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The Polish King in Central Park

I was 15 years old the first time I came to New York City. I was a freshman in high school, going to a national competition for speech and debate. (As you can tell, I was a super cool kid.) After rounds, my friends and I did the expected touristy things: Times Square, Grand Central, eating gray-water dogs on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At one point, we managed to shake our chaperones and get wonderfully lost in Central Park. Around 79th Street, we stumbled into a clearing near Turtle Pond and came face-to-face with a king on horseback.

Wladyslaw-Jagiello

It was a bronze sculpture atop a pink marble plinth standing over 25 feet tall. The king was dressed in full medieval armor with two swords crossed over his head. On one side of the plinth was a single word: POLAND. Those of you who have tried to pronounce my last name know that I’m half-Polish. But this warrior king wasn’t anything like my  kolachki-cooking grandmother. Who WAS this guy?


Portret t Władysława II Jagiełły.In the early 1400s, simmering disputes over land rights and religion had led the Teutonic Order (an army of mostly-German crusaders) to declare war on the young kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania. The leader of the Teutons was Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen. The leader for the united Polish-Lithuanian army was the former Grand Duke of Lithuania and current King of Poland, Wladyslaw II Jagiello. On July 15th, 1410, Grand Master Jungingen formally challenged King Jagiello by sending him a pair of plain infantry swords, unsheathed for battle. Jagiello accepted.

The next morning at dawn, the two armies met in a field between the villages of Grunwald and Tannenberg. An estimated 39,000 Poles and Lithuanians representing 91 different banners united under the leadership of King Jagiello and his white eagle on a field of blood red. While the Teutonic Order may have had fewer overall soldiers (about 27,000) they held the advantage in arms, armor, military experience, and the number of cavalrymen.

Jan-Matejko_1878_Battle_of_Grunwald

Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko (1878) – King Jagiello’s the red one in the middle on horseback

What ensued was one of the largest and bloodiest military endeavors in Medieval Europe. From a contemporary account, Banderia Prutenorum by Jan Dlugosz:

“Then knight attacked knight, armor crushed under the pressure of armor, and swords hit faces. And when the ranks dosed, it was impossible to tell the coward from the brave, the bold from the slow, because all of them were pressed together, as if in some tangle.” By the time the battle was over, “the road was covered with corpses for many miles, the soil was soaked with the blood of the dead, and the air was filled with the cries of the dying and of the moaning.”

The Battle of Grunwald was a decisive victory for the Polish. 8,000 Teutons were killed with 14,000 more captive, and King Jagiello became a national hero. Upon hearing the news, Czech priest Jan Hus wrote to Jagiello, “Behold, they sent you two swords, the swords of violence and of pride, and have lost many thousands of them, having been utterly defeated.” Jagiello agreed, and he replaced the white eagle of his family crest with the two swords. Despite their plain appearance, the Grunwald Swords became part of the Polish crowned jewels, used in Polish coronations until 1764. They were retired to the royal treasury, but during a Russian invasion in 1831, the pair of swords were confiscated by gendarmes and vanished from the historical record. (Wouldn’t this make a great subject for a Polish Indiana Jones movie?)

Anyway, flash forward to 1939, where New York City is setting up for the World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens. World’s Fair President Grover A. Whalen and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses successfully transformed a wasteland of ash heaps into 1,216 acres of glistening boulevards, lagoons, gardens, and exhibit halls where governments and corporate sponsors looked towards “the World of Tomorrow.” RCA exhibited one of the earliest television sets. General Electric lit their pavilion with the first fluorescent light bulb. Westinghouse created a 7-foot-tall “Moto-Man” robot who could smoke cigarettes. At the center stood the twin symbols of the Fair, the Perisphere and the 700-foot-tall Trylon. In the official 1939 guidebook, Whalen said he hoped the fair would be “a never ceasing source of wonder. We feel that it will delight you and instruct you.” Though some Midway attractions like Infant Incubators and Midget Auto Racing would be difficult to justify as “instructional,” it’s unlikely that the Fair’s 44 million visitors left disagreeing with Whalen.

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product272_fullsize_1024x1024At the northern corner of the Fair was the Hall of Nations. This area exemplified the Fair’s central theme, “the World of Tomorrow.” 66 foreign governments spent a collective $35,000,000 building pavilions dedicated to their nations’ art, history, and industry. (Conspicuously absent: Germany.) The official guidebook is a bit ominous in its introduction of the Hall of Nations. “The Fair is a force for peace in the world,” reads one passage, “for without peace the dream of a better ‘World of Tomorrow’ is but a cruel and mocking illusion.”

The Polish Pavilion was designed by Jan Cybulski and Jan Galinowski. The pavilion paid tribute to Poland’s long and glorious history, referenced in its official motto, Jesteśmy od tysiąca lat: “we are from one thousand years.” A Court of Honor displayed over 600 tons of artifacts from Poland’s history. A Hall of Science showcased Polish innovations in astronomy, agriculture, textiles, and maritime industry. Models dressed in traditional clothing displayed Polish silkwork, and interactive dioramas explored the bustling seaport of Gdynia. When guests were hungry or thirsty, they had their choice of a country tavern, a small cafe, a “de luxe restaurant,” and a modern bar with “400 different kinds of hors-d’oeuvres, Polish zakaski, rare Polish honey wine, and a dozen different kinds of vodka.”

1939 New York World's FairAt the entrance stood the larger-than-life equestrian statue of King Jagiello. Sculpture Sanislaw Ostrowski modeled his work on a similar statue in Warsaw, but the dramatically-raised swords were Ostrowski’s own invention.

The pavilion opened its doors on May 3rd, 1939, the anniversary of the signing of Poland’s Constitution in 1791. It was the first constitution in Europe and only the second in the world after the United States. Polish Minister of Industry and Commerce Antoni Roman, Polish ambassador Count Jerzy Potocki, and a crowd of 1,000 visitors stood in front of the towering King Jagiello statue at the dedication ceremony. In his remarks, Potocki said “Over this miniature Poland with its story of peaceful pursuits and achievements, there stands on guard the symbol of armed might which once before saved Poland from an armed invasion. It is a symbol the lesson of which is understood today and will remain many, many years after the Polish Pavilion and the New York World’s Fair have receded into distant memory.” At the end of the World’s Fair, the Poland delegation intended to return the statue, along with all other artifacts and exhibits, back to Poland.

The statue would never leave New York.

On September 1st, 1939, the German and Russian armies invaded Poland. The Polish fought bravely, but an army prepared for World War I-style trench warfare was no match for the Nazi blitzkrieg. Over 1,000 planes, 2,000 tanks, and 1.5 million German troops attacked the Western front. Reports tell of soldiers on horseback, brandishing their cavalry sabers, being crushed under the treads of German panzers. Three weeks later, Poland surrendered, and Nazis were parading in Warsaw. All symbols of Polish nationalism were eradicated. Flags and posters bearing the Swords of Grunwald were replaced by the swastika. Chopin was banned from the airwaves. The statue of King Jagiello was torn down and melted into ammunition.

Back in New York City, the fate of the other King Jagiello statue remained uncertain. By 1940, most exhibits from the World’s Fair were being sent to the Polish Museum of America in Chicago. But the statue found an unexpected admirer in Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. LaGuardia successfully raised $60,000 to keep the King Jagiello statue in New York City, the only foreign item from the World’s Fair so preserved. On July 15th, 1945, two months after V-E Day, he unveiled the King Jagiello monument at its new home in Central Park, between Turtle Pond and the 79th Street entrance.

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Poland.

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