Two articles about Polonia appeared in the press in the first week of September. One was in the Plain Dealer by Anna Cara, and the other in Polityka by Tomasz Zalewski. After reading each of them, I thought: okay, this makes sense. Later, though, I began to think that maybe something in these articles neglects the conditions of today’s Polonia.
How does each author view Polonia today? Summarizing both texts, one can say that Polonia is aging and disappearing. It’s melting in a „multicultural pot”. Though Americans have long known that the country’s wealth lies in the ethnic diversity of its citizens, the process of the integration of most ethnic groups continues. Sociologists and other scholars now speak of changing the model from a „melting pot” to a „mosaic” or a salad bowl, in which color and definition are clear, but in which together the ingredients create something new. This is very nice, but it seems it’s a little too late. In twenty years, white ethnics in American society will already be in the minority. And other, certainly more multicultural, scholars will determine social standards. But this is still the future….
What’s happening with Polonia today? Tomasz Zalewski writes that old Polonia, so-called „chlebowa” (working for bread), has now become a new, educated Polonia, with knowledge of languages and highly skilled qualifications. At the same time, Polish schools and academic departments with a focus on Polish studies are closing; only about 9 Polish Studies centers are still functioning. And so here Tomasz Zalewski errs in his assessment of the new Polish emigration. Because wasn’t it the old, poor, „chlebowa” emigration that created these centers and departments, which, with time, the new Polonia is destroying?
An additional problem is the view of Poland from abroad. The times of Paderewski and Rubinstein fighting for everything Polish are long gone, certainly because we already have a free Poland. But negative stereotypes of Poles persist. They appear in the new book by Jan Gross. And though Gross’ books are very important for Poles to reflect on their own history, at the same time they bring out real emotion, which, without a good education, can be the source of further misunderstanding. As Poles at home confront the realities described by Gross, Polonia feels abandoned and, even worse, senses its isolation even more acutely.
Privacy. This is what Poles learn in America. They learn the satisfaction of hard work and what it means to be satisified with their own achievements. Previously, when the priest asked for money for the building of a new school, the góral from Nowy Targ did what the priest asked. Today we’re closing churches and selling Polish schools. New Polonia, an educated group of immigrants with high qualifications and excellent English skills, is not building another Polish „ghetto”.
I know – you’re different. You give of yourselves and share your time and abilities for the Polish community. You invite your relatives from Poland, go to lectures, and attend events like Penderecki’s concert. Only, in the words of an excellent Polish poet: „This is too little! Too little! Your words mean nothing and are simply lies!”
What is to be done? I recently spoke with a Polish „business” owner, Ryszard K. He told me that he always helps Poles arriving here from Poland. Because it’s difficult at the beginning. It’s clear that it’s difficult. Good that someone helps them. But I’m asking how we, Polonia, help the young Poles and Polish-Americans who were raised here, in America. They went to school here and have American friends from Parma and Slavic Village. Do you know what I’m writing about? Do you know the friends of our children from Parma, Cleveland, and Lakewood? Once in Slavic Village lived proud Poles. Today we say that Slavic Village is a continuation of the ghetto, only neither Polish nor white. And we make two mistakes in saying this. There are still many people with Polish names living in Slavic Village. But they never learned to be proud of their Polish names. Just the opposite, they laugh at their names, as just another flaw. The second mistake: my African-American neighbor is learning together with me how to maintain a home. We stand by the fence and exchange experiences. His daughter Diamond asks me a hundred questions a minute. There is no ghetto, everybody’s living together, as new owners of homes that were abandoned by those who were afraid of the „ghetto”.
It takes a village to raise a child. It takes an entire society to raise a citizen. Young Polonia needs old Polonia. Both „chlebowa” and educated Polonia. In Canada there is an excellent program, Poland in the Rockies, for youth from Canada and the United States. For three thousand dollars young Poles from Canada and the United States (and friends of Polonia) can spend vacation with some of the best Polish leaders and scholars, learning history from those who have participated in its creation. Where does the money come from? The organizers have received donations from private donors and foundations. Students pay only for travel. I advertised this program throughout Cleveland. I was barely able to convince my own daughter, who kindly consented to a free vacation in Canada. She returned very satisfied and with a newly discovered pride and knowledge after her Polish vacation.
Do we have today our own „Poland in Cleveland”? What can we offer our youth? Educated Polonia laughs at pierogis. But, thinking about this, I say: besides pierogis, we have nothing to offer!
Translated by Sean Martin