Columbia Heights Poles strengthen ties to the old country

  • Article by: LORA PABST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2007 - 6:11 PM

Polish pronunciation difficulties don't stop Columbia Heights residents from connecting with their old-world heritage.

Over the crackle of an old cassette tape, 10 students read along to a Polish skit in the basement of the Columbia Heights library last week.

They gather twice a month, not to perfect their Polish grammar but to share stories about their Polish grandparents or their own visits to their relatives' homeland.

In an area of the metro where many Polish and Eastern European immigrants congregated in the early 1900s, residents are still trying to maintain the basics of their culture and language.

Karen Karkula of Columbia Heights has been coming to the Polish classes for three years, ever since she went to Poland in 2003. Her grandpa immigrated from Poland, moved to Columbia Heights and built houses in northeast Minneapolis. But he never taught her Polish, beyond singing Polish Christmas carols and funeral songs.

"I'd like to know a little bit of language and more of my background," she said. Someday, Karkula wants to teach English in Poland.

The group was started about six years ago by late Columbia Heights resident Bernard Szymczak. He helped create a sister city connection with Lomianki, Poland, in 1991 and he wanted Columbia Heights residents who visited Poland to be able to speak conversational Polish.

Over the years, the two cities have developed a strong relationship stemming from World War II. Szymczak's brother Walter Shimshock became a local hero in Lomianki after he was shot down and killed by German soldiers during the war.

The group that meets for Polish classes is well aware of the connections between the two cities. Many of the students are on Columbia Heights' Sister Cities Committee, which plans events between the two cities and organizes educational displays around Columbia Heights.

Edward Sikorski is on the committee and attends the Polish classes. He is clearly one of the star students but he admits he has an advantage over the other students.

"I had Polish in grade school," he said. "We used to have two sets of books, one in Polish and one in English."

Now, Sikorski hopes that younger people will become interested in Polish language and culture and carry on holiday traditions.

"Our folks spoke in Polish and we would answer in English," he said. "We wanted to be Americans, but are we better off?"

The connection to their immigrant grandparents also helps the students relate to the new immigrant communities emerging in Columbia Heights.

"I can see some parallels between Polish immigrants and new immigrants," Karkula said. "I look at new immigrants as a positive because the immigrants who came to this area did well and their children continue to do well. That's part of being an immigrant, you just work hard. "

The teacher of the class, Casimir (Cash) Burzynski, was born and raised in Poland and immigrated to the United States in 1949. He didn't speak Polish at home after he moved to Minnesota so he teaches the class so he can keep up his language skills.

Many of the students come to the class because they remember their grandparents speaking Polish and want to learn a few of those words, he said.

"They remember words and it comes back to them now and they say, 'I remember my grandpa saying that,'" he said.

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628


    The group meets on the second and third Thursday of every month during the school year. The classes are free but students are required to buy a textbook. For more information, call the Columbia Heights Library at 763-706-3690.

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