Thursday, 12 May 2016

Famous Polish War Heroes You've Never Heard Of

Whether in their homeland, Europe or the United States, Polish war heroes have distinguished themselves throughout history. Unfortunately, little is known about many of these brave individuals. Here are the remarkable stories of a few of Poland's greatest war heroes you've probably never heard about. (You can read more about Polish war heroes in Gerald Kochan’s blog, here.)
Tadeusz Kosciuszko: American Revolution War Commander and Humanitarian
Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a hero of the American Revolution and friend of Thomas Jefferson, was born into a modest family in a village now known as Belarus sometime in February 1746. He was a gifted military studies student who attended the Royal Military Academy of Warsaw. He received further military training in France before returning to Poland in 1774. He only stayed in Poland for two years, however. In 1776 he left Poland to offer his services to the U.S. against Great Britain in the American Revolution. A military architect specialist, Kosciuszko joined the war and became a colonel in the Continental Army. He both designed and oversaw construction of military fortifications, including West Point. It was his defensive strategy for General Horatio Gates at Saratoga that won him well-earned respect, however. By the end of the war, Kosciuszko was promoted to brigadier general, awarded a medal and attained U.S. citizenship.
In 1776, Kosciuszko read the Declaration of Independence and was so impressed he sought to meet with principal author, Thomas Jefferson. The two became friends and maintained a more than 20-year long correspondence, until Kosciuszko's death in 1817.
Casimir Pulaski: American Revolution Freedom Fighter
Born in Warsaw, Poland in March 1745, Casimir Pulaski was 15 when he joined his father in opposing Prussian and Russian interference in Poland's concerns. Outlawed for his actions, Pulaski traveled to Paris where a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin changed his life. Franklin encouraged the skilled young officer to join the fight for freedom in America. Upon arriving in Philadelphia in 1777, Pulaski met with General George Washington and subsequently distinguished himself on the battlefield. Pulaski was appointed head of the newly formed Cavalry in 1778. He was mortally wounded in a battle at Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, and died a hero Oct. 15, 1779.
Witold Pilecki: Willingly Captured and Sent to Auschwitz
Polish soldier Witold Pilecki fought in Poland's defense during WW II and joined the underground. He allowed himself to be captured with the goal of organizing an inside camp resistance movement and gather intelligence for the Allies. Pilecki became Auschwitz death camp prisoner No. 4859 and spent from September 1943 to April 1943 in the infamous concentration camp. He organized a resistance network with the camp and sent messages to outside leaders. His messages, now called the Pilecki Reports, were some of the world's first detailed records of concentration camp atrocities.
Pilecki escaped Auschwitz in 1943 after almost two and a half years. He participated in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Sadly, Pilecki was arrested by the Stalinist secret police in 1947 after the communist takeover. He was charged with working for "foreign imperialism" and executed in 1948. The sacrifices Pilecki made during the war and after were kept secret until 1989.
Henryk Slawik: Saved Thousands from Nazi Oppression
Henryk Slawik fought in defense of Poland in 1939, was captured and subsequently escaped from a Hungarian prisoner of war camp. Slawik led the Citizen's Committee to Aid Polish Refugees in Budapest and it was here that he provided Polish Jews with false documents confirming Aryan roots. He also helped establish an orphanage for children who in reality were Jewish orphans. Slawik disguised the orphans' identities by initiating frequent visits from Catholic Church authorities.
In March 1944, the Nazis took over Hungary, forcing Slawik to go underground. He ordered refugees under his command to leave. The orphanage was also evacuated. The Germans arrested Slawik March 19, 1944. He was tortured, sent to Gusen concentration camp and hanged Aug. 23, 1944. He is credited with saving the lives of 30,000 Poles, both Jews and gentiles.
Jan Karski: Polish Diplomat and Intelligence Gatherer
Jan Karski was born Jan Kozielewski  in Poland in 1914. Karski fought in the defense of Poland in September 1939 and was taken prisoner. While being transported aboard a train to a POW camp, Karski escaped and traveled to Warsaw. He joined the Polish resistance movement and made several secret courier missions between Poland and the exiled Polish government in the West. He infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto and Izbica transit camp to gather intelligence about Nazi rule and its effects on European Jews. Karski met with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and other officials to present his findings.
After the war, Karski became a U.S. citizen. He taught at Georgetown University for 40 years. He died in 2000. Keeping his legacy alive, biographer and friend Waldemar Piasecki established the Jan Karski Society.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Disabled American Veterans: 93 Years of Service

