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Interview: Jan Lorys, Director, Polish Museum of America

chicagoist_200703_lorysgeorge.jpgPublic schoolchildren of Chicago, rejoice! It’s Casimir Pulaski Day, and you have the day off. This year, after talking with Polish Museum of America director Jan Lorys, we actually know why.

Often referred to as the “Father of the American Cavalry,” Casimir Pulaski was a member of the Polish nobility born in 1748. With his father, he formed a resistance group, the Bar Confederation, that fought against Russian oppression and influence in Poland. Pulaski proved to be an outstanding military leader, but his was a losing struggle. After he was implicated in a plot to kill the Russian-backed king of Poland, he was forced into exile. While in France, he was recruited by Benjamin Franklin to bring his experience in the European style of warfare to the American struggle for independence. At the insistence of General George Washington, Pulaski became the first commander of the American cavalry and established the Pulaski Legion, which was successful in defending Charleston, SC, from the British. At the Battle of Savannah in 1779, however, Pulaski was wounded by grapeshot in his thigh. He died at the age of 32.

The Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee, which celebrates its 70th birthday this year, has been the scene of annual Pulaski Day celebrations since 1987. It’s an appropriate venue — the museum, which is devoted to the preservation of Polish history and culture, is also home to the huge Pulaski at Savannah painting that commemorates Pulaski’s service during the American Revolutionary War.

Jan Lorys has been the museum’s director since 1996. A former Chicago Public Schools teacher and a prominent member of Chicago’s Polonia, Mr. Lorys is also the co-producer and writer of a short film about Casimir Pulaski. He reminded us that, while Chicago libraries and public schools are closed Monday, “the city, in its infinite wisdom, keeps charging for parking meters.”

Interview follows after the jump

Chicagoist: You used to teach history and social studies in Chicago Public Schools. Did the kids know who Pulaski was and why they were getting the day off school?

Jan Lorys: In a lot of cases, no, they didn’t. There was not a lot of material. That’s why, back in 1987, a friend, Andrew Chudzinski, and I put together a videotape that we sold to the public schools throughout Illinois and also some other states. We tried to cover Pulaski’s life both in Poland as well as in the United States, because I think you have to understand one to understand the other. And we got an American narrator, because one of the things we wanted to prove was that Polish names aren’t that difficult [to pronounce].

C: You were originally hired as a bilingual teacher for CPS. Were you born in Poland?

JL: I was born in London. My father was in the Polish army in Italy at the end of the war, although he was captured by the Germans in 1939 and liberated by the Americans in 1945. My mother was in the Underground. She was captured by the Soviets and released — and then she heard that she was probably going to get arrested, so she got out of Poland in 1946. My parents met in Italy and got married. The British were demobilizing the Polish army, and they formed what was known as the Polish Resettlement Corps. Actually, they were trying to get people to go back to Poland, but a lot of people knew what they would be facing if they did, so people tended to stay. After I was born, when I was 3 years old, we moved to the Unites States. We could have gone to Argentina, Australia, but we ended up coming to the States. We stayed in Toledo for a while; then my parents got jobs as domestics in Chicago.

We spoke Polish at home, there was a Polish Saturday school system, and I went to Polish Scouts. Right now, the Saturday school system is very much expanded. It’s about 17,000 students in about 20 schools throughout the suburbs and city. But you look at other ethnic groups, and you’ve got that too. You can pretty much stay ethnic if you want to, or at least be bicultural. There are videos imported from Poland, and you can get Polish satellite television, so it’s not that difficult to maintain your language skills. Most of the people here [at the museum] speak Polish, so we keep up the correspondence in Polish and watch a lot of Polish television.

C: Who are your members in the Polish Museum?

JL: Our demographics are pretty much all over the place. As far as members on a continuous basis, a lot of them are from the Chicago community, second- or third-generation, but we also get people who have been here for four or five years. When you’re getting yourself established, that takes priority over other things, but I think once people get established they start coming to the museum and partaking in our functions.

C: How does the Polish Museum of America celebrate Pulaski Day?

JL: The celebration starts at 10 a.m., and we have various city, state, and federal dignitaries come in and basically talk about Pulaski. Last year, Sen. Obama was here, and it was interesting because Sen. Obama is the son of an immigrant, and a large part of the Polish community is made up of immigrants. But I believe this year Sen. Obama is campaigning already, and Sen. Durbin will not be here because he’s got some senatorial duties in Washington. We also try to honor students who have written essays or taken part in other celebrations of Pulaski. Afterwards, people are invited downstairs for refreshments. I have a short speech to make about the historical importance of Pulaski and also the fact that Chicago is the one major Polish American community that does not have a statue of Pulaski.

C: One of your guests will be an author who wrote a children’s book about the two Polish heroes of the American Revolutionary War. Who was the other Polish hero?

JL: Tadeusz Kosciuszko — he was an engineer. After the first uprising [against the Russians] — the Bar Confederacy, which Pulaski was one of the leaders of — after that was defeated, the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian governments took small pieces of Poland away from it, and they also put limitations on the size of the Polish army. Kosciuszko, who was a military engineer, found out that he had no position, so he came over to the United States and offered his services to the Americans. And his services were important, because, even though he was an engineer and not a combat man, he helped the Americans win the battle of Saratoga, basically by helping the Americans fortify their positions. When he returned to Poland after the American Revolution, he fought in the war to defend the Polish constitution [of 1791].

He was one of the few foreigners who was honored by the Americans with the so-called medal of the Cincinnati. He also got some lands in Ohio. Now, Kosciuszko was very much opposed to slavery, and he asked Thomas Jefferson to sell his lands and to buy up the freedom of as many slaves as Jefferson would. The other thing he said is that they should be educated, so that they could be productive citizens. So it was those two things that, I think, make Kosciuszko very important. Had we followed his example, we probably could have avoided the American Civil War.

