Why Study Polish?
Polish is spoken by almost 40 million people in Poland as well as by millions throughout a global diaspora of Poles in countries as diverse as Brazil, Central Asia, Australia, Germany, Russia, and the United States. The earliest organized Polish settlement in the United States was near San Antonio, in Panna Maria, Texas (1854), which actively preserves its heritage.
Many Poles trace their history back to the year of their Christianization in 966. Over the span of more than a thousand years, Polish history has enjoyed both triumphs and disasters. The country expanded, contracted, moved, even disappeared from the map ... and yet there was always a sense of Polish identity seeking a political incarnation. It was an obvious absurdity that this rural land of small farmers with a population devoted to the Catholic church and a tradition of political independence was officially a communist country, and Poland played a key role in resistance to this imposed ideology and in its eventual overthrow throughout the region. ‘Solidarity’ was more than the name of a labor union: it was a political strategy of non-violent national reconciliation and liberation.
Poles have always been proud of the contributions to world culture and science of the medieval astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik (‘Copernicus’), the two-time Nobel prize winning chemist/physicist Maria Sklodowska (‘Marie Curie’, who discovered radiation) and the composer Fryderyk Chopin. The twentieth century has added two Nobel prizes in literature in 16 years (Czeslaw Milosz and Wieslawa Szymborska). From the Solidarity movement emerged two figures who will surely enter the historical record: Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, and Lech Walesa, an unsuccessful electrician who went on to lead a revolution and earn the Nobel Peace Prize.
Those interested in Jewish studies cannot ignore Poland, which was for centuries the home of the largest Jewish population in the world and the center of Yiddish culture (Warsaw was overtaken by New York as the home of the largest Jewish community in the world only in the twentieth century). The tragedy of the Holocaust played out to a large extent in Poland during the German Nazi occupation. There has been a resurgence of interest in Poland in the country’s Jewish heritage, and there are many museums, festivals, and research facilities devoted to the topic.
In addition to facilitating cultural, sociological, and political studies of this fascinating and complex nation, at once traditional and modern, a knowledge of Polish would expedite a career in the foreign service or business relations with this staunch American ally. A member of NATO and the European Union, Poland is in the mainstream of the latest political and economic developments in Europe.
Warsaw is the administrative, business, and cultural center of the country. While much of the city suffered greatly during World War II, its `Old Town’ has been lovingly restored to its late medieval look on the basis of drawings and photographs. Krakow is an exciting place to visit and is especially attractive to young people with its rich medieval history as the former capital of Poland. Krakow also enjoys a bohemian past and present, and has the largest town square in Europe. As a result of its history of redrawn borders, Poland is less centralized than some European countries, so that there are many cities which boast of their historical and cultural interest (Wroclaw, Poznan, Gdansk, Lublin, Lodz, Malbork, Torun), as well as the contemporary industrial center of Katowice. There are beaches in the north, mountains in the south, the countless lakes and forests of Mazuria, and the famous Polish countryside, with its rich folk traditions.