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Marc Thiessen: Citizenship Through the Eyes of a Freedom Fighter

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

My mother grew up in Nazi-occupied Poland, and as a teenager she joined the Polish underground and fought in the Warsaw Uprising, serving as a courier during the heroic 63-day battle to liberate the Polish capital. At an age when most kids are riding bikes and playing dodgeball, my mother was carrying a gun and dodging Nazi sniper bullets as she carried orders from one end of the city to the other. Her first exposure to America was hearing the roar of U.S. aircraft dropping supplies to the resistance fighters. And she vividly recalls looking through field glasses at the Soviet Red Army sitting camped out across the Vistula river, waiting for the Nazis to crush the Uprising and destroy the leadership of a free Poland for them before they took over the city.

When the Poles finally surrendered to the Nazis after a valiant fight, she was taken prisoner and sent to a prisoner of war (POW) camp in Germany. She was eventually liberated by General Patton’s army, and finished out the war as a paratrooper in the Polish Army under British command (though instead of jumping from planes she went to a special school set up for teenage soldiers in the British sector of Germany). She eventually moved to London, where she remained as a stateless refugee rather than return to Poland to live under Communism. Eventually, she went to Ireland, earned a medical degree, and made her way to the United States, where she became a U.S. citizen. There is no one prouder to be an American. Indeed, when Poland held its first free elections in 1989, the members of the Polish Diaspora were invited to vote. My mother refused. She loved her native land, but she was an American now and would not vote in a foreign election.

I think of her story when I reflect on the meaning of citizenship. This is the only country in human history built not on blood or soil, but on an idea—the idea of human liberty. All it takes to be fully American is to believe in those ideals. My mother’s belief in those ideals are what makes her American. She has a thick Polish accent, and often when someone hears her voice for the first time they will ask, “Where are you from?” She answers with pride, “New York City.”

I also reflect on the fact that, had my mother not joined the resistance she would not have been taken to that POW camp, or liberated by American troops, or made her way to London, Dublin, and eventually New York, where I was born. If my mother had survived the war, I would likely have been raised in Communist Poland and would have lived in tyranny instead of freedom for the first half of my life. Yet here I am, a proud American who has had the privilege to work in the White House as a speechwriter for the president of the United States; who learned to appreciate the gift of liberty, and the meaning of American citizenship, through the eyes of his immigrant, freedom-fighter mother.

Image from the Library of Congress

Marc Thiessen
is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.

AEI