In Polonia, a New Generation Connects with its Heritage


Polish schools and churches, including Holy Cross, embrace their heritage in many ways, including in the annual Pulaski Parade.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, around 80 Polish-American high school students file into a basement gym at the end of their day at the Holy Cross School of Polish Language and Culture in Maspeth, Queens. The juniors and seniors chat boisterously, moving fluidly from Polish to English, and back again, as they try to explain to a visitor the deep connections they feel to the homeland of their parents and grandparents.

Some describe summer trips to Poland to visit family and practice the language, nightly dinners replete with pierogi and kielbasa, and even family viewings of Polish-language TV shows thanks to satellite linkups. “We have a lot of Polish shows that knock off American ones,” said student Michael Mrzyk. “I think it’s pretty stupid, but it’s enticing. Like for ‘Gray’s Anatomy,’ we have a show called ‘Hospital.’”

The entire room perks up. Students laugh and cheer in excitement. Everybody knows “Hospital.”

For these young Polish-Americans, connecting to their ancestral home involves a weekly trip to supplementary school, where they can not only brush up on their Polish language skills, but also interact with Polish arts and history through interactive lessons and guest speakers ranging from musicians to diplomats. Dozens of Polish supplementary schools exist across the New York metropolitan area, with some as large as 1,400 students.

Their history lessons range from stories about the contributions of Polish soldiers like Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko—who fought in the American Revolution and now lend their names to bridges in New Jersey and northern Brooklyn—to the role of the Polish resistance against the Nazis in World War II.

For Karolina Niepokoj, an 11th grade student who has attended Holy Cross since kindergarten, learning Polish has not only helped her communicate with her relatives, but it’s given her the foundation to learn other languages as well. Polish classes, she said, teach her “learning how to learn a language,” like the Latin she studies in high school.

Many parents of these students arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, part of the rush of over 160,000 Polish immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1989, when Communism began to collapse in Eastern Europe, and 1996, when Poland began preparing its integration into the European Union.

After 2004, when Poland acceded to the EU, Polish immigrants chose European destinations over American ones, in part because of the ease with which EU nationals can move around within the union. In the last decade, over two million Poles have moved into EU states, while Polish immigration to the U.S. has dropped to fewer than 10,000 new arrivals a year, according to Census Bureau estimates.

That, perhaps ironically, has given a boost to the Polish supplementary schools. The decline of new Polish immigrants adds to the community’s urgency to teach first-generation Americans about their Polish heritage and avoid losing their culture to assimilation.

Most of the students at the Holy Cross classes say they speak Polish at home. In fact, some describe a nearly all-encompassing Polish home environment. “I have windows that are Polish, heaters too,” said student Kaya Krzesniak. “Even the Disney Channel is in Polish. Usually the only time I’m using English is in school or when I’m out to buy something.”

Fellow student Michelle Baginski also highlighted problems Polish students have when facing outsiders’ perceptions of them. “It’s pretty annoying when people mistake you for a different identity. People think you’re Russian a lot,” she said. Other students in the room rumbled in agreement, and a few visiting adults shook their heads in frustration.

Although the Polish students expressed irritation at being stereotyped by outsiders as maids or alcoholics, several stories of life at home added a little bit of levity to the conversation. Daniel Pyryt painted a picture of a typical evening at his house. “It’s Polish politics all the time,” he said. “Dad comes home, opens up a Zywiec,” referring to a popular Polish beer brand. Again, students reacted in recognition of a familiar scene.

Beata Grochowska, a parent at Holy Cross, tries to balance the exposure her children have to English and Polish. She sends her children to Poland every summer to practice language, but she also takes them to English-language services at church each week. Grochowska sees it a way of giving them more opportunities in life. “They have a choice, if they decide in the future to go to Europe or Poland,” she said. “They’ll know the language and they’ll know the culture.”

Danuta Swiatek, a deputy editor at Dobra Polska Szkola, a Polish-American information portal and a Saturday instructor at the Casimir Pulaski School in Hackensack, New Jersey, believes the schools will sustain themselves as long as parents have an interest in raising multilingual children. “Bilingualism is very popular these days,” she said.

Swiatek believes that the intersection of two experiences can be beneficial to students. Her view seems to echo the sentiments of the students at Holy Cross. “I don’t think you feel less American if you feel Polish,” she said. “You just feel more enriched.”

Polish supplementary schools have integrated themselves into the Polish community. Many schools, including Holy Cross, have ties to local churches, which help the schools find a base of potential students. But even with the proliferation of supplementary schools, their success in preserving Polish culture long-term remains to be seen.

According to Dr. Iwona Korga, President of the Greenpoint-based Pilsudski Institute, the Polish language may be gone in the community within 100 years.

“We do not have any new people here, so we are investing in our children,” she said. Nevertheless, she sees language and culture as keys to knowing a community. “You cannot truly understand some country’s culture without knowing the language,” she said. “Language gives you the power to understand.”


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