His statue at Third and Michigan in Detroit is impressive, but who knows who Tadeusz Kosciuszko was? Neal Rubin quizzes passersby. Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News


Thousands of people motor or meander past Thaddeus Kosciuszko every day, and it's safe to say most people don't even notice him — let alone know why he's there.

Give it 40 years, and even a 22-foot-tall, 10-ton sculpture can fade into the background.

Without Kosciuszko, though, and without another Pole on a pedestal a few blocks away, July 4 might just be a steamy Wednesday. There might not be a pop-up fireworks store in every Michigan strip mall. And Queen Elizabeth's picture might gaze regally from the $1 bill.

No Kosciuszko, who's cast in bronze and set on granite at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Third Street? No Casimir Pulaski, whose more modest likeness stands in the grassy median at Michigan and Washington Boulevard?

Maybe there's no us. Or no U.S., anyway.

So on Independence Day, here's to Kosciuszko and Pulaski, to their statues and to the hundreds of thousands of Polish-Americans who've made Detroit a logical place to commemorate a pair of key figures from the Revolutionary War.

Kosciuszko was willing to die for an ideal. Pulaski actually did. The first was a genius at designing military fortifications, including West Point. The second has been called the Father of the U.S. Cavalry and once, with a bold charge against British forces during a retreat, quite likely saved the life of the Father of Our Country.

They both fought for freedom and independence on two continents. You can make a case that Kosciuszko was still doing it indirectly in 1978, when the citizens of Krakow, Poland, shipped the magnificent statue of the general and the horse he rode in on from behind the Iron Curtain.

Today, he and Pulaski are mostly remembered as place names. You can sing their praises from the top of Australia's highest peak (Mount Kosciuszko), from two Kosciuszko bridges in New York and another in Connecticut, and from Kosciusko Island in Alaska.

Or, if you're inclined, you can do the same thing from six American cities and seven counties named for Pulaski, two skyways, any number of highways and half a dozen parks.

There are disagreements about spellings and pronunciations, particularly for Kosciuszko.

Orally, Kosh-choosh-ko gets you close, but his name is said to have been written 11 different ways by George Washington, including Kosiusko, Koshiosko and Cosieski. Signs for one of the New York bridges say Kosciuszko, and the other omits the Z.

But there is no disputing the local Polish influence. In 1966, when the Central Citizens Committee donated the Pulaski statue, the inscription said it was given "in behalf of 400,000 Americans of Polish descent living in the Detroit metropolitan area."

"This was a huge area for Polish people," says Gregory Kowalski, a founder and director of the Hamtramck Historical Museum.

Hamtramck, which held 56,000 people within its two square miles in 1930, was then 83 percent Polish. There were more Polish enclaves just south of Hamtramck and on the west side of Detroit, near Michigan and Lonyo.

By 2000, when Bill McGraw co-wrote "The Detroit Almanac," the Polish-American population had largely scattered to the suburbs — but it still numbered 554,481 in a region of 4.7 million.

Germans were the predominant ethnic group in Detroit by 1870, McGraw says, having supplanted the Irish. "Poles took over from the Germans in 1900, and they've been the biggest for more than 100 years."

In Pulaski and Kosciuszko, they found role models as solid as the sculptures.

The son of a count, Pulaski was born in Warsaw in 1745. To distill a lengthy biography into short phrases, he fought for Polish liberty against Russia and Prussia, was banished from his home country, traveled to Paris, met Ben Franklin, loved the concept of a young nation struggling to be free, and sailed to America.

Struck by cannon shrapnel while leading a cavalry charge at the Battle of Savannah, he died several days later in October 1779.

Kosciuszko was born in 1744 and was also moved by the Declaration of Independence. He sailed for North America, survived a shipwreck off Martinique, and reported for duty unannounced at Franklin's Philadelphia print shop.

In more short phrases, his engineering foresight helped win the vital Battle of Saratoga; he returned home after the war to fight against the partitioning of Poland; he was wounded and captured by Cossacks and spent two years in Russian captivity; he returned to the U.S. in 1797, where he received $18,912 in back pay and 500 acres' worth of Ohio.

Having returned to Europe, he died in Switzerland in 1817. In a will he left with his friend Thomas Jefferson, he ordered that his American assets be used to purchase freedom and provide education for Southern slaves.

Our legal system having already become convoluted, the bequest was never honored. But Kosciuszko's heart was in the right place — and at Michigan and Third, so is his monument.

Twitter: nealrubin_dn

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