Polish Museum of America

If you live in Chicago, you may have heard people say that Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, Poland.  Chicago’s radio station, WBEZ, investigated this claim in 2015.  Although it is not completely true, there are elements of truth to it.  According to WEBZ, the largest Polish populations outside of Poland can be found in London, New York City (which was only recently surpassed by London), and Chicago.  However, if the suburbs are considered, then Chicago does rank as having the largest Polish population outside of Poland (not second to Warsaw though).  One reason why Chicago has such a significant Polish population is because Poles have been moving to the area since the 1850s.

The Polish Museum of America, in Chicago, focuses on preserving Chicago’s Polish history.  It was founded in 1935 as the “Museum and Archives of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America,” and merged with the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America’s Polish library, which was founded in 1912.  Today, the Polish Museum of America is part of the Chicago Cultural Alliance, a consortium of ethnic and cultural museums in the Chicago area.

When you arrive at the Polish Museum of America, you have to pay for your ticket at the gift shop.  When I visited, the kind staff member there asked me if I was a student.  After I said no, she told me that she would still give me a discount because I looked like a student! As soon as I paid for my ticket, I joined a tour of the museum in the exhibit area upstairs.  I highly recommend joining the free tours, because otherwise, it might be confusing to figure out how the displays are connected to each other.  The tour also provides a helpful overview of Chicago’s Polish history.

Interestingly, one of the first major collections added to the museum were items Poland sent to represent itself at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Because of the outbreak of WWII in 1939, these items could not return to Poland after the Fair ended, so the Polish Museum of America took them.

My favorite exhibit at the Polish Museum of America is the Paderewski Room.  Ignacy Jan Paderewski was the third Prime Minister of Poland, in 1919, and was also a pianist and composer.  He was living in New York when he died in 1941, so some of his personal items were donated to the Polish Museum of America afterwards.  Today, the items are displayed in a beautifully decorated room that tells the history of Paderewski.  It includes his Steinway piano and the pen he used to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

If you visit the Polish Museum of America, be sure to visit the library there.  The entrance to it is separate from the entrance to the museum, although they are both located in the same building.  The library allows people to borrow many of its 100,000 books, most of which are written in Polish.  The library also houses the Polish Genealogical Society of America, making it a great place to do genealogical research in the U.S. if you have a Polish background.

One of the biggest legacies that Chicago’s Polish population has left on Illinois was creating Casimir Pulaski Day.  Casimir Pulaski was a Polish nobleman who came to help George Washington in the American Revolutionary War in the 1770s.  He died from injuries following a battle in 1779.  In the 1970s, Chicago’s Polish community requested the creation of a holiday in honor of him, on the first Monday in March.  By 1985, Casimir Pulaski Day became a statewide holiday, meaning that many Illinois public schools and businesses would close on that day.  Apparently, in 2012, Chicago Public Schools stopped closing on Pulaski Day.  Nevertheless, many still observe the holiday in Illinois.

Not only did the Polish community successfully name a holiday after Pulaski, but an important street in Chicago is also named after him.  However, I do not believe Pulaski’s fame reaches beyond the United States.  One time I asked some new Polish immigrants if they had ever heard of Casimir Pulaski, and they said no.

I would like to mention one more thing about WBEZ’s 2015 investigation regarding Chicago’s Polish population.  It stated that a large percentage of New York City’s Poles are Jewish, whereas most of Chicago’s Poles are Catholic. This is significant, because most Polish Jews probably do not take pride in being from Poland, whereas most Polish Catholics do.  The two groups are not very connected to each other.  In fact, I found it interesting that at the Polish Museum of America, I only found one reference to Polish Jews, even though, prior to the Holocaust, Jews made up a huge percentage of Poland’s population, and Polish Jews did come to Chicago.  Despite this, I recently had the opportunity of seeing the Polish Jewish and Catholic worlds combine.  In 2019, I went to a screening of the 2017 film The Zookeeper’s Wife at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois. The film is about a Polish woman who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.  After the film finished, the man sitting next to me told me that his father, Zbigniew Sciwiarski, rescued 6 Jews during WWII, and was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal by Israel. What a privilege to have sat by this particular man during the film, and how beautiful that he chose to form a relationship with the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

Due to the efforts of Zbigniew Sciwiarski’s son, his deceased father has a memorial plaque at the Illinois Holocaust Musem in Skokie, Illinois.

Other Chicago Cultural Alliance Members that I have written about so far include:

Sources and Further Reading
“About Library.” The Polish Museum of America. https://www.polishmuseumofamerica.org/library/ (accessed December 5, 2020).

“About PMA.” The Polish Museum of America. https://www.polishmuseumofamerica.org/about-pma/ (accessed December 5, 2020).

