Polish American historical sites waist-deep in RC-ism

Footprints of Polonia: Polish Historical Sites Across North America
By Ewa E. Barczyk
Hippocrene Books, 2022, 320 pp.

2 Stars

I’ve previously posted about my twelve-year (2002 to 2014), deep-dive submersion into my Polish heritage during my prodigal “season” (see here). One of the “problems” I had at the time was Poland and American Polonia’s strong identity with the Roman Catholic church. The reason for that is because the Polish RCC became the repository/guardian of Polish nationalism during the country’s long, drawn out subjugation during the Prussian-Austrian-Russian partitions (1772-1918) and again under Nazi German and Soviet Russian domination (1939-1989). To be Polish was necessarily to be Catholic, perhaps more so than any other European nationality. However, I was able to “somewhat” compartmentalize the RC dimension and enjoy the other aspects of Polish history and culture.

I recently stumbled across “Footprints of Polonia” and thought it would be interesting to review the “Polish Historical Sites Across North America.”

This book documents close to 700 Polish American cultural/historical/religious sites spread over 47 states (Alaska, Alabama, and Hawaii not included) and Canada, and a small number of entries from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

“Footprints” is well-formatted, including plenty of color photographs. However, as I should have expected, the VAST majority of entries are comprised of Polish Catholic churches replete with replica paintings of Our Lady of Częstochowa and statues of Karol Wojtyła aka pope John Paul II. American Polonia also has a VERY large number of monuments to dedicated to American Revolutionary War heroes, Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko.

I finally made it to the end of this encyclopedic tribute to Polonia’s Roman Catholic identity, but it wasn’t easy. You may be wondering why the Reformation didn’t take hold in Poland. I briefly touched upon that question in a previous post here.

It will be interesting to see how Poland and American Polonia react in light of the growing scandal involving highly-reverenced John Paul II and his cover-up of priest sexual abuse while he was archbishop of Krakow. There is currently strong denial in Poland regarding these new allegations, but as the facts become undeniable, will monuments to a pedophile-enabler be allowed to stand?

Polska Dotty 2

Polska Dotty 2: Polski Sklep, Polish Plumbers, and Other Tales of Poles in the UK
By Jonathan Lipman
CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2016, 152 pp.

4 Stars

Immigrants and refugees are frequently in the news these days, but a rather large immigration took place almost twenty-years ago in Europe without much U.S. press coverage.

After Poland joined the European Union in 2004, its citizens were immediately able to migrate to other EU nations. Thus began an exodus of 1 million Poles to the UK. Britain offered much better employment opportunities than what was available in Poland at the time, which was still recovering from 44 years of Soviet-communist domination and economic debilitation. The influx of Polish immigrants greatly concerned a large segment of UK citizens, which eventually contributed to “Brexit,” the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union in 2020.

In this book, published in 2016, Jonathan Lipman, examines how the Polish immigrants fared in Britain. I thoroughly enjoyed Lipman’s previous book about his 1997-1999 sojourn in Poland with his Polish wife (see here for my review). Lipman subsequently returned to the UK and in this flip-flop sequel, recorded his observations of Polish emigres in his homeland. There was a clash of cultures as would be expected.

Lipman’s insights are interesting and often humorous. The Polish immigrants struggled a bit with the English language and culture as might be expected, but did surprisingly well in general. They set up their Polish enclaves with their skleps, delis/stores selling foods and dry goods imported from Poland. Many of the immigrants sent money back to their families back in Poland. With Brexit and Poland’s steady economic advances, the population of Polish nationals in the UK has dropped from 1 million to 700,000.

As Lipman notes, Poles are very hard-working (a quality shaped by the previous harsh economic conditions in Poland), but will often speak their minds with very little filter in contrast to the polite Brits. From my own experience, there was a group of Polish women working in my department at Kodak – Bronis, Ewa, and Anna – who constantly aggravated their co-workers with their blunt and forthright comments. At one point, Kodak management even discussed sending the Polish gals to an interpersonal communication skills training class. Can anyone spell “lawsuit”? I know from my experiences with my ex-daughter-in-law and her family that Germans can also speak quite bluntly compared to Anglos.

