A Story about a Polish Immigrant

By Lea Wojciechowski

In September 1968, a Polish man arrived in New York. That winter, he moved to Detroit to live with his wife’s uncle, an American citizen, and to be part of the strong Polish community in Detroit. Like many, the Polish man traveled overseas to America for work, but his motive was unique – he needed to buy an artificial kidney for his wife, who was still in Poland and whose health was failing. He planned to return to Poland after a few months of working as an electrician, but his wife’s death in 1969 led him to make Hamtramck home. Chrysler soon offered him a job as an electrician. His young daughters, who had been in the care of family in Poland, joined him in Hamtramck in August of 1971. They all became American citizens in 1975 and settled into American life, while a part of their hearts still dreamt of their home country.
Eventually the young daughters grew up and moved into the suburbs. Their father remained in his house in Hamtramck, where he still lives today, content in the routines of a 91-year-old man who still speaks only Polish, walks to Bożek’s to buy Polish food, walks to Our Lady Queen of Apostles to attend Mass and socialize with his Polish friends after Mass, organizes Masses for Poland, reads Polish news, waits for his children and grandchildren to come visit, and recites Polish poems and serves Polish snacks when they arrive.
This man loves Poland with all his heart. Though he has lived in America for more than half his life and is deeply patriotic to the red, white, and blue, his first four decades of life were time enough to attach his heart and soul to his own great country as well. This man is plugged in to the entire Polish community of Metro Detroit. Most of the Polish people in Southeastern Michigan know him, and you may too… his name is Zenon Stępień.

I have the privilege of calling him Dziadek.

I am blessed to feel like a celebrity sometimes, the granddaughter of a man who is a bit of a public figure in our niche community of immigrant and first or second generation Poles. When I mention Dziadek’s name at the American Polish Cultural Center or Our Lady of Częstochowa, to name a couple examples, people’s eyes light up and they start sharing how wonderful he is, how involved, how generous.
I am also blessed to know small details and nuanced personality traits that one can only know after years of experience sitting at someone’s kitchen table in Hamtramck. Dziadek is warm and welcoming with a twinkle in his eye; he is thoughtful, independent, and witty. His response to “Jak się masz?” (“How are you?”) is always “Nie mam powodu do narzekania” (“I have no reason to complain”). He can be completely silent for a time, just listening, or he can catch on to a topic that interests him and spend hours telling stories, singing songs, and reciting poems from his childhood and younger adult life.
Zenon Stępień loves history. History, both his own and that of his country, has influenced his activities today. Following are a few interesting facts to get to know him better:
• My Dziadek, as an 18-year-old young man, was a soldier in the Polish Home Army during World War II. On the night of August 18, 1944, he was injured by a grenade thrown by the enemy and spent the next three months bedridden. In his 60s, Dziadek was sworn in to the Polish Home Army society in Metro Detroit.

For many years, he served as the president of “Odział Armi Krajowej Metropoli Detroit” – the Polish Home Army Veterans of Metropolitan Detroit.
• Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Polish priest who opposed the communist system for its degradation of workers and its seeking to marginalize Catholicism, was killed in 1984. For the next 30 years, my Dziadek organized monthly Mass for Poland at various churches in Metro Detroit. He would participate by carrying one of three flags – the Polish flag, the Polish Home Army flag, or the American flag – down the church aisle in the processional and recessional, and he would often recite a poem from the ambo after Mass. My mother and I had the privilege of attending the beatification of Jerzy Popiełuszko in Warsaw in 2010. Dziadek was thrilled to hear about our experience.
• Dziadek loves reciting poems. He attributes his love for poems to Pan Kurkiewicz, his 4th grade teacher who helped the children learn poems. Dziadek’s memory for his “wiersze” (poems) is astounding. Recently, as my mother and I sat at Dziadek’s kitchen table, we listened as he recited from memory “Powród Taty” by Adam Mickiewicz. It took him five minutes to recite the poem! Needless to say, it was impressive. It’s as if the poem was stamped onto the wall of his brain and he was simply reading it. Next, Dziadek recited (for three minutes this time) a poem called “Śmierć Pułkownika.”
My Dziadek’s life and influence have been a blessing to me. I admire and respect him in so many ways – for his strength and perseverance, for his dry sense of humor, for his helpfulness and generosity, for his love for Poland and America and his Catholic faith, for his openness to making a new life in America, and for his loyalty to his family. He is truly an amazing man.

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