Guest columnist Kathleen Wroblewski: Reasons to celebrate Polish American Heritage Month

Frank Chmura, 91, of Holyoke waves a Polish flag during the Pulaski Day Parade through Main Street Northampton on Oct. 9, 2023.

Frank Chmura, 91, of Holyoke waves a Polish flag during the Pulaski Day Parade through Main Street Northampton on Oct. 9, 2023. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By KATHLEEN WROBLEWSKI

Published: 10-25-2023 7:10 PM

Over 400 years ago, the first Poles arrived on American soil. They were important members of the Jamestown colony, working as glassblowers, carpenters, masons and artisans, helping to build a community that was central in our country’s founding.

In time, more Poles would arrive on America’s shores, driven by a yearning for freedom and opportunity. By the beginning of the 20th century, the 1910 census indicated there were more than 900,000 new immigrants who spoke Polish. Today, there are more than 8.81 million Polish Americans, and our own Connecticut River Valley from New Britain, Conn., to Greenfield has 350,000-plus residents who claim Polish heritage.

Even before the waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe found sanctuary in the United States, America and Poland had forged deep connections. As America fought to break its ties to Great Britain, two valiant Poles crossed the Atlantic Ocean to offer their services to the American Revolution: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the namesake of our foundation, not only served in the Continental Army but was a confidante of Thomas Jefferson. He was a brilliant tactician and engineer who was instrumental in the Battle of Saratoga. Kosciuszko also established the fortifications at West Point, which would eventually become known as the United States Military Academy.

Just as important, Casimir Pulaski had a steadfast devotion to freedom, shaped by his experiences in defense of an independent Poland. A famous cavalry leader in Europe, Pulaski volunteered his services to the American Revolution. Through his tireless commitment and courage, he would earn the designation “Father of the American Calvary.”

He died on October 15, 1779, from wounds received at the Battle of Savannah. Pulaski’s remarkable achievements and high character have come to symbolize for Poles and Polish Americans standards that we should all aspire to … and that is why October is Polish American Heritage Month.

Today, Polish Americans make up one of the largest ethnic groups in America. As a Polish American, I know many of us are only one or two generations removed from the parents or grandparents who, with just a basket in hand or a sack flung over their shoulder, departed from the ports of Hamburg, Bremen, and Konigsberg, Germany.

In my dining room, I still have the reed basket my grandmother took when she left her village of Pajewo. It is humbling to think of her courage, as well as others, in making the Atlantic Ocean crossing to begin a new life.

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Today, many Polish Americans are actively engaged in researching their family roots, and learning about Poland and its ancestral lands, a country that once stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Although October is Polish American Heritage Month, throughout the year there are many opportunities and organizations that can help you begin your own personal journey to connect you with your family story and roots, and the history, arts and culture of Poland.

You can join the Massachusetts Polish Genealogical Society (www.pgsma.org) and learn sources available to you in tracing your ancestry; the Polish Center of Discovery and Learning (www.polishcenter.net) in Chicopee features a museum of Polish heritage, hosts events, and offers Polish language classes; the Polish American Foundation of Connecticut (www.paf-ct.org) offers a wide range of programming and events, including the Little Poland Festival that attracts over 35,000 visitors annually; and the Kosciuszko Foundation, a nearly century-old organization based in New York City, has chapters throughout the country.

The Kosciuszko Foundation (www.thekf.org) has a New England chapter based at Elms College in Chicopee. Founded in 1925, the Kosciuszko Foundation promotes closer ties between Poland and the United States through educational, scientific, and cultural exchanges. This academic year alone, it awarded $2 million in fellowships, scholarships, and grants to students, scholars, scientists, professionals and artists.

In addition, it offers webinars and in person events on Polish history, artists, cinema and writers, and also sponsors leading interpreters of current happenings in Poland and Eastern Europe. Its recent online lecture series, “Discover your Roots with the KF,” helps the organization’s members understand their roots and connect with their heritage. The series is presented by renowned Massachusetts family historian Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz and is available on the website www.thekf.org.

Poles are proud of their history and legacy on both sides of the Atlantic. After enduring the partitions, the diaspora, two World Wars, and communist rule, resurgent Poland is writing a new chapter in its history. Now, is a great time for Polish Americans to discover their own past!

Kathleen Wroblewski is a member of the board of the Kosciuszko Foundation/New England. She lives in Florence.