An Interview with Alex Storozynski
Aleksandra Ziółkowska-Boehm: Your book The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution was published by St. Martin’s Press in April 2009 and has already garnered many favorable reviews. Newsweek described your book as “an absorbing biography that should restore Kosciuszko to his proper place in history.” Publishers Weekly noted that “[Kosciuszko’s] were the plans sold to the British by Benedict Arnold.” Best of all, your book is selling splendidly on Amazon.com. But Kosciuszko is not a household word in America. The speakers of English have difficulties spelling his name: George Washington himself wrote it in eleven different ways. American historians like to rub in the fact that Kosciuszko left America and had not died here like Pulaski. What is your opinion?
Alex Storozynski: Part of the reason that Kosciuszko has not been better known is that he was a man of great modesty who did not look for the limelight. He did not have a big ego like most military officers around George Washington, and he cared more about the common man than most leaders. Pulaski was more brash, he died in battle, and that is part of the reason why he is better remembered. And in addition to problems with spelling his name, most Americans have difficulties pronouncing it.
The Polish government in Warsaw needs to be more aggressive in standing up for itself in Washington.
AZ-B: Your book is written with verve, passion, and involvement, and it keeps the reader connected and interested. I like its style; it is engaging from beginning to end. It is both clearly written and based upon historical documents. You quote American and Polish sources. How did you make your selections?
AS: I tried to write the kind of book about Kosciuszko that I myself would like to read. Many people consider history dry and inaccessible: I tried to counter that. I was very pleased when the Wall Street Journal called The Peasant Prince “accessible,” and also opined that it “painstakingly provides context and ample documentation.” This is what I was trying to do-give context to Kosciuszko’s life and make him accessible. History becomes more interesting when we learn about the emotions and motivations of real flesh-and-blood people. Readers have to be able to relate to the historical figure that they are reading about, otherwise they cannot put themselves in their shoes. When I was sifting through thousands of pages of documents, letters, articles, and memoirs, I tried to find the quotes that in my view best reflected Kosciuszko’s personality and what he was really about. Clearly, he cared more about what common folk thought of him than what kings, princes, and presidents did.
AZ-B: How much did your journalistic skills help you in producing such a readable book?
AS: Journalists are more skeptically-minded than historians, because we are used to politicians and other public figures lying right to our faces on a daily basis. Many historians care too much about not upsetting the apple cart of conventional wisdom, because they are too concerned about what their fellow historians will think of them. They are afraid that if they are too controversial, they will not get tenure at a prestigious university, which usually is the basis of their existence.
For example, a certain historian speculated in 1909 that Kosciuszko must have come to America with a letter of recommendation written by his mentor, Prince Czartoryski, to General Charles Lee of the Continental Army. Even though there was no evidence that this was true, future generations of historians repeated this claim like sheep. I looked up what Kosciuszko’s first job was in America: Chief Engineer of the Pennsylvania Committee on Safety. When I researched what this committee was, I discovered that it was created by Benjamin Franklin to protect Philadelphia from the British. So to me, it was obvious that Kosciuszko must have known Franklin, because Franklin was the head of this committee and Kosciuszko was its chief engineer. I was convinced that they worked together for two months until Franklin sailed for Paris to persuade the French to ally themselves with the Americans. Finally, I found an article written in 1825 by Kosciuszko’s personal secretary, Józef Pawlikowski, for a publication titled Weteran Poznański. Pawlikowski recounted the story that Kosciuszko told him about his first steps in Philadelphia and his unannounced visit to Benjamin Franklin. It is a fascinating account that has been overlooked.
Kosciuszko’s relationship with the Jews has also been largely ignored, which is surprising, because a Jewish horse salesman named Berek Joselewicz called Kosciuszko a “messenger from God” and founded a Jewish cavalry in 1794 to fight alongside the Poles against Czarist Russia. It was the first Jewish military unit since biblical times. I have also found an incredible painting of Jean Lapierre, a black man who made his way to Poland in 1794 and was at Kosciuszko’s side as he led a revolt against Russian aggression, while at the same time trying to free white serfs enslaved by feudalism. Kosciuszko also cared about the rights of American Indians. To me, this showed that Kosciuszko was a prince of tolerance who spoke up for freedom for all races.
