As Prepared for Delivery on May 13, 2022
Opening and Congratulations
Good afternoon, everyone. And, thank you, Mr. Chmielewski, for that warm welcome and kind introduction. I also thank Ambassador Szczerski, the Consuls General of Ukraine and Poland in New York, and our other distinguished guests for attending. We are grateful to you for sharing your thoughts on the tragic consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
As someone whose ancestors come from Eastern Europe and who grew up in a Polish and Slovak ethnic enclave near Chicago, it is a privilege to join you today. My Polish-American grandfather, Edward Wierzbicki, who helped to raise me, and my great grandmother, Amalia Gescheschke, who fled at the age of 8 in the dark of night with her aunt and uncle from Russian oppression against her and other Volga Germans, would both be very proud to know that I was joining you today to discuss such an important issue at such an important time. My mentor and long-time boss, former Congressman Paul Kanjorski, a Polish-American himself and a champion of credit unions, will also greatly appreciate learning of this moment when I next call him.
But, first, I want to congratulate the Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union for its many successes. Since its establishment in 1976, the Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union has grown to become the largest ethnic credit union in the United States. What is more, it continues to be a pillar of the Polish-American community in the places where it operates, supporting many organizations, schools, parishes, and foundations, and awarding more than $6 million in college scholarships to 5,100 students.
The Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union exemplifies the proud tradition of credit unions, which from their beginning in the U.S. more than a century ago, have been based on the principle of people helping people. These people were, at times, immigrants fleeing wars, people running from economic hardship, people escaping other forms of oppression, and people seeking the American Dream.
That principle of people helping people is on full display today, and I am humbled by your presentations. Each of your efforts to aid the Ukrainian people are a true testament to the power of compassion that is critical to the human spirit. I was deeply impressed when I heard the Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union, in partnership with the John Paul II Foundation, has raised more than $330,000 to provide direct assistance to Ukrainian refugees in Poland. The foundation’s namesake, his holiness Saint John Paul II, said that “War is a defeat for humanity.” He was right. So, it is up to humanity to rise up together and meet this moment head on.
The outpouring — and the enthusiasm — of your generosity remind me of the adage that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. It is better, but it is also more difficult. When confronted by the malice and brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is easier to just express outrage than it is to act to right the wrongs. But you have not taken the easy road. Instead, you have lit a candle in the darkness and said your novenas. And, in doing so, you are giving the light of hope to your Ukrainian brothers and sisters, our partners in democracy, to continue fighting the good fight: a fight for independence and self-determination; a fight for peace, dignity, and justice; and a fight for Ukraine’s very survival. And, you are giving the light of inspiration to all of us to find more ways to help.
We have several employees at the NCUA with connections to Ukraine who are also now generously giving of their time, talent, and treasures to help others in this time of need. One of those individuals is Stephen Haluszczak, an NCUA examiner who is leading a humanitarian aid relief program through the Ukrainian Cultural and Humanitarian Institute, a non-profit organization in Western Pennsylvania. I have already spoken to Stephen privately, but now I want to thank him publicly for his outstanding and inspirational work.
In recent years, I have also often spoken of the credit union system’s statutory mission to support and serve members, especially those of modest means. In doing so, I have consistently noted that credit unions have a moral obligation to protect and provide for those in need. I see that humanitarian spirit and commitment to something bigger than ourselves writ large in today’s presentations.
A Light in the Darkness
Sadly, the people of Poland know all too well the horrors of invasion and war. They saw their nation nearly overrun in the 17th century, partitioned in the 18th century, and occupied by Nazi Germany and oppressed by Soviet hegemony in the 20th century. But, these crucibles have also brought forth heroes whose stories serve notice that darkness cannot and will not overcome the light.
Exactly 121 years ago today, a Polish cavalry officer turned resistance fighter was born. Witold Pilecki volunteered to infiltrate the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II to gather intelligence. In doing so, he willingly walked into the lion’s den to save lives and make a difference. Pilecki organized a resistance movement that secretly sent messages to the Western Allies detailing Nazi atrocities at the camp. His incredible story of bravery and self-sacrifice only recently came to light. But it is part of a long Slavic tradition of helping others, of coming to the aid of those in need.
Russia’s unjust war of choice in Ukraine has cast a long shadow over the global community. But it has also proven once again the remarkable resiliency of the people of Ukraine and Poland. Though they may bend, they will never break. I know that proverb to be true from personal experience. Earlier, I spoke of my grandfather, Edward Wierzbicki. The Wierzbicki name is derived from the Polish word for willow, which is a tree that bends, but does not break. As a child, he read to me each night passages from the classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows. It is one of my favorite memories.
And through his lessons he taught me in that book and in his life, I learned there is a real strength within willows, within Poles — and now within Ukrainians. The harder the winds may blow, the stronger they seem to bounce back. And, having grown up in a community with several East European Roman Catholic churches and even a Byzantine Catholic congregation, I also understand the Polish and Ukrainian peoples share a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, as protectress, as well as a deep veneration of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. May she continue to bless your efforts with her prayers.
Dziękuję’ (meaning “thank you”)! I look forward to our discussion.