“Polish Broadway” keeps the culture alive

The next generation: A product of Saturday Schools

Ewa Zaborowski came to the United States from Poland in 1981 to join her husband, John, who is a doctor. They opened Polskie Centrum Medyczne, a Polish-run physicians care center,  on the 3000 block of North Milwaukee Avenue about 27 years ago.  She said the area has changed considerably since. There are still blocks of Polish-run stores, but the people that once filled the area fled to the suburbs and only return for the cultural community.

“This is the heart of Poland here,” Zaborowski said. “This used to be a very vibrant place.”

When her children were old enough, Zaborowski sent them to Polish Saturday school.

“I wanted them to continue and be fluent in Polish because it’s good to know another language,” Zaborowski said, “especially when your father and mother came from Poland.”

October is Polish-American Heritage Month and just like any ethnic group some Polish people want to carry information and traditions from one generation to the next said Jan Lorys, the director of The Polish Museum of America. He is also a product of a Polish Saturday school and the Polish Scouts, which, he said is similar to the Boy Scouts of America.

A lot of third generation Polish-Americans are still involved in scouting, he said, because the traditions trace back to Polish history and the time of the knights. Even today the scouts speak exclusively Polish because it is a practical way to utilize the language Lorys said.

“There’s an old feminist joke that states that Ginger Rogers danced everything that Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and wearing heels,” Lorys said. “We say the Polish Scouts do everything the Boy Scouts of America does, but we do it in Polish.”

Polish Saturday schools preserve the culture by teaching the next generation the history, culture, language and geography of Poland.

Overall, he said it really just depends on whether the individual is interested in their culture.

“I’ve known people who are fourth generation Polish-Americans and have some interest in Poland,” Lorys said. “I know people who are descendants of Solidarity activists [members of an anti-communist movement in Poland] who don’t speak Polish anymore – so it’s an individual thing.”

St. Hyacinth Basilica offers one of the 27 Saturday schools in the area, working to keep the Polish ethnicity thriving. Historically, Milwaukee Avenue and the churches in the area were the center of Polish life in Avondale, Rev. Francis Rog of St. Hyacinth Basilica, said. The basilica still serves as the center for social, political and religious meetings for new Polish immigrants.  In the past, “Milwaukee Avenue was kind of like ‘Polish Broadway,’” he said.

The strip still has delis, doctor’s offices and specialty Polish clothing stores. Rog said that in the late 1950s, after the construction of the Kennedy Expressway began, Poles were pushed into the suburbs.

“There were no Polish priests, no polish parishes out there,” he said. “So the people were coming back here and then this became the center.”

It’s important to remember that Poland was partitioned among Germany, Austria and Russia for about 123 years Lorys said. Those governments were not interested in keeping the Polish culture alive so it was the church that allowed cultural traditions to flourish. He said that this made faith, often the Catholic faith, a significant part of the nation.

“When people started moving here to the United States, they flock to those areas that are most comfortable to them or that they remember,” Lorys said, “which would be the church.”

Culture becomes even more important to people after they leave their country, he said. One the librarians at the museum that grew up in Poland never wore ethnic Polish clothes or learned Krakowiak, the traditional dance. It wasn’t until the museum held an event at Navy Pier that she put on a traditional costume, Lorys said.

On the other hand, he said, there are some families here who dress their children in old-style clothing, who have never been to Poland.

Zaborowski said she still celebrates her Polish heritage by making her favorite dish, Pierogi, a type of dumpling usually stuffed with meat, cheese, cabbage and potatoes. In addition, she said she always looks forward to the Polish Film Festival in America that comes to Chicago in November.

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