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Holding onto heritage in Ivanhoe

August 13, 2012
By Steve Browne , Marshall Independent

IVANHOE - People with Polish heritage and those who just like a good time gathered in Ivanhoe on Saturday and Sunday for Polska Kielbasa Days to celebrate and try to keep alive fading memories of a people who came to America from a nation fragmented and wiped off the map for many years.

The nation of Poland ceased to exist in 1795, its territory divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary, and was only re-founded as a nation after World War I. The Poles of Minnesota mostly came here technically as citizens of one of the occupying powers.

A limited number of people at this weekend's festival could speak more than a few words of Polish. Few knew the Polish pronunciation of their family names. What was evident of Polish culture was a lone flag hanging in the Ivanhoe campground and the Polish food served at the VFW, food that included czarnina, the "black soup" made with duck's blood.

Article Photos

Hanah Jerzak works the cotton candy stand at Polska Kielbasa Days in Ivanhoe on Saturday. “I’m Polish. I know that and that’s it,” Jerzak said. See more photos Monday afternoon at

In former times in Poland, when a young man went to a respectable family to ask for their daughter's hand in marriage, they would invite him to dinner. If they served him czarnina, it meant the answer was "No."

Nonetheless, Polish heritage means something to some of the older generation, and may in time come to mean something to the younger.

"It means very much to me," said pastor Leo Otto.

Otto graduated from Ivanhoe high school 70 years ago and can remember family members who still spoke Polish at home. In 1977 his parish gave him a month-long trip to Poland as a gift. While there he made a pilgrimage to the monastery at Czestochowa to see the famous icon, "The Black Madonna" whose face is scarred by a Tartar lance.

But even in his youth, the language was disappearing from people's lives, according to Otto's sister Frances Mathis.

"I was the youngest in the generation and I didn't hear too much," Mathis said. "I used to pray and go to confession in Polish, but I've forgotten."

Sharon Steffes, nee Skorczewski, grew up in Ivanhoe.

"It means the world to me," Steffes said. "I love coming to these meetings and meeting the old-timers. The land Ivanhoe stands on was my grandfather's land. Polish was all my grandmother spoke. When I was a kid, Polish was all I spoke."

Paul Artison is half Polish, grew up in Amsterdam, N.Y., and married local girl Cindy Dombeck.

"The only thing I remember is, 'Isc do domu spac!' ('Go home to bed,') Artison laughed. "My grandparents never spoke English, so I could never speak to them without my mom translating."

Three generations of women of the Paluch family, currently living in Red Wing, show the decline in the language.

Beth Paluch remembered, "We were kind of looked down on at the time."

Her daughter Vaunee Sparby thinks of Polish in terms of good food and good times.

"I do remember grandfather and grandmother talking Polish when they didn't want us to know what they were saying," Sparby said. "When my grandmother was sick for the last time she spoke Polish."

Granddaughter Whitney Sparby is half Polish, half Norwegian and English.

"Going to Polish festival days and eating Polish food," she summed up.

For the youngest generation being Polish is just something they've heard of.

Hannah Jerzak was working the fair selling cotton candy.

"I know I'm Polish, I know that," Jerzak said. "That's it."

Frank Dombek, 94, knows his family came to Ivanhoe from the Prussian part of Poland in 1883, and he knows what he'd like the younger generation to remember.

"You admire what they went through over there," Dombek said.



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