Premiered September 14, 2005
Narrated by Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress and Buffalo native Christine Baranski, POLONIA: WESTERN NEW YORK’S POLISH-AMERICAN LEGACY makes its broadcast premiere on WNED. Over one year in the making, this epic documentary details the history and cultural richness of our region’s Polish American community.
Today, one in every three Erie County residents is of Polish descent. Using vintage and original footage, historical photos, memorabilia, and personal recollections, this WNED-TV production traces the evolution of this compelling immigrant success story from 1873 to present day. It highlights the rich traditions, strong faith, and profound community impact of a powerful heritage that continues to imprint life in Western New York.
Interview with Christy May, Producer of
POLONIA: WESTERN NEW YORK’S POLISH-AMERICAN LEGACY
In what ways has the Polish community been involved in creating this program?
The Polish Community was the spark for the program from the very beginning. Back in 1998, WNED broadcasted
THE POLISH-AMERICANS, a program with a broader, more national focus. The response from the local community was overwhelming and seemed to ignite a strong desire for Western New York’s distinct Polish-American experience to be documented. When the local Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation received a bequest, they offered a grant to WNED to begin production. It seemed fitting that as the first seeds of the program were being planted, St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Parish would step forward. After all, it was from the “Mother Church of Polonia” that the Polish-American Community took root and blossomed in Western New York. POLONIA: WESTERN NEW YORK’S POLISH-AMERICAN LEGACY really is their story. The program is the stories of their families, their faith, and their customs--the story of their heritage.
From the very earliest days, I have met some extraordinary people whose passion and love of their heritage is contagious. What can I say about Polish hospitality? We were welcomed into countless homes, churches and community celebrations. Precious personal photographs, documents and home movies were lent. We were even welcomed into a family’s Wigilia (Christmas Eve) celebration with our somewhat imposing camera and equipment. Everyone we met was united in the desire to help us capture the magic of Polonia. One image was repeated over and over again: a smile. You could see what it means to be Polish-American in the faces of the people.
Not being of Polish descent, what touched you the most throughout the production process?
Over this past year and a half, I uncovered so many amazing individual stories. I was touched by the history of the community, just thinking of the early immigrants. Robbed of freedom and opportunity in their occupied homeland, they established thriving, distinctly Polish neighborhoods and helped build the city of Buffalo. They manned factories and steel mills, built businesses, became teaches, lawyers and doctors. They set up fraternal societies, theatre groups, singing societies and schools, helping to preserve language and culture. The stories of life in those distinctly Polish neighborhoods were alluring whether they were tales from Broadway-Fillmore, Black Rock or Niagara Falls.
And when we uncovered photographs and film footage, those stories came to life. With a very superficial look, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Polonia in Western New York is vanishing as the community disperses and institutions close. Yet there are still incredible landmarks like the beautiful churches that still tower over Buffalo’s east side. This year’s Corpus Christi celebration brought thousands of faithful to march through the streets of the old neighborhood.
Throughout the course of filming, I would ask where the heart of Polonia is today. I learned first-hand that the true heart of Polonia is the people themselves. I think what touched me the most was discovering that today, just like when those first immigrants arrived for that first church service at St.
Stanislaus in 1873, what is most important is family, faith and passing that heritage on to the next generation.
Before beginning this project, I knew a little about Polish-Americans. My family even brought a basket to church on Holy Saturday, but Monsignor Hogan did the blessings. I never thought of it as a Polish tradition. My Uncle Vern, who is Polish, has even brought an oplatek (Polish wafer) to our family Christmas Eve, but we lacked the background of the tradition. Now, I know the richness and depth of the Polish-American story, and I realize how much they have contributed to Western New York and beyond.
What was Christine Baranski's reaction to the script and being involved with telling this story?
She said that this was definitely something she wanted to do. When I met Christine in New York to record the narration, she told me what an emotional experience it had been just reading through the script. Christine’s career took her away from Western New York, and through the years, she has lost many of her family members that drew her back for visits. She talked about her family, especially her grandparents and the stories they told her about growing up in Western New York’s Polonia. She shared how their involvement with Polish theatre groups and singing societies had inspired her own career. When we parted, Christine asked for several copies of the program; she mentioned wanting to share them with her daughters.
When people view this program, what do you hope they will come away with?
I want people to come away with that same smile I saw so many times throughout the production. For some people, I hope the history section will flood them with memories of their childhood and the stories of their parents.
At the same time, I hope the younger generation can experience the history of their forefathers. I want people to feel that the entire program is a celebration, because that is really what we tried to create—a celebration of the Polish-Americans in Western New York. I hope that everyone will feel the magic of the vibrant celebrations, rich traditions, and beautiful music and those will instill in them a sense of pride. Maybe some people will be inspired to learn a little more about their heritage, get involved in one of the countless organizations, attend a special church service, visit the Broadway Market, learn to speak some Polish or find out a little more about their own Polish-American story.
POLONIA: WESTERN NEW YORK’S POLISH-AMERICAN LEGACY was made possible in part by St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Church “The Mother Church of Polonia” and Western New York Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation
WESTERN NEW YORK CHAPTER OF
THE KOSCIUSZKO FOUNDATION
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