Do you really know your Polish heritage?
By Robert Strybel

According to the latest US Census, just over nine million Americans have been identified as having Polish ancestry, or about 3.3% of the total population. In states known for their sizable Polonian concentrations (including Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut) we are speaking of 10-12% of the overall population and in certain metropolitan areas it may be higher than that. But even in those heavily Polish-populated areas are 10% or even 3% of the things people see around them and come into contact with conspicuously Polish? That, of course, is a rhetorical question, to which everybody knows the answer!

Recognizably Polish things, concepts, names, logos, symbols, artifacts and foods are largely unfamiliar not only to non-Polish Americans. They are also widely unknown to the legions of Heather Nowaks, Keith Kowalczyks, Ashley Lewandowskis, Brian Wisniewskis, Tracy Szymanskis - people of unquestionable Polish lineage who know little if anything about their cultural legacy. Let us take Dozynki (Polish harvest fest), Andrzejki (St Andrew's Eve celebration), swiety Mikolaj (St Nicholas), oplatek (Christmas wafer), St John's Day (blessing of wine), Kolednicy (Polish caroler-masqueraders). Or how about Zapusty (pre-Lenten revelry), Tlusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday), Ostatki (Shrove Tuesday), swiecenie pokarmow (Easter food blessing), and smigus-dyngus (Easter Monday drenching). How many Americans, Polish or otherwise would think of Easter at the sight of the Baranek (flag-wiedling kamb) or pussywillows or of Christmas at the sight of a plain white wafer lying on a bed of hay? How many would recognize the shimmering szopka krakowska (Krakow Christmas crib) or the Podhale-style chalet?

Does the average American youngster - whether of Polish or any other extraction - learn in school that a group of Poles arrived  at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608, 12 years before anyone had even heard of the Mayflower?  Is he or she told that the Jamestown Poles not only laid the foundations for America's first industry (the manufacture of pitch, soap and glass) but also staged America's first civil-rights strike? Are American school children ever informed that medieval Poland was the largest country in Europe, straddling the continent from the Black Sea to the Baltic? That it provided a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Spain, France, Germany and other countries of the "enlightened" West? That on at least four occasions it changed the course of history. Thrice it helped saved Europe from invading hordes from the east: the pagan Mongols at Legnica in 1241, the Moslem Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683 and  the Bolshevik Red Army outside Warsaw in 1920. In 1980 Poland's Solidarity movement unleashed a force that eventaully led to the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Does today's American youngster learn of the contributions to America made by millions of Polish immigrants who, without the benefit of today's hand-outs and minority privileges, pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps through hard work and sacrifice? They worked hard, paid their taxes, built clean and safe neighborhoods, maintained their property, kept their kids out of trouble and in general helped to build America up rather than trying to tear it down. These and other facts, still largely absent from the US mainstream, could go a long way towards building up the ethnic self-esteem of Polish Americans. What, if anything, are you going to do about it?

The Summit Times

c Copyright 1996 by Andrzej M. Salski