Polska Dotty 2 was an entertaining book that I enjoyed. There’s lots of wry-dry British humor throughout. Lipman dwells on some personal experiences with Polish contractors in order to typify the Polish worker (industrious, but not always attentive to details), that becomes a bit tedious at times. However, like its predecessor, Polska Dotty 1, this book is of surprisingly good quality (including a very good transcription to Kindle) in light of the fact that it’s independently published.

Eva’s European Sweets Polish Restaurant in Syracuse, NY

My wife and I had to take a short trip to Syracuse (a one hour drive from Rochester) last Wednesday, so I took the opportunity to arrange for us to have dinner at that city’s only Polish restaurant, Eva’s European Sweets (photo above).

Eva’s European Sweets Polish Restaurant
1305 Milton Avenue
Syracuse, New York

4 Stars

Polish immigrant, Eva (spelled Ewa in Polish) Zaczynski, nee Marcinkowska, opened her desserts bakery in 1997 and gradually transformed it into a full-scale restaurant serving a wide variety of Polish and Eastern European ethnic foods. I had visited Eva’s many years previously as a side-trip on one of my solo visits to the Syracuse Polish Festival, but this time I brought along my piękna żona.

My non-Polish bride is not as familiar with Polish cuisine as myself, so as she scanned Eva’s extensive menu she asked for my help. I knew she would enjoy the breaded pork cutlets, popularly known in Germany and even in America as Schnitzel and as Kotlet Schabowy in Polish. It was served with red cabbage, pan-fried potatoes, and cucumber and tomato salad. My piękna żona enjoyed her dinner very much.

I ordered the Polish Platter, which included a gołąbek (a single gołąbki is properly called a gołąbek, cabbage stuffed with a rice and ground beef mixture), a serving of bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew), which is a melange of sauerkraut, cabbage, kielbasa, beef, ham, bacon and mushrooms, two pierogies (Polish dumplings) stuffed with potato and sauerkraut, and a kiełbasa (Polish sausage) link.

Above: My Polish Platter at Eva’s, clockwise from left to right: A gołąbek, bigos, sauerkraut, pierogies, and kiełbasa at the bottom.

My dinner was good, but I had a few quibbles. The gołąbek (pronounced gaw-WOAM-bek) filling was plentiful, but a bit bland and there was no tomato sauce topping. The bigos was very good, although not quite as good as my homemade recipe. The pierogies were tasty and the dough edges were chewy, just the way I like them, but they were quite small. The undersized, cut-in-half link of smoked kiełbasa was waaaaay over-fried. The above criticisms are minor, except for the kiełbasa. A meaty and properly-cooked kiełbasa portion would have erased all of the other minor objections. I do realize this was a sampler platter and that portions would be limited. However, I have nothing but sympathy for the poor patron who makes a full dinner of this cringeworthy over-fried kiełbasa (note: a “kiełbasa dinner” is on the menu).

Eva’s has a pleasant interior with many Polish-themed decorations. Outside dining is offered during the warm months, which I was looking forward to, but it was raining when we visited. The service was very prompt and friendly.

Overall, the experience at Eva’s was an enjoyable B to B+. I look forward to going back to Ewa’s in the future and trying the Placki (potato pancakes) and one of their authentic Polish desserts.

Polish restaurants are scarce here in Western and Central New York, so I appreciate that Eva’s has been able to survive and thrive for 25 years.

Postcript: The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” with chef, Guy Fieri, visited Eva’s European Sweets in 2013. Eva prepared Placki Hungarian Style in that episode.

Above: Eva Zaczynski, left, and her two children David and Karolina

My Polish Deli Haul

The liturgical calendar with its seasonal religious holy days/holidays is the warp and woof of Roman Catholicism. After 27 years of being a Catholic before trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone in 1983, I had had my fill of following the liturgical calendar, but I don’t begrudge my fellow believers who enjoy the seasonal religious holidays. I’m also not a fan of using the word, “Easter,” for the commemoration of Resurrection Sunday since it may possibly have a pagan connection (although the presumed connection to the pagan fertility goddess, Ishtar/Asherah, is not an open-and-shut case as some assume, see here), but it’s not my hill to die on, either.

