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.
Other Chicago Cultural Alliance Members that I have written about so far include:
- Assyrian Cultural Foundation (formerly, the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation)
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).