What do Jon Stewart, Scarlett Johansson, Frank Gehry, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, and Max Factor have in common? They’re all Polish-Americans. What is the biggest Euro-American ethnic group? Polish immigrants. Where is the largest museum in the United States devoted to Polish-Americans? Chicago on North Milwaukee Avenue in West Town.
The Polish Museum of America opened in 1935, and 4 years later there was a World’s Fair in New York City. The government of Poland sponsored a big pavilion to mark the 20th anniversary of Poland’s Second Republic. Unfortunately, Poland was invaded by Germany that same year so display items could not be returned. The directors of this Chicago museum were able to purchase about 75% of them from the Polish Government and they went on display on 2 floors. PMA was and is a large museum with a Polish-American Library, genealogical information, a maritime collection, an impressively large ballroom, lots of room for artifacts, etc.
Why isn’t this museum in New York or Milwaukee, which both had and have large Polish communities? 6.7% of Chicago’s population is of Polish origin, and it’s estimated that 1.5 million people there claim Polish ancestry. There are still 7 Polish grade schools in Chicago and 10 Polish churches, down from 20. Holy Trinity Polish Church is within walking distance of the museum.
The 2nd major event that affected The Polish Museum of America was the death of Ignacy Paderewski 2 years after it gained ownership of the World’s Fair treasures. Probably few alive today know his name and are aware that he was a noted pianist, political activist, and Polish icon of the early 20th century. He represented Poland at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference following World War I. Many of his possessions, including the piano from his suite at New York City’s Buckingham Hotel, were donated to this museum and are still on display.
Two other Poles whose names probably few Americans would recognize are honored in this museum’s military collection–Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski. Both men figured prominently in American history. Kosciuszko fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War as a Colonel in the Continental Army. Pulaski was invited by Ben Franklin to emigrate to North America where he saved George Washington’s life and helped in the same war. He was wounded at the Battle of Savannah and died shortly afterwards. He was buried in that Georgia city and is honored with a monument on Monterey Square.
Like Pole Karol Wojtyla who visited this museum before becoming beloved Pope John Paul II, I learned loads while wandering around the Polish Museum of America. But the most fascinating bit of information I gained was that the aerial footage used in the 1930s movie King Kong was from a 1920 Polish film. Those planes Kong swats in the sky were in actual combat in the Polish-Soviet, also called the Bolshevik, War.
The painting above is called “Pulaski at Savannah”. It was painted by Stanislaw Batowski in 1933 and is on display at The Polish Museum of America, which is a worthwhile, 4 Compass experience. The other photo is the Savannah tribute to Pulaski.