Journalists are more skeptically-minded than historians, because we are used to politicians and other public figures lying right to our faces on a daily basis. Many historians are too concerned about what their fellow historians would think of them.
AZ-B: I like the introduction to your book-the story of how you wrote the book. It is a story in its own right.
AS: After getting a scholarship from the Kosciuszko Foundation to attend the School of Journalism at Columbia University, I became obsessed with Kosciuszko for the next 20 years. The more I read about him and the more I dug into his life, the more I realized that very few people truly understood what he was really about, in America and in Poland. There is now, and there was then, a great deal of bigotry in this world and most of it stems from ignorance. Kosciuszko lived his life trying to change that. Perhaps my favorite saying of his was in a letter to his sister where he wrote “always remember that by nature, we are all equals, and riches and education constitute the only difference.” After reading that, I decided that I had to tell his story in the way it deserved to be told. Also, my wife Agnieszka told me that she was tired of hearing all these stories about Kosciuszko and that it was time to put my obsessions on paper.
AZ-B: In America, Pulaski seems to be better remembered than Kosciuszko. Do you think that your book will renew interest in Kosciuszko, particularly after it was featured on the C-SPAN?
AS: Kosciuszko was much more fascinating than Pulaski. The C-SPAN program and the National Public Radio interview have generated a good deal of noise about the book, and hopefully this will lead to a renewed interest in Kosciuszko in America. I have actually had black people thanking me for writing the book too, because it shows the role that they played in the American Revolution.
AZ-B: You have stressed that Kosciuszko made friends with blacks, Jews, and even American Indians. Was this quality of Kosciuszko known to you before you started the book?
AS: When I started the research on the book, I knew about Kosciuszko’s last will and testament that was meant to purchase and free black slaves. But his relationship with Polish serfs was even more fascinating. Also, I was shocked to see that Polish historians have not commented much about his relationship with Jews. When I read that Berek Joselewicz wrote that Kosciuszko was sent by God Almighty, I nearly fell off may chair. It shows that people of all races and religions from his era had an incredible faith in him and in his sense of freedom for all.
AZ-B: We have also learned that he suffered great disappointments with women. Women liked him, but those he liked were always unavailable and Kosciuszko died a bachelor. Do you agree that this part of his life made him more human and not only a hero?
AS: I think the defining moment in Kosciuszko’s life was his failed love affair with Ludwika Sosnowska, and that is why I start the book with it. When he studied in Paris as a young man, Kosciuszko became obsessed with a new economic theory called physiocracy developed by Francois Quesnay. Physiocrats believed that land was the only true source of wealth and therefore agriculture was the key to prosperity. They proposed that only those who owned or leased land should be taxed. They opposed forced labor of serfs and argued that peasants should be allowed to migrate to find work. They opposed taxes on farmers and their harvest and argued that free markets meant individual liberty and economic security. Physiocracy had important implications for Poland because it promised to end feudalism, the enslavement of the serfs of Europe. When Kosciuszko returned to Poland, the war was temporarily over and he could not get a post in the military, so he took a job teaching the children of one of the richest men in Poland, Lord Sosnowski. Kosciuszko fell in love with one of his daughters, Ludwika (Louise) Sosnowska, who was a highly intelligent young lady. While Kosciuszko was in France, Ludwika and her sister translated the first book about physiocracy from French into Polish. So when Kosciuszko tried to elope with Ludwika and Lord Sosnowski stopped them, this was a failure for him, not only a personal level, but also on the level of important social convictions.
AZ-B: I have found out that you have also followed some cues about Kosciuszko’s private life?
