My life has been closely tied to Poles, Polish culture, Polish friends, Polish dates, Polish kisses, and I often feel as though I am a Polish-American. Polish people and Polish culture are too often greatly misunderstood. Each of us has been influenced by the contributions of Polish people, and each of us in the U.S. has been influenced by immigrants from Poland. In this time of sadness over the plane crash that claimed the President of Poland, his wife, and many leading political and military figures, I feel deeply effected. In tragic irony, those people in that plane were on a mission to commemorate the slaughter of Poles by Russians in World War II. Very sad.
I was born in a densely populated neighborhod of Polish-Americans on Milwaukee's south side. As I grew up, most of my friends were Polish kids or kids from other Slavic cultures. Early on I learned to love bakery from Polish-Americans. "Poonch-kas" or "Poonch-kees" were there. I like just about all food, but I do draw the line at czarnina, a Polish favorite, which is duck blood soup. Polish CYO activities were attended, though I was not Catholic. We crashed many Polish weddings and ate the food, drank the beer, danced with the girls, and loved it all. One of my "rites of passage" was swimming with Polish kids out to the breakwater rocks on Lake Michigan. I remember talking with famous German novelist, Gunter Grass, in Berlin about his writings of a German kid among Polish kids in Danzig, Poland [Gdansk today]. That kid in the novel swam out into the Baltic Sea as a rite of passage.
My first kiss was with a Polish girl. My first dance was a polka with a Polish girl. My first intimacy was with a Polish girl. We used to go up and down [bomb] Mitchell Street which was called "Polish Grand Avenue." As a street urchin myself, I was given many warm, loving, bosomy hugs by Polish grandmas, or "bushas."
Milwaukeeans hosting visitors to the city take them to various places. I take them to St. Josaphat's Basilica on Lincoln Ave. It is a marvelous expression of Polish religious culture. Polish immigrants did much for Milwaukee and America. They took jobs that nobody else wanted. The Kashubians, or demeaningly they were called "Kashubes," were Polish immigrants from Gdansk who built their homes on stilts in the Baltic Sea and did something similar in lowland Jones Island and the Lake Michigan shoreline. Milwaukee factories were workplaces for hard-working Polish laborers.
I remember Polish immigrants having some problems adjusting to often-unwelcoming Americans. They struggled with the English language, and I remember many Polish words on businesses, churches, and movies at the Granada Theatre that were in Polish only.
Forgotten in the prejudice against Polish immigrants were the Polish leaders who helped George Washington gain independence for the United States: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski. Forgotten was Nicolas Copernicus [Mikola Kopernik], the founder of modern astronomy. Overlooked was the great Marie Curie [Marja Sklodowska], Frederic Chopin, Ignace Paderewski, Lech Walesa, and many, many others who contributed so much to the world.
My heart and thoughts are with the Polish and Polish-American people at this time. They have been saddened deeply by that plane crash. Let us hope we reflect upon the worth and wealth that was brought to the U.S. and the world by Polish immigrants. Immigrants make America great. Let us not forget that.