“Core Members.” Chicago Cultural Alliance. https://www.chicagoculturalalliance.org/membership/core-members/ (accessed December 5, 2020).

Dukes, Jesse. “Can Chicago Brag about the Size of Its Polish Population?” WBEZ. https://www.wbez.org/stories/can-chicago-brag-about-the-size-of-its-polish-population/ef8c74cd-8835-4eb7-8e81-11203e78fc2d (accessed December 5, 2020).

Greene, Nick. “What Is Pulaski Day?” Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/61953/what-pulaski-day (accessed December 5, 2020).

Mansur, Sarah. “Risked His Life to Save Others.” Chicago Daily Law Bulletin 164 (18). January 18, 2018. https://www.foxrothschild.com/content/uploads/2018/01/Chicago-Law-Bulletin-Risked-His-Life-to-Save-Others.pdf (accessed December 5, 2020).

Pacyga, Dominic A. “Chicago.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2005. http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/982.html (accessed December 5, 2020).

Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago

Chicago ranks among the top three cities with the largest Ukrainian population in the United States.  The first Ukrainian immigrants came to Chicago during a wave in the late nineteenth century, but three more waves of immigration followed throughout the twentieth century.  Many Ukrainians settled in a western area of Chicago, which is now known as Ukrainian Village.  Although several Ukrainian churches are still there, most Ukrainians are now dispersed throughout Chicago and its suburbs, and are no longer concentrated within a single neighborhood.

Ukrainian Village has two Ukrainian museums.  The first is the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, which was founded in 1971.  I have never visited it.  The second is called the Ukrainian National Museum and was founded in 1952.  I have visited the latter one.  It is located across the street from the gorgeous Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church, and primarily displays Ukrainian arts and crafts, in addition to some snippets of Ukrainian history.

The museum’s arts and crafts exhibits include a variety of Ukrainian clothing, dishes, etc.  They also contain a variety of beautiful pysanky.  Pysanky are specially decorated Easter eggs.  First, the yolk is removed from the egg through a tiny hole, and then the remaining eggshell is intricately decorated with colorful dyes.

A significant portion of the museum discusses the Ukrainian famine or genocide of 1932-1933, known as the Holdomor.  During that time, Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.  In accordance with his Communist ideology, Stalin attempted to bring all of Ukraine’s farmland under governmental control.  Many famers resisted giving up their land, and were therefore sent to prison camps in Siberia.  Because the farmers did not reach their required governmental quota of grain, Stalin punished the people by removing all of their remaining produce.  Ultimately, between 4 to 10 million Ukrainians died as a result of the man-made famine.  During this time, Stalin also attempted to discourage the use of the Ukrainian language, and destroy Ukrainian nationalism. 

The museum describes the Holdomor using newspaper clippings, photos, and signs.  Additionally, on the day when I visited the museum, a historian/staff member walked around the museum answering questions that visitors may have had regarding the exhibits.  She recommended that we watch the 2017 film Bitter Harvest, which dramatically portrays the Holdomor.  It did a decent job of describing what happened.  As of 2020, less than 40 countries acknowledge that the Holdomor was a genocide, while Russia continues to deny that the deaths were intentional.

The Ukrainian National Museum typically hosts different events throughout the year (when there are no pandemics).  It also maintains a library and archives, which are available to researchers upon appointment.

Sources and Further Reading

Bitter Harvest. Directed by George Mendeluk. Los Angeles, CA: Roadside Attractions, 2017.

“Chicago’s Ukrainian Village.” Ukrainian National Museum. https://ukrainiannationalmuseum.org/chicagos-ukrainian-village/ (accessed July 19, 2020).

Hrycack, Alexandra. “Ukrainians.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1279.html (accessed July 19, 2020).

Kiger, Patrick J. “How Joseph Stalin Starved Millions in the Ukrainian Famine.” History Channel. April 16, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/ukrainian-famine-stalin (accessed July 19, 2020).

Chinese American Museum of Chicago

The Chinese American Museum of Chicago just reopened its doors to the public on July 1, 2020, after being closed since March, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.  A video of the reopening is available on a Chinese website: http://video.sinovision.net/?id=57080&cid=124&fbclid=IwAR1JFmQDCF61-jNvMpIFVFGaAakkRuMxtn4yZFGysYTXGUQN_BPZhh8fWOI

Many people from China began arriving to the United States during the California Gold Rush of 1849.  Afterwards, many of these Chinese immigrants found jobs building the transcontinental railroad, which connected the Eastern and Western coasts of the United States via railroad.  Once the railroad was completed in 1869, a large number of these immigrants then sought work elsewhere.  It is around this time that Chinese immigrants began moving to Chicago, to find better jobs and less discrimination.

