The dark-haired woman working the front counter of Poziomka cast a blank stare, confirming my initial assumption that none of the staff spoke English. The white walls were brimming with long words containing more z’s and y’s than actual vowels, as a television displayed the histrionics of a Polish reality show. Just a mile and a half away sat the house my great grandfather, a World War I vet from Poland, built after coming to this country. The house on 254 Slater Road housed three generations of my family, and serves as one of the greatest connections I have to my Polish heritage. The Bialobrzeskis continue to uphold the basic traditions our great-grandfather brought over from Poland, despite spreading across Connecticut. Little Poland didn’t used to be so little; it used to be called New Britain.
The woman and I exchanged a series of rapid points and gestures before we finally settled on chicken, mashed potatoes and the orange coleslaw (one of five options). A group of construction workers sat at the table behind me, bickering over something they had read in a magazine, as the television continued to play the same Polish reality show. On screen a family appeared, in heated argument over the dealings with their eldest son and their little dog. Soon after, an intermission screen prominently displayed a pair of engagement rings. Apparently, it was the Polish Bachelorette.
Finishing my chicken, I exited the delicatesy and headed to the Haller Post. The post was established by former World War I vets of Polish descent who, following the war, returned to New Britain and founded the club as a community center of sorts. Named after the great General Jozef Haller, a Polish war hero who led Polish soldiers in France during the last year of World War I, the bar remains a meetinghouse for vets and their “Ladies Auxiliary Corps” who help to organize public events. Once grounds for new immigrants to be inducted into American culture, the post is now a regular bar fully equipped with neon signs glowing with promises of beer, vodka, and good times.
The post served as a bar, community center, and military post. Internal revenues prospered during 1923 with the election of new officials, among them my great-grandfather Antoni Bialobrzeski, who became treasurer. Wojcik and Kierklo comment in their text A History of a Soldier-Emmigrant, “At the beginning of their term, the financial balance stood at $628.05; at the end of their term, had grown to $929.91 a visible proof of hard work.” Haller Post continued to expand through the twenties, buying space on Broad Street as a headquarters for their Polish Falcons, a group of young Polish activists who continued to gain influence. Membership increased and power stabilized in its new location of 157 Broad St. Further changes were made to the upper echelon: “…the office of the president was taken over, by the energetic and active Antoni Bialobrzeski… he took on the job with all his energy, he instituted a better management system for the club and the bar, and he tried to awaken the sleepy and uninterested [members].” My great-grandfather climbed the ranks through tedious work and the powerful connections he cultivated.
Bearing stark contrast the Haller Post, the Monsignor Bojnowski Manor stands atop a hill, the town’s senior living home. Long lists of Bialobrzeskis have convalesced there, and the majority of staff still speaks Polish. Monsignor Bojnowski was perhaps the most influential of all the Polish immigrants flooding into New Britain during the late 1800s. A Catholic priest, the monsignor took charge in preserving the integrity of Polish tradition, both religious and social. With a draconic approach, the monsignor established the Sacred Heart Church, along with its own newspaper and bank. The monsignor opposed Haller Post’s attempts to expand influence to a national level. Instead, the monsignor desired to build power within the Polish-American community, using the Sacred Heart Church as his fiefdom.
The monsignor had ties with all of the executive staff from the Haller Post. Named honorary president following a grand charity fund raiser during Christmas on the post’s tenth anniversary in 1930, Bialobrzeski cemented a bond with the monsignor, and went on to represent the post during the opening of the Polish Home in Hartford. A total of $3,357.27 paid for further expansions to the post and its charitable undertakings, an incredible sum of money during the 1930s. Soon after, Bialobrzeski came into good fortune: a deed for several acres of land on Slater Road. Living in a multi-family house on Corbin Avenue at the time, the family moved into the house on 254 Slater Road as soon as it was finished in the 1940s, and then passed it down from father to child and nephew after nephew. The actual means as to how my great-grandfather procured such fortune remains shrouded in mystery, a secret taken to the grave by his children.
My brothers and I began to settle on Slater Road after my Great-Aunt Babe, the last of the “old generation” who knew the house’s secrets, passed away. Colin and his fiancée took up the top floor, warping a cluttered old woman’s den into their own image: a Spartan bachelor pad cluttered by frilly dresses, shoes, and countless flowery decorations. My brother Luke moved into the bottom floor, a dungeon of old Polish relics, booze, photographs, and cleaning products. Luke repainted the inside and outside trim, installed new wooden trim to the floor, fixed the plumbing, and rebuilt. When I moved in with Luke during the winter of 2014, we began work on a garden, new shelves, a fence, a picnic table, an outside grill, new curtains, and a flat screen TV. Time moved slowly on Slater Road, and even though we completed project after project at a rapid pace, the four of us took time to share dinners, argue over who got to shower, talk to each other, and dream. It was through Luke that I was first introduced to my great-grandfather, in the form of a black-and-white photo tucked away in the living room. Through him, I came to understand just how little I knew about the house I was living in.
Pro Deo et Patria, “for God and country,” the slogan of Polish immigrants, stays palpable within New Britain’s Polish community. Monsignor Bojnowski wanted New Britain to grow into something greater than an offshoot ghetto of blue-collar Poles. Education and assimilation was encouraged only insofar as it would birth a higher tier of working professionals, who could maintain revenues coming into the community. A suspicious man, the monsignor encouraged local business, as large corporations had the potential to threaten the Polish culture. Corporations threatened the community, but also endangered the monsignor’s authority.
Top man on the totem pole in a world of devout Polish immigrants, the monsignor faced much opposition. Volunteer efforts of blue-collar Polish immigrants made construction of the churches, orphanage, schools, newspaper, and community centers possible. The only profits produced were the benefits such local businesses provided to the community; fiscal compensation for the free-laborers who provided countless hours of exhausting work did not present itself as a pivotal issue. The monsignor led his workers like an army, and power struggles ensued. On one occasion, the monsignor even excommunicated intoxicated Polish workers. As power struggles consumed the Catholic community, a rebellion sparked, ending with the establishment of the Holy Cross Church. Those who sought deeper assimilation and expansion to the United States left for the Holy Cross Church, only minutes away, severing their connections to Little Poland. Although Polish culture remained in the community, the unity created through the single Catholic church- the community’s foundation- had been shattered.
The monsignor continued to lead Little Poland for sixty-five years. New Britain had the potential to be a world of his own design, but The Holy Cross Church ended the monsignor’s reign of seeking cohesion through singularity. Meanwhile, my great-grandfather constructed a means of balancing assimilation and tradition within the family unit on Slater Road. The house sheltered my family, but to my parents’ generation it remains most famous for its Wigilia celebrations, or Christmas Eve supper. To this day, Christmas is synonymous with Wigilia- the day we eat cod, pierogis, and cabbage soup. The whole family opened presents together, act out a Santa skit for the kids, and drink merrily.
The house on 254 Slater Road where my two brothers and I once shared a life together is a testament to the joined vision of my great-grandfather, Monsignor Bojnowski, and General Haller for to keep the Polish family unit grounded in God and family. In a letter to my brother Luke, my uncle James listed the three things a Bialobrzeski must serve above all else: God, family, and country. We might not speak the language, fight for the homeland, or argue over public policy but, for a short time my brothers and I ate the same foods our ancestors did, under the same roof, at the same table, with the same prayers. The picture of my great-grandparents that once served as the focal point for the living room now resides in my old bedroom with my parents in Durham. The house on Slater Road is no longer inhabited, but the values we learned in that house transcend any bricks and mortar.
Pro deo et Patria; “for God and country.”