Q&A, Part 1

When people first hear of my plans to do my MA in Poland, I usually get a barrage of questions:

  • “Are you Polish?”
  • “Do you speak Polish?
  • “Why Poland?”
  • “Why are you getting an MA?”
  • And, the clincher, “What do you plan to do with your life?”

The first few questions can be answered by a tale of my family history and my education. In 1923, my great-grandmother arrived at Ellis Island with my grandfather and great-aunt, from a small town in Galicja called Brzóza Królewska. My grandfather was actually born in St. Clair, Pennsylvania in 1909, but in 1914, my great-grandmother decided that she would take the family, which now consisted of my grandfather and his infant sister, back to their hometown, Brzóza Królewska, while my great-grandfather would stay in the United States and send money to them. My great-grandparents had grown up in an agricultural region, and they did not take well to the coal mines of Central Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, their return home coincided with the outbreak of a decade of war, as empires across Europe collapsed- and Galicja, on the border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire, happened to be right in the middle of the fighting.

In the post-World War I turmoil, Poland managed to recover its statehood (initially lost to Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire through several partitions in the late 18th century). The newly restored Republic of Poland included the territory of Galicja, however, the territory of Galicja included a significant Ukrainian population – and they did not want to be a part of the Republic of Poland. Once again, there was war in Galicja as the Ukrainians fought for independence. Meanwhile, at the same time, the Polish-Soviet War, a result of crumbling empires, poorly defined borders, civil war in Russia, and the fight of newly created states for influence and land, began. The Polish-Ukrainian War ended in 1919 and came to a resolution in 1923 with the incorporation of Galicja into the Republic of Poland, while fighting with the Soviets continued into 1921, before they abandoned their cause of international revolution.

After the annexation of Galicja by Poland, their dreams of a peaceful country existence in Poland definitively squashed, my family packed their bags and set off from Gdańsk (then the “Free City of Danzig”) for New York, where they arrived on 1 September, 1923. The original ship manifest is on the Ellis Island website, and the official record (of which you can purchase commemorative copies) identifies my grandfather as “Ethnicity: Polish”. So, that means I have Polish heritage (although, as the coordinator of my programme said, “‘Polishness’ is of course a slightly complicated concept.”). I also have the last name to prove it. Unfortunately, as my grandmother was English, my father’s household spoke English, and the language was not passed on. I do know Russian pretty well, though, and I’m hoping that this will make learning Polish somewhat easier.

So, that answers two of the FAQs. The remainder will be answered in Q&A, Part 2.

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