How I turned my Polish heritage into an idol

Last week, I posted about some of the diversions that I had used to fill the gaping hole in my soul during my long prodigal “season” away from the Lord (see here). Today, I’d like to present another one as I submerged myself into my Polish heritage.

My father’s parents* immigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. As a child, I was intrigued by my grandparents who spoke only limited English. However, growing up with a last name ending in “ski” during the 1960s and 70s at the height of the “dumb Polak” joke craze was not easy. In school, I was often singled out as the “dumb Polak.” Hardy har har. I swore to myself for years that the very first thing I was going to do when I turned eighteen was change my last name to “Smith” or “Jones.” Of course, when I finally did turn eighteen, I had other priorities.

After I turned away from the Lord and was journeying through the parched landscape of my prodigal “season” in the early aughts, I happened to spot a book at our local Borders bookstore that documented the history of Rochester’s Polish community. That was the start of it. From being embarrassed and ashamed of my ethnic roots, that book was the kickoff to REVELING in my heritage, which, fasten your seat belts, included the following:

  • I read everything I could get my hands on regarding Polish history and culture including the weekly Am-Pol Eagle and monthly Polish American Journal newspapers as well as three academic quarterlies. I eventually amassed over one-hundred books about Poland and Polonia (i.e., the Polish American diaspora) in my personal library.
  • I joined local and national Polish American organizations and helped plan andCapture11 coordinate several Polish events in Rochester.
  • I began attending the annual Polish festivals in Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse. Between festivals, I regularly explored the Polish sections of those cities (or what was left of them) as well as the very-much-intact Polish neighborhoods up in Toronto and St. Catherines, Canada. Buffalo had a mammoth Polish population compared to Rochester and many, many Polish organizations, but assimilation has taken it’s toll with Poles moving to the suburbs and losing interest in their cultural roots.
  • I listened to Ray Serafin’s two-hour, Polish Polka Bandstand show on one of our local radio stations every Saturday morning and eventually amassed a collection of over fifty polka CDs. I also accumulated a large number of subtitled Polish films on DVD.
  • I hosted an internet forum for five years which discussed issues involving Poland and Polonia.
  • A 3’x5′ Polish flag flew proudly from our front balcony just in case someone wasn’t sure about my ethnicity. Also, one of my clothes drawers was full of Polish-themed t-shirts and my hat rack was full of Polish-themed caps.
  • I became a regular customer of the two Polish delis here in Rochester and also became proficient at making several delicious Polish recipes. They’re hearty dishes so I’ll share the recipes in a couple of more months when the temperatures are more appropriate. Strangely, there are no Polish delis in Buffalo (although it does have a few Polish restaurants), but there are several delis in St. Catherines and Toronto.
  • If anyone made the mistake of telling a “dumb Polak” joke in my presence, I responded with both barrels and made them feel as uncomfortable as I possibly could.
  • On our trip to Germany to visit our grandson in 2007, we were able to take a 5-day detour to Krakow, the historic capital of Poland from 1038 to 1596. Unlike many other Polish cities, Krakow was largely spared from shelling and aerial bombing during World War II and its grand historic buildings including the royal castle remained intact.

Did you get all of that? Can anyone say idol?

Bottom line: I was nostril-deep in things-Polish for well over a decade. Not to brag, but I believe the knowledge I accumulated was equivalent to a bachelors degree in Polish Studies. My family and friends thought it was EXTREMELY weird that I became so infatuated with my ethnic heritage, but I believe it all stemmed from two things. 1) My shame at being Polish when I was young and 2) the pressing need to fill the vacuum in my soul while I was away from the Lord.

After I returned to the Lord in 2014, my frenetic need to study my ethnicity was lifted from me. Unsaved people have no foundation in the Lord, so they’re increasingly turning to DNA tests and to try to establish some type of meaningful foundation for their lives. Everything besides Jesus Christ is sinking sand and ultimately won’t satisfy.

I’m very glad I learned about my heritage, but now I’m able to put it all in its proper perspective.

“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” – Psalm 46:10

“What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” – James 4:14

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” – 1 John 2:15-17

*My Mom was seventy-five percent German and twenty-five percent Irish, so during this period I also spent some time researching German history and the German American diaspora.

Postscripts: 1) While I’m definitely not a follower of pop social morality, I do appreciate how bullying, for any reason, is no longer acceptable (at least ideally). 2) Perhaps no ethnic group is more tightly intertwined with Roman Catholicism than the Poles. That was a circumstance I had to constantly ignore during my hyper-Polish phase.

If you’ve hung in there with me to this point, I offer you a sincere dziękuję bardzo!

Polish joke – Wikipedia article

40 thoughts on “How I turned my Polish heritage into an idol

  1. Ethnic and cultural identity immersion is very powerful, very often embracing religious identity so people feel justified. I grew up totally into everything Armenian, with ongoing passion as they suffered so much. But God plucked me out of the Armenian church and separated me from an encompassing life of Armenian culture. Only thru the Lord could I have found love and passion for other people groups… even praying for the Turks, that they may truly find salvation.
    Good post Tom, always enjoy your writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lisa Beth, thank you for the encouragement and for sharing your experiences with your own heritage! Ethnic ties can be very strong. For many people, it’s a huge component of their personal identity. I’m sure it was the same with Armenians and the Armenian church in that to be a Pole was to be Roman Catholic. If a Pole dropped out of the Catholic church it was tantamount to a betrayal of their family and heritage (and nation if they lived in Poland).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your post is a powerful reminder that racism and bigotry isn’t just “Whites” against “Blacks” but also directed against other immigrants of the same Continental origin.

