“The people who go to St. Stan’s aren’t Polish; they’re Polish-American.” Those words, blurted without thinking, have haunted me for almost a decade and a half. Anna Mycek-Wodecki, then art director of Chronicles, was a true Pole. Like Leopold Tyrmand, the founder of Chronicles, she was a refugee from communism. Unlike Tyrmand, she was ethnically Polish, and a Catholic. She had been surprised to learn that this new employee with the German last name was a Polish Catholic, too, and she took me under her wing.
But when I asked Anna if she attended St. Stanislaus Kostka on the southeast side of Rockford, she did not disguise her disdain. St. Stan’s was established in 1912, but more recent Polish immigrants, even those who had become American citizens, were of a different breed from the Polish-Americans who had been here for several generations.
When I gently reminded Anna that, as a fourth-generation Pole in America, my experience was more like that of the Polish-Americans at St. Stan’s than like hers, she arched an eyebrow, and a wry, sad smile spread across her face. There wasn’t much more for either of us to say that day.
The vast majority of Poles had immigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they—we—were thoroughly “Americanized” between the two world wars. And Americanization really meant stripping recent immigrants (and their children even more so) of their European national identities, while substituting a vague American nationalism—God, Mom, apple pie, hot dogs, and capitalism—in its place. Thus, by the middle of the 20th century, most Polish-Americans were no longer truly Polish, but not much more American than any other ethnic group that had been convinced to give its assent to the “proposition nation.”
Not long after that first conversation with Anna, my wife and I went to St. Stan’s for Sunday Mass. The physical attributes and speech patterns (“youse guys”) of the parishioners were familiar, but the Mass was no different from most others offered across the United States that day—a mix of Marty Haugen music, handshakes, and aye-mens. We found our home with the Institute of Christ the King and the traditional Latin Mass, and only went to St. Stan’s every year in mid-August for their annual Polish Fest.
The neighborhood in which St. Stan’s sits is no longer predominantly Polish. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the second- and third-generation Polish-Americans who could get out did, replaced by blacks and, more recently, Hispanic and Asian immigrants. Yet the houses nearest the church always looked different—well cared for, with immaculately groomed lawns, vegetable gardens, carefully pruned plum and apple trees, and a shrine to the Blessed Virgin in the corner of the yard.
And I had no doubt what I would find if I were to go into the garages or basements—the rows upon rows of immaculately preserved, well-oiled tools that Walt Kowalski, Clint Eastwood’s character in the recent film Gran Torino, accumulated over a half-century in a neighborhood in Detroit not much different from the neighborhood around St. Stan’s. Walt reminds me of my mother’s brother and what I remember of her father, and while Gran Torino begins with the funeral of Walt’s wife, Dorothy, we learn enough about her to know that she would have fit in well with my grandmother and her Polish lady-friends—devoted to the Church, a good housekeeper, always ready, willing, and happy to cook for her husband and children and grandchildren.
None of this, of course, is specifically Polish, or even Polish-American; but as Gran Torino painstakingly (and painfully) shows, much of it has been lost as succeeding generations have succumbed to the worst aspects of American “culture.” Walt’s two sons have moved out of the neighborhood into the suburbs; they work in sales, rather than in the Ford plant where Walt toiled for 40 years; their children are spoiled and pierced and lazy. Small wonder that, when Walt reluctantly befriends his new Hmong neighbors, he finds that “I have more in common with a bunch of gooks than with my own children.”
The Hmong have their own problems, of course, especially a culture of violence that threatens to destroy what the better among them hope to build, and Walt has to teach a young Hmong some of the very lessons that his own sons did not learn. Yet one theme of Gran Torino is very clear: The loss of historical memory goes hand-in-hand with the destruction of the bonds between generations and the decline of civilization. And no country has been more successful in destroying the historical memory of its citizens than the United States. Communism was bitter medicine, but the spoonful of honey offered by mid-century American nationalism and prosperity made it easier to swallow the pill.
In the end, Walt finds his salvation in a return to the Church and makes a sacrifice that his Polish ancestors—and more recent Polish immigrants, who grew up under communism—would have understood, but his thoroughly American children and grandchildren probably never will.
There are those who understand instinctively what Walt Kowalski had to learn at great cost. In 1972, at the very time when Polish-Americans were fleeing the neighborhood around St. Stan’s for the suburbs, Lady Blanka A. Rosenstiel founded the American Institute of Polish Culture (AIPC) and, five years later, the Chopin Foundation of the United States. Both organizations have similar aims: “to share with American society the heritage of Poland, which has contributed in many ways to Western civilization,” and “to promote the scientific and artistic endeavors of Polish-Americans.”
