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Polish Heritage Month: our ancestral legacy in a changing America

Today, many people take Polish Heritage Month for granted. Come October, politicians issue proclamations, and there are exhibitions, concerts, various presentations and other events highlighting Polish contributions to America. But this was not always the case. Polish Heritage Month is a relatively recent development. By “recent” I mean it originated in the latter half of the 20th century. Prior to then, accentuating one’s ethnic roots was often regarded as being divisive if not downright “un-American”.

Henry Ford not only put America on wheels with his famous Model T and Model A, but was also a great promoter of assimilation. One of the cultural events he would treat his workers to was a presentation in which people in the ethnic garb of various nations walked into a machine-like contraption and emerged at the other end reborn as modern, fully Americanized Ford employees. By modern and Americanized Ford meant that they had been “cleansed” of their Old World inclinations, defects and irregularities.

Ford was but one proponent of an Americanism that favored only one ethno-religious group: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants or WASPs. Immigrant manpower was needed to fuel American economic growth, but the newcomers were expected to make themselves over in the image and likeness of the All-American WASP ideal.

Taking pride in one’s ethnic heritage has become mainstream in today’s society
Taking pride in one’s ethnic heritage has become mainstream in today’s society
That concept was forcefully imposed by the powers that be: all levels of government, the American public school system, the media, entertainment industry and corporate America. Bombarded, brain-washed and pressured on all sides to shed one’s “quaint Old World ways “and become a “modern 200% Wonder Bread American”, that notion was ultimately promoted by many if not most second- and third-generation ethnic Americans themselves.

A good example was the naming field. Probably no-one has heard of any American named Smith who changed his or her name to Schmidt, Kowalski or Fabbro, but the opposite was not uncommon. Countless immigrant offspring named Zima, Stolarski, Kupiec, Janowicz or Szelągowski preferred to go through life as a Witners, Carpenter, Cooper, Johnson or Shelley. Nobody forced them to. They simply felt that it was somehow expected of them. That would make things more convenient and make them look more modern, trendy an All-American.

After all, US presidents in the first half of the 20th century mostly had good Anglo names such as Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover and Truman (Roosevelt was a Dutch exception). The children of immigrants learned English from readers portraying an ethnically sanitized Wonder Bread family that included Dick, Jane and Sally (no Carlo, Hans or Staś!). And with a few exceptions such as Bela Lugosi (where spooky foreignness was desired) and Rudolph Valentino (the stereotypical “Latin lover”), celebrities were expected to have “nice “American-sounding” names.

So Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas, Muzyad Yakhoob was known as Danny Thomas, Marion Morrison passed himself off as John Wayne, pop singer Bobby Darin was born Walden Cassotto and Jack Benny’s birth certificate had read “Benjamin Kubelsky”. We still have some of that, because Winona prefers to be known as Ryder rather than Horowitz, but things have changed quite a bit.

The glamorous 1930s and ‘40s Austrian movie star Hedwig Kiesler was pressured into changing it to Hedy Lamarr to please American audiences. But we now live in times when her Austrian compatriot can become not only a box-office attraction but even the governor of California as a Schwarzenegger. And someone surnamed Obama can become the president of the Untied States.

America’s melting pot had been bubbling for generations but proved incapable of melting down all its contents into one fully de-ethicized, homogenous mass. Amid the general political and cultural turmoil of the 1960s and ‘70s, such notions as “Black is beautiful”, “Kiss me I’m Irish” and “Polish and proud” began emerging. In his book “The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnic” Slovak-American sociologists Michael Novak spoke of an “ethnic renaissance” in which third- and fourth-generation grandchildren began taking a renewed interest in their grandparents’ cultural roots – the Old Country “foreignness” the first US-born generation often preferred to forget.

In Polonia, apart from Polish eagles, flags, slogan-bearing T-shirts and other ethnic novelties as well as the spread of Polish-American festivals, one offshoot of his development has been Polish Heritage Month. In his proclamation marking the occasion, the late President Ronald Reagan wrote: “During October the people of the United States recognize and rejoice in the many accomplishments of generations of Polish Americans. From the founding of our Republic to the present day, Poles have enriched, strengthened, and defended our Nation. Millions of Polish Americans have attained great success in the arts, sciences, scholarship, and every other field of endeavor, but perhaps their most special gifts to America have been the faith and love of liberty Poles have cherished through the centuries.”

“Today, as always, Americans stand in solidarity with the continuing Polish struggle for political, religious, and economic liberty. By advocating these precious freedoms so eloquently and forthrightly, His Holiness John Paul II and Lech Wałęsa have come to symbolize hope, justice, and human dignity to all Americans and to countless millions around the world. Their idealism, self-sacrifice, and devotion inspire us as we express our thanks to Polish Americans and our pride in our country's Polish heritage.”

The August 1980 Gdańsk Shipyard strike that led to the rise of the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union as well as “the Miracle of the Vistula”, commemorating the 1920 defeat of Soviet forces at the gates of Warsaw, prompted some Polish communities to propose August as Polish Heritage Month. Polish Constitution Day celebrations (May 3rd) inclined other Polonian circles to set aside May for that purpose. By and large, however, October, which includes Pułaski Day celebrations, has become the most widely recognized Polish Heritage Month.

The National Polish Heritage Month Committee is based at Philadelphia’s Polish-American Cultural Center (308 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106; phone: (215) 922-1700; Web site: PolishAmericanCenter.com). Its chairman is Michael Blichasz. The Committee has drawn up a list of suggestions on how to celebrate October as Polish Heritage Month and continues to promote and encourage various events to promote Polish culture, history and rich traditions.

Author/Source: Robert Strybel