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With Dr. John Radzilowski, the director of the Polish Institute of Culture & Research in Orchard Lake Schools, talked Dr. Alicja Karlic

By December 6, 2022December 7th, 2022One Comment25 min read

Dr. John Radzilowski

Dr. Radzilowski, it’s been three months since you took the position of director of the Polish Institute of Culture & Research, and I would like to ask you a few questions.
On the Polish Institute’s new website, you published the statement:

The Polish Institute of Culture & Research organizes programs, courses, and events that promote Polish and Polish American culture and accomplishments and maintains a repository for artifacts, archival materials, works of art, and publications. The Polish Institute of Culture & Research recognizes that Polish Culture and Catholicism are inextricably linked.

National culture is inherited from generation to generation, and every nation member should know and cultivate it. You are the fourth generation in the United States of Polish descent. Being a director of the Polish Institute, how do you want to pass on matters important to the Polish nation to the second, third, and subsequent generations of Polish origin in the USA? What part of Polish culture did your parents and grandparents pass on to you? Do you pass them on to your children?

Dr. John Radzilowski: I will try to answer the last part of the question first. Our family has lived in the USA for four generations. My great grandparents came here during the time of the Partitions when Polish culture was forced underground yet thrived in spite of that. My great grandfather read stories of Polish history and literature at night to my babcia and she in turn read them to my father, who in turn read them to us. My father was a great storyteller and he idolized Kościuszko. As a small boy each night before bedtime I was transported to the fields at Racławice, and I could see in my mind’s eye the sun glinting off the barrels of the Russian guns before us as we advanced or I imagined myself riding with Pułaski at Savannah. The image is still quite vivid for me. We were raised to think of being Polish as more than the sum of certain literature or music, but the embodiment of honor, loyalty, and integrity. A Pole has a duty to the Faith and to stand with the weak against strong. The essence of being Polish was to strive to uphold those values, no matter the costs. I have been accused before of being born in the wrong century so I will plead guilty.

I grew up in a place with almost no Polish people and no Polonia institutions (though my father was quite involved in Polonia nationally). We spoke English at home since my mother’s background is half Polish and half Swiss. My parents emphasized Polish traditions in our lives, especially within the cycle of the Liturgical calendar of the Church. I was very fortunate to have such parents because they loved literature, music, and art. They read to us, played music, gave us books full of art, discussed ideas, and taught us to think for ourselves. Polishness was a “base” from which we could explore and appreciate other cultures as well. Ironically being in a largely non-Polish environment reinforced my sense of being Polish because it was what set me apart. At that time in America being Polish was very unpopular and even despised, so it was normal for me to get beat up at school for being Polish or to have teachers tell “Polack jokes” in classes where I was the only one with a Polish name.

Later, I discovered an important truth that the Polishness I and many other Polish Americans with roots in the emigration of the late 19th and early 20th century had been quite different from the Polishness of people who emigrated later or the Polish culture that developed in Poland, especially after 1945. I was very fortunate, however, to spend many years with other Poles, especially of the “Solidarity” generation, both in my work and my friendships. My son and daughter were born in Warsaw and adopted, so their sense of what it means to be Polish is yet different still.

Culture like tradition is the living faith of the dead. To pass on a culture is more than just repeating what was done in the past. Cultures that do not grow and change are dead, so we must see Polish culture in America as something alive. Living cultures are never “pure.” Polish culture exists in a world of cultures here in America and across the world and it is in a constant dialogue with the cultures it encounters. Here I want to pause and say something important. Polish culture in America is not and cannot be the same as in Europe. It developed differently here because the conditions were and are different than in Europe. There are several variants of Polish culture existing outside Poland including more than one here in America. A fourth generation Polish American like myself is naturally going to be different than someone who arrived last year from Poland. This does not make one superior to the other. We have to find ways to appeal to a variety of people and seek common ties. Perhaps this is why I emphasize underlying values. We also have a task to tell people who are not Polish at all about our culture and history. The way we do this is to show the best of what we are and what Poles have done, particularly to show the deep and abiding values of the culture, values that are rooted in the Catholic faith and Western Civilization. (Polonia’s work to support Ukraine is a good example of this spirit in action.) We must include in this the forgotten chapter of Poles in the USA who over the generations and in spite of many hardships and obstacles preserved in places like Orchard Lake.

The Polish language is an indigenous value of the Polish community. A group’s loss of core values leads to its disintegration into a society incapable of passing on its values to the next generations. Are you going to promote the Polish language in OL? Do you include such an intention in your plans?

Dr. John Radzilowski: We want to preserve and teach Polish language as much as we can. This is proving much more difficult than I initially anticipated because we currently don’t have sufficient staff to produce content consistently in both Polish and English. As you know, my own Polish is imperfect, so I use it in a professional setting only with great care and preparation. The slightest error in grammar or speech cannot be tolerated by many of those who are among our important audiences.

