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Animated History of Poland

Monday, July 4, 2016

Proud to be Polish-American!

Our Lady of Częstochowa icon at
St. Joseph parish in Raleigh, NC
Over the last year, I have explored my Polish-American background through various activities such as festivals and prayer groups. The most profound thing I have learned about Polish culture is how friendly, traditional, family-oriented, and faithful Poles truly are. I first attended a picnic in Raleigh, North Carolina with the the Polish-American Club of the Triangle (PAC), where I met a young man around my age named Marcin. We ate various Polish things like kiełbasa and zurek. He emigrated from Poland first to Ireland, and currently works in a technology firm in Raleigh. He invited me to his St. Faustina (Św. Faustyna) prayer group held at St. Joseph parish, also in Raleigh. This church even has a Black Madonna icon at the main altar! I also met a young woman named Justyna, who is a PhD researcher at North Carolina State University. They are both faithful Catholics and still maintain their connections to Polish heritage. On New Year's Eve 2015, I once again joined the PAC for their Sylwester party at the Raleigh Hilton. My wife and I had a great time dancing to both American and Polish rock and pop songs, and met a delightful couple named Karol and Monika.

Since Sylwester, I have been very edified by a Polish-American group much closer to home. One day, I stopped at an intersection on Fort Bragg, where a younger U.S. soldier came up to my window and addressed me in Polish! I was shocked! His name is Tomasz, and proceeded to tell me how his father fought in the Warsaw Resistance after seeing the kotwica emblem of that WWII movement on my car. What was for me a memorial of culture, was for Tomasz a symbol of family history. He introduced me to a group of U.S. soldiers with Polish-American backgrounds who often meet at a local coffeehouse to speak the language and catch up with each other. As with the PAC in Raleigh, the Fort Bragg & Pope AFB Polish Community was very welcoming and even celebrated the other cultural backgrounds of their spouses.

I admit that I first explored my Polish-American background in order to find something about myself. However, the experience has really helped me belong to something greater than my own concerns - and has even aided in the continuation of my Christian faith. The experience of being Polish-American has been spiritual as well as a lesson in cultural exchanges.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My Polish-American Story

My grandparents, Peter and Mary (Polish: Piotr i Maria) Mikołajczyk, left Poland sometime between 1910 and 1913 –  just before World War I divided all of Europe. They landed in New York before settling permanently in Erie, Pennsylvania. Peter worked in industry and had several children with Mary once they got their lives in order. My father, Casimir, was one of their later kids. He attended his namesake school at St. Casimir Catholic Church, which joined with Holy Family and St. Ann to form a united parish called Our Mother of Sorrows in 1990. However, St. Casimir School closed in 1982. Casimir enlisted in both the Navy and the Air Force, totaling six years of active duty. However, he gave into alcoholism soon after returning to private life. My father worked at Sears (where the UPMC Park baseball stadium now stands) and eventually retired from Kaufmann's Department Store.
St. Casimir Catholic Church
Erie, Pennsylvania

Neither Casimir nor his wife, Darlene, were fit parents for my sister and me. Around 1986, social services removed us from their negligence and abuse, instead placing us in the foster care system. She was adopted first, staying in the Erie region. I remained in foster care for about four years until a family was found for me. In 1990, I was adopted and moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is near Philadelphia. Here, I lived in middle-class suburbia for the first time, a far less "ethnic" location than I was accustomed to in Erie. Yet, I never felt like this life was for me, nor could I readily assume my adoptive family's identity as eagerly as they wanted me to. Once I lost my original surname, Mikołajczyk, I felt completely lost in myself. During the nine years I lived with my adoptive family until adulthood, they routinely denounced my Polish roots and often told me very negative things about Poland. I think they meant for me to be one of them completely, but this only served to isolate me further. My adoptive family simply wanted me to be "American," and abandon my heritage for their suburban lifestyle. 

Although I did not grow up in Poland, I feel like my life is somewhat analogous to its history. I know what it is like to have my heritage, traditions, cuisine, and language suppressed – the things I grew up with. Erie is about 12% Polish-American, with two active Polish Falcons nests. Locally, the cabbage rolls known as gołąbki in Polish are eaten by Erieites of all backgrounds. Pierogi are a common fast food in the area, and some of the people I knew as a child spoke Polish to me. In short, I wish my adoptive family encouraged me to be Polish-American and recognized me as an individual who had a past life. Much like the oppression of the Poles under Austria, Prussia, and Russia, the process of Americanization sought to erase my identity and replace it with a foreign one. Granted, much of my anxiety was normal adoption-related stress, but I really needed a confirmation of my heritage and personhood. My Polish background is still part of that, even as I serve in the U.S. Army. I have yet to visit Poland, but have been to Eastern Europe (Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria) and various locales comprising Polonia (Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia). I continue to study the Polish language and hope to visit the actual country someday. One of my goals is to be a Polish-speaking church leader and theologian. I know my primary identity belongs with God, who still has a key role in Polish-American life.