Warsaw correspondent completes 35th year
By Robert Strybel, "The Polish Answer Man"

WARSAW—Although I have been at this for three and a half decades, people still occasionally write or e-mail to ask whether I am a Polish-born Pole who speaks good English, a Polish American who knows Polish or perhaps something else. I figured therefore that my 35th anniversary as Polonia’s “Man in Warsaw” was as good a time as any to set the record straight. During that period, I have worked to keep the my fellow-Polish Americans informed of current events in Poland, while trying to generate interest in all facets of its cultural heritage. At intervals, I have taught Polish-related subjects in the US at the college, high school and adult-education levels in addition to authoring three books. But let’s start at the beginning. I was born in 1941 in Detroit’s once predominantly Polish enclave-suburb of Hamtramck, and during my childhood spent a great deal of time with my four Polish-born grandparents, learning the language, lore and traditions of my Old World ancestors. Even though it was largely the “kara stoi na kornerze” brand of half-na-pol Polish, it still gave me a big advantage when learning German, Russian, French and a smattering of Spanish and Italian. My English-only American classmates really had to struggle through the confusing maze of foreign grammar, endings and unfamiliar pronunciation.

After studying journalism and foreign languages (German, French and Spanish) at Central Michigan University, I transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where I got a Bachelor's Degree in German and French and a Master's Degree in Polish Studies which included the study of Russian and Serbo-Croatian. My first teaching job was that of Polish language instructor and history lecturer at St. Mary’s College and Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary of Polonia’s Orchard Lake Schools.

I received a Kosciuszko Foundation scholarship from to work for a PhD in Polish literature at Warsaw University, but—as I like to tell it—“instead a pretty Warsaw coed got an MRS degree.” A life-long interest in writing resurfaced when I sent a few articles in the vein of “hometown boy tells about Poland today” to the Hamtramck weekly Citizen. The editors of the Polish-American Journal, then based in Scranton, PA, and the now defunct Czas, based in Brooklyn, NY, wrote to ask if they could reprint those items. Back in 1968-1969, the notion of a young American venturing behind the “iron curtain” was quite a novelty.

Figuring there could be a market for such articles among the Polish-American community, I sent feelers out to as many Polonian newspapers as he could find addresses for, and soon became the Warsaw correspondent for more than a dozen publications. Over the years I have been associated with probably close to three dozen publications, many of which are no longer published. These have included Polonia (Chicago), Pittsburczanin (Pittsburgh), Bialy Orzel (Ware, MA), Gazeta Polonii (Boston), New England Polish News Digest (Lynn, MA) and Czas (Winnipeg, Canada). Currently my column appear in the following alphabetically listed papers: Am-Pol Eagle (Buffalo), Biały Orzel (Boston et al), Dziennik Zwizzkowy (Chicago), News of Polonia (Pasadena, CA), Narod Polski (Chiago), Polish-American Journal (Boston [Buffalo] NY), Polish-American World (Baldwin, NY), Polish Falcon (Pittsburgh), Polish Weekly (Hamtramck/Detroit), Straż (Scranton, PA) and Zgoda (Chicago). My articles are also found on the Web pages of the Hamtramck-based Polish Art Center, America’s foremost repository of Polish cultural goods.

Some of my writings have been in Polish, but the majority were written in English and addressed to US-born Polish Americans, interested in their heritage but, unlike myself, no longer fluent in the language of their immigrant ancestors. As Poland's longest-serving American correspondent, I have reported on every major development, including the 1970 food-price riots, the rise and fall of Solidarity (1980-81), successive papal visits and the collapse of communism (1989) as well as Poland's admission to NATO (1999) and the European Union (2004). In 1980, at the height of the Gdansk Shipyard strike that gave birth to Solidarnoœć, I began working at the Warsaw Bureau of Reuters News Agency and have continued that association to this day. To help support a family of four, I have also done translations and tutored English.

Those brainless “Pollack jokes” were at their height in the 1970s, when I started out in Polonian journalism, so I tried all the harder to get fellow Pol-Ams “hooked on their heritage” by promoting Polish traditions, foods, family research, pen-pals and travel to Poland. For decades the “Ask Our Man in Poland” column has enabled readers to submit questions on a wide range of Polish and Polonian topics and receive answers in print or at least get pointed in the right direction. The questions sent in clearly indicated what diverse things interest different Polish Americans.

Sometimes a single nudge was needed to pique someone’s interest in any of a wide variety of topics including Polish history or historical re-enactments, folk culture, traditional crafts, nature (bison, storks, wild ponies, Polish breeds of dogs), or cookery. Some were fascinated by collecting Polish coins, stamps and military medals, tracing family trees, visiting Poland, studying or setting up a business in Poland, adopting a Polish orphan, finding a Polish bride and many other things.

I teamed up with my Majka, an excellent cook and later cookbook editor, to write “Polish Heritage Cookery” (1993), a more than 900-page Polish cookbook, and followed it up a decade later with “Polish Holiday Cookery”. Like his father, our only son Lesław (born in 1972) was raised bilingually and biculturally. But whereas I had studied Polish in America, he got his Master’s degree in American Studies at Warsaw University. He has worked as an English teacher and musician, setting up the rock groups Partia and later Komety (www.komety-art.pl).