From Polkas to Pierogi: Award-Winning Book Looks at Thriving Polish-American Community

Release Date: February 7, 2001 This content is archived.


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A new, award-winning book by UB staff member Deborah Silverman looks at the thriving modern Polish-American community.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo staff member has been honored by the Polish American Historical Association for her new book on Polish-American folklore.

Deborah Anders Silverman, Ph.D., assistant to the president for communications, is the 2000 recipient of the Oskar Halecki Award for a book dealing with the Polish experience in the United States.

"Polish-American Folklore" (University of Illinois Press, 2000) looks at how Polish Americans creatively are adapting the rural peasant folklore of the old country to life in multicultural, urban America.

Her conclusion: Polish-American culture not only is thriving more than 100 years after the mass migration of peasants from rural Poland, but the community has preserved distinctive traditions even though many Polish-Americans have moved from "Polonia" into multi-ethnic neighborhoods.

"I call it 'Polonia without walls,' a vibrant community united by a resilient, dynamic, family-oriented culture that attracts not only Polish immigrants and their descendants, but also newcomers from other ethnic and racial groups," said Silverman. "I found that intermarriage doesn't necessarily weaken one's attachment to ethnic traditions; quite often, the non-Polish-American spouse may eagerly embrace those traditions."

The book is based on fieldwork Silverman has conducted since 1978 in Polish-American communities and through library research. She interviewed, audiotaped and photographed more than 200 Polish-Americans -- a broad cross-section in terms of class, gender, age, occupation, and location.

Silverman surveys Polish-American rituals from cradle to grave: birthing practices, courtship, marriage, coming of age, funerals. She follows the trail of folk stories and delves into folk music and dance, particularly the polka, providing a detailed discussion of texts, contexts and

performance practices. She also describes home remedies, superstitions, folk blessings and "miracle" cures.

The book features separate chapters on various folklore genres such as holiday celebrations (especially Easter and Christmas traditions), weddings, birth and death customs, stories, folk religion, folk medicine, folk songs, polka music, folk dances, folk arts and games, foodways and public festivals. More than two dozen photographs, some taken by the author and others dating back to 1895, illustrate the text.

"Wherever I could, I would talk to people," she says, noting that she not only visited individual homes, but also attended festivals and community events centered around various aspects of Polish culture. Not only did she track down Polish Americans from different parts of the country at local events, she also tried to ensure a fair cross-section of Polish Americans, interviewing immigrants and descendants from different social classes.

"Stereotypically, all Polish Americans are identified as blue collar and enjoying polka music, but that's not true," she says. "There are various layers of Polish-American culture operating simultaneously, and that's what I was trying to track down in my research."

Silverman focused on the group of immigrants who came to the United States between 1870 and 1914 and their descendants.

Estimated to be the largest group of immigrants, descendants of these post-Civil War Poles eventually spread out in the community, breaking typical geographic boundaries of the immigrant community, Silverman says.

The book also details how distinctive Polish traditions have been maintained and even have spread at the same time that the Polish-American community has become geographically dispersed.

Silverman profiles a Swedish-American wife who prepares pierogi for the family's traditional Polish-American Christmas Eve supper, an African-American man who regularly attends Polish-American polka festivals and an Irish-American woman and her Polish-American spouse who are raising their children to appreciate the songs, foodways and folk celebrations of both ethnic groups.

A fourth generation Polish-American, Silverman holds a doctorate in English from the University at Buffalo, and a master's degree in English and bachelor's degree in music education, both from Fredonia State College.

Silverman is the recipient of the American Folklore Society's Bertrand Bronson Prize for her research in folk music. She has written folklore essays for academic journals, presented papers at professional conferences, given community lectures on her folklore research and taught in the English departments of several Western New York colleges. She serves as associate editor of The Mid-Atlantic Almanack, the journal of the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association.

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