If you’re reading this and have next to no idea about your heritage, welcome to my life. I’m 25 percent British English and 75 percent Polish. While I know the British 25 percent of me is actually American (fought as rebels in the American Revolution), I was always curious why I didn’t know much about the other 75 percent.
When I moved from New York to Philadelphia, I realized I could learn more about that 75 percent and how to actually be Polish. Philadelphia is steeped in culture and tradition and if I couldn’t discover what it means to be Polish here, where else would I?
To put things into perspective, although I am mostly Polish, I can’t even make the quintessential Polish dish—the pierogi, a potato filled, butter coated, Polish dumpling. I was always slightly jealous of those kids in school who wrote their journal entries about their Nona’s making homemade ravioli for their birthday or their Baba’s cooking authentic pastitsio after church. My family never opened our gifts on Christmas Eve like my Hispanic friends did, nor did we go to midnight mass. I had no culture, no religion.
I started my journey for self-identity by going to the annual Pulaski Day Parade on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. There were hundreds of people, young and old, clad in red and white and speaking fluent Polish. Everyone seemed to know each other, and I should have fit right in but I felt like an outsider. This culture was supposedly such a large part of me, but I knew nothing about it. I didn’t even know the Pulaski Day Parade was created in honor of Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish general who saved George Washington’s life in the Revolutionary War and became known as the “father of the American Calvary.” There were Poles walking around in traditional costumes whose name I did not know and Polish music blasting down the Parkway whose subject I did not understand. Why did I feel like crap at a party celebrating my own heritage?
After my experience walking in the parade, I decided I needed to learn more about Polish history. A few weeks after the parade, I took to the Polish American Cultural Society on Walnut Street. An elderly woman manning the desk greeted me and I looked around to find that I was the only one inside the room. While perusing the exhibits, I learned that Marie Curie, Frederic Chopin and Nicholas Copernicus were Polish. There were imposing dusty portraits of them hanging on the walls with plaques explaining their numerous contributions to society. I also learned that Poles mostly practice Christianity in the country. They celebrate Easter with traditional hand-crafted Pisanki eggs which are eggs covered in molten wax that have designs emphasized by different color dyes carved into the surface. Towards the back of the Polish American Cultural Society, there were large wooden slabs explaining Poland’s 20th Century history. These wooden boards are where I learned that roughly six million Polish citizens died in World War II and this traumatic part of Polish history is why my Polish Heritage was not passed down to me. WWII is the reason why I never learned what it means to be Polish.
In 1939, Poland was attacked by both the Germans and the Soviet Union. My grandparents were living in Poland at the time. Nazi Germans set up six major concentration camps in Poland, one being Auschwitz where around 1.3 million people were killed. The part of Poland occupied by the Soviets didn’t fare well either with thousands dying in Soviet labor camps. Poland was occupied until 1945 and set up a communist government soon after.
My father was born abroad in 1948 and immigrated to America in 1952. Upon arrival in the United States, his Polish name, Zbigniew, was Americanized to Bishop and his parents didn’t teach him how to speak his old country’s language. He was an American now and “American” he would be.
While paying for a Polish cookbook at the cultural society, I asked the aged woman who was eager for any small bit of conversation at the counter if she was a Polish immigrant. She said she was born in America but is of 100 percent Polish decent. I told her my father immigrated here in the 50’s and that he never talks about it. “Oh no one from that time talks about it,” she told me.
She went on to tell me that Polish-American immigrants during and after WWII came to America and left their culture behind. It’s hard for her and the society to get information from that time because none of the people who experienced the tragedy would talk about it.
But she expressed hope when she talked about the resurgence of Polish Day Schools and the new generation’s interest in learning the culture. She told me she sees students like me come in all the time and she invited me to come to more events and get involved in the massive effort to collect Polish history from 1939-1945.
I left the Polish American Cultural Society with The Best of Polish Cooking, a cookbook with only five sections in it: autumn menus, winter menus, spring menus, summer menus and vodka beverages, and sat on the curb thumbing through it while thinking about what I had learned.
I didn’t know how to make a peirogi or how to speak Polish, not because my father was lazy, but because he was raised with the belief that he had to leave his heritage behind to keep his family safe. Germany had come back from WWI and killed six million Polish citizens during WWII. What’s to say they wouldn’t come back again with vengeance on those who survived?
I went home that day and cooked some traditional potatoes croquets and rice pudding and stopped caring that I needed to force myself to like sauerkraut just because I was Polish and that I could never get married in a church. I’m proud of how strong my grandparents were and how they immigrated to a completely foreign land to protect my father. They learned English and worked hard to support my aunt and uncles.
A person’s heritage shouldn’t be labeled by the country they come from, but by the events that shaped their families’ history and made them who they are today. Through my journey trying to learn what it means to be Polish, I actually ended up learning that it really doesn’t matter what I am semantically. It only matters to me what cultural traditions I choose to take part in. I think there are many people in the same situation as me and we call ourselves American.