Close to a thousand people – many decked out in the red and white of the Polish flag – crowded Main Avenue on Wednesday night for a glimpse of Polish President Andrzej Duda, believed to be the first foreign leader to ever visit Wallington, North Jersey reports.
Duda, who tries to visit a Polish community every year, chose to visit Wallington while he was in the United States for the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly. The event was a major source of pride in the borough, where about half the population claims some Polish ancestry.
“Today we are a community joined together as one. Everyone is Polish today,” Mayor Mark Tomko told Duda.
Tomko, who presented Duda with a key to the borough, noted the town is in the shape of a heart.
“That heart warmly welcomes you,” said Tomko. “We wish you remember this visit here and come again.”
In preparation for Duda’s visit, street lamps were lined with the American and Polish flags. A red and white welcome sign was hung next to a monument honoring General Casimir Pulaski, a Polish Revolutionary War hero.
Many in the crowd dressed head to toe in red and white, while others wore Polska shirts or hats. Attendees carried small Polish flags by their sides or had wrapped scarves around their necks with the words “Polska” on them. One man wrapped himself in a Polish flag.
When Duda arrived, the crowd burst into cheers and began singing the Polish national anthem. Attendees held their phones in the air. Parents put children on their shoulders, while some tried their best to reach higher in an attempt to see over the crowd.
Duda’s first stop was the Pulaski monument, where he paid homage to the war hero. He followed behind Boy Scouts who laid a red and white flower wreath at the bottom of the monument and then bent his head and stopped for a moment to pay his respects.
Before walking to an invitation-only ceremony at the Polish Peoples Home, Cracovia Manor, down the street, Duda stopped to shake hands and say hello to the people who came out to see him. While inside, hundreds of people outside watched him speak on a projection screen.
At the ceremony, Duda honored several local dignitaries by giving them a certificate and pinning a pendant on their chest. Some honorees included military veterans, local clergy and former Wallington mayor Walter Wargacki, who served seven terms over two decades before deciding to not seek reelection in 2015.
Duda, speaking in Polish, praised the town for giving him such a warm welcome. He said he was proud to see how strong the Polish culture is in the United States and that Polish descendants still take time to learn the language and carry on the country’s traditions.
Marzena Pamula, 42, was among the hundreds who turned out for the president’s visit. The East Rutherford resident, who migrated from Poland in 2001, attended with her three children.
“We’re so happy and thankful that the Polish government noticed the Polonia here in Wallington, in our little small town,” said Pamula, who previously lived in Wallington. Polonia is a phrase used to describe Polish communities outside of the native land.
Her 12-year-old daughter, Anna Pamula, said she was happy Duda came.
“It’s cool the president is coming to the United States from Poland,” she said. “It’s a way for our different cultures to be combined.”