8 Things You Need to Know About Polish Americans

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October is Polish American Heritage Month, and this one is especially important. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Polish immigrants in America. In honor of those first brave Poles—don't ever call us Polacks; that's a mangling of the Polish word Polak, which means a Polish male person, and is considered an ethnic slur—my family and Polish Americans everywhere, here are eight things you should know about us.

1. We got to the party early, and brought a lot of friends.

In 1608, the first Polish immigrants arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, and were quickly recruited by the colony as craftsmen in the colony's glassmaking and woodworking industries. (They also dug the colony's first well.) After a decade in Jamestown, the Poles still did not have the right to vote in the elections of the colonial government, and in 1619, they held the first labor strike in America. By walking off the job, they affected the local industry enough that voting rights were granted to them.

Just before America began to fight to gain its independence, Poland lost its own. In 1772, 1793 and 1795, the Polish"“Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria. The first of three major waves of Polish immigration occurred after the partition when Polish nobles, political dissidents and other Poles fled their occupied nation.

A second wave took place between 1860 and World War I. Although the reconstitution of Poland was parts of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and Poland regained its independence as the Second Polish Republic, a few million Poles had already left for America because industrialization had driven them from their farms.

The third and largest wave lasted from the end of World War I to the end of the Cold War, again mostly made up of political refugees. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the Third Polish Republic, a fourth wave of immigrants, who generally come to earn money and eventually return to Poland, began. Today, there are an estimated 10 million Americans of Polish descent.

2. We're mostly found in clusters in the Northeast

Polish immigrants were considered well-suited for manual labor, and were often recruited for work in coal mines and the steel industry. Because of that, the largest Polish American populations can still be found in states that were industrial centers in the 20th century, like Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan (here's a map of Polish American hot spots).

The largest Polish American population can be found in Chicago, which with 185,000 Polish speakers calls itself the largest Polish city outside of Poland. The cities and towns of Pennsylvania's Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties, including Wilkes-Barre (my home sweet home), Scranton, Hazleton, Pittston and Nanticoke, are also home to large Polish populations because of the area's once-large coal deposits.

3. We made some big steps for religion in this country

When the predominantly Roman Catholic Poles came to America en masse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Catholic Church here had no Polish bishops and very few Polish priests. A group of Polish immigrants in Scranton broke away in 1897 and formed the Polish National Catholic Church. Today, the PNCC has 126 parishes in North America and 60,000 members.

While Poland is largely Roman Catholic, it has had a small Muslim population since the 14th century, when Tatar tribes began settling in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A group of Polish Muslims who emigrated to the U.S. co-founded the first Muslim organization in Brooklyn in 1907 and, in 1926, built a mosque that's still in use today.

4. We've got friends in high places

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Polish Americans you might be familiar with include Kristen Bell, Maria Bello, Scarlett Johansson, John Krasinski, Mike Krzyzewski, Jerry Orbach, John Ratzenberger, Gore Verbinski, the Wachowski brothers, the Warner brothers, Pat Benatar, Dick Dale, Liberace, Richie Sambora, Jack White, Pat Sajak, Martha Stewart, Steve Wozniak, Richard Feynman, Gene Krupa and Mike Ditka.

While they may not be household names, other Polish Americans have done some pretty important things. Stephanie Kwolek developed Kevlar. Albert Abraham Michelson was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in the sciences for his work on measuring the speed of light. Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels. Ruth Handler co-founded the Mattel toy company and created the Barbie doll. Leo Gerstenzang invented the Q-tip.

Of course, there are those Polish Americans that we're not so proud of, like Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley, and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

5. George Washington loved us

Among the Polish immigrants to America after the partitions was Casimir PuÅ‚aski, a Polish noble and soldier, who was recruited by Benjamin Franklin to help lead the American army. PuÅ‚aski was made a general and had a large role in training the Continental Army. He later created Pulaski's Legion, one of America's first cavalry regiments, and is regarded as "the father of American cavalry."

In 1929, Congress passed a resolution designating October 11 as General Pułaski Memorial Day in observance of his death at the Siege of Savannah in 1779. Numerous states and cities also recognize separate holidays commemorating Pułaski's birth and/or death.

6. There ain't no Christmas like a Polish Christmas

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[Image courtesy of Przykuta.]

Wigilia, the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner, begins when the first evening star appears. Twelve meatless courses (one for each of the apostles) are served after a white wafer called the oplatek, is broken and shared among the diners while they exchange good wishes (a separate pink wafer is shared with the animals). For the dinner, there should be an even number of people at the table to ensure good health, with one empty chair reserved anyone who happens to stop by. Tasting all twelve courses ensures good luck in the new year. After supper, Christmas carols are sung in Polish, and the celebration culminates with family and friends going to Pasterka, the Midnight Mass.

7. We didn't invent the polka, but we do love it

While often attributed to the Polish, the polka actually originated in Bohemia. The name comes from the Czech word půlka ("little half," in reference to the half-steps in the polka dance), but the spelling is the same as the Czech polka, which means "Polish woman." I can see where the confusion lies, especially since polkas are in heavy rotation at Polish weddings and other celebrations, along with the Chicken Dance (which is also not our creation).

8. Our food is awesome

Do you like kielbasa? How about pierogis? You're welcome.

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October 30, 2008 - 1:30am
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