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Polish-Americans Eager for Visit

July 18, 2002

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DETROIT (AP) _ For an area with such strong ties to Poland, a visit from that country’s president is a big deal.

President Aleksander Kwasniewski and President Bush were to attend events at Oakland University and the American Polish Cultural Center on Thursday, a day after an official state visit and dinner at the White House.

The Polish community in the Detroit area was abuzz in anticipation of the visit.

Stanley Grot, president of the American Polish Cultural Center in suburban Troy, said the reaction to Kwasniewski’s visit has been ``overwhelming,″ with people decorating their businesses, flying flags and lining up for tickets.

``This is just a tremendous honor for the community,″ Grot said. ``It’s just a great feeling that we are privileged to host two presidents.″

Michigan is home to 854,844 people claiming Polish ancestry, making up 8.6 percent of the state population. More than half live in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

Many Polish immigrants were drawn to the Detroit area, particularly in the first two decades of the 20th century, because of work available in the auto industry. An area on the east side of Detroit became known as Poletown, though it was razed in the 1980s to make way for a General Motors Corp. plant.

In Hamtramck, which borders the Poletown area, 22.9 percent of the population claims Polish ancestry. The city features a number of Polish restaurants and bakeries and is host to an annual Polish Day parade.

Sebastian Szczepanski, 31, an assistant editor at the bilingual Polish Weekly newspaper in Hamtramck, said for many Polish-Americans in the area, Thursday marks the first chance to see Kwasniewski in person.

He hopes the Polish president will be able to convey that Poland is a ``a great country to invest in.″

``A lot of people may think, especially in America, that it’s not such a great country,″ he said. ``It is a great country.″

On Wednesday, Bush said the reward of a rare state visit for Poland ``symbolizes the high importance America places on our friendship with Poland. This friendship is rooted in our common history and common values.″

Bush, immensely popular in Poland, has hailed the NATO ally for its transformation into a democratic market economy and called the country ``an exporter of stability″ throughout Central Europe.

But Kwasniewski isn’t popular among all area Polish Americans because he is a former communist, said Jurek Rozalski, who works for the Polish American Radio Network.

``I think on his side it’s quite a courageous thing to come here and try to correct his view,″ Rozalski said. Many people can’t forget the oppression felt under communism, he said.

Still, many Polish Americans planned to attend Thursday’s events, including business people and Polish American representatives from other states, Rozalski said. His radio station, which broadcasts mostly in Polish, has helped get the word out.

``We think it’s a great thing,″ he said.

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