Anyway, last Thursday, Easter/Resurrection Day was coming up and for any Pole that means getting some “fresh” kielbasa. Many of you are familiar with the delicious smoked variety of Polish sausage/kielbasa, but you may not know about the fresh, unsmoked biała (“white”) version. Growing up, my family always had fresh kielbasa for the holidays. So delicious. But it’s hard to find. Fresh kielbasa was occasionally available at our local big box grocery store, Wegmans’, but I haven’t seen it there in long time. No big loss. Their version of fresh kielbasa isn’t all that good, anyway. The word “pedestrian” comes to mind when thinking about Wegmans’ fresh kielbasa. You see, a Pole is very fussy and discriminating about their fresh kielbasa. Nope, my aim was to drive to the Polska Chata (pronounced pole-skuh ha-tuh, “Polish House”) deli/restaurant in Irondequoit to pick up a couple of pounds of fresh kielbasa because I knew from experience that theirs was excellent.

So, on the Thursday before Easter/Resurrection Day, I first took a trip to the Dybowski Authentic Polish Market (photo above) on Hudson Avenue on the fringes of Rochester’s old Polish Town neighborhood. Dybowski’s has a much larger variety of Polish food items than Polska Chata and I had a few things in mind. The place was busier than downtown Warsaw with Rochester Poles preparing for Easter/Resurrection Day dinner. I bought two cartons of Krakus brand zurek (“sour rye soup”) and two bottles of Vavel (Americanized version of the Polish Wawel) brand black currant juice aka czarna porzeczka nektar. Both zurek and black currant juice are very popular in Poland. Both food items are so delicious. I also couldn’t resist browsing Dybowski’s impressive sausage display. They have about ten different varieties of smoked kielbasa in addition to many other types of Polish-style meats. I ended up buying two large links of cherry wood smoked kielbasa aka kielbasa wisniowa. I also noticed they had two varieties of fresh kielbasa, but I was determined to pick up my biała sausage at Polska Chata.

Above: Polska Chata deli/restaurant

I then got in my car and drove the two miles to Polska Chata and they were packed with customers as well. The deli/restaurant changed hands in 2018, but I was hoping they still offered the fabulous fresh biała kielbasa that the previous owner, Margaret Gorniak, had shipped in from Toronto. No such circumstance. As I stood in the long line, I noticed several customers requesting fresh kielbasa and the owner retrieving frozen…ach…FROZEN fresh kielbasa from the back freezer. Two problems, 1) fresh kielbasa should never be frozen, and 2) the kielbasa looked mediocre, like the stuff Wegmans’ sells’. It certainly wasn’t the sausage imported from Toronto that I bought in previous years.

So I got in my car and drove back to Dybowski’s. I asked the young pana behind the display cases, which of the two fresh biała varieties she recommended. She suggested the big, fat variety produced by the Winding River Meat Company (Bloomfield, NJ, Joe Krzyworzeka, proprietor). The kielbasa actually resembled my previous favorite imported by Margaret G.

I drove home with my Polish stash and a couple of hours later I prepared my fresh biała kielbasa. Unlike smoked kielbasa, you don’t pan fry fresh kielbasa. My mom always boiled it, but I subsequently learned from “old country” Poles that there’s only one way to cook fresh kielbasa and that’s to put it in a pyrex baking dish with about a half-inch of water, cover with aluminum foil, and bake at 350F for 45-60 minutes.

Mój, o, mój! My, oh, my! The fresh biała kielbasa from Winding River was sooooo good. The best I ever had. My wife concurred that it was the best she had ever tasted. Very little fat. Mild. No grizzle. The cherry wood smoked kielbasa wisniowa was also good, but I couldn’t detect the slightly sweet flavor it was claimed to have.