AS: In the book, I present some of the information about rumors of the children that Kosciuszko fathered out of wedlock, one with the wife of his friend Zeltner, and another with the wife of one of his officers. In The Peasant Prince, I mention these as rumors of the times and I allow the readers to make up their own minds. But I am convinced that these rumors were true. To judge from what Kosciuszko wrote to some of his friends during the American Revolution, he was a very sexually aware person. Kosciuszko was raised during a hyper-sexual era, an example being Casanova’s visit to Poland to attend parties with the king. Such events and atmosphere had an impact on Kosciuszko’s life.
AZ-B: As the author of a successful book. . . are you thinking of another one?
AS: One of the books I am working on involves my teczka [a folder on a “person of interest” kept by the secret police in Soviet-occupied Poland, now in possession of the Institute of National Memory] that I received from IPN. I would like to tell the story of how the communists tried to get me to cooperate with them when I was studying in Poland in the 1980s. Their efforts were quite comical actually, and for me it was easy to resist, because I was born in the United States and could simply leave rather than be recruited by their pressure. Unfortunately, most Poles did not have that luxury. We have to be careful in judging people who were forced to do things that they did not want to, unless they did truly malicious things and harmed others. It is a difficult issue. Generally, I think we should be forgiving, although we in the United States are in no position to advise the people of Poland on these issues.
AZ-B: In Poland, the WAB Publishing House will publish a translation of your book. Do you plan to go to Poland to promote the book?
AS: I can’t wait to go to Poland to talk about The Peasant Prince. Poland is the fatherland of my parents, and it is obviously a very big part of who I am.
AZ-B: Tell me about your Polish background. I know that your mother’s name was Irena KrzyÏanowska and your father was born in Lwów. He took part in the Normandy invasion with the British Army. After the war, he spent several years in England and then moved to Argentina, where he met his wife and both moved to the United States. How was your childhood in Brooklyn and Queens?
AS: My father was from Lwóv, and my mother was also from Kresy, from the city of Równo. Toward the end of the war my mother and her sisters were taken to a Nazi work camp in Germany and had to separate dead bodies from scrap metal at bomb sites. An American bomb killed one of her sisters at that camp. Her father, Władyław KrzyÏanowski, was deported to Siberia by the Soviets, and later joined the Anders Army. He received medals during the campaign in Italy and was one of those who fought at Monte Cassino. My father was a member of the Szare Szaregi [a legendary underground resistance organization of Polish boy scouts formed in German-occupied Poland]; he fought in France in 1940 and was evacuated to England where he joined the Army. He was a motorcycle scout for a Polish tank brigade during the Normandy invasion. The reason that I was not born in Poland was that neither side of my family could return to Poland because the cities in which they had been born were annexed by the Soviets.
I dedicated the book to all Polish soldiers who fought “for your freedom and ours,” as the Polish saying goes, and especially to those Polish soldiers who, like my father and grandfather, like Kosciuszko, did not live to see a free Poland. I was born in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, a Polish neighborhood in New York, but my parents soon moved to Rockaway Beach in Queens, which is on the Atlantic Ocean. As a child growing up, I could hear from my house thesounds of waves breaking nearby. It was an idyllic childhood, swimming in the ocean and building sand castles and playing football on the beach. I think that I will always have a little sand left over in my shoes from my childhood.
AZ-B: You were the founding editor of the daily amNewYork, and your articles also appeared in the New York Sun. For what did you get the Pulitzer award?
AS: The Pulitzer was for a series of articles with my colleagues on the Daily News editorial board. It was about a scandal at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where many famous black artists like Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, and others got their start. The money that the tickets were bringing in should have gone to renovate the theater, but instead it was being taken by a Congressman.
AZ-B: You completed a Master’s degree at Columbia University on a Kosciuszko Foundation scholarship. You then spent some time in Krakow and Warsaw. You are now President of the Kosciuszko Foundation, the organization that helps Polish scholars and also American scholars interested in things Polish. How do you see the future of this Foundation under your presidency?