Long after their final battle has been fought, many of the men and women who serve in the armed forces of the United States return to this country at the end of their military careers. For them, the future offers opportunities to transform the skills and training acquired in the service into high-quality lives.
For the thousands of wounded men and women who return from their military service bearing the scars of war, the return to the civilian world can be a difficult transition for them to make. The process of applying for benefits, obtaining treatment records and navigating through the compensation and medical services maze can be a daunting task for a wounded veteran.
Fortunately, there are organizations such as the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) that provide assistance free of charge to disabled veterans. The organization provides free transportation to VA hospitals and clinics so veterans who are wounded or ill can keep their appointments. The DAV also provides a wide assortment of services to assist veterans in obtaining the much-needed benefits to which their service entitles them.
Some of the services provided by the DAV to veterans include:
●    A Disability Transition Assistance Program that offers help to service members at military installations around the globe to assist in the transition process from military life back to the civilian world
●    Assistance completing benefit applications and other U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs forms for veterans, service members or survivors
●    Guidance to veterans and their families about the many disability and service-connected disability programs available to them, including assistance with applications and processing
●    Assistance to veterans and their families in filing appeals of benefit denials or in reopening claims
●    Assistance in tracking the processing of claims through VA regional offices
●    Assistance filing claims appeals with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
Veterans and their families are frequently unaware of the government benefits and programs that exist at the state and federal levels. The DAV operates an outreach program offering education, counseling and claims-filing assistance to veterans in local communities throughout the United States. Informational seminars conducted by the DAV are conducted regularly at local DAV chapters and are opened to all veterans without regard to DAV membership.
Founded 93 years ago under a charter from Congress, the DAV was organized to provide help and assistance to disabled veterans and their families. The organization today has more than 1.2 million members and filed 330,000 benefits claims on behalf of veterans and their families in 2013.
Other national organizations offering assistance to veterans and their families in processing benefits claims include the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS and the Vietnam Veterans of America. Many federal, state and local government agencies provide assistance, benefits and training programs to veterans. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor operates its Veterans' Employment and Training Service by providing grants to Workforce Agencies in each state based upon the number of veterans in need of employment services in the state.
The U.S. Labor Department grants fund state staff positions for disabled veterans' outreach program specialists and local veterans' employment representatives. The staff positions are dedicated to helping veterans obtain training and job placement services within local communities.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Wounded Warriors Need Assistance

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan present unique challenges to the soldiers who fight in them. No longer do opposing armies meet us on the battlefield; instead, small groups deposit explosive devices near roads and meeting places. Suicide bombers throw themselves into buildings and/or formations of troops. Small units fight exclusively from ambushes, and enemy fighters force ugly house-to-house fighting in cramped urban environments. Many soldiers come back missing limbs or with other disabilities that make it difficult to survive in the world, and they need help. The group Disabled American Veterans aims to ease the transition of each of these wounded heroesback into the civilian world.

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Year of Jan Karski

The five cities with the largest Polish populations are, in order, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. These communities, along with Poles everywhere, join together in 2014 to honor JanKarski. Karski, at great risk to his own life, struggled to deliver reports of the Holocaust to British and American authorities in 1942. He even spoke with President Roosevelt and presented his findings to Hollywood movie moguls. No one did anything; in fact, most of the people with whom he spoke didn’t believe him. Whether this is indicative of a hidden anti-Semitism among the British and American people or simply an inability to grasp the mass extermination of groups of people is at this point moot. Polish people in the United States and in Poland itself honor this patriot by naming 2014 as the Year of Jan Karski.

Friday, 13 June 2014

2014: 70th Anniversary of Important World War II Battles

The year 2014 heralds 70 years since some of the most notable battles in history. In Italy, the decisive battles of Anzio and Monte Cassino sealed the fate of the Axis in Southern Europe, and D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge led to the undoing of the Axis in Western Europe. By the time the Bulge failed, Germany was in full retreat on both fronts; its unequaled military had been undone not only by pressure from all the Allied nations but also by a series of bungles by incompetent military leaders like Hitler. In a way, it is arguable that it was lucky the "man at the top" in Germany was crazy. The combination of an incomplete grasp of military strategy and tactics and a belief in his own infallibility doomed Germany.

