland— Kościuszko in the late 1700s, and Dąbrowski in 1863. They both realized that one’s patriotic duty, in service to beloved family and countrymen, is a primary obligation shared by all freedom-loving people. Even though neither of them were able to live in a Poland free from oppressive foreign rule, their contributions to the cause of freedom in America have made them both role models for responsible citizens across the world.
After the tragic failure of the January Uprising of 1863, Dąbrowski turned his attention upward, and began to study and prepare for a priestly life that would lead him to the United States, where he became the founder of the Orchard Lake Schools in 1885. In a certain sense, it can be said that he followed in Kościuszko’s footsteps—the latter was a Pole who helped create the American nation, while the former embraced its ideals to create the better lives that Kościuszko himself so longed for. Like West Point, a statue of Fr. Dąbrowski is a landmark here in Orchard Lake.
Just as Kościuszko strengthened and reinforced the fortress of West Point before the military academy was established on July 4th 1802, so Fr. Dąbrowski built up the Polish Seminary on St. Aubin Street in Detroit, before the Orchard Lake Schools came to the campus of the former Michigan Military Academy (MMA) in 1909. Known as the “West Point of the West,” those early days of the Orchard Lake Schools saw Poles and Polish-Americans inherit the memory of the military traditions not unlike those practiced at West Point to this day. A cannon blast signaled the beginning and end of the day, and hundreds of grey-uniformed cadets conducted their rigorous days of study and training by the signals of the bugle. Even though a regular roar of cannons hasn’t been heard at Orchard Lake in over 100 years, we remember the special role our historic campus played in the formation of young military men. Today, our Chancellor resides in the old commandant’s house, the nucleus of St. Mary’s prep is in the MMA academic building, and our storied “Old Gym” is still home to pick-up athletics, just as it had been at the turn of the century. With all these unique comparison’s it’s no wonder we chose to focus our efforts on West Point, with our most successful educational program to date, Forbidden Art, arm-in-arm with our great partners at A-BSM.
Having Forbidden Art at places from California to Massachusetts bears special significance to a Polish cultural institution like The Polish Mission. Since 2008, we have been dedicated to living out the educational mission of Fr. Dąbrowski, and as such have coordinated many partnerships with institutions across Poland that result in exhibits and cultural experiences for our community here in America.
Click here to see a collection of accolades received by The Polish Mission for the event at West Point
Auschwitz-Birkenau is one of the most revered places on the globe. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the grounds of the former Nazi German concentration and death camp witnessed the murder of at least 1.1 million people, mainly Jews, but also, Poles, Soviet prisoners-of-war, Roma & Sinti, and people of other nationalities and creeds deemed unacceptable by the Third Reich. Today, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum undertakes herculean efforts to preserve these facilities, assisted by a huge team of expert conservators, archivists, and scientists from across Europe. According to Museum Director Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, “the Authenticity of the former camp, with its buildings, towers, and massive amounts of objects, is what people come to experience; this place itself testifies in the most powerful way to the memory of the victims.”
The preservation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site goes hand-in-hand with world renowned educational programs that are unlike those of any other museum. The sheer scope of the tragic past that the Auschwitz Museum aims to conserve, presents significant challenges to a plan of museum education that encompasses the broader universal human condition: psychology, human rights, and even spiritual dimensions. As such, the educational programs developed by A-BSM are pioneer initiatives that offer visitors a clear look at aspects of Auschwitz-Birkenau history from which a variety of new perspectives may be gained. One of these largely un-addressed aspects is the subject of camp art, or, artwork created by prisoners. This concept inspired the Forbidden Art exhibit, which we at The Polish Mission have taken to sixteen venues across the United States, with more planned throughout 2017.
In 2012, the Forbidden Art exhibition was created by the museum team at A-BSM, after carefully selecting twenty examples from the collection of over 2,000 examples of camp art in the collections there. The representative sample is a diverse and awe-inspiring selection that shows the wide variety of objects—from crude small examples to lavishly illustrated books. The artwork is a remarkable testimony to the human spirit that contrasts with the hellish conditions of Auschwitz-Birkenau; the prisoners were to be de-humanized by the Nazis, but despite the uniforms, tattooed numbers, and psychological and physical torture, people still created art, and risked their lives to do so. While individual reactions to the exhibit are left to the viewer, the artwork continues to spark new discussions on this unique topic of life in the concentration and death camps, which Holocaust and genocide scholars, as well at art historians and other academics, are currently engaging.
