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).

Library Detective Work

Instead of writing about a specific library or museum, today, I want to write about how librarians can sometimes do detective work.  I have had experience overseeing book donations and cataloging the books of an unprocessed library.  For both tasks, I have always tried to scout out any books that seem potentially significant.  I have done this by removing papers that are often inserted inside of books, or by inspecting older books, to see if there is anything noteworthy about them.  Several times, this has led to some fun finds, which have sometimes required further detective work.

My favorite book donation mystery was a Bible that I ended up opening, even though it did not look special on the outside.  Inside, I noticed a printed inscription by Franklin Roosevelt about the importance of the Bible, which was dated January 25, 1941.  It was clearly a mass-produced military Bible, but it was confusing, since the United States did not enter World War II until December of 1941.  This caused me to investigate further.  I then learned that the United States Army had several large drafts prior to its entry into WWII, because it knew that U.S. involvement in the War was imminent.  Of course, I had to contact the donor after I discovered this Bible.  Sure enough, the donors did have family who served in WWII.  They had not realized that the Bible was from WWII, so were excited to have it returned to them.

Another interesting donation mystery was solved by one of my colleagues.  As he was going through some donations, he noticed a military bookplate inside the front cover of a book.  After further investigation, he discovered that this particular bookplate meant that the book was once part of the many military libraries that the ALA (American Library Association) created for U.S. soldiers during World War I, both overseas and at military bases in the U.S.  This particular book dated to 1912, which means that it was new during WWI (1914 to 1918).

My final library detective story did not require that I investigate the provenance of a book that I was cataloging, but I did anyway, because that is what makes monotonous work (which cataloging can sometimes be) fun. 

The book that I was cataloging was volume 1 of The Jewish People, Past and Present, published by Jewish Encyclopedic Handbooks in 1946.  Inside this book, I found a letter.  Most of the time, the papers I find inside of books are receipts, bookmarks, or, sometimes, newspaper clippings.  Because this was a letter, I knew that I should read it before throwing it away, just in case it mentioned something significant in regards to the book that I was cataloging.  The letter’s envelope did not have a postage stamp, but did have a postmark that said, “Century of Progress World’s Fair Chicago 1933.”  (Chicago has hosted two World’s Fairs, one in 1893 and the other in 1933.)  Another postmark dated the envelope to “May 17, 1933.”  If the envelope was dated to 1933, that means that the recipient must have thought that his letter was worth saving, since he still had it by 1946, which is when the book that I found the letter in was written.

Overall, the contents of the letter were not particularly interesting.  In it, the writer explained how his business was doing well.  He then asked the recipient to let him know when his graduation was, so that he could try to attend.  I immediately came to the conclusion that this letter was from a father to his son away at college.  I then read the names on the envelope.  Both the sender and the recipient had the same last name, which confirmed my theory.  Furthermore, the sender had a Chicago address, while the recipient had a Champaign, Illinois address.  Since the University of Illinois is in Champaign, and since the sender mentioned a graduation, I guessed that the recipient was a college student there. 

The sender used his own personal letterhead, which said that he was an architect.  This piqued my interest, so I decided to expand my investigation to the internet.  Sure enough, the one search result for his name showed me that a house he built is currently for sale in Illinois.

I then proceeded to Google the recipient’s name.  The result was a University of Illinois graduation list from 1933, which showed that the recipient received a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture that year.  I then concluded that the recipient decided to become an architect because his father was one.

Searching the recipient’s name also brought me a link to the history of a Chicago-area synagogue.  Since I found the letter in a book about Jewish history, this did not surprise me.  I learned that one of the art pieces in the synagogue was dedicated in memory of the recipient, after he deceased, because he was a member of that synagogue.

Finally, my search led me to the 1930 United States census, which is freely accessible to the public, since all U.S. censuses become public after 70 years (next year, the 1950 census will be made public).  This final search showed me that the sender and recipient of the letter were actually brothers, not father and son!

Isn’t it amazing how much you can learn about strangers just from one letter?

Since this post includes war books, here is a photo of a 1943 book I found while cataloging. It mentions how books were made of poorer paper quality during WWII to help the war effort.

*November 29, 2019 Update: I was able to track down the grandson of the recipient of the 1933 letter and return it to him!

Sources and Further Reading

“1917.” American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/aboutala/1917 (accessed November 16, 2019).

“Meeting of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, June 16, 1933, with Emergency Meeting of June 27, 1933.” University of Illinois Archives. https://archives.library.illinois.edu/erec/University%20Archives/0101802/02_volume_sections/1932-1934/14_meeting_1933-06-16.pdf (accessed November 16, 2019).

“United States Census, 1930.” www.familysearch.org (accessed November 16, 2019).