Point of View

Aldona Wos: From tyranny to liberty, an immigrant's story

July 3, 2013 

Paul Wos, father of Aldona Wos, North Carolina's secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services

As a first-generation immigrant from Poland and a daughter and granddaughter of Polish freedom fighters, I learned early that freedom is not free. That is a truth our American Founding Fathers understood and why we should never take the July 4th holiday for granted.

During World War I, my grandparents were forcibly taken to German slave labor camps. A generation later, they joined their children, including my father, in fighting for their freedom against Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Red Army when they invaded Poland in 1939.

My father, then 18, was a Polish Army soldier stationed on the eastern border of Poland. His unit was captured and imprisoned by the Red Army. The officers of his unit were separated and among the 20,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and clergy who were executed in cold blood by Stalin’s security forces at Katyn Forest. My father escaped from Soviet captivity only by trading his watch, a gift from his mother, to a young Russian guard.

After returning to his home in Warsaw, my father and my entire family continued to fight for their county’s freedom as members of the underground Polish Home Army. They rescued Jews even though the penalty if caught was instant death. They were Catholics, but they fought for the freedom of all.

For their heroic efforts, they are recognized by Israel at Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Unfortunately, they were captured during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when 200,000 mostly women and children were killed. My father and his entire family were arrested and transported to German concentration camps. The women in the family were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, the men to Flossenburg. My father was prisoner number 23507.

By the grace of God, my father and grandfather were liberated by Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Sadly, freedom was again short-lived as Poland, against its will, found itself behind the Iron Curtain. It was under this Communist regime I was born and raised.

I vividly remember food rationing that limited meat to a small amount per month. This rationing was an example of the failed Communist economic policies of a powerful central government. The Communist policies destroyed the Polish economy that once helped feed Europe.

My family took advantage of a small window of political unrest in Poland in 1961 and was able to immigrate to the United States via Canada.

With this background, I have a special appreciation of the rights we Americans enjoy – such as the ability to worship as we choose, to read what we want, to travel without restrictions and to voice our political views. Although our democracy isn’t always perfect, it encourages personal responsibility and allows people to determine their own destinies. The freedoms we enjoy in a democracy unleash human creativity, a lesson I witnessed when I was the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Estonia.

Estonia declared its re-independence in 1991, and after just a few decades of political, social and intellectual freedom, it has grown to become one of the world’s information technology giants.

Skype was developed in Estonia. Estonia is home to a paperless e-government. Estonians vote and pay their taxes via the Internet. The Estonian health system is among the most technologically advanced with prescriptions and medical records online and accessible to patients. Only a free people could have achieved this type of advancement in such a short time. Yet, as we have learned through history, freedom is not guaranteed for eternity.

As President Ronald Reagan told us: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction, it is to be fought for, protected and handed on to the next generation.”

On this day, I ask that we remember that the freedom and democracy we enjoy are gifts bestowed upon us by the sacrifices of previous generations. We must do everything in our power to preserve these gifts for our children and grandchildren.

Dr. Aldona Wos is secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

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