Visitors and community surrounding Orchard Lake Schools know well the scope of the gigantic exhibition, made up of twenty large wooden illuminated panels, artfully reminiscent of the old wooden prisoner barracks at Birkenau. Each panel nests an illuminated translucent image of camp art, with a descriptive and interpretive text mounted below on clear Plexiglas. All together the exhibition weighs a mighty three tons, and takes about three days to fully install. Coordination of this traveling exhibit is no small task either, requiring the use of a 53’ semi and heavy unloading equipment. Since the Forbidden Art premier at the historic Galeria in 2012, the exhibition (and the Polish Mission team) have traveled about 8,000 miles within the U.S.—that’s about how may miles it would take to travel from Orchard Lake to Poland and Back again. It’s not a small operation in any sense, but The Polish Mission stands by its obligations to Orchard Lake Schools’ Polish heritage to bring only the best educational opportunities to the United States.
Commemorating the Liberation of Auschwitz is a powerful event that bears special significance. On the sacred grounds of the former Auschwitz camp, survivors, their descendants, and communities of people who recognize the importance of attempting to understand the Holocaust gather together to remember. While the survivors are the most honored guests, countless heads of state and community leaders flock to the remembrance ceremonies to join together in fellowship on or around January 27, the same date that in 1945 saw the end of the horror of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Commemorating this event has become a cornerstone of the Auschwitz Memorial in Poland, and we at The Polish Mission are honored to welcome American audiences to participate here in the United States. Our first Liberation Day event was held in observance of the 69th anniversary in 2013, done in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee, the Holocaust Memorial Center of Farmington Hills, Michigan, and Wayne State University. Later, when Forbidden Art came to the United Nations in 2015, the 70th anniversary was marked by a special session called by Polish Ambassador to the United Nations Bogusław Winid on the Global Prevention of Genocide, involving UN Ambassadors of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Rwanda, Israel, and Germany. In addition, A-BSM Director Dr. Piotr Cywiński, the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Genocide Adama Dieng, Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch, and Director of the Museum of Polish History Robert Kostro, also played major roles in executing the commemoration. In this tradition, we came to USMA West Point for the 72nd Anniversary, held on February 9.
In the wee hours of February 9th, an awful blizzard descended on West Point at a rate of 3-4 inches per hour, causing a “code red” alert, in which the majority of buildings at USMA West Point are closed and functions suspended. Despite that, our commemoration event was given the green light, and The Polish Mission team in tight cooperation with USMA leadership, braved the deep snow and ice to ensure not just a successful event, but a fitting memorial to those who suffered worse than anyone could imagine. Dr. Cywiński and a delegation from A-BSM had safely landed the day before, so our decision was to dispense with talk of cancellation and continue onward. We all braced for disappointment as cancellations for the evening began to trickle in. But to everyone’s surprise, even though the winter weather claimed the attendance of some travelers, our guests’ commitment was as strong as ever, and it didn’t take long for the elegant Haig Room at the Jefferson Library to fill with guests.
After a brilliant performance of the National Anthems of the U.S. and Poland by Master Sergeant MaryKay Messenger, and an invocation by USMA Chaplain Fr. Matthew Pawlikowski, it was our distinct honor to receive Brigadier General Cindy Jebb, Dean of USMA West Point, to begin the speaking program. General Jebb welcomed the guests and gave thanks to both The Polish Mission and A-BSM for bringing such a profound educational initiative to the cadets of West Point.
Following addresses from dignitaries who braved the weather to be with us, Dr. Cywiński gave a keynote address before Marina Arsenijevic ended the program with a gorgeous rendition of America the Beautiful played in the style of Chopin. Guests then mingled over elegant hors d’oeuvres and viewed Forbidden Art for the remainder of the chilly evening.
The next day, Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Dr. David Frey executed a Dean’s Hour lecture at Thayer Hall, during which Dr. Cywiński spoke to cadets and visiting public on the challenges facing the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, giving specific examples and anecdotes that stimulated sharp discussion among all the attendees. The round of applause signaled the close of our program of events at USMA West Point, and our delegation bid adieu to the imposing fortress on the Hudson.
We at The Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools offer our highest thanks to the following: Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Dr. Piotr Cywiński; + Dr. Edward Wikiera; our anonymous friend in California; the Orchard Lake Schools Ambassadors; the family of Mr. Francis Sehn; LT COL (Ret.) Walter Oehrlein and the USMA Class of ’65; Consul General of the Republic of Poland in New York Mr. Maciej Golubiewski; Ambassador of Austria H.E. Mr. Wolfgang Waldner; Polish Defense Attaché COL Michal Sprengeł; Polish Mission Chairman Dr. Stanley Z. Majewski; MAJ Tyson Behnke, Jefferson Library Director Mr. Chris Barth; Dr. David Frey; Mr. Steve Olejasz; the Friends of Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation; The Polish Cultural Institute of New York; Coach Richard Forzano; and the entire team of consummate leaders at USMA West Point.
The exhibition remains on display on the second floor of the Jefferson Library until early March, when it will then travel back to Michigan for its seventeenth venue hosted by the City of Wixom. If you’d like to visit USMA West Point to see Forbidden Art, please make sure to follow West Point visitation guidelines found at: http://www.usma.edu/Visiting/ , and see www.polishmission.com for all updates.