Faces of the Polish Diaspora: People of Hamtramck

12 November in Hamtramck will see the opening of a Polish-American exhibition devoted to the history of the town and its residents. Americans of Polish descent, Polish immigrants and even a couple of “Poles by choice “, 30 people in all, told their life stories in a unique project run by the Emigration Museum in Gdynia. The artist photographer Tomek Zerek and researcher Dr Anna Muller spent a few weeks in a place which captivated them both. Hamtramck is a small town in the state of Michigan, an exceptional enclave of Polish Americans and perhaps also a lens of social change in the world of western culture. Poland’s only Emigration Museum would like to extend its invitation to the exhibition “Faces of the Polish Diaspora: People of Hamtramck” on 12 November in the USA and 5 December in Poland.

Hamtramck’s multicultural history, one also full of Polish threads, has attracted the interest of documentarians from the Emigration Museum in Gdynia. As part of its Oral History Archive, this Polish Museum creates records of the experiences of Polish emigrants all over the world. The very fact that, even in the 1970s, 9 out of 10 Hamtramck residents had Polish roots provided a starting point for the research conducted by Dr Anna Muller from the University Michigan-Dearborn. Today the nearly 3,500 people of Polish origin make up a mere 14.5 percent of Hamtramck’s population. Despite demographic changes, Polish customs and traditions are still alive, with streets bearing familiar-sounding names and the town interspersed with Polish churches, monuments or shop signs.

It was this special character of Hamtramck which provided inspiration for the Emigration Museum project – “Faces of the Polish Diaspora: People of Hamtramck”, made up of a series of 30 biographical interviews with people of Polish origin and a collection of artistic snapshots of the town and its residents. The research for the Emigration Museum was conducted by Dr Anna Muller from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the photographs were taken by the Polish photographer Tomek Zerek. Those invited to take part in the interviews included Greg Kowalski, founder and Chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Museum and Tamara Sochacka, a political emigrant from the times of Solidarity.

The photos, enriched with the interviews, make up an exhibition which tells the story of contemporary Hamtramck and poses questions as to the dynamics of Polish identity and the expansion of Arab culture in this ethnically diverse town: Hamtramck has something of the jewellery box about it, because, when we get out of the car, doors open up which lead us to unseen living spaces, people and cultures – fragments of worlds brought over in suitcases, heads and hearts. Hamtramck claims that it is one of the five most diverse societies on Earth. I don’t know if that’s true but there are umpteen nationalities here and several religions, says photographer Tomek Zerek.

His colleague, researcher Dr Anna Muller sums up her work on the project: A lot of surprises. The history of this city is incredibly rich. Several times a day I would be working out chapters for a potential book in my head. This diaspora is completely different,different to the one in Chicago, for instance. The Hamtramck community was built by workers, and was a very poor, badly educated community, but one which led to the formation of trades unions in the region. In other words, it built relations between workers and management and affected the face of American capitalism in a place where it was undergoingintense development.

Photo by Tomek Zerek

The opening of the exhibition “Faces of the Polish Diaspora: People of Hamtramck” will be held on 12 November at 6 p.m. at the Hamtramck Historical Museum. Photos and statements by the town’s residents tell a whole variety of emigration stories, those of economic emigrants, war veterans or Solidarity emigrants. The interviews also reveal changes in Polish identity as experienced by second- and third-generation Poles who often cannot speak Polish any more. Through the lens of their stories we learn of the small Polish community which faces the same challenges which might be experienced by Polish emigrants anywhere else in the world. The exhibition has an additional value, worthy of note, in that Hamtramck presents an interesting blend of Polish-Catholic influences and the cultures of the East and the South. The ethnic make-up of the town is undergoing change, with Polishness gradually giving way to other cultures. It was this theme of the great social change which especially preoccupied the photographer Tomek Zerek, the originator of the exhibition. His photographs portray a town full of inspiring contrasts, grass-roots social initiatives and creative activities which bring residents together.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a rich programme of events held in the Public Library and the Hamtramck Historical Museum between 12 and 14 November. The programme includes history lectures, workshops on creating home archives of oral history, family workshops and a presentation by photographer Tomek Zerek of photos of the town and family stories gathered by the young residents of Hamtramck. The full programme is available at the Emigration Museum site: www.polska1.pl.

Admission to all events is free of charge.

The organiser of the project is the City of Gdynia in partnership with the Emigration Museum in Gdynia. The project has been partially financed from funds by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. American partners of the project are the PIAST Institute, Hamtramck Public Library and Hamtramck Historical Museum. The research has been partially financed and supported by the University Michigan-Dearborn.




12-14 November 2014 │Hamtramck – Public Library, Hamtramck Historical Museum


12 November | Thursday

Hamtramck Historical Museum

6 p.m.

