Thursday, May 10, 2012

Proud to be Polish-American

Pulaski Day Parade New York
It has been fifty years since I lived in Greenpoint, a neighborhood in New York, borough of Brooklyn and a large community of Polish immigrants. I have visited Greenpoint a year ago and not much has changed through the years. People in the supermarkets still speak in Polish and signs written in Polish on their establishments. There are many Polish restaurants that specialize in Polish food such as pickled herring, pierogies, kielbasa and stuffed cabbage.  As you walk the streets you hear the Polish language spoken. The neighborhood's Catholic Churches include large stone structures and there are private Polish Catholic schools. Polish Americans live in the quiet streets in houses and brownstones that have been built many years ago. Greenpoint attracts so many Polish immigrants because of the existing community helps them to adjust to life in the United States.

 Poles that came to America to start new lives worried about forgetfulness. Parents feared that their children would lose touch with their heritage. Many retained connections with the old country, generally through friends or relatives still living in the old country. Polish immigrants had many obstacles to hurdle, forming communities of their own kind, they managed to help one another. Many Polish immigrants arrived after WW ll and from war torn Europe, America seemed like a haven. My parents lived in labor and DP camps for ten years before they came to America. Many left tiny villages in their countryside and resettled in the busy streets of New York, Chicago and other cities. in their homeland many were farmers and the bottom of the economic ladder.

Polish immigrants faced harsh prejudice, unskilled, they worked endless hours to make a living. My father worked as a janitor cleaning offices at night, hardly making enough money to support seven children. I never realized as a child we were poor because everyone in the neighborhood shared the same economic fate. Many poles earned a reputation that gradually hardened into a stereotype. Many people viewed Poles as rowdy, ignorant and drunks. Polish or " Polak" jokes have been laughed at by many as well as comedians. The " Polish " people described in the jokes as naive and stupid.

The election of a Polish Pope brought pride to the Polish people and a positive Polish-American self image.  I remember  Pope John ll coming to Greenpoint and my father wished he could be there to see the Pope, at that time he was living in upstate New York. When they flashed a photo of the Pope on the television, my father took his photo off the T.V. and framed it and hung it on the wall. He was proud to be Polish ! Poles have made great contributions, Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, Hollywood and television as well. Gloria Swanson  , actress, Polish decent, Roman  Polanski, Polish filmmaker, Bobby Vinton, singer, his huge hit " My Melody Of Love " and so many more.

Schooling was important, I went to a Polish Catholic school, Our Lady Of Consolation, where Polish was spoken as well as English. To this day I am amazed how my parents were able to pay school tuition for the six of us with my father's income. My sister was a baby and there was no such thing as preschool then. Very few Polish- America children attended public schools, parents viewed it unchristian and demoralizing institutions that would rob the children of their cultural heritage.

For those who  left to come to America from Poland felt responsible to help the Poles left behind. Even though we didn't have much , my mother would pack up boxes of outgrown clothes and donate to the church to send to Poland. Women had control of the family and the men went to work. Although Poles retained much of the Old World values they did not want a mirror of Poland, a country they fled with fear, the women responded to their new freedom as difficult as it  may have been, the pressure to keep the family fed and dressed left little time for any other activity.

The contributions of Polish Americans are many. There is no area of American Life in which Poles have not left an imprint of their own.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. People concerned about the stereotype of Poles will want to read "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype." Greenpoint is mentioned in the book, in a way that might upset some readers.