AS: Szczepan Mierzwa, who founded the Kosciuszko Foundation in 1925, made it clear that his primary goal was to help educate Poles and improve relations between Poland and the United States. He lamented, however, that “all the principles of Economics, Money and Banking courses that I was teaching did not tell me how to ask people for money for which they would not receive anything in return.” This remains the Foundation’s greatest quandary today. What are we selling? The answer: patriotism and success for Poles, as well as love for the old country infused with the American Dream. The buyers are not investing in their own future, but rather they are donating money to future Polish scholars seeking an education. The Foundation has given scholarships to people like Leszek Balcerowicz, Andrew Nagorski, Gen. Edward Rowny; to artists, lawyers, doctors, professors, who have gone on to make Poland a better place. Many have succeeded in the United States. Our mission is to educate Poles so that they succeed in their chosen careers and make more money and help to educate other Poles. This is what educational foundations do. So I am looking to raise money in the United States and Poland to give out even more scholarships. I also want to create a network of mentors that will help young scholars as they set out on their careers. We are also looking for ways to promote Polish culture and improve the image of Poles and Poland in the United States.
“Always remember that by nature, we are all equals, and riches and education constitute the only difference.” Thaddeus Kosciuszko
AZ-B: You wrote a letter to Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania after he repeatedly insulted Polish Americans with anti-Polish “wit.” You called him a bigot and reminded him that there are over 800,000 Pennsylvania citizens of Polish ancestry who tend to vote. Do you agree that such behavior and the use of the term “Polish concentration camps” have increased in recent years?
AS: Yes, I called Sen. Arlen Specter a bigot for telling Polish jokes. He called me to apologize to Polonia, and invited me for a cup of coffee to his office. But I declined the offer and told him that this was not enough. I asked him what he would do for Polonia, and for Poland? I pointed out that my friend Gen. Roman Polko fought for American and Iraqi freedom, but yet he could not come to see the Statue of Liberty without a visa. He promised that he would try to change this, but ultimately did nothing.
I do not agree that anti-Polish sentiment is on the rise, rather I think that Polonia is finally beginning to react to such sentiment. When I read the words “Polish concentration camps” in American newspapers, I cringe, and point out that this is profoundly wrong. But I also cringe when I hear certain people in Polonia who can be described as professional victims. There has to be a balance. We have to explain to the American media that yes, the Holocaust was a horrible black eye on European history, and yes, Jews were at the top of Hitler’s hit list. But Poles were next on that list. This explanation has to be done in a rational and unemotional way, and this is sometimes difficult. At the same time, as we ourselves suffer the bigotry and hateful comments of others, we must not tolerate those around us who are racist, anti-Semitic, or bigoted. Unfortunately, the United States has always had a totem pole of bigotry, and the latest arrivals were notched in at the bottom of the shame pole. There are Polish jokes, but blacks, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, and others may face even more discrimination than Poles. So if our motto is “for your freedom and ours,” we must make sure that this is more than just a slogan, and that we speak up for tolerance for everyone.
AZ-B: Do you think a Polish lobby can be built in the USA?
AS: Polonia in the United States has organizations that have tried to lobby the American system with varying levels of success. Our Polonian organizations are now trying harder to work together. But at the same time, the Polish government in Warsaw needs to be more aggressive in standing up for itself in Washington. Countries like Israel, Egypt, Turkey and others spend millions of dollars on professional lobbyists to walk the halls of the United States Congress to talk to Senators and Congressmen to push for their issues. As a result of those investments in professional lobbyists and the millions that they spend, they get back billions in foreign aid from the United States. As the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money.
Alex Storozynski is President of the Kosciuszko Foundation and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. His book, The Peasant Prince and the Age of Revolution (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009), is available on Amazon.com for $19.77 as of 26 August 2009. The interview was conducted in Philadelphia, PA, on 9 June 2009.
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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 10/31/09