A Piece of Polonia
by Laurie E. Kaniarz
My siblings and I recently donated a photo album to the Polish Mission. The photos illustrate the experiences our father, Frank Adam Kaniarz, had in Poland in 1933-35 on scholarship from the newly re-establish Polish government. On March 10th of this year, Polish Mission director Marcin Chumiecki warmly accepted our donation and gave our family a tour of the campus. In the Music archive, we were thrilled to identify our father and his best friend in a group photo of the Detroit “Lutnia” choir in 1958. That moment crystallized for us the beauty of the Polish-American community – Polonia – and the Polish Mission’s place in it. Because someone had donated that photo, and because the Polish Mission preserved it, we were able to expand our own store of knowledge of our family in the fabric of Polonia. We saw that by sharing our Dad’s Polish-American experience, we might enrich others’ lives in turn.
Lovingly prodded by our mother, Marian Podsada Kaniarz (his biggest fan) Frank Kaniarz finished a 3-part book about his early life that he called FRANKLY, THE WORKS. It begins with an introduction: the history of his family in Poland and in their new land. In Part I (Down on the Farm) he recalls his boyhood on a Polish-immigrant farm in Pellston, MI. In Part II (The Land of the White Eagle) he fascinatingly details his post-graduate experience in Poland, 1933-35. Part III (Franzl Kaney Goes Off to the Wars) covers his tour of duty in the U.S. Army during WWII. His 1933-35 photo album, when correlated with The Land of the White Eagle, reveals much not only about our father but of that distant, disappeared time and place.
Frank Kaniarz was a quiet, studious young man interested in language, history, geography … in learning. He’d refined his Polish language skills at St. Josaphat High School in Detroit, and graduated with a major in French from Wayne State University (called The College of the City of Detroit in those days) in 1933. This was in the midst of the Great Depression, when jobs and prospects were few. When he learned of the scholarship, he was quick to apply: he would be able to continue studying, with his expenses paid for by the Polish government. He and his fellow grantees were to live in Warsaw, study at the University of Warsaw, learn about Polish culture and, after 2 years, return to the U.S. to, as he put it, “beat the drum” about Poles and Poland. Our dad traveled to Poland on the SS “Kosciuszko,” met other scholarship winners from all over the West, studied at the University, traveled around the country, and visited family in Demblin, in the south of the country.
He also held a series of positions as live-in tutor of English and French to sons of prominent Warsaw families, culminating at the Presidential Palace with President Mościcki’s grandson. He met royalty and people of power. For example, he played a game of tennis (and lost!) with Anthony Eden, the former British prime minister, and gave conversational English lessons to Senator Henryk Strasburger, who later formed part of the Polish government in exile. As a family, we often marveled that our unassuming dad was able to move among these influential people and inspire their trust and respect. I once asked him how a farm boy in his twenties learned to live among the wealthy and powerful in a foreign land. He said he was simply a careful observer, and sensitive to the sensibilities of others. I believe it was also his education and his innate courtliness – old-world good manners inherited perhaps from his parents (his father had served as a corporal in the Austrian cavalry, and his mother had worked for a druggist in Poland).
Dad made a photographic record of his two-year stay in Poland, mounting pictures he took, photos others gave him, postcards, and shots from street photographers in a 10” x 13” album. He carefully described each item in his beautiful penmanship in white pencil on black construction paper. The album is filled with images of friends, colleagues, his young charges and his employers. Winter and summer palaces. Fashions and cars from the period. And buildings, parks, statues, and pedestrians in a Warsaw that would soon be ravaged.
It seemed to me and my siblings that a greater community than our own family might benefit from this unique collection. I asked a historian friend what I should do with this family treasure. He immediately suggested the Polish Mission at Orchard Lake Schools, where a friend of his had recently had a first-rate experience doing genealogical research. When I approached Marcin Chumiecki, the director of the Polish Mission, about donating the album, he responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” He invited me and my family to bring it and Dad’s book, whose Land of the White Eagle provides important background to the photos.
Marcin was pleased with the prospect of an artifact with such a clear and detailed background, or “provenance.” In addition to these informative pieces themselves, we’d provided a written description of each picture, with family insights where possible, and indicated page numbers in The Land of the White Eagle where Dad mentioned the photos’ subjects. The Polish Mission plans to make the photos and narrative available online, so that others can have the pleasure of seeing, for example, a candid shot of President Mościcki and his wife on the verandah of their summer palace, or reading about student life at the Dom Academicki (student housing) at Warsaw University. Our Dad would be fascinated to know that his photos and stories will be seen and read by a larger audience, even researchers worldwide, via the Internet, whose possibilities he’d only glimpsed before he died in 1997.
Marcin received twelve of us, Frank Kaniarz’s children, grandchildren, and a baby great-granddaughter, on the day of the donation. He gave us a tour and brief history of the campus, took us to the state-of-the-art genealogical stations which anyone can arrange to use to research their origins, and showed us a collection of 107 costumed papier maché figures that tell the history of Poland. We saw an impressive array of artwork in the great gallery, and had fun revealing Dad’s album to Marcin and Curator Ceil Jensen for the first time.
The most fascinating aspect of The Polish Mission is that it has become, over the decades, a repository for donations of artifacts from all over Polonia. So many, in fact, that it has storeroom after storeroom of items that have not yet been catalogued. All too often people have sensed that things they owned – a document, a grandparent’s memorabilia, prized possessions from “the old country” – were valuable, yet dropped them off without giving the archive any background information. It takes staff, time, and a great deal of research to discover such an item’s value, so many of them are still uncatalogued. We fully understood why The Polish Mission appreciated the gift of our Dad’s well-documented album.
Fortunately, the Polish Mission has received a large bequest from dr. Edward Wikiera to preserve items donated by the people of Polonia, and state-of-the-art buildings are in the planning and design stage. Marcin and staff are negotiating grants from universities in Poland to send historians and curators to study the holdings of the archive. The day is nearing when the The Polish Mission’s vast collections are fully catalogued, displayed, and made available to researchers and aficionados worldwide.
Just as Ceil and Marcin encouraged us to share our dad’s photo album, I encourage anyone who has an artifact, a document, or a family history, to make it available for the enjoyment or study of all by donating it to the Polish Mission. The more you can tell them about the donation – its provenance – the greater help you will be to the dedicated staff as they add it to the collection. What is it, who owned it, how old is it, what was it used for, how did it come to be in your possession? What you know about it may give the Polish Mission invaluable insight, save them the time and cost of investigating it, and allow them more quickly to give your donation the care and honor it deserves.
As for my siblings and me, we are grateful to the Polish Mission for affording us this way to honor our father and mother. We have always considered ourselves fortunate that our father was a gifted writer with perfect recall and a charming knack for relating his experiences in anecdotal form. He entertained us with storytelling at supper over the years, and his book preserves those times for us – and family and friends – in a way nothing else could. And something more: with his personal insights into Polish culture, he instilled in us both pride and interest in our heritage, in the language, cuisine, customs, and history of Poland and its influence on Polish Americans.
Frank Adam Kaniarz truly fulfilled his part of the bargain with the Polish government’s scholarship committee: he never stopped “beating the drum” about his beloved Poland. Through his photo album and book, and now The Polish Mission, he’s doing it still.