Prominent authors discuss Polish Chicago
by JASON MEREL
Prominent authors Stuart Dybek, Tom Dyja, John Guzlowski and historian Dominic Pacyga discussed identity and community during a virtual talk earlier this month about what it means to be Polish in Chicago.
The Chicago Public Library held an event May 3 titled “Chicagoski: Writers on Polish Chicago” moderated by Daniel Pogorzelski, editor of forgottenchicago.com and vice president of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society.
“What does it mean to be Polish? What does it mean to be American? There are plenty of gray areas, I think maybe even looking at who we have here,” Pogorzelski said. “So, among the speakers tonight, Dominic is the only credentialed historian and yet, when you look at the authors we have here, each of them, their works are heavily influenced by history.”
To get a sense of how the speakers represent the diversity of the Polish population in Chicago, which can be found on the north, west and south sides of the city, Pogorzelski asked the panelists about the neighborhoods they grew up in.
“Well, it started out by being called Pilsen, so it was a neighborhood, in everybody’s mind, about beer,” Dybek said. “It was a neighborhood of storytellers. We didn’t have air conditioning. On a summer night, people came with their beers and sat on the front steps and talked and told stories. It was a neighborhood in which religion played a particularly strong role so that the only thing that had more corner space than churches were bars, except we called them taverns. And it was the neighborhood that the immigrants in my family had settled in, so that basically was home for me.”
Guzlowski said that he grew up in the area east of Humboldt Park.
“We lived off of Milwaukee, we lived off of California, and we lived in Wicker Park. We lived all over, especially when we first came to America. We could only afford a very small space and some of the places we rented, we stayed in for a week or 2 weeks and then moved on to someplace else.”
Guzlowski said the reason his family came to the Humboldt Park area was because of the Polish community there. He said that being able to maintain their Polish identity helped his parents adjust to living in America since they could not go back to visit Poland.
“As refugees, in 1951, we lived outside of Buffalo, New York and we were living on a farm there,” Guzlowski continued. “My father got a letter from a friend that was living in Chicago and it said, ‘Come to Chicago. It’s like Poland.’ He said, ‘There are Poles everywhere and they speak Polish in the stores. In the movie theaters, they show Polish movies. The churches, all the priests speak Polish.'”
“I grew up in Belmont Cragin, kind of Fullerton and Central, just west of there,” Dyja said. “But we didn’t really think of it as our neighborhood, in a way, because we always operated on a map of parishes across the city.”
“Sometimes you choose your topic and sometimes your topic chooses you,” Pacyga said. “And the Back of the Yards chose me a long time ago. So I grew up right by the stockyards and I’ve actually worked in the stockyards for a couple of years as a livestock handler and security guard. I worked my way through college there.”
Pacyga said the part of the Back of the Yards he grew up in was more ethnically diverse as far as Eastern European ethnicities and joked that he learned to swear in several languages.
Pacyga said he is third-generation and though his parents were born in America, they spoke Polish at home and he attended Polish schools. He said because of the diversity in his neighborhood, he learned early on not to confuse ethnicities and he had to know who was German, Lithuanian, Slovak or Czech.
Pogorzelski asked about perception and their own identities.
“Labeling myself never really occurred to me until much later,” Dybek said. “I didn’t have an agenda. I didn’t have a plan. What I had was a kind of an emotional attachment to stuff that later on would become material. Studs Terkel was a good friend and he used to just get furious with me when I would refer to things that happened in real life as material. And I don’t mean to be offensive in that way but one of the things that a writer does is a writer translates into art things that are memory and history and so on and so forth. But a lot of accident figures in that so I guess one of the things I’m doing is keeping kind of at arm’s length the notion that I really sat down with an agenda for this stuff.”
Dybek said that if he wanted to be humorous on the page, the humor often began with the family.
“Ethnic humor, I think, expresses itself in every writer or filmmaker with an ethnic background,” he continued. “One thinks about Fellini. It has very little to do with what we’re talking about, Polish culture, and yet it has everything to do with it – the depiction of the family in Italy. And so the gift I was given was that tremendous sense of life that I was very aware was not ‘Leave It To Beaver’ was coming out of the immigrant family.”
Pogorzelski said that Guzlowski has described his own work as giving life to the neighborhood he grew up in and asked for his thoughts on Dybek’s comment.
“It’s interesting because I had no desire to write about my neighborhood, I had no desire to write about my parents,” Guzlowski said. “I didn’t want anything to do with the kinds of lives my parents had. They had both been in concentration camps; slave labor camps in Germany, and listening to their stories always made me want to turn away. And so the last thing I wanted to do was to write about them. I wanted to be a science fiction writer. Growing up in my teens, a lot of the people that I knew were either science fiction writers or the guys I knew wanted to be comic book illustrators.”
Pogorzelski asked Dyja why he chose to write about history.
“I think it came from an absence of history,” Dyja said. “I think it came from not knowing a history of Poland and not knowing a history of where I came from because my family was sort of generally kind of turned away from that. I remember my mother on July 4th one day, waking me up my putting on the little record player ‘Columbia: The Gem of the Ocean’ at like 12, you know, just BOOM. We were Americans, you know?”
Dyja said he remembered looking at American history and realizing how much of it his family was not in America for.
“In that strange Chicago way I was always Polish, right?” Pacyga said.
Pacyga said that researching old newspapers from when he grew up revealed unexpected pieces of the neighborhood’s history. He said he found record that the “little old lady down the street” that he knew as “babka” hit a police officer in the head with a brick during a strike riot in the 1920s when she was younger and had been arrested.
“Then I began to realize that we have to give voice to this, some sort of agency,” Pacyga said.