Born in Warsaw, Mrs. Rosenstiel emigrated to the United States in 1956. A trained artist, she understands the role that the visual arts and music play in maintaining and transmitting civilization. Through AIPC and other endeavors, she has supported Polish film, poetry, music, and radio and television programs, and made them available to a wider American audience.
Perhaps her most important efforts, though, have been in her support for the translation and publication of works of Polish history, which have provided Polish-Americans with a connection to their homeland that goes beyond kielbasa, pierogi, golabki, and polka. The translation of Jan Dobraczynski’s Meetings With the Madonna, co-published by AIPC and Warsaw-based Polonia Publishers, recounts the remarkable history of the Miraculous Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna traditionally attributed to the hand of St. Luke and time after time credited with saving Poland from foreign invaders. Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to the icon at Jasna Góra in 1979 set into motion the events that led to the founding of Solidarity and the collapse of the Polish communist regime.
While many Polish-Americans cheered on Solidarity and felt pride in the election of the Polish pope and, later, of Lech Walesa as president of a newly free Poland, there was still something of a disconnect between their history as Poles and their history as Americans. In my first year in Rockford, I watched in horror as a local newscaster, trying to explain why schools in Illinois are closed for Casimir Pulaski Day (the first Monday of March), declared that the Polish-born calvary officer was a “Revolutionary War hero from Northern Illinois.” Why else would we celebrate Pulaski’s life? Surely not because, outside of Warsaw, Chicago has the largest population of Poles in the world.
Such historical ignorance makes all the more valuable other publications of AIPC, including Arthur L. Waldo’s True Heroes of Jamestown, which details the long history of English relations with Poland in the centuries before the colonization of America, and the role that Poles played in the history of the Jamestown Colony. Capt. John Smith, taken prisoner of war while fighting against the Turks, was sold into slavery among the Tartars. Escaping, he traveled through Russia and Poland, before returning to Transylvania and, from there, to England. It was Smith who convinced the London Company to drop its “all-English Colony” slogan and to invite Poles to Jamestown, where the first arrived in 1608. Loyal to Smith, they returned to London when he did in 1609, but came back to Jamestown in 1610, where they were joined by other Poles over the next decade.
The history of Poles in the Americas was not confined to the future United States, as Polish Contributions to Latin American Culture, another AIPC volume, edited by Edmund S. Urban-ski, shows. All of this might have been lost to the ages were it not for the dedication of Lady Blanka Rosenstiel, her love for her homeland, and her desire to revive a similar love in her fellow Polish-Americans.
Still, while such efforts are necessary and commendable, can they, by themselves, turn Walt Kowalski’s sons into Walt Kowalski? That is the question that all Americanized ethnic groups face. And if the answer is no, what hope is there for future generations?
A penchant for pessimism is as ingrained in the Polish character as a love for sauerkraut and garlicky sausage. And yet, over the past five years at St. Stan’s Polish Fest, I have seen more and more reason to hope. Immigration, both from the Polish community in Chicago and from Poland herself, has changed the character of the parish. The festival has grown larger every year—and more Polish. A few years ago, we began hearing more people speak Polish on the festival grounds; this year, as we watched a performance by a Polish dance company from Chicago, Polish was as common as English, and even the Polish-American polka band that followed performed a majority of songs in Polish. In the parish’s long-shuttered school, the Nicholas Copernicus Polish Language School now offers lessons for children in preschool up to eighth grade (with plans to expand to twelfth) and for adults.
The changes are reflected inside the church as well. The bulletin is now bilingual, and the execrable Gather “hymnals” are nowhere to be found, replaced by a Polish lectionary and hymnal published in 1998 by the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland.
The opening procession on the day of the festival includes beautiful handmade banners, with Polish inscriptions, of the men’s Holy Name Society, the women’s Altar Rosary Society, and a Divine Mercy Society. Children dressed in traditional costume join the procession, and the offertory includes baked (leavened) bread, flowers, and other fruit of the earth, as well as the unleavened hosts and the wine.
The side altars in the church have been redone, with woodwork to match the high altar, and now feature stunningly beautiful icons of the Divine Mercy and Our Lady of Czestochowa. Much or all of this has been the work of the current pastor, Fr. Peter Sarnicki, a young, dynamic, thoroughly orthodox Polish Franciscan. He and his fellow Franciscan friars sport crew cuts and physiques like Marines, and they have been known to drink a beer or three and dance a polka on the day of the Polish Fest.
Still, the people who go to St. Stan’s aren’t Polish; they’re Polish-American. But like Gran Torino’s Walt Kowalski, and like their ancestors down through the centuries, they may have rediscovered the true source of the strength of their nation just at the moment when it looked as if all had been lost.