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Did you know?: Exploring the echoes of Buffalo's Polonia

Buffalo's reputation as a bastion of Polish culture is well known.

While it's easy enough to knock back a couple of Zywiecs in the ancient bar of the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle and Library, or head to the festivities at the Central Terminal on Dyngus Day, some traces of Polish culture and influence are harder to detect.

Though the city's Polish identity has in some ways been subsumed into Buffalo's broader culture, evidence of cultural, political and social traditions transplanted from the old country from the late 19th century to today is all around us. You just have to look for it.

To that end, our critics went searching for the echoes of Buffalo's Polonia, from its support of an important Polish politician to the invention of something called "nuclear polka." Here's what they found:

Paderewski, Poland and Buffalo

When you're appreciating the old Polish neighborhood on Dyngus Day, pay special attention to Paderewski Drive.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Poland's first prime minister and a world-renowned pianist, had Buffalo connections. He had a lot of friends here, in Buffalo's burgeoning Polish community. He gave concerts. On his visit here in 1928, the audience included 4-year-old Leonard Pennario, the future Grammy-winning concert pianist.

"He was very fiery," Pennario later recalled, "and people began to applaud before he had played a single note."

Paderewski had a pivotal friend in Buffalo named Dr. Francis Fronczak. A well-known doctor, Fronczak later became Buffalo's commissioner of public health.

They became friends because Paderewski credited Fronczak with saving his life.

Paderewski Drive runs up to the Central Terminal. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

In April 1905, the pianist suddenly lost all feeling in his arms. He was rushed by train from Canada to Niagara Falls. Once he crossed the border, he called on Dr. Fronczak, who he hoped could help him.

Within a week, the doctor had healed Paderewski. From then on the two were good friends, and Paderewski visited Buffalo more often. On the occasion of his 1928 visit, the Polish Singing Society of Buffalo made Paderewski an honorary life member.

Paderewski Drive came into being after the the pianist died in 1941. It is appropriate that his name lives on in a city that embraced him. Eddy Dobosiewicz, a leader in Buffalo's Dyngus Day celebrations, pointed out that Paderewski came to Buffalo often seeking financial and political help from the town's influential Polish citizens.

Dobosiewicz said a preservation group is trying to preserve Dr. Fronczak's Fillmore Avenue home, which Paderewski frequently visited.

He said, "If not for Buffalo and its support of Paderewski, Poland might not be around today."

--Mary Kunz Goldman, News classical music critic

Józef Slawiński is Buffalo's Diego Rivera

The late Peter K. Gessner, then president of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo, stands near a Józef Slawiński mural saved from demolition in Derby. The mural was moved to SUNY Buffalo State College in August 2005. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

For fans of public art, the name of Polish-born artist Józef Slawiński does not exactly roll off the tongue. But few artists working in Western New York have been as prolific or left as indelible a mark on the region's public and religious spaces as this technical master, who died in 1983 after a long and fruitful career.

Józef Slawiński's sgraffitto artwork is on view on the grounds of the Stella Niagara Park along the Niagara River. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Slawiński was partial to an ancient technique called sgraffito, in which many layers of tinted plaster are applied to a surface and then meticulously scratched away to produce an image.

He used it to stunning effect in what may well be his master work: a mural commissioned by the Piarist Fathers to mark the 350th anniversary of their order, which occupied the wall of a now-demolished dormitory at the Graycliff Estate in Derby. It has since been relocated to the SUNY Buffalo State campus.

"Józef Slawiński’s work," Buffalo State professor Bruce Fisher wrote, "is of the same era and dimension as the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s. It is public, its scale is large, its subject matter is heroic, and it is aggressively political."

A partial listing of his work, which decorates many area churches and public spaces, is available at the website of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo, polishartsclubofbuffalo.com.

– Colin Dabkowski, News arts critic

Czarnina separates dabblers from hardcore

Polish cuisine, as wrought in Buffalo, tends toward the placid. Facing platters of pierogi and potato pancakes, sausage and golabki, most people like the idea of getting a little taste of Poland.

Czarnina is a bowlful of controversy that separates Polish dabblers from the hardcore. Czarnina is blood soup, a sweet-and-sour broth the color of dull brick. The blood – duck, goose, or sometimes cow – thickens the broth and gives it the distinct tang of a copper penny. Kluski noodles, dried fruit like raisins or prunes, and shreds of meat are frequently hiding in its depths.

You don’t have to be Polish to enjoy it – indeed, some proud sons of Polonia won’t touch the stuff. But if you’re a carnivore and want to taste the tradition, and enjoy an insight into the hardy ways of farmers who made sure little was wasted, you’ll give it a try.

Places to try czarnina: Polish Villa, Polish Villa II, Potts Deli.

– Andrew Z. Galarneau, News food editor

Grammy winners, nominees abound

Polka is world music. There are elements of Dixieland in its hyper-caffeinated cacophonous stomp. Its ethnic folk melodies combine with a jocular rhythmic sensibility to make the music both highly contagious and danceable.

No modern band has done as much to underscore polka's bizarre fusion of various facets of Americana than Brave Combo, purveyors of what leader/accordion player Carl Finch has described as "nuclear polka."

Hand-picked by David Byrne to provide the musical entertainment at his wedding reception, Brave Combo has since amassed Grammy wins and earned the loyalty of discerning listeners thrilled by their strident blend of polka, punk, and various ethnic musics from around the globe.

The band returns to Buffalo's Dyngus Day celebration by popular demand, following last year's triumphant polka-fied throwdown under the party tent at Pussywillow Park. Brave Combo will perform at 7:30 p.m. Monday, immediately following the Dyngus Day Parade, in the Pussy Willow Park Party Tent, located on Memorial Street.

Locally based the Buffalo Touch has been nominated for three Grammys, and performs at Polish Villa II at 2 p.m. Monday. Polka favorites Lenny Gomulka & The Chicago Push will perform at the Central Terminal along with Buffalo's Those Idiots.

– Jeff Miers, News music critic

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