Well, my Polish fresh kielbasa excursion adventure definitely had a happy ending. I’ll be going back to Dybowski’s in a month or two for another Polish fix.

Note: Fresh kielbasa is served with freshly-ground horseradish.

Above: My Polish deli haul: Back row: Krakus zurek sour rye soup and Vavel Black Currant Juice. Front row: fresh biała kielbasa and cherry wood smoked kielbasa wisniowa.
Above: Some of the varieties of smoked kielbasa on display at Dybowski’s
Above: A large variety of food goods imported from Poland line Henry Dybowski’s store shelves

Polska Dotty

Polska Dotty: Carp in the Bathtub, Throttled Buglers, and Other Tales of an Englishman in Poland
By Jonathan Lipman
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011, 224 pp.

5 Stars

When Americans consider traveling to Europe for a vacation, they rarely think of Poland. If you go to Amazon.com, you’ll find very few Polish travelogue books. Why is that? Due to its unique history, Poland didn’t have a chance to develop at the same pace as other European countries. Poland was absorbed by Russia, Austria, and Prussia in the late-18th century and did not reappear as a nation until after the conclusion of the First World War. The Great Depression hit a decade later, followed by the horrific devastation inflicted by the invading Nazi Germans and Russian-Soviets, followed by 44 years of Russian-Soviet domination and oppression. Poland finally achieved its independence in 1989 and has been trying to catch up economically ever since.

In this interesting book, British lawyer, Jonathan Lipman relates his experience living in Poland from 1997 to 1999. Lipman had met a Polish panna (single woman) when the two were studying at Oxford in 1994. They subsequently married and Lipman took a job with a Warsaw law firm advising on foreign business investment contracts written in English.

Lipman describes daily living in Krakow (home of his wife’s family) and in Warsaw along with some interesting vacation trips to Sopot (a resort city on Baltic Sea) and Zakopane (a village in Tatra Mountains). He devotes chapters to such topics as transportation in Poland, weather, religion and festivals, entertainment, customer service (or the lack thereof), Polish work ethic, and “the Polish character.” There’s also a chapter on Polish-Jewish relations, a fascinating topic that I studied intensively during my long “prodigal season.” Poland is probably the most Catholic country in Europe, but as Lipman describes it, Polish Catholicity is mostly about bonding with family via religious rituals and traditions.

Although the events and observations described within happened over twenty years ago, this book still offers many very relevant and astute insights into the Polish nation and its people. The author interjects a good amount of entertaining droll British humor throughout, although there are some British-isms that will leave the American reader scratching their head. For an independently published book, this was very well done. I read the Kindle version and the transcription was excellent. I’m impressed.

Postscript: Poland isn’t all Soviet-style, utilitarian, nondescript, gray, architecture. There are many, many lovely spots to visit. My wife and I spent five days in Krakow a decade ago. The extremely well-preserved, former capital of Poland until 1596, Krakow was largely untouched by WWII bombardment. Krakow’s central city is as nice a place to visit as any city in Europe.

Above: A view of a portion of Krakow’s massive main market square, the Rynek Główny, at nightfall. It’s the largest medieval town square in Europe at 9.4 acres.

American Warsaw?

American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago
By Dominic A. Pacyga
University of Chicago Press, 2021, 329 pp.

5 Stars

This book is a fascinating history of the large Polish diaspora in Chicago, Illinois. Polish immigrants came to the city in droves as part of the Za Chlebem “for bread” migration in the years 1860-1918. These immigrants of partitioned Poland were mainly poor peasant stock seeking better opportunities in the United States. They were attracted to Chicago because the city was a growing industrial center that required many low-skill, manual laborers. Next to Warsaw, Chicago would eventually become home to the world’s second largest Polish population.

The Catholic church, the repository of Polish nationalism in partitioned Poland, played a leading role in the establishment of Polish immigrant neighborhoods. Tensions arose as Poles challenged the dominance of Irish Americans in the American Catholic hierarchy, leading to the splinter Polish National Catholic church and the rivalry between the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America and the more secular Polish National Alliance fraternals. Many Poles intended to return to their homeland if Poland were ever re-established as a nation (that happened in 1918), but those dreams faded over time. The relationship between the Chicago Polish diaspora and Poland, with its struggle for independence and subsequent trials and tribulations under Nazi and Soviet domination, is a fascinating story.

