New Consul General in Chicago
Wants to Showcase the New Poland
Piotr Janicki interviewed by Leonard Kniffel, August 1, 2016
Encouraging trade and tourism is high on the priority list of Piotr Janicki, new Consul General at the Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Chicago. Before his appointment in July, Janicki worked for commercial banks in New York and New Jersey. He also served as vice-consul for legal affairs at the Polish Consulate in New York. Before that, he was Deputy Mayor of the Praga Północ district of Warsaw. He studied law, graduating with a Master’s degree from the Jagiellonian University in his native city of Kraków.
What have you observed so far about the Polish community in Chicago?
Chicago is a beautiful city; the architecture is amazing. So far, I am impressed by how well everyone is organized and how the Polish community is able to maintain the Polish language and Polish heritage and at the same time blend into U.S society and become very successful. We have 180 Polish organizations here in Chicago, so we have tens of thousands of people involved in the Polish community. That’s unprecedented; you will probably not see the same level of involvement anywhere else.
What do you see as the most urgent needs for the Polish community in Chicago, given the diminishing population and the increased assimilation into the suburbs?
The Polish community may never again be as strong as it was in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. You will not see a new wave of Polish immigrants coming to the United States any time soon. The Polish economy is doing better than 15 or 20 years ago, not to mention 30 or 35. I see being Polish and keeping your Polish heritage as more of a choice now. Before, you happened to be surrounded by Polish people, so staying close to Polish culture wasn’t difficult. Right now, it’s harder. Keeping your Polish heritage requires some effort. It’s easy to forget where you are from if you do not stay in touch with your culture on a daily basis. If you want your children to speak Polish, it takes effort. Polish people are moving to the suburbs, and I would like to support those people who are aware that they need to work twice as hard to keep their Polish heritage.
The Consulate’s main function is to attend to the needs of Poles living in America–visas, passports, legal records, and so on, but are you planning any new initiatives that involve outreach to Polish Americans?
We have to serve the Polish community by providing all the services that you mention, but our job is also introducing Polish culture to Americans, not only Polish Americans but also Americans who have been here for a long time and may not have had the opportunity to come across anything Polish-related. There are numerous things we can do to promote Polish culture and traditions and to introduce Americans to all the things we have to offer that may not be typical or may be a little different from what they know here. From an American’s perspective, Poland is a country located somewhere between Germany and Russia, and the typical American has very little knowledge of a country of 38 million people and the size of New Mexico. My job is to keep them informed and let them experience Polish culture, traditions, art, music, and literature.
Can you describe how your appointment as Consul General came about?
I got a phone call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they asked me if I would like to come back to Foreign Service and come back to the United States. I had to quit my job and fly to Warsaw for three months of training. After passing my consular exam I came back to the United States as a diplomat.
You really do speak English like a native speaker. Can you tell us how that happened?
Well, I had a great teacher when I was in high school. It’s like being an actor. I can speak with an American accent or, if you were British, I would try to speak British English to you, although I have not practiced that for a long time. I speak English well because I practice every day at home. My wife is American and we speak English at home, but I still think and dream in Polish.
Is Poland’s continued exclusion from the Visa Waiver Program something you are concerned about?
It is a big concern because Poland is the only member of the Schengen Agreement that is not part of the Visa Waiver Program. However, the Program is only good if you just want to travel to the United States as a tourist. A lot of my fellow citizens come here with intention to work or visit relatives for an extended period. The program would not work for a lot of people. Let’s say you come here on the Visa Waiver Program and you want to study or get married. You would have to leave the United States and apply for a visa to come back. As much as I would like to see Poland be a part of the Program, the visa waiver doesn’t mean you can just come here and stay as long as you want.
President Obama and others have criticized the Polish government over democratic values and institutions. Can you comment on how the political climate in Poland affects the work of the Consulate?
I was hoping not to have to comment on that. [Laughter] I would encourage American officials to look into the issue, not just to read about it in the media but also get deeper into the subject and understand it. President Obama’s words were carefully chosen and very diplomatic; political analysts should look at what he actually said. Polish Americans are very aware of what’s going on in Poland, and the majority like the change in government. They are largely conservative; you can see that by analyzing election results here in Chicago. They are eager for President Duda to come here and visit them.
How will the activities of the Consulate differ under your direction from those of your predecessor?
I’d like to focus on trade more. We have a trade division at the Embassy in Washington, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to focus on trade relations here in Chicago. From the Polish perspective, Chicago looks like the only thing between New York and L.A. I would like to change that point of view and let them know that there are multiple states; 13 of them are in my Consular district. I would like to encourage Polish companies to discover the potential in Wisconsin, Michigan, North and South Dakota, even Louisiana. And I would like American companies to discover Poland. From their perspective, Europe is Germany, Great Britain and France, maybe Italy. I want them to believe that Poland is not a place with an unskilled labor force where they can open another factory; they can open a factory in China or Vietnam and produce goods cheaper. There are highly educated people in Poland, a skilled labor force. There are companies that are involved in the production of software. There are great engineers, doctors, physicists, scientists, and I want companies to look closely into that and rediscover Poland form a different perspective.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to say about being Consul General?
I want Polish Americans to be proud of their heritage. Years ago, it was very hard to be proud of a communist motherland. Right now, it’s so much easier to travel to Poland, to rediscover your homeland. Even if you haven’t been to Poland in many years, I encourage you to travel there. I want you to spend your U.S dollars not in Cancun and not in Brazil or any other tourist destination, but I want you to look into Central Europe, to visit my home city Kraków, visit Gdansk and Warsaw. Poland is a beautiful place, and if you happen to be Polish American, you will be amazed. I wish every Polish American could take this sentimental journey.
“New Consul General in Chicago Wants to Showcase the New Poland” originally published in the September 2016 issue of Polish American Journal.