Despite a lawsuit filed in Newark on May 8 in an attempt to halt plans to move a statue from Exchange Place, Mayor Steven Fulop said he believes moving the statue is the right thing to do.
The 34-foot statue, which has been located in the plaza at Exchange Place since 1991, commemorates the victims of a 1940 massacre of Polish citizens in the Katyn Forest.
Fulop said plans by the Exchange Place Special Improvement District call for the construction of a children’s playground for the site as well as green space. He said residents in the area do not want the statue to be part of the new design.
The lawsuit filed by four plaintiffs in federal court claims that Jersey City and Mayor Fulop do not have authority to remove the Katyn Massacre Memorial because the City Council has not approved any relocation.
The suit asks the court to put a temporary restraint on moving the monument until further discussions with the council and Polish community can be undertaken.
A separate legal action seeks to obtain communications between Mayor Fulop and Mack Cali, the developer overseeing the renovation of the Exchange Place plaza.
“The mayor has exercised his powers in contradiction of the laws of New Jersey and in contradiction to the resolution of the City Council,” said Slawomir Platta, an attorney and leader in the Polish community. “He has neglected to consult the public or have public hearings inviting Polish Leaders to testify and plead their case. His (Fulop’s) actions are an absolute affront to Polish Americans and a disgrace to the democratic process this country is built upon.”
Fulop, however, argued that a 1991 resolution locating the statue to Exchange Place is invalid, noting that the City Council authorized the location of the statue by ordinance in 1986 for 74 Montgomery St.
In 1991, the council passed a resolution changing the location to where it is today.
“You can’t amend an ordinance with a resolution,” Fulop said. “But even if you could, we’re not planning to keep the statue hidden in a warehouse. We’re going to find an appropriate location for it.”
Fulop said he will meet with the Polish Chamber of Commerce over the next few weeks to discuss the issue.
Seeking a restraining order
Bart Bagniewski, Boguslava Wang, Platta, and sculptor Andrzej Pityank filed the suit seeking a temporary restraining order stopping the city from moving the monument.
The conflict came after Councilman Richard Boggiano found out about plans to relocate the statue and posted about it on social media. Since then he’s been deluged with emails from around the world, he said.
“We don’t want the statue touched,” Boggiano said at a press conference on May 8 that included high level Polish officials and military veterans.
Councilman Michael Yun said this is not the first time there has been pressure to relocate monuments. He noted that just after Fulop took office in July 2013, the city proposed moving the Korean War Memorial from the foot of Washington Street to make way for a dog park.
“Someone is also trying to get the city to remove the Korean War Memorial from Pershing Field,” Yun said. “This is about lack of respect for our war veterans.”
“The mayor has exercised his powers in contradiction of the laws of New Jersey and in contradiction to the resolution of the City Council.” – Slawomir Platta
Lawsuit claims moving the statue violates several laws
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by attorney Bill Matsikoudis, who unsuccessfully ran to unseat Fulop during the November mayoral race.
Matsikoudis said Fulop has not consulted with the community about the project and is “acting in conjunction with real estate developers.”
“This suit is an attempt to stop the city from removing the memorial,” said Matsikoudis. “The mayor does not have the authority without seeking approval from the City Council. The City Council voted to locate the statue where it is, and the artist that created the statue did it with that place in mind, and when Jersey City accepted the statue as a gift and put it there, it waved its exclusive rights to control where it is.”
The lawsuit argues that it is a violation of New Jersey law for the mayor to unilaterally move this statue without the vote of the City Council.
“This is a violation of the Faulkner Act,” Matsikoudis said.
A second provision deals with the Arts’ Rights Act.
“The artist who created the sculpture has rights and people do not have the right to modify it or destroy it,” Matsikoudis said.
An international incident
The controversy over the Katyn Memorial, a bronze statue that depicts a Polish soldier gagged, bound and impaled in the back with a bayonet, has sparked strong emotions in Poland, where Katyn is remembered as one of the worst tragedies to befall the nation. The plan to move the statue has become one of the top stories in Poland.
“He (Fulop) has to respect 22,000 Polish soldiers killed, massacred, in Katyn,” said Platta. “The Katyn Forest is a place where Polish blood was mixed with American blood. American pilots were also killed in the First World War in the same area. We have to respect that.”
Fulop is not only having a Twitter argument with local organizers, but has tweeted remarks against Polish Senate Speaker Stanislaw Karczewski – a critic of moving the statue – calling him a Holocaust denier and “a known anti-Semite.”
In published accounts, Karczewski called the comments “offensive” and “entirely untrue.”
Karczewski received support of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland which called Fulop’s characterization of Karczewski baseless.
Officials at the May 8 press conference in Jersey City said in the Katyn Forest, Soviets killed not only thousands of Polish people but also hundreds of Jews, including the chief rabbi of the Polish Army, Baruch Steinberg.
Survivors speak out
The statue is also symbolic of further atrocities against Polish people during that time.
Alice Woznniak said her mother lost half of her family in Poland and was part of mass deportation of people under Stalin to work in camps in Siberia.
“This was something hidden by the Soviets for many, many years, as was Katyn Forest,” she said. “Two million people went to Siberia to become workers. Less than a tenth of them were ever able to sneak out. Many of them are still there. This statue is not only important to me, but to many Poles. My mother was five at the time when her family was lost.”
Henry Siemienowski was five when his family was deported.
“I’m one of the survivors,” he said. “I was a little baby with my sister when my mother and grandmother were shipped to Siberia at four o’clock in the morning. We traveled for over a month. We stayed there for two years, when Germany attacked Russia, and Stalin needed help there was a short time when there was an amnesty and about 100,000 got out to the west. My father later fought with the Americans in North Africa and Italy.”
In an email received by The Hudson Reporter, Dr. Marek Błażejak wrote: “I am a Polish expatriate living in Germany and as most Poles all over the world I am concerned over the embarrassing, single-handed attempt of Mayor Steven Fulop to remove one of the most important symbols of Polish history from the public space of Jersey City.”
Blazejak said he was concerned about the harsh language Fulop has directed towards the Poles and their leaders.
“The rudimentary knowledge of history presented by Mr. Fulop and his offensive accusations targeting Poland leave considerable room for doubt if he is able to face the challenge of managing a multiethnic city,” Blazejak said.
An international public petition has been organized, “Keep Katyn memorial in Jersey City” launched by members of the Polish Diaspora on Change.org – https://www.change.org/p/mr-rolando-r-lavarro-jr-keep-katyn-memorial-in-jersey-city.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.