For one weekend every August, St. Stanislaus Church in Omaha transforms into a bustling, laughter-filled community during their annual Polish Festival. Countless people gather under shady tents to keep the Polish heritage alive with music, food and fun. Coming to this festival with my family has been a tradition since before I can remember, and even though my mother’s generation has passed away, we continue to come. It feels like home.
In November 1884, my great-great grandparents, Jacob and Anna Syslo and their three children made their way across the Atlantic Ocean from Gahtzen, Poland. Jacob chose to uproot his family to pursue prosperity on 120 acres of soil east of Tarnov, Nebraska, where Syslo descendants remain to this day
My closest connection to my heritage comes from my grandfather, Benedict, who, through his thick Polish accent, used to tell and retell stories of growing up on the family farm in the mid-1900s and attending boarding school at St. Michael’s Church.
Benedict, who died five years ago, lives on only in a set of cassette tapes my older brother recorded over a decade ago. As all of my grandfather’s siblings are also dead, the tapes are the only first-person account of my family’s history.
“My father came from Poland,” the recording begins.
When nine-year-old Joseph Syslo, my great-grandfather, came to Tarnov, the town was only seven years old and had been established by Polish immigrant families who came from the area surrounding Tarnow, Poland. His family began farming immediately and eventually established several crops and livestock on the land.
Joseph eventually bought land near his family’s and raised his 11 children there. Much of their life consisted of farming because of its time-consuming and strenuous nature.
“Farming was quite a chore,” Benedict said. “It’s not like today, today everything is mechanically done.”
Their time was also spent attending boarding school at their parish, St. Michael’s.
My grandfather claims the Franciscan nuns gave them a traditional education twice as good as today’s, perhaps in part because of the fear of being snapped by a ruler for acting out.
I have only visited Tarnov once, but it was a memorable trip. My cousins and I snuck into the chicken coops, faced off with a herd of cows and farmed in our mind’s eyes atop stationary tractors.
While standing on Syslo land, my family’s history and identity was more tangible than ever before, but it also felt foreign.
My Polish heritage has only affected my day-to-day life in small — albeit meaningful — ways, but for the Rosenthals, my extended family who still run the Syslo farm in Tarnov, being Polish is a way of life.
“Farming brings you closer to the land,” Mary Jane Rosenthal said. “It was a wonderful place to raise a family.”
Mary Jane is the wife of Ted Rosenthal, my second cousin. The couple bought the farm from other family members and have since passed it on to their son, Scott.
While living on the farm has affected her life, she says the deepest connection she has to our family’s heritage is through St. Michael’s, where she has spent the last 14 years renovating the church and school buildings that were built in the 1880s into the ever-growing museum it is today.
When asked why she got involved, she said she wanted “to keep the heritage alive, to keep the history alive.”
One display at the museum showcases scale-model replicas of the nearby parishes that have closed. She believes this is an important part of the museum because a lot of visitors’ parents attended those churches, and she wants to help them feel connected again.
“Once you close your parish, you lose your heart,” Mary Jane said. “You lose your family.”
Perhaps this is why my great-aunts Clara and Anne became so attached to St. Stanislaus in Omaha and lived the last third of their lives together in a small home only blocks from the church.
During the Depression, my grandfather and his siblings’ lives were uprooted when they lost their family farm and had to move to Columbus. The family didn’t regain the farm for years.
“I’m sure they sought it out, the Polish community in Omaha,” my mother said about her aunts’ decision to move closer to the parish.
As the display at St. Michael’s connects families to their old parishes, St. Stanislaus does the same for my family by giving us a place to actively celebrate our heritage.
My family reminds me that no matter how you live out your heritage, whether by farming the same land or by seeking out a new parish, traditions are worth keeping alive.