A few years ago, on tour in Paris, I was returning from a visit to the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. A passing young man approached me asking “Pouvez-vous m’aider?”. He had finished his studies he explained and was returning home to Congo the following week. Could I help by buying one of his textbooks? It was “Le Déclin des Idoles”. I would have little use for it. He was pleasant however, so I offered him slightly more than face value. He casually asked where I came from, but when I answered “D’origine, je suis Polonais” he immediately tried to return the money, saying “There was that General…”, “Kościuszko?”, I suggested. “Exactly!” he replied, “please at least come and meet my friends”.
“That General”, Tadeusz Kościuszko (kosh-tshoo-shko), was indeed a unique European figure. Once described by his friend, Thomas Jefferson, as the purest son of liberty, he believed that “we are all equals, riches and education constitute the only difference”. It was that person who was known about and admired by the mixed group of African students I met that evening in Paris.
Kościuszko, heavily involved in the struggle for Poland’s liberty, was doomed to a life of exile while the surrounding powers partitioned his country. His 1776 arrival in the American colonies led to his involvement in the American revolutionary war with outstanding results. After serving 7 years of military service he was rewarded with land and had accumulated considerable back pay. These he left in his will, entrusted to Thomas Jefferson, before returning to Europe. He specified the funds should be used to buy Jefferson’s slaves’ freedom and more particularly to educate them. Back in Poland, during a chaotic period of revolutionary upheaval, a black man from Haiti, Jean Lapierre, offered him his services as aide-de-camp and became a trusted assistant to the general during the revolt against invading Czarist-Russian armies. In many matters, particularly social, historians consider Kościuszko to be a man well ahead of his time.
Kościuszko died in exile in Switzerland. He was living there in relative poverty, having freed his peasant farmers from their obligations. He was, however, seen as an essential and inspiring figure and a memorial was established near Kraków.
People came from all over Poland bringing large and small amounts of soil to create a mound well over 100 feet in height. When it was completed (1823) urns, with earth from the many American battlefields he had fought in, were buried in it. A circular pathway leads to the top. It is an unmistakable presence on the edge of Kraków.
This landmark is even echoed in distant Australia. Sir Paweł (Paul) Strzelecki, known for his expeditions in North and South America, travelled through the Snowy Mountains in the Australian Alps. There, he saw a peak that reminded him, in shape, of the mound at Kraków. Having climbed to the 7000ft summit in a day, he named it after Kóciuszko, the hero of democracy.
In Poland Kóciuszko is also celebrated in the Racławice Panorama, one of the largest oil paintings in the world (114x15m) commemorating the victory at the 1794 Battle of Racławice, where peasant soldiers, armed with scythes, attacked the Czarist-Russian troops. The canvas, rolled up, was hidden from the Nazi searches and only emerged years after WWII. It now attracts 400,000 visitors annually to Wrocław. For those with extra reading time, it is worth exploring the outlines of Polish history by historian Norman Davies in his appropriately titled “God’s Playground”. Or, more intimately, in James Michener’s 1983 bestseller “Poland. A Novel”.