My prof for a class called Ethnicity and the Immigration Experience is having all the students write 2 posts per week about class topics. I figured I might as well cross post to get rolling on my own blog again.
My father’s grandparents moved to the US from Eastern Europe around the beginning of World War I in 1914, identifying as Polish. It was customary to treat immigrants according to ethnicity rather than country of origin. Because of border disputes in the rise and fall of empires, Poland’s boundaries changed a lot between 1850-1950. My father’s paternal grandfather was given the name Szczesniak when he came through Ellis Island, likely because he was from the city of Szczecin.
My grandmother (whom we called Nani) Esther Pacynski lived on the same block on Clark St in the East Side of Buffalo, NY for her whole life. She and my grandfather, Frederick Szczesniak (Dzia Dzia), met as kids in their local parish, St. Stanislaus. It was one of the first Polish Catholic churches in the state of NY, founded in 1873. Both Nani & Dzia Dzia worshipped in Polish, went to Polish Catholic School (in Polish) and spoke to one another in Polish. Although they learned some English in parochial school, Polish was more common to speak at home.
It was similar with their three sons, including my father. They were tacitly encouraged to blend in and embrace the American identity. Their neighborhood was still mostly Polish people with many Polish owned businesses but they spoke mostly English on the playground and in high school. Outside of their little ghetto they only spoke English, dressed like Americans, and dated non-Polish women. By the time they finished public high school, they had somehow become “more” than just Polish, they were white people.
Even though I lived on that block on the East Side until I was 10, I had a more “American” experience than previous generations on that side of the family. I didn’t go to Polish school, Polish mass, or speak Polish beyond a few funny words to the old ladies. It had only taken two generations for my brothers and I to have our primary identity become American, rather than Polish people living in the US.