984 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL | (773) 384-3352 | Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, & Sundays, 11AM-4PM

Pieces of Poland in its 2nd capital

If your neighbors on either side of you kept coming over and bullying you and trashing your stuff and pushing you out of your own yard, it would make sense if you developed a little bit of a pack-rat tendency.

That notion of protectively stashing things comes to mind when visiting the Polish Museum of America, because of the vast breadth of items collected there. Chicago’s largest ethnic museum preserves a noncontiguous collection of artifacts and objects that range from a Neolithic earring to a plaster reproduction of the 1175 door of the cathedral in Gniezno to a swordfish nose taken aboard a Polish cruise ship during the interwar period to a bust of Solidarity founder Lech Walesa. These are Polish things, the collection seems to proclaim. They belong to Polonia.

The building at Milwaukee Avenue and Augusta Boulevard was planned and constructed 100 years ago by the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America in what was formerly Chicago’s Polish neighborhood. It originally housed storefronts and offices, a print shop and a grand hall on the third floor. After the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, items from the Polish Pavilion could not be returned to Poland because of the German occupation. Many of the pieces were brought to Chicago, generally credited as home to the largest population of Poles outside of Poland, and became part of the museum’s permanent collection.

A recently renovated art gallery on the fourth floor displays paintings and sculptures exhibited during the 1939 World’s Fair, and the museum holds extensive archives. But most of the artifacts are in the grand hallway on the third floor, a multipurpose space with objects and displays lining the perimeter. The room is dominated by two spectacularly large paintings depicting battles on horseback. One, circa 1891, is of Cossacks sacking Warsaw, the vicious horsemen bearing down on civilians in a square, a basket of groceries scattered across the cobblestone street. The other depicts Gen. Casimir Pulaski, the Polish mercenary who helped American colonists fight the British. Pulaski trained the colonial cavalry and is said to have saved George Washington’s life. He died fighting for the Continental Army in Savannah, Ga.

There are, in fact, many martial images and objects, including war-recruiting and war-relief posters from the 1910s to the ’40s and reproductions of armor worn by the winged hussars, the 16th-century Polish cavalry whose suits of armor were fitted with armature to which feathers were attached. The sight of winged horsemen must have shocked and awed.

There are also items that show great national pride and progress: models of trains manufactured in Poland between World War I and World War II, and a 23-foot-tall stained glass window from the World’s Fair, titled “Poland Reborn,” that depicts Polish regions and industries. The creators must have been hopeful that Poland was on the upswing.

Other beguiling items: a sleigh carved from a single log in the shape of a giant carp, a Christmas gift from King Leszczynski to his daughter in 1703. She grew up to marry Louis XV of France. A collection of elaborate Easter eggs. Embroidered folk costumes. A tribute in photographs to Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope since 1523. A display of pierniki Torunski, incredibly intricate, molded gingerbread that are the specialty in Torun, including one that looks remarkably like the Starbucks logo.

Off in a little anteroom there’s a frieze carved in rock salt that is from the salt mine at Wieliczka that dates to the 10th century. The display says the mine has 65 miles of corridors and was used by the Nazis as an aircraft assembly plant. Today it remains a well-known tourist attraction.

In another side room, called the Maritime Room, a glass case holds intricate models of several cruise ships and items that were aboard them. (Look for that swordfish nose.) The display might not mean much to a casual viewer, but a museum visitor born in Poland, upon seeing them, beams and exclaims, “Ah! Batory!” as though seeing an old friend. The ocean liner MS Batory brought tens of thousands of vacationers across the Atlantic between the world wars, then transported troops during World War II and helped evacuate Dunkirk, France.

But perhaps the best reason to visit the museum is to learn things about Polish history from the helpful and forthcoming volunteers and docents. Things you didn’t know but should have — for example, the Katyn massacre. Among tens of thousands of Soviet executions of Polish nationalists, more than 4,000 of the elite Polish officer corps were murdered and buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia, in 1940.

By Beth Franken, Special to the Tribune