Ties between America and Poland stretch back to the American Revolution and the service of generals Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski, then through some five million Poles who emigrated to the US during the 19th and 20th centuries, to the open and covert support for the Solidarity labor movement that led to the end of Communist rule. Polish history is marked by great accomplishment and unspeakable tragedy. Life has not been easy for a nation situated without natural borders between Germany and Russia.
But in recent years Poland has awakened, institutions have become more democratic, anyone can travel in and out and around the country, ties between East and West have approached normal. It was in this new condition of openness and advancement that Binghamton University chemistry professor Michael E. Starzak took a year’s sabbatical in 1992 to teach at the Wroclaw University of Technology. Dr. Starzak details he story in “Totally Immersed: the Polish Experience”. Michael and his wife Anndrea are certainly adventurers. His knowledge of the Polish language was still under development (coming from a Polish-American family in Rhode Island his early Catholic instruction was partly in Polish — the language was rarely spoken at home). Concern about thievery led him to carry his laptop computer at all times. Polish pizza is made with ketchup and homes may still be heated by burning coke. There was also time to explore the Starzak family roots.
I made a final visit to Stalowa Wola to trace my roots. [Local people] were familiar with my grandfather’s village and birthplace, the village of Nozdzec, tucked into the southeasternmost corner of Poland, about fifty miles from Stalowa Wola. Nozdrec shattered many of my preconceptions about life in the small villages of Poland. I had expected abject poverty to be the prod that drove people from Poland to the United States. It was a naive assumption. The Starzak farm occupied much of the side of a gentle hill behind the original house. It was certainly not a tiny plot of land near the house that permitted a subsitence level of life. The original house where my grandfather was born was now used as a barn because a larger, better house had been constructed to replace it. The family had clearly been doing well…The potential for upward mobility had to be a major driving force.
–from “Totally Immersed: The Polish Experience”
The sabbatical was not the Starzaks’ first journey to Eastern Europe. In 1972 they attended a biophysics conference in Moscow and experienced life in the USSR. That was followed by a short trip to Poland, where everything seemed a little more relaxed. “No Russian had smiled at us during our entire week in Russia,” Michael writes, “although some did giggle. Poland was an oppressed country, but the people seemed to find ways to cope and be optimistic.”
They returned to a land undergoing tremendous change. The city of Wroclaw is now one of the most beautiful in Europe and a lively center of university life. Michael and Anndrea were able to rent a house in the rural village of Zebice and so daily experience brought them into contact with several levels of Polish society.The university warmly welcomed Dr. Starzak with the good news that his lectures were to be in English, and Anndrea also received an impromptu appointment to teach English. But it was impossible to escape the maddening bureaucracies and outmoted social arrangements that reappeared when they went to hire a plumber or buy a car in Germany. Their mishaps with the diesel Volkswagen were probably inevitable on Polish back roads, and the car — nicknamed “Agnienszka” — became a major character in the book. The most frustrating and revealing situation was Michael and Anndrea’s attempt to adopt a Polish child. That brought them into close touch with Polish family life and international legal complexity, but they did become adoptive parents of two boys who are now U.S. citizens.
Michael Starzak and his wife Anndrea join Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell of the “innocents abroad” experiences in their book about Poland, and in a compantion volume about a year in France.