You won’t believe the people you’ll meet on the Polonia Trail, a new self-guided tour featuring 50 locations throughout the city’s East Side and Erie County.
There’s Marie Sklodowska Curie, the two-time Nobel Prize winner who was here in June almost 100 years ago to raise money for her radium research. She became ill – with radiation poisoning, historians believe – and was bedridden for much of her two-day stay.
There’s Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the former prime minister of Poland and master pianist who thought his career was over when he lost all feeling in his arms. He found a cure during his first visit in 1905 to the Fillmore Avenue office of the renowned Dr. Francis Eustace Fronczak. Paderewski and Fronczak became lifelong friends, often dining together on homemade schnitzel and sweet and sour cabbage.
And Julian Lipinski, who founded the Polish National Alliance, found a permanent home in Cheektowaga’s Holy Mother of the Rosary Cemetery. Lipinski, who died in 1898, was a freedom fighter. He was living on the East Side when he set up the meeting that created the political powerhouse PNA.
James L. Lawicki, a fourth-generation Polish-American, got the idea for the Polonia Trail after exploring Boston’s Freedom Trail during a family vacation in 2014. He immediately enlisted the help of Andrew Golebiowski, whose Polish Legacy Project of Buffalo remains dedicated to building a Polonia Museum.
“It shows the significant physical presence of Polish-Americans and how they contributed to the fabric of life in their community at large and in the world,” said Lawicki, a medical technology consultant who is president of the Polish American Congress, Western New York Division.
A launch party will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday at Canalside Pavilion, 44 Prime St., near the ice skating rink. It will include a virtual tour of www.poloniatrail.com, the unveiling of the trail logo and a reception with a harpist and ice carving.
Canalside is important to the Polish community because it encompasses the site of the former Memorial Auditorium, which served as the birthplace of the Polish American Congress in 1944, Golebiowski said.
The Polonia Trail brings together a surprising lineup of pioneers who made history on several fronts over two centuries on the streets of Western New York. It also celebrates many of the churches that defined the lives of Polish immigrants who lived in Buffalo during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some 75,000 people of Polish descent lived in Buffalo at the time of the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, according to University at Buffalo web archives.
“Our goal is to create a cyber experience of what it was like for Polish immigrants to get out at the Lehigh Valley train station (located adjacent to what is now Canalside),” Lawicki said. “Buffalo was burgeoning with industry at the turn of the century. We hope that, with the Polonia Trail, we re-energize interest in the Polish-American community.”
Each of the 50 locations on the Polonia Trail will soon be marked for visitors to readily identify. Accompanying the online listing of each location is a narrative researched and written by archivist and historian Greg Witul and his wife, Mary Lanham, a librarian. Researching the sites took Witul and Lanham back in time to dirt roads, buggies and horses, said Witul, whose top reference book was the 1908 edition of the Polish Businessman’s Directory. The directory can be found at the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Ave., which is also on the tour.
A former student at Canisius College’s Digital Media Arts department developed a website with the help of instructor P.J. Moskal. The two also teamed up to design a logo.
“I was really in opposition to using the eagle because it is overused,” said Moskal. “I wanted it to be modern and unique.”
The first phase of the project concentrated on site research and development of the dedicated website and logo. Future phases will focus on the collection of oral histories about individual sites, marker design and placement, and expansion of the trail beyond Erie County. The Polonia Trail recently received a $3,000 grant from the Canisius College Permanent Chair of Polish Culture to fund 30 additional sites outside Erie County.
The second phase of the project will include the 30 sites and the addition of audio narratives online.
Other sites that will be included in the trail range from the first Polish-American church in Western New York, St. Stanislaus at 123 Townsend St., to the artwork of Jozef Slawinksi, to the Polish community in Depew.
Organizers hope to attract out-of-towners looking to traces their roots. The website could serve as their touchstone, Golebiowski said.
“Even seeing a photo makes people’s hearts rise,” he said. “Especially when they are out of town. This will give them the streets (ancestors) walked, the church they were married in, the corners they hung out on. I was outside of Buffalo in the ’90s, and I thought I was in exile. Every chance I got, I came back.”
“Our biggest export is people,” Golebiowski said. “This shows the significant physical presence of the Polish-American because a lot of them are now gone.”