National News

Jersey City Argues Over a Statue, and Politicians in Poland Weigh In

Posted May 11, 2018 6:59 p.m. EDT

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Towering buildings loom over the plaza, and the skyline of lower Manhattan rises just across the Hudson River. Yet, even against such an imposing backdrop, the statue holds its own, drawing eyes with its provocative display of a soldier impaled by a bayonet, standing more than 30 feet above the center of the square.

Now, a proposal to move the statue from the plaza has touched off a fight, but this one has gone well beyond another brawl involving City Hall. Instead, the dispute over the statue, a monument to Polish soldiers massacred during World War II, has swelled into a matter of international intrigue.

Polish diplomats held a news conference and appeared on television, urging that the statue stay where it is. Politicians in Poland have weighed in as well, with the speaker of the Senate there calling the prospect of the statue’s move “really scandalous.” Jersey City’s mayor, Steven Fulop, punched back at his Polish critics on Twitter, calling one of them a salty name in the process.

“Yeah, it’s surprising,” Fulop said in an interview. “I’m certainly surprised what it’s escalated into.”

Then, on Friday, after days of acrimony, the mayor met with Polish officials and announced a resolution he called a “win-win.” The statue, according to their agreement, would remain near the waterfront and in what Fulop described on Twitter as an “extremely prominent location.” The Polish consul general in New York, Maciej Golubiewski, said it would be moving about 200 feet.

The move had been proposed as part of a project to renovate the plaza, where the statue has been since 1991, introducing green space and playgrounds to a slice of waterfront.

The statue, the Katyn Monument, commemorates thousands of Polish military officers whose remains were found in a mass grave in the Katyn Forest in western Russia, having been slaughtered by Soviet forces. But some have argued that the statue, with its dramatic depiction of a bound soldier with a bayonet’s blade entering his back and exiting through his torso, might be too graphic to fit in with a park where children play and families congregate.

“The statue is a very, very significant piece of artwork, and it is artwork, and it should be revered for what it is,” said Michael J. DeMarco, a developer in Jersey City and chairman of the special improvement district behind the renovation project. “The question is,” he said, “what’s the appropriate place for it?”

Whispers of the proposal quickly spun out into a pitched debate, striking a nerve with residents who have been frustrated by the consequences of their city’s rapid transformation from largely working class and industrial to a gentrifying hub of upscale development drawing a flood of new residents.

“I think it’s a symbol of the changes in Jersey City,” said James Solomon, a city councilman whose district includes the plaza. But he said the statue was a reminder of the city’s history, and of the role various ethnic communities, especially Polish-Americans, have played in building the city. “It’s an immigrant city,” he said. “It remains an immigrant city.” (One sign of how far the controversy has spread: He heard from his in-laws, who live in the Polish countryside and were surprised to see him on their local television news.)

The debate has resonated in Poland as the ruling Law and Justice party has sought to use Poland’s tragic history to its own ends, including passing a vigorously contested law that makes it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi war crimes. While many Poles there and abroad have been deeply offended by the proposed move of the statue in Jersey City, the government has also seized on the issue to show how Polish identity must be defended and protected.

The Polish ambassador to the United States, Piotr Wilczek, called Fulop’s comments “false, hurtful and unbefitting of international dialogue between officeholders of two allied countries.”

A reckoning over statues has swept across the country in recent years as the legacies of historical figures have been reconsidered through a more modern lens. The removal of monuments of Confederate figures spurred the deadly rioting last year that tore through Charlottesville, Virginia. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a sweeping review of the city’s statutes, including of Christopher Columbus, the explorer whose legacy has been reappraised by activists who contend that his voyages led to the brutal exploitation of indigenous people.

But in Jersey City, those opposed to moving the statue contend it is an instance where the sins of history must remain highly visible. To them, it is not just a reminder of the atrocities Poles faced during World War II, but also a vivid warning of the horrors brought by war.

“The statue is an integral part of Jersey City’s cultural and historical landscape because it reflects the historical past of its residents,” Stanislaw Sliwowski, president of the Coalition of Polish Americans, a national group, wrote in a letter, calling on the city to keep the statue in place. “It would be a shame to lose our communal sense of history. The memorial’s home is Exchange Place in Jersey City.”

The monument, created by sculptor Andrzej Pitynski, was brought to Jersey City by local Polish Americans. It was originally intended for another site a few blocks away. But the monument grew into something much larger than had been anticipated and was ultimately situated in the Exchange Place plaza instead. The mayor had suggested the statue could be moved closer to where it was originally planned to go. At the time, officials said, the plaza was more desolate than it is now. Today, it is surrounded by a train station bustling with commuters, coffee shops and a pier that reaches out over the Hudson, offering a prime spot for visitors to pose for selfies with One World Trade Center climbing behind them.

On a recent evening, a small crowd had been drawn to the chilly waterfront: There were skateboarders and tourists. A man sat on a bench with a box of takeout, while out on the pier a couple were locked in an embrace. Not far away, a few bouquets of fresh flowers still bound in cellophane had been set at the base of the statue, along with a prayer candle with a portrait of Pope John Paul II.

Fulop has remained steadfast in the face of the criticism. He said he was reconsidering his harsh words directed at one of his Polish opponents on Twitter. “Maybe that’s the only change,” he said, “and that’s only a maybe.”

“We’re on solid ground,” Fulop said. “It’s not as if we’re putting it in storage. It’s going to be in a prominent place, just not that location.”

He has said that he did not intend to disrespect the Polish American community. And on Friday, he struck a more conciliatory tone after meeting with Polish officials, who invited him to visit Auschwitz, the concentration camp. (Fulop had relatives who survived the Holocaust.)

Michael Yun, a city councilman, said Jersey City was an immigrant city and its residents imported their histories and cultures and they deserved recognition.

“The history of their motherland,” Yun said, “is now our history.”