Polish Toledo

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Poles where you least expect them

Polonia is the name for Poland in Latin and some other languages. In modern Polish language it refers to the Polish diaspora, and to people of Polish origin who live outside Poland. You’ll find local congregations of Polish people across the globe and in some locales where many folks might least expect them.

We’re most familiar with American and Canadian enclaves. In both countries the population is comprised of roughly 3 percent claiming Polish ethnicity. Ten million in the States and close to a million in the Great White North. In Europe you can find significant numbers of Poles in Germany (3 million), France (1 million), United Kingdom (600,000) and another million in places formerly part of the Soviet Union.

You wouldn’t necessarily think of Polonians living in Iceland, Turkey, Spain, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or even the tiny Faroe Islands located a couple hundred miles north of Scotland where the frigid North Atlantic meets the Norwegian Sea. But, they’re there from several thousands to a few hundred. Additionally, it’s not common knowledge even to Polish-Americans that Brazil’s Polonia is practically twice the size of Canada’s number. Nearby, a significant number of Poles can be found in Argentina too. Parliament there declared June 8 as Polish Settler’s Day for its 500,000 Poles. And, since we’re south of the border, it’s worth mentioning Chile, Uruguay and Mexico also have residents of Polish descent.

In the case of Mexico, Alicja Bachleda-Curuś star of the 1999 Polish film Pan Tadeusz and many international films was born in the Mexican city of Tampico. Her uncle is Adam Bachleda-Curuś, former mayor of Zakopane, who in 2008 was listed as the 69th wealthiest man in Poland. Her last name "Bachleda" indicates that she is part of one of the biggest and most famous families of Polish highlanders, Górals in Polish. Alicja’s domestic partner is actor Colin Farrel. Currently living in L.A. they have a son named Henry baptized in Warsaw.

But, the least of the least known places is in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, it’s not some tropical paradise, but rather the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Wrapping your mind around the concept of a Haitian Polonia takes a good measure of perceptual adjustment. You can either buy into it, or dismiss it out of hand.

Polish-descended Haitians
Every culture has a predisposed way of looking at things. In Poland there is a saying, Każdy sądzi według siebie - Everyone judges according to themselves, and another, Co kraj to obyczaj - Each country has it's own tradition. Americans and other people living on great continents view the sea as what separates hundreds of islands, but if you were actually living in the Caribbean you’d realize like the native populations do that the vast expanses of water actually connect the islands. It’s their version of a super highway, but instead of cars the vehicles are ships and boats. In the States people of mixed race are classified as black (exempli gratia President Obama). In the islands, particularly Spanish speaking islands, people of mixed race are often considered white depending on locale and social status. On the French-speaking islands and particularly in Haiti, a rich black is a Mulatto, and a poor Mulatto is black.

So, with a slight adjustment to our frame of reference as acculturated Americans lets take a look at the Haitian version of Polonia.

During the early period of partitions when Poland was wiped off the map of the world by neighboring countries who feared the Polish Constitution of 3 Maj 1791 would inflame peasants from nearby Kingdoms to revolt for Democracy against their despots, many Polish soldiers hooked up with Napoleon’s brigades hoping the campaigns waged by the French across Europe would free Poland from occupation.

Haitian Fight for Independence
In 1804, a year after our Louisiana Purchase bolstered Napoleon’s war chest; Haiti declared its independence from France. At the time it was an important colony rich with exports to both Europe and America. Not wanting to lose the resources coming from what was then known as Saint Domingue, brigades of French and Polish soldiers were sent to put an end to former slave Jean-Jacques Dessaline’s revolution.

Of the 5,200 Poles deployed more than 4,000 died of yellow fever, some returned to France while others were impressed into service under the British Crown. Many of the surviving Poles with the same spirit as Pułaski and Kosciuszko during their service in the American Revolution were sons of liberty and had natural sympathy for people fighting for their own independence.

So enamored by their Polish brothers-in-arms they are included in the Haitian Constitution of 1805 that stated no white man may hold land on Haiti apart from the Germans (who had a small community there) and the Polanders (Poles).

Erzulie Dantor
The Haitians were impressed by the Poles’ great love of their Matka Boska Częstochowska (Our Lady of Częstochowa – the Black Madonna). Seeing how greatly the legionnaires venerated their icon, through a process of assimilation and transformation, the Polish Catholic Matka Boska Częstochowska became the Haitian Voodoo Erzulie Dantor, a warrior spirit, the protector of women and children. Erzulie Dantor like the Black Madonna also has scars on the right side of her face. Legend implies she got scratched in a fight with her sister when she stole her husband from her. A rather different persona from Matka Boska.

Poles settled in a remote mountainous village called Casales about 50 miles north of the present day capital Port-au-Prince. 200 years ago the area was heavily forested and the elevation provided a temperate climate. Similar to some African countries the countryside in most of Haiti has been deforested since charcoal is the main energy source for cooking and other things.

The route leading to Casales, which has no running water, electricity, telephone, school, motor vehicles or other modern conveniences is a dusty unimproved, rutted dirt road with streams running over it including a 30-foot wide river. Most travel is on foot or by pack animal. Straw huts with banana leaf roofs are common living accommodations. The bricks of St. Michael’s church have since crumbled and a tin hut now houses the Madonna and Child.

A descendant of Polish troops
Ties between the countries don’t stop with the veneration of the Black Madonna. The community is referred to as Blanc Pologne (White Poland). For all intents and purposes the inhabitants are Haitian, but due to the fact Polish legionnaires settled there, the community has forever been referred to as Polish. If you are from Casales, you are Polish whether your eyes are blue or brown, your hair sandy colored or black, or if your skin pigment is light, medium or dark, it’s as simple as that.

Genealogically, the trail from Casales is quite cold since the original soldiers left no books, memoirs, or heirlooms behind, except for a few headstones in the old cemetery with Polish inscriptions. More recent graves are mostly unmarked.

According to one source I came across:

“In 1986, Pope John Paul II visited Haiti and the villagers of Casales thought that perhaps he would be their salvation. The Pope listened to their story and promised aid, but none came. Perhaps this money did not reach them because someone else received it, no one knows.

Many people wonder why European officers from a sophisticated culture had not formed a more advanced rural society. The only answer can be that they kept to themselves for fear of repercussions from the French government. However, the people of Casales still remember their "Mother Country." They feel that they have been forgotten by their people.

Today, the survivors of the old Polish Half-Brigades wonder if their blue-eyed, blond-haired, racially mixed children will ever have a good education or the conveniences that most of the world takes for granted.”

I’m not so sure reports of blue eyed, blond haired children are entirely accurate. While I have seen photographs of people from Casales from different sources, out of the bunch there was only one who had pronounced European features. Another source reported the major thing they remember about the Polish culture is the Polka, which is definitely incorrect since the Polka was invented in Bohemia in 1835, years after the Haitian revolution.

Even though oral histories are not as accurate as highly documented records, if you dismiss the claims as completely false, you just might be denying a tiny little part of the magnificently rich heritage we as Poles have tenaciously clung to through the glorious triumphs and heartbreaking struggles of our ancestral past.

Jeszcze Blanc Pologne nie zginęła.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Are there Polish Elephants?

The award-winning novel Water For Elephants is now in film production for release in spring 2010. In the cast is Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon and Hal Holbrook with Robert Pattinson (a Harry Potter co-star) playing the lead character.

When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town.

A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, bi-lingual Jankowski is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems dangerous and untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her. Water for Elephants is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in an economically depressed world in which even love is a luxury that few can afford. ~ from IMDb