Luckily, the saner heads of the Allied commanders prevailed, and 1944 was a year full of keystone victories over the evils of the Axis powers not only in Europe but in the South Pacific too. Guam and Saipan fell in 1944, and the war’s end was now just a matter of time in both theaters as the full air power of the Allies could be brought to bear. Recently, modern governments of countries involved in World War II have planned many commemorative events honoring these battles and the soldiers that fought in them.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Holocaust Survivors and Their Untold Stories

World War II was an open wound on the body of humanity. More than 60 million people were killed. Whether in battle or by the orders of maniacal, egotistical leaders with insane policies, their deaths stand in testament to "man’s inhumanity to man." Part of that crucible of fiery and unnecessary death was the wholesale slaughter of "undesirables" known as the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler’s pathological and unfounded hatred of anyone who wasn’t a white Aryan fueled the fires of the crematoria and drove the shovels and machines that were digging the mass graves. It wasn’t just Jews who were killed. Hitler and his Nazi ideology despised gypsies, homosexuals, developmentally disabled people, crippled people, political and religious dissenters and, in some cases, people who just happened to live somewhere other than Germany, such as Poland. In all, some estimates indicate the Nazi machine of annihilation engineered the deaths of 17 million.
With such a swath of destruction in its wake, the Holocaustleft survivors who were so scarred, both physically and mentally, that they found it difficult even to think about what had happened, let alone discuss it. Scholars and historians alike agree that these stories must be told in order to reinforce not only the horror but also the resolve that keeps such monstrous destruction at bay. Researchers continuously find new, almost stomach-churning records and information. Perhaps most insidious, the survivor’s guilt that comes along with having stayed alive is the most soul-crushing kind. Who knows how many surviving mothers had to make a Sophie’s choice?
Ironically, the meticulous records kept by the Nazis of their extermination efforts led not only to their undoing at the hands of the hangman but also to an easier path for finding survivors, reuniting families and repatriating people back to their proper places in the world. The Holocaust had intrigued authors and filmmakers alike and their works, both fiction and nonfiction, have done much to spread awareness of what actually happened. Sometimes, it’s difficult to grasp that the straw-thin, naked apparitions in the liberated camps were actual people. Each person in those photos, however, has a significant story to tell.

Now, in the 21st century, the survivors who were adults at the time are all approaching or exceeding 90 years of age, and the children are now in their 70s and 80s. When it comes to finding out and telling their stories, time is of the essence. There is so much more that needs to be told beyond the number tattoo, and more people must become interested and strive to gather and collate information. The work of the gatherers is beginning to bear fruit, however. In addition to the Holocaust Museum on the National Mall, other museums and organizations around the country are making inroads and telling the stories.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Biography: Ohio Native Gerald M. Kochan

Raised by parents who valued civil and military service,Gerald M. Kochan grew up in Ohio in the 1960s with a strong desire to serve his country. He also saw the inherent value in being responsible, and the desire to share what he learned with the world grew. Kochan's Polish ancestry formed the basis of his lifelong interest in Eastern Europe. From his commissioning as an Army officer at 22 years old to serving as a foreign area officer nearly three decades later, these desires and interests manifested themselves in all his work.
Realizing how crucial a good, formal education was to attaining his goals, Kochan earned three degrees. In 1978, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in history and political science from Miami University. Later, while serving as a commissioned officer, he received a Master’s in strategic studies from the National Defense University and MBA from the University of South Florida. Putting that education to good use, he's also taught and/or served as a guest lecturer at the nation's military institutions.
During his time in military service, Kochan earned many decorations for meritorious service, including the Bronze Star Medal. Throughout both the Gulf and Iraq Wars, he performed his duties with distinction. He's also used the information gained in the field to further his charitable activities; namely, he witnessed the need for humanitarian assistance in the world. He supports Aid to the Church in Need, Food for the Poor and other charities that highlight compassion.
Kochan interest in history led him to accept a membership on the board of the Polish American Museum at Port Washington . Although his other interests and responsibilities take him far away, he is still the institution's director. Those interests also include documentary filmmaking: His 1994 movie "White Eagle in Borrowed Skies" served to inform the world of the history of the Polish Air Force as it fought the second world war as expatriates. His current documentary plans include taking an honest look at Operation Market Garden and the Polish paratroopers who participated in the ill-fated battle.
He also sees the need to move quickly in his efforts to increase awareness: World War II veterans are almost all pushing 90 or more, and time is of the essence. Because he perceives the importance of carrying his work to others, he and the Polish American Museum present workshops and tours geared to today's youth. An a historian, Kochan recognizes the value of learning from the past and not repeating its mistakes.
As a person with a strong sense of duty, Kochan has continually applied himself to the betterment of others. Whether it's through his work with various charities, service to his country or educational outreach, he's succeeded where others haven’t even tried.