The Chinese American Museum of Chicago was founded in 2005 to document Chicago’s Chinese history.  The first floor of the former warehouse displays the Museum’s temporary exhibits.  When I visited, the temporary exhibit was called “The Chinese Helped Build the Railroad – The Railroad Helped Build America.”  This wonderful exhibit showed how much we owe to the hard work of the Chinese immigrants who helped build the United States’ transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.  Unfortunately, the Chinese workers received inferior treatment in comparison to other groups who worked on the transcontinental railroad.  For example, they received lower wages than others and were often the ones made to do the dangerous work of dynamiting the mountains, to make space for the railroad.

The second floor of the Museum is the permanent exhibit that displays the history of Chicago’s Chinese history.  My visit there began with a 15-minute video that a staff member put on for me to watch.  The video is called “My Chinatown: Stories from Within,” and was created in collaboration with the Chicago History Museum.  It not only uses a screen, but also uses props next to the screen as part of the presentation.

After watching the video, I made my way through the rest of the permanent exhibit.  It includes a beautiful diorama from Chicago’s former Wentworth Avenue Ling Long Museum, which closed in the 1980s.  The Ling Long Museum was built during the Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress in 1933-34, and displayed dioramas of famous Chinese stories.  The diorama at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago is beautiful and intricate.  Unfortunately, it is the sole surviving diorama from the Ling Long Museum.  The remaining dioramas burned down when the Chinese American Museum of Chicago experienced a devastating fire in 2008.

Through objects, photographs, and signs, the Chinese American Museum of Chicago documents Chicago’s Chinese history from the nineteenth century up until the present day.  This includes mention of the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration to the United States.  That means that Chinese immigration to Chicago went on hold for several decades.  However, after World War II, the restrictions were lifted.  Many Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States during China’s political upheaval in the 1950s.  I found it interesting that the last section of the Museum’s exhibit mentions how many of the more recent Chinese immigrants to the United States were Chinese children adopted by U.S. families.

The Chinese American Museum of Chicago is a great place to learn the history of Chicago’s Chinese community.  It is located in Chicago’s Chinatown, in the South Side of Chicago.  While in Chinatown, you can also grab a meal at one of the numerous Chinese restaurants there, and look at some of the Chinese-inspired architecture in the neighborhood.

Sources and Further Reading

“Objects from the Former Ling Long Museum, 1930s.” Chinese American Museum of Chicago. April 26, 2018. https://ccamuseum.org/2018/04/26/objects-from-the-former-ling-long-museum-1930s/  (accessed June 27, 2020).

Fuchs, Chris. “150 Years Ago, Chinese Railroad Workers Staged the Era’s Largest Labor Strike.” NBC News. June 31, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/150-years-ago-chinese-railroad-workers-staged-era-s-largest-n774901#:~:text=Chinese%20laborers%20made%20up%20a,hammered%20in%20at%20Promontory%2C%20Utah. (accessed June 27, 2020).

“History and Mission.” Chinese American Museum of Chicago. https://ccamuseum.org/history-and-mission/ (accessed June 27, 2020).

Isaacs, Deanna. The Museum that Works. Chicago Reader. October 23, 2008. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-museum-that-works/Content?oid=1105917 (accessed June 27, 2020).

Steffes, Tracy. “Chinese.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2014. http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/285.html (accessed June 27, 2020).

National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial

Unfortunately, many genocides occurred during the twentieth century.  One of them was the Cambodian Genocide, which took place between 1975 and 1979.  Approximately, 2 million people died.  In the United States, Chicago is the only place that currently has a memorial to this Genocide (although Long Beach, California is currently working on one).  This is interesting, since most Cambodians in the United States actually live in California and Massachusetts, not Chicago. 

Chicago’s National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial opened in 2004, but falls under the authority of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, which was founded in 1976.  This organization was founded during the Genocide, with the purpose of assisting Cambodian refugees who came to resettle in Chicago.  Today, the organization provides healthcare assistance and community programming for the approximately 5,000 Cambodians living in the Chicago area.

The Cambodian Heritage Museum is open to the public whenever the Cambodian Association of Illinois has its regular office hours.  However, it does not hurt to call ahead of time.  Unlike many museums, your participation is essential during your visit.  All visits include a tour, in which your guide describes the Cambodian community and Genocide based on what you already know and want to know.  Artifacts do not play a major role in the Museum.  Instead, they are used as ways to discuss different aspects of the Genocide.

When I visited the Cambodian Heritage Museum, the associate director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, who is also the main overseer of the Museum, provided me with a personal tour.  First, she had me watch a brief video about the Cambodian Genocide, and then we went through the exhibit together.  Although she is one of the few staff members at the Cambodian Association of Illinois who is not Cambodian, her passion and love for the community is quite evident.  She was a wonderful tour guide, and provided me with a very personal and informative experience.  Prior to my visit, I hardly knew anything about the Genocide, so she provided a very helpful overview.

