I know Milwaukee has a lot of Polish heritage, but it seems like the celebrations of Casimir Pulaski Day are not nearly as big of a deal here as they are in Chicago. Is that the case, and if so, why?
If it seems like Chicago’s Polish celebrations are more numerous and substantial than Milwaukee’s, you’re not off base. Both cities have a rich Polish history, but there are some distinct differences in how that history plays out – most tellingly, in the extent to which each honors war hero Casimir Pulaski.
ENTER OUR HOME & DESIGN AWARDS
We want to see your best work. Architects, interior designers, renovation experts and landscapers: Enter your residential projects in Milwaukee Magazine’s new design competition.
A quick Pulaski primer: After Benjamin Franklin heard of his contributions to Polish freedom from Russia, Pulaski joined the American cavalry during the Revolutionary War. Pulaski is credited with saving George Washington’s life in the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. He was killed in the Battle of Savannah on Oct. 11, 1779.
American regions with large Polish populations honor Pulaski on the date of his birth or death. Since 1986, Pulaski’s birthday of March 4 has been a state holiday in Illinois. Public libraries close each year in reverence; until 2012, schools and government offices did, too. Across Chicago, restaurants, delis and bakeries use the occasion to celebrate Pulaski with traditional fare like pierogi, kielbasa or goulash. (The doughnuts of Polish origin, pączki, have their big day on Fat Tuesday but move well in Pulaski’s honor as well.)
So why does Chicago make a bigger deal out of Pulaski and Polish culture? The city has long been home to the largest population of Polonia – the term for Poles abroad and their descendants. About 8 million Americans claim Polish heritage, according to U.S. Census data. Illinois is home to roughly 750,000 Polonia, whereas approximately half a million Wisconsinites have Polish roots. Ewa Barczyk, an expert on Polish history at UW-Milwaukee and vice president of Polanki, the Polish Women’s Cultural Club of Milwaukee, estimates Chicago is home to three times more Poles than Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s Poles also settled throughout the state – primarily in Milwaukee, but also in Stevens Point, Green Bay and western Wisconsin. Northeastern Wisconsin is home to the village of Pulaski.
In part because of their history and density, Chicago’s Polonia also have stronger ties to the state government. Chicago is home to the national headquarters of several Polish organizations, including the Polish National Alliance, the Polish Roman Catholic Union and the Polish Women’s Alliance. “These organizations are connected to local Chicago politicians, so they have a lot of influence,” says Donald Pienkos, a UWM political science professor emeritus and activist in the Polish community.
All that said, Milwaukee has its fair share of Polish history and culture. There’s all the Polish-built architecture on the South Side, and a monument at Pulaski Park. The Milwaukee Society of the Polish National Alliance hosts an annual dinner on Oct. 11, which Pienkos says is well-attended, and Milwaukee hosts one of the largest Polish festivals in the country. And Wisconsin’s calendar does note a day of observance every year on Pulaski’s birthday. “Pulaski was a believer and fighter for freedom and independence,” says Pienkos. “We should all celebrate him.”