The exhibition presents the culmination of Tomasz Zerek’s photography and Anna Muller’s research amongst the inhabitants of Hamtramck in August 2015. The essence of their task was to document the lives of people of Polish origin through biographical interviews. The photographic documentation included individual representatives of the Diaspora, as well as modern Hamtramck and its inhabitants. The opening of the exhibition will be held in the Hamtramck Historical Museum, the most significant institution for gathering objects connected with the history of the town and an important centre for bringing the town’s residents together.The exhibition will be divided into three parts, with its main elements made up of portraits of the residents of Polish descent and their private living spaces which bear signs of attachment to Polish tradition and symbols. The photographs will be accompanied by oral history interviews conducted by researcher Dr Anna Muller.

Subsequent parts of the exhibition will be devoted to modern Hamtramck and its inhabitants, as well as to the changes which the town is experiencing as a result of diverse cultures and nationalities existing side by side. The photographs portray a city full of inspiring contrasts, grass-roots social initiatives and creative activities which bring the residents together.

The exhibition will be held at the Hamtramck Historical Museum from 12 November 2015. In Poland it will be presented in the Museum of Emigration in Gdynia from 5 November until the end of 2015.

Dr Anna Muller: doctor of history at Indiana University Bloomington. Since 2013 she has been working as a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn at the newly-created Faculty of Polish and Polish-American Studies (Padzieski Chair of Polish Studies).

Tomasz Zerek: Polish photographer, teacher and curator. Lives and works in the Tri-City. Graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań. His work has been exhibited, amongst others, at Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville, Florida, USA; the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland; the Fotofhof Gallery in Salzburg, Austria; the Kaunas Photo Festival in Lithuania; the Blekinge Museum, Karlskrona, Sweden and the Stylo Gallery in Oslo, Norway. He is head of the Photography Section at Gdynia Art School.


“Emigration: The Polish Experience”

Thaddeus C. Radzilowski, President of Piast Institute

12 November |Thursday

Hamtramck Historical Museum

6.30 p.m.

The lecture will survey the main features of emigration from Poland to the United States in the last two centuries through the prism of the experience of Poles in the city of Hamtramck and the Detroit area. It will look at the motives of those who emigrated, the regions they came from and the communities and institutions they created in America, as well as their relationship to their Polish homeland.

Dr Thaddeus C. Radzilowski holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan with specializations in the history of Russia, Poland and East Central Europe as well as migrations from those areas. He has taught at colleges and universities in Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota and served as acting director of the Immigration History Research Center of the University of Minnesota. He is the author of more than 100 monographs, articles, book chapters, papers and several edited collections. He is currently the President of the Piast Institute, a research centre for Polish and Polish American matters which he co-founded in 2003 with Ms. Virginia Skrzyniarz and is a lecturer at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He holds many awards and prizes including the Haiman Prize of the Polish American Historical Association for distinguished contributions to the writing of Polish American History and the Lech Walesa Media Award for promotion of Polish History and culture through educational programs and Awards. He has lectured widely in the United States, Europe and Canada.

“How Poles transformed Hamtramck”

Greg Kowalski, Chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Museum

12 November | Thursday

Hamtramck Historical Museum

7.30 p.m.

This talk will focus specifically on the role Poles played in reshaping Hamtramck from a German farming village to a major industrial town, mainly occupied by Poles, in the space of 10 years (1910-1920). It will look at the social, economic and political consequences of this dramatic change, as Poles wrested all form of power from the hands of the German settlers. This is at times an unsettling story as Hamtramck underwent a wrenching change that it was totally unprepared to handle.

Greg Kowalski was born in Hamtramck in St. Francis Hospital and has lived in the city all his life. He has been in communications for over 40 years, having served as editor of the Hamtramck Citizen Newspaper and Birmingham Eccentric newspaper, among others, and he has written several books on Hamtramck. Since 1998 he has been chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Commission and helped found the new Hamtramck Historical Museum.


Oral history lessons

Dr Anna Muller

14 November| Saturday

Hamtramck Historical Museum

3 p.m.

The aim of the workshops will be to inspire participants to create domestic archives of oral history. They will learn about the definition of the term ‘oral-history’ and techniques for conducting interviews. With the knowledge and abilities gained during the workshops, they will be able toindependently discover and document the history of their own family .

Once upon a Time in Poland – Polish fairy tales

Joan Bittner

13 November| Friday

Hamtramck Public Library

4 p.m.

A journey through a Polish Fantasy Land of Fairy Tales and Legends for kids and parents. If you are a child between 4 and 100, join us for an afternoon with Knights, Dragons and Princesses. Polish Fairy Tales & Legends will be presented by Joan Bittner from the Polish Art Center, followed by small art projects and the tasting of Polish Bonbons.


My own Hamtramck

Tomek Zerek

13 November| Friday

Hamtramck Public Library

5 p.m.

During workshops organised in August, young residents of Hamtramck were given disposable cameras and asked to portray their image of the town of Hamtramck – their homes, families and surroundings. Participants were trained by a photographer on how best to documentthe history of their family and their town. The photographs taken during the workshop go to make up the artistic installation presented in Hamtramck Public Library.


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