The Cambodian Genocide is linked with the Vietnam War.  During that time, Communist forces from Vietnam spread their ideology into neighboring Cambodia.  Then, a Communist regime, also known as the Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia, and the Genocide soon followed.  Many people were murdered outright, especially Cambodia’s intellectuals and artists.  By removing the intellectuals of a society, a government removes its strongest resistance.  However, that action indirectly caused the deaths of many more people.  If a country has murdered all of its doctors, who is going to treat illnesses appropriately?  In order to make the country equal, the Khmer Rouge tried to make everyone become farmers, and brought many people from the cities into the rural areas.  Many more deaths occurred due to lack of food, the poor conditions of the newly-created labor camps, and the outright murder of dissenters.

At the very back of the Cambodian Heritage Museum is the actual memorial to the Genocide.  On it are etched the names of the dead family and friends of Cambodian refugees now living in the United States.  During my tour, I was told how, in Cambodia, most memorials to the Genocide are rooms with thousands of human skulls.  However, for this Chicago Memorial, the community did not want to recreate the horror of what occurred, but wanted to provide a calming environment to commemorate the tragedy.

Sources and Further Reading

“About.” Cambodian Association of Illinois. https://cambodianassociation.org/about (accessed November 23, 2019).

“Cambodia.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://www.ushmm.org/genocide-prevention/countries/cambodia (accessed November 23, 2019).

“History.” National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial. https://www.cambodianmuseum.org/what-we-do (accessed November 23, 2019).

Kopsa, Andy. “How Cambodia’s Day of Remembrance for Genocide Victims Has Always Been Complicated.” Time. May 20, 2019. https://time.com/5591061/cambodia-remembrance-day-history/ (accessed November 23, 2019).

Rhee, Nissa. “The Cambodian Association of Illinois Celebrates 40 Years by Looking Ahead.” Chicago Reader. May 26, 2016. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/cambodian-association-illinois-khmer-rouge-kompha-seth/Content?oid=22237231 (accessed November 23, 2019).

Ashurbanipal Library

Many people have heard about the Ancient Assyrians when learning about ancient civilizations in history class, or when reading the book of Jonah in the Bible. However, most people do not realize that there is a Christian, ethnic minority group in the Middle East that still identifies with this ancient civilization. Assyrians live in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Although they speak the languages of their home countries, whether that be Arabic, Farsi, or Turkish, their mother-tongue and church liturgy is in Aramaic. Prior to Islam, Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Middle East. When Islam spread into the region, the Christian groups who refused to convert to Islam, also refused to replace their Aramaic language with the cognate language of Arabic.

Because of the instability and numerous wars in the Middle East within the last 100 years, Assyrians have been fleeing the Middle East in waves. The recent upheavals in Syria triggered the most recent wave.

Currently, Chicago has one of the largest Assyrian populations outside of the Middle East – at least 100,000 people. Because of this, Chicago also has many Assyrian organizations. One of the largest is the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation, which houses a library of approximately 8,000 books. These books range in topics from Assyrian history, Middle Eastern politics, and Aramaic dictionaries. The books do not circulate, and are in the process of being cataloged and made searchable online. However, visitors and researchers are still welcome to visit the library during its visiting hours: https://www.auaf.us/library/

The library is housed in the building below and is named after Ashurbanipal, an Ancient Assyrian king known for his extensive library of cuneiform tablets, where the Epic of Gilgamesh was found.

The neo-Aramaic dialects spoken by Assyrians today use a script called “Syriac.”

The Ashurbanipal Library contains many Syriac books including this book of religious poetry from 1577.

Sources & Further Reading:

“Ashurbanipal Library.” AUAF. Accessed July 22, 2019. https://www.auaf.us/library/

“At a Glance: The Assyrian Community in Chicago.” AUAF. 2018. https://www.auaf.us/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Assyrians-in-Chicago.pdf

Encyclopedia of Chicago. s.v. “Assyrians.” By Daniel P. Wolk. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/86.html

Shoumanov, Vasili. Assyrians in Chicago. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001. https://www.amazon.com/Assyrians-Chicago-Images-America-Shoumanov/dp/0738519081/ref=sr_1_11?keywords=assyrians+chicago&qid=1563778391&s=gateway&sr=8-11

Stein, Edith M. “Some Near Eastern Immigrant Groups in Chicago.” M.A. thesis, University of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1922. https://books.google.com/books?id=5RGCZxPoUuIC&pg=PA38&lpg=PA38&dq=some+near+east+immigrant+groups+in+chicago+edith+stein&source=bl&ots=VL2PwRCsaU&sig=ACfU3U1cU6jmg9-mLVkYU8NLPeDWA83fFw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwic3Zu63r_iAhVDSq0KHfWPCWMQ6AEwBHoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false