The Bilingual U.S. – Polish Chicago

In 1939 the Germans rolled into Poland and in their legendary Blitzkreig became the new rulers of half a nation in just one month’s time. At the same time far away across the ocean, the Poles had already won another important battle- the conquest of Chicago. After a century of immigration, Poles had officially replaced Germans as the largest ethnic group in the Windy City.

Like many other European ethnic groups, Polish immigration to the United States began in the 19th Century. These first Polish-Americans were known as za chlebem immigrants- meaning that they were mostly very poor and came “for bread.” At this time the Republic of Poland did not exist but was partitioned between Prussia, Austria, and Russia. The Poles who had immigrated to North America referred to themselves as the “fourth partition” and gave their nation in exile the name Polonia.

The end of World War I saw the long-attended liberation and reunification of Poland’s pieces. Unfortunately for the fledgling country, 1939 brought World War II and shortly thereafter devastation. After the war the Russian presence and introduction of communism into the country caused a new wave of immigration to the United States, often of polityczne immigrants, motivated to leave the country for political reasons and often wealthier and more-educated than the established members of Polonia. This 20th Century immigration saw another peak around the time that martial law was established in Poland (in 1981).

While American Polonia flourished in the Midwest its members never forgot their Ojczyzna. Aloysius Mazewski was born in Chicago on January 5th 1916 to father Felix, who came over from Poland at the age of 14, and Chicago-born mother Harriet (née Konieczny). The passion which he showed at a young age for his heritage carried over into a profession when he became president of fraternal insurance association the Polish National Alliance in 1967 and then of national umbrella organization the Polish American Congress in 1968. A lawyer by profession, Mazewski was dedicated to the cause of freedom for Poles. After visiting Poland in 1981 and meeting with Polish dissident Lech Walesa, Mazewski began a campaign through the PAC Charitable Foundation to help the Poles living in desolate conditions in the country’s ruined economy. In a decade’s time they had organized the shipment of more than $200 million in materials ranging from infant foods to farm equipment. In the meantime the PAC continued to lobby President Reagan for termination of economic sanctions against Poland, finally winning this concession in 1987.

To this day the Polish presence is still important in Chicagoland. At the time of the 2000 Census, 932,996 persons of Polish descent lived in Illinois. According to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 185,000 Illinois residents speak Polish primarily (as of 2008). And they haven’t stopped coming- after Mexico, Poland is the country which supplies the largest number of immigrants to Illinois and the Chicago Area (8.2% of all immigrants in Illinois and 10.2% in Cook County).

In fact there are so many Polish students in Illinois public high schools- 6,668 native speakers, or 4.4% of all students as of 2006- that in 2008 the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) began training high school guidance counselors on “How to Conduct a Financial Aid Presentation…in Polish.” This is a rare example of the public education system acknowledging the Polish-speaking population of the state; in fact there is not a single public high school or elementary school in the state of Illinois which teaches Polish as a foreign language. Reavis High School in Burbank had 457 Polish-speaking students in 2008 and yet offers only Spanish and German as foreign languages. A 15 minute drive away in Palos Hills, Amos Alonzo Stagg High School, with 344 Polish-speaking students as of 2008, teaches Spanish, German, French, and Latin.

As a teen Aloysius Mazewski lobbied to have Polish taught at his high school, Lane Technical High School. His request was accepted and Polish was a subject at this school at least until 1988. Today this is no longer the case. Shouldn’t public schools give their students the chance to develop their proficiency in their native language and became international leaders like Aloysius Mazewski?

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