Subsequent waves of Polish migration to the city occurred following World War II and during the Solidarność (Solidarity) opposition to the Soviet Polish government, 1980-1989. There were often tensions between the new arrivals and the Americanized Poles over Polskość (Polishness) or who is really Polish?

Following World War II, returning Polish American vets and their families began moving out of the city to the suburbs. Some Polish institutions remain within the city proper, but many of the old Polish neighborhoods with their modest houses are now home to African Americans and Hispanics. In Greater Chicago, generational assimilation continues to grind away at Polish ethnic identification.

“American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago” is a thoroughly enjoyable read for Polish Americans and for others interested in the history of immigration to the United States. This book would have been even better if the author had given some focus to a particular Za Chlebem immigrant family or two and their generational journey through assimilation and acculturation.

Postscript: Roman Catholicism is so interconnected with Polskość (Polishness) that a Pole who is not Catholic, like myself, is considered by many to not be a “true Pole.” For a believer, while our ethnic, racial, or national identity can be a positive and enjoyable aspect of who we are, it’s (very) subordinate to our identity in Jesus Christ.

Postscript 2: While reading this book, I could not help but think of the millions of Ukrainian refugees currently fleeing Putin’s genocide. Local news has reported that a few of the refugees have already made their way to the Ukrainian diaspora community here in Rochester.

Fading Polish-American Identity

The Blondes of Wisconsin
By Anthony Bukoski
University of Wisconsin Press, 2021, 152 pp.

5 Stars

Like many industrial cities in the Rust Belt, Rochester had its Polish Town neighborhood, which was centered along Hudson Avenue, north of Clifford Avenue. The Polish immigrants of the late-19th and early-20th centuries settled along Hudson Avenue and established churches, businesses, and social clubs where Polish was spoken and the shared ethnicity was the binding currency of the “Polonia” neighborhood. My paternal grandparents lived on Avenue D, just a few houses down from Hudson. Vets returning from World War II, like my Dad, chose to buy houses in new developments in the bordering suburb of Irondequoit rather than live in Polish Town. Second-generation Polish immigrants had a strong desire to assimilate and downplay their ethnicity.

As first-generation Poles died off, their small, cottage-style houses were bought by African Americans who had moved up to Rochester from Sanford, Florida and elsewhere in the South to take advantage of the city’s then-economic opportunities (Kodak, Xerox, etc). Polish businesses and institutions in the Hudson Avenue neighborhood shuttered one after another. Manufacturing has since moved out of Rochester and most of the city’s neighborhoods, including the old Polish Town, became steeped in poverty. There’s still a few hold-out Poles and Polish-owned businesses and institutions remaining in the crumbling and crime-ridden Hudson Avenue neighborhood. I occasionally frequent a Polish deli on the fringes of the old neighborhood.

Anthony Bukoski has written several books of short stories about life in the declining Polonia of Superior, Wisconsin. “The Blondes of Wisconsin” is his latest offering. These are sad and melancholy tales describing characters living amidst the last gasps of fading Polish ethnic identity, just like the few Polish-Americans still living on Hudson Avenue. This is a reminder that all things of this world are fading and are built on foundations of sinking sand. Polish ethnic identity was strongly intertwined with membership in the Roman Catholic church. St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic church is one of the few Polish ethnic landmarks remaining on Hudson Avenue and inside they still preach a false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.

Above: Boarded up cottage-style houses in nearby Buffalo’s vast former Polonia neighborhood. This style house was also typical in Rochester’s Polonia neighborhood.
Above: A vintage photograph of the former Christ Polish Baptist Church on the corner of Hudson Ave. and Roycroft Drive in Rochester, N.Y., a Gospel light in a thoroughly Polish Catholic neighborhood. The church was built in 1911, however, the small congregation disbanded in 1945 and the building was subsequently demolished.