    “I hosted an internet forum for five years which discussed issues involving Poland and Polonia.”
    Response: Wow I didn’t know that!

    I think you probably possess graduate level courses on Polish studies!

    I read it to the end! What is “dziękuję bardzo?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, thanks for the comments and for reading all the way to dziękuję bardzo i.e. “thank you very much!”

      While the “dumb Polak joke” era couldn’t be compared to the racial discrimination of those times, it was still rough on a kid. As far as I know, there’s only one book that addresses the “dumb Polak” phenomenon. The author and I had some disagreements because she whitewashed Polish anti-Semitism in the book and elsewhere.

      I enjoyed the internet group but I finally had to give it up because the arguments over Polish anti-Semitism were non-stop although I was probably the biggest instigator. One of these days I’m going to have to post on Polish-Jewish relations. It’s still a tinderbox even though the Jewish population was largely wiped out in Poland during the Holocaust. Poles refuse to acknowledge any malfeasance despite 700 years of history. The situation for Jews in Poland (one tenth of the population) had become very dicey right before the German invasion. In fact, the Polish ambassador to Germany visited Hitler asking the Fuhrer for advice on how to solve Poland’s Jewish “question.”

      Yeah, I definitely accumulated a lot of information, and at the end I was driven by the Polish-Jewish controversy. The Polish Catholic church perpetuated a lot of the anti-Jewish bigotry.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow that’s a long history of Poles-Jewish relations; 700 years. For me that is an incredible amount of time of problematic relations; that’s longer than the US being around. Kudos to you for speaking up, though it probably can get awkward among others who identify with the Poles’ identity.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks. I don’t mean to imply Polish-Jewish relations were all bad during that time. Poland took in the Jews in the 1200s when most of the Western European countries were expelling them. I’ll get into more of the details when I write the post. Thanks for letting me ramble!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yup, and I still have the beard. I remember being very excited about having my picture taken with Scrubby and Jimmy Sturr but 99.99% of Polish Americans today would have no clue who those guys were.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I think I told you before my fascination with this topic of yours is because of my days in the Marines working with the Poles both in Iraq and also NATO training in Poland; it was not the main land of Poland but an island we did amphibious operations and other expeditionary training

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I really enjoyed visiting Poland, being able to use my 50-word vocabulary and knowing the history and culture pretty well. My wife kept telling me to stop asking the tour guides questions because I was embarrassing her.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I just came back and re read this, because earlier the pictures would not load for me. Very cool to see a face, Tom! Want to hear an odd thing? I have grown a beard myself. It’s a denominational trademark!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still have the beard, Wally! Yeah, in our denomination male members without beards can’t participate in pot luck fellowship, all the more for us. After several weeks of my wife’s greens and beans, I’m jonesing for some good Baptist pot luck with BBQ chicken thighs and spare ribs!


      1. I thought the meme was funny, myself! Regarding the exchange, I think you’re actually one of the least “judge-y” brothers I know. Me on the other hand…
        We all need to lighten up! Except when it comes to the Gospel of course. Sometimes I get into exchanges like that where I just scratch my head and say, Huh?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks, Tom. I was actually willing to be challenged but only based on what God’s Word says, not some personal revelation. I find it mildly disturbing when God “shares” with another person some direction for me.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. RE: I find it mildly disturbing when God “shares” with another person some direction for me.

        Agreed. That’s a part of “evangelicalism” that I stay away from.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Agreed. I do believe we hear from God, through His word primarily, but also through our hearts and minds. I know many will deny that God “places things on our hearts,” but I do not agree. He just isn’t putting something on MY heart for YOU. Our relationship is personal, and that’s almost like another mediator when God “reveals” something from them, to you.

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Yup, I believe we are often led by the Holy Spirit via the Word and conviction, although I would never label such convictions as “Thus saith the Lord.” Right, I had someone lording it over me once with a “word from the Lord.”

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I praise God he saved you, and brought you back into the fold. I also praise Him for the many things you’ve learned, and teach us, which apparently is even going to include some cooking. I greatly look forward to those recipes, brother!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot, sister! Even in our disobedience, the Lord teaches us.
      RE: Polish recipes
      Like many Polish dishes, both of the recipes are cabbage-based. I’m not a huge fan of cooked cabbage, but these dishes are delicious. Thanks for the encouragement, sister!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Crissy, thank you for reading through my looong post! Yes, He is truly amazing! When I returned to the Lord, I asked that He lead us to a good church. We began attending a small church but stayed only a year because the pastor made it increasingly clear that he thought ecumenism with Rome was a great idea. I wondered why the Lord had allowed us to become involved with that church but it’s clear to me now. It directly led to the creation of this blog and we now attend a good church. It was all a part of the Lord’s plan. You don’t need to read it, but below is a link to my post in which I detailed some of the strange dealings at that small church.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was sharing with a friend today, that I am at peace knowing that our God is Sovereign. If I had only known 8 years ago…..Thank you for the link Tom. I am certainly interested in reading it.
        Blessings brother !

        Liked by 1 person

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