Shawn R. Beals / ctnewsjunkie
Poland President Andrzej Duda address thousands in Walnut Hill Park (Shawn R. Beals / ctnewsjunkie)

NEW BRITAIN, CT — Poland President Andrzej Duda drew several thousand people to Walnut Hill Park Sunday afternoon, becoming the first sitting president to visit the Little Poland enclave.

Connecticut politicians welcomed the appearance as a sign of increasing cultural and economic ties with the long-time U.S. ally.

Duda spent the day in New Britain, first attending a mass at Holy Cross Church and participating in a wreath laying at Sacred Heart Cemetery. He met with Polish studies faculty at Central Connecticut State University and ended his day with the event at the park.

Duda spoke for about 15 minutes in a Polish-language address, where he discussed the strong relationship between Poland and the United States and the contributions of Polish-American citizens to American democracy through their community and military service.

“He talked a lot about community, how important it is that American politicians were here, saw those numbers and realized that the Polish American vote is important and that we should fight internal divisions if there are any,” said Maciej Golubiewski, Polish consul general in New York City.

Duda is attending the United Nations General Assembly session beginning Monday, where he will meet with President Donald Trump. Duda met with Vice President Mike Pence earlier this month, and the two countries discussed energy, military, and technology cooperation in addition to adding Poland to the American visa-waiver program allowing residents to travel without a visa.

“I hope it is a formality, I think it’s not going to take much longer to deliver that,” Golumbiewski told reporters about the visa program after Duda’s speech. “That will really also translate into increased trade, tourism and connections between our two great countries. You have to remember that Poland in the European Union is probably one of the biggest fans of the United States you can think of so it’s going to be really good for both countries.”

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U.S Sen. Chris Murphy said his great-grandfather and grandfather moved to New Britain from Poland for manufacturing jobs. The state’s ties with Poland have remained strong because of the family connections people maintain, he said, but new commercial ties add even more depth to the connection.

“The ties that bind us are frankly stronger now than ever before largely because of business connections,” Murphy said. “This is an opportunity for us to grow the economic ties between Connecticut and Poland. The more that Poland is willing to buy defense articles built here in Connecticut, the better companies here and companies in Poland will do.”

Murphy, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the 4,500 American soldiers stationed in Poland are an important safeguard against Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart gave Duda a Stanley tape measure personalized for his visit, and presented him with a plaque with the key to the city. The first portion of her speech was in Polish.

She said Sunday that the aerospace and manufacturing companies with plants and offices in Poland and in New Britain show the strength of the bond.

“The link is there, but for the president of Poland to come here it shows that our Polish community is rich, it’s thriving and it’s successful. To me that means a successful New Britain,” Stewart said after the event Sunday.

“I think our residents are going to talk about this for many years to come,” Stewart said. “He chose to come here. It’s going to be a story everyone is going to tell for decades to come. Look at the story of New Britain, it’s not just American presidents coming to visit here, we have foreign heads of state coming here as well.”

Most recently, President Barack Obama came in 2014. He at lunch at a local cafe before an event at CCSU to rally support for raising the federal minimum wage.

Shawn R. Beals / ctnewsjunkie
Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz shake hands (Shawn R. Beals / ctnewsjunkie)

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, who said she was the first Polish-American elected to statewide office when she was Secretary of the State, said Polish heritage is third in Connecticut behind Italian and Irish ancestry.

“I’m proud to see the Polish-American community not just in Connecticut but in New England coming out to greet one of our partners in democracy, and now they’ve been one of our valued economic partners as well,” Bysiewicz said.

People arrived at Walnut Hill Park up to three hours before Duda was scheduled to arrive. They held American and Polish flags, and many dressed in red and white.

“It feels really special to have New Britain, our little town, be recognized as a hub for Polish-Americans and their families and to be recognized by the president,” said Anna Urbanczyk Wilson, a New Britain native now living in West Hartford. “They had a lot of places they could have gone to, and the fact they came here is very meaningful.”

Her father, Adam Urbancyzk of New Britain, said the chance to see Duda is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for Connecticut’s Polish community.

“We want to show them they have support for what they are doing in Poland,” Urbanczyk said.