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Proud to be Polish-Americans

Boston Globe
By Franco Ordonez

Group draws from all over to honor heritage

  ELLINGHAM - The meetings began as the chance for a few Bellingham residents to brush up on their Polish language skills, but they are now attended by Polish-Americans from across the region seeking to share the heritage they once hid from.
 Every other Tuesday, up to 50 people travel from as far as Mansfield and Pawtucket, R.I., to take part in the morning meetings at the Bellingham Public Library. The meetings of the Polish Conversation Group include discussions about the intricacies of the Polish language, and participants debate over words that are easily misunderstood.
But grammar is far from their only common bond. Their main goal is to remember where they came from and pass on what they can.
''It keeps the Polish culture alive,'' said Regina Ferrera, 74, of Milford. ''When I was in grammar school, ethnicity was squashed. Now it'sout there. Now it's something to celebrate.''
On Tuesday, the group will celebrate Polish American Heritage Month at a 1 p.m. ceremony at the library. The event, open to the public, will feature a screening of ''The Immigrant Experience: The Long, Long Journey,'' a 1972 film recounting the early months of a Polish family's immigration to New York. The story is told from the perspective of the family's 12-year-old son.
It's a film most members of the conversation group will be able to relate to, said director Jane Alen, who started the group in 1993 with only 10 members. Membership is made up primarily of first-generation Polish-Americans whose parents immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century. They know firsthand how their families struggled and what it was like living in a country whose population did not always appreciate Polish heritage, Alen said.
 ''We are all children of immigrants,'' she said. ''We know what life was about, and it wasn't easy. Especially, the children could be mean. If they found out you had Polish parents, you were ridiculed.''
Despite the discrimination, members of the group want people to  know that Polish people have earned their place in history. Group talks often center on famous Poles such as Pope John Paul II, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (who concluded that Earth revolves around the sun), Polish generals Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who helped fight the Revolutionary War against Britain, and Polish-born physicist Marie Curie, a two-time winner of the
 Nobel Prize for her work on radioactivity.
A portion of the group's last meeting, held earlier this month, focused on a story in a Polish-American weekly newspaper, The Post Eagle, criticizing the Atlantic Monthly magazine for running an editorial cartoon that many Poles thought belittled Polish soldiers in Iraq.
 Members also playfully prod each other to keep up and improve their  language skills. They often go over commonly misunderstood wordssuch as ''prosze,'' which means ''please'' in English. But like many Polish words, it can also be used in other ways - such as to tell someone ''you're welcome.'' And they said that when they go to the doctor or government offices, no one can properly pronounce their names.
''I've had trouble with that for 86 years,'' quipped John Waszkiewicz, 86, who said his last name is properly pronounced Vah-SKEV-itch.
In each other, members said, they have found people with common backgrounds, something they often missed when they were growing up. Most of the group, who are now seniors, remind each  other of the joys and struggles of their young lives.
Bertha Kogut, 75, said the classes help her remember stories her parents would tell her as a child. It is fun, she said, keeping abreast of Polish-American issues. Participating in the group, she said, reminds her that, despite how she felt when she was a child, there are many Polish-Americans who can relate to her life and experiences.
''We were a minority group,'' Kogut said, ''but we come to these classes, and we find out we were  not the only ones.
''There were others.''

Franco Ordonez can be reached at fordonez@globe.com.