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 Dożynki (Polish harvest fest), Andrzejki (St Andrew’s Eve celebration), Swiety Mikolaj (St Nicholas), opłatek (Christmas wafer), St John’s Day (blessing of wine), Kolędnicy (Polish caroler-masqueraders). Or how about Zapusty (pre-Lenten revelry), Tlusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday), Ostatki (Shrove Tuesday), Swiecenie Pokarmów (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 jamk) 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 (Kraków 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 eventually 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?