C: But we recognize Casimir Pulaski more so than Kosciuszko. Is that because Pulaski was killed in battle?

JL: I think that’s the reason. He paid the ultimate sacrifice. Interesting thing — there are a whole bunch of towns named after Pulaski, counties, bridges, but there’s only one town named after Kosciuszko, and that’s in Mississippi. And do you know who comes from that town? Oprah Winfrey.

C: Earlier you mentioned that Chicago doesn’t have a statue of Pulaski. Has the Polish American community made efforts to get one?

JL: For a long time, in the 1930s, the main effort was to name Pulaski Avenue, or Crawford Avenue, in honor of Pulaski. Then World War II rolls around, so you’ve got other things to worry about. Then the Polish community starts spreading out and getting a little bit diluted, as far as their power in the city, but we did put up a statue of Copernicus for the 550th anniversary of his birth. In the 1950s, they tried, but there were other priorities. It’s kind of a back-burner thing. Again, where are you going to put it? A lot of statuary is warehoused because it’s out in the parks, neighborhoods change, and people say, “Who’s this guy? We don’t need him.” And they finally end up putting [statues] on, for lack of a better term, general city property. Kosciuszko used to be in Humboldt Park. Alexander von Humboldt is still in Humboldt Park, but other statues have been moved. The interesting thing is, next to Pulaski Park used to be Kosciuszko School. Well, that got changed.

C: The Polish Museum is still in the historical Polish neighborhood. As the neighborhood changes, will you stay there?

JL: There are three ethnic museums [Polish Museum of America, Ukrainian National Museum, and Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art] that have stayed in the neighborhood as the neighborhood has changed — the Ukrainians and us. The Ukrainian population is, I think, still pretty much staying, although the developers are buying them out. You don’t like to see it happen, but when somebody’s put in 30 years when it was a bad neighborhood, with gang shootings and God knows what else going on, and now all of a sudden somebody wants to give them a million dollars for their home — well, what are you going to say? It’s a very difficult subject.

We had a problem with the city putting in a fountain at the Polish Triangle. Originally, they wanted to call it the “Nelson Algren Fountain on the Nelson Algren Triangle,” but we finally got the city and the planners to name it the “Nelson Algren Fountain on the Polish Triangle.” We wrote a couple of letters, and at least we got that compromise.

C: Is the Polish community in Chicago still as strong as it once was?

JL: Numberwise, it is, I think. The last census showed that, mostly in the northern part of Illinois, in Cook County and the metropolitan area, there are almost a million Polish Americans. That’s number one, and a large percentage of them are homeowners and taxpayers and voters. So that, I think, is an important argument as to why their wishes should at least be known.

chicagoist_200703_loryspope.jpgC: You’re also a member of the newly created Chicago Cultural Alliance. What is the museum’s role in the Alliance?

JL: We are one of the core members of the Cultural Alliance, which hopefully will raise funds to raise the professional levels in each of the organizations. Let’s see, how to put it … when I was in the army in Germany, there was a joke that first there’s the Kaiser, then the Kaiser’s cavalry, the Kaiser’s horses, then there’s nothing, and then there’s the infantry. In the city, there’s the mayor, there’s the museums and the parks, then there’s nothing, and then there’s the rest of the museums. Either a lot of us are private institutions, so we don’t qualify for governmental funding, or else our budgets are way below the threshold in order to get state help. So, the rich get richer, the poor get nothing — it’s the same thing with the museums.

We have about 10,000 people come in, and let’s say the Lithuanians have 8,000 and the Swedes have 25,000. Individually, we don’t represent a lot. But you put all these people together, and you say each of us has a gift shop and we charge state tax, so there’s money going into the state coffers. And, over the 20 museums, we have around 100 employees — that is money that’s poured into the state and city economy. We do functions here at the museum, we have to get a caterer. If you take all these things into account, individually maybe not, but all together we are a viable part of the cityscape.

C: You also give Polish neighborhood tours?

JL: That’s an initiative that came from the city — the Neighborhood Tours — and I’ve been doing that for about four or five years now. We start at the Cultural Center and actually don’t come to the Polish neighborhood first. We go to the museum campus because we’ve got the statue of Kosciuszko and Copernicus there. And also, since people come in from out of town, it’s a nice view of the city from the other side, which you don’t always think about. And then we go to St. John Cantius Parish, then the Polish neighborhood around St. Hyacinth and have lunch, and then we go to the museum. Our next tour is March 24.

C: When you take people to lunch, where do you go?

JL: A place called the Red Apple, which is a Polish buffet. They have a dining area for about 40 people, which is the usual busload. With a buffet, if people want to get a sampling, that’s probably the best thing to do, especially if you’re trying any ethnic cuisine for the first time. I remember when I was a college student, I hitchhiked through France, and I ordered something that looked interesting … until [I realized that] what I had ordered was sheep’s brain. So, if you order that and you get nothing else, you’re kind of stuck with it. Same thing, if you go to any ethnic restaurant, and you’re not quite sure, the buffet is [ideal].

C: What restaurants near the museum have good Polish food?

JL: There’s only a small one, Podhalanka. They have a very good soup menu with about three or four soups that are very, very hearty, and pierogi, and a full a la carte menu. Now, a similar food is Ukrainian, and I’ve taken people to Old Lviv, which is on Chicago Avenue. So, if you want Slavic food, you’ve got these two places to choose from. If you go further up north, there’s a whole bunch of Polish restaurants, as well as some very good restaurants on the South Side — Szalas being one of them, which specializes in Polish Highlander food. That’s around Archer, west of Pulaski.

Interview conducted by Kristen Romanowski, written by Matt Wood.