We support the Józef Dąbrowski Polish Language School which meets on campus. In the future, we hope to offer other Polish language classes perhaps by partnering with other institutions to offer classes online. We have also a budget to support a Polish language teacher at St. Mary Prep. This hasn’t happened yet because we need a teacher who is certified by the state to teach at the high school level as well as having the necessary language skills.

Polonia has to address the question of how and why we teach and maintain the Polish language. Of course, some are blessed to learn at home and we have to support this. For the rest, leaving aside the percentage of people who are naturally good at languages and simply learn them as a matter of interest, most need to have a practical reason to learn it, especially since it has to be used in a social or professional setting. Since we have not had significant immigration from Poland for a couple decades, the number of native-born speakers is going to decline. I’ve suggested that in addition to regular language courses we consider programs to teach more specialized topics, for example Polish for science and technology applications for people to work in fields such as engineering, medicine, etc. Poland is rapidly becoming a powerful force in these areas, so such programs would prepare people to work for Polish firms or enter graduate programs at Polish universities. A person who is using the language every day to earn a living is much more likely to transmit that language to his or her children than someone who only uses it on Sundays or holidays. In other words, children should see adults using Polish as a tool for success as well as in the home. Of course, Polish is important for Holy Mass and literature and music, but we have to think creatively on how to sustain its use in the world we live in. Perhaps we can create a video game for young people where to defeat the bad guys you have to master Polish grammar!

Since June 2022, you have been a director of the Polish Institute of Culture and Research in Orchard Lake Schools. Did the three months allow you to learn about the problems you have to deal with while managing the Institute?

Dr. John Radzilowski: Yes. I could speak for many hours on this question or perhaps write a book. Many of the problems were obvious to me before I arrived and well known for years. For example, the lack of an adequate building for archives and museums. Or, the lack of proper organization of the archives, which existed for a long time, in spite of efforts to correct that were made beginning in 2009.

Nearly all the problem came from neglect and from a lack of any plan or vision for any of the cultural treasures held by OLS. This went on for decades. It was known in academic circles in the USA and Poland by the 1990s that something was wrong, but few at OLS or in organized Polonia paid attention. There was an archivist here for many years who worked with no apparent oversight whatsoever and worked under the personal authority of the chancellor unconnected to the college or seminary leadership. Likewise, OLS had an artist in charge of the Galeria who had great aesthetic tastes but was allowed to bend or break all sort of professional standards when it came to acquiring and maintaining the art collection. Again, this individual was employed directly by the chancellors who had little ability, time, or interest to oversee or supervise such a position. Even after the Polish Mission was founded it was not clear that it had charge of anything, other than it was supposed to stage Polish cultural programs. Former Director Chumiecki and the late Fr. Flis were often battling over who was in charge of the archives. Only since 2021 has it become a concrete fact that the Mission (now the Institute) is in charge of the archives, museum collections, art collection, and other Polish and Polish American cultural treasures and artifacts. This summer, due to the closure of the Seminary, we have also taken on care of the Polish and Polish American related book collections held by the Adam Cardinal Maida Alumni Memorial Library, something that I certainly did not anticipate when I arrived.

Many of the problems were sins of omission rather than commission. Most of the people involved over the years—with a few exceptions—did not set out to wreck things or make a mess. The two previous directors, for example, in my opinion made mistakes but they also did some good things and seem to have tried to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. For example, one of the biggest problems is lack of adequate documentation for some of the collections that were donated. Proper inventories were not made or were started and then not finished or lost. For the archives there are three different partial schemes of cataloguing created by three different people. Now we have to go back and painstakingly correct these errors.
That said, there were cases when unscrupulous or bad people took advantage of the situation at Orchard Lake to help themselves. This has been worsened by the dishonesty of some of their friends and supporters. For example, this summer I was able to regain four Polish Royal letters that had been improperly taken by one person formerly associated with OLS who then passed them on to another person formerly associated with OLS, who gave them someone else, who later returned them to us. It is no secret that in 2009 when the former archivist left, the condition of the archives and collections was a disaster. Such longstanding lack of care doubtless facilitated the loss of these letters (thankful now returned). At that time (2009), the former Mission director, along with Dr. Karen Majewski and some volunteers (with assistance from outside partners in Poland and the USA), went a long way toward cleaning up the problems that existed. Here I have to say that there has been campaign of slander directed toward former Chancellor Fr. Whalen and Dr. Majewski that falsely accuses them of throwing out valuable items or selling items off improperly. These charges were printed in an article in 2009 in Gwiazda Polarna, which was once a serious newspaper but longer deserves the name. It was written by “friends” of the former archivist in order to obscure what really happened. This article has been re-circulated recently on a certain facebook page by some of the same scoundrels. This matters because without the work done in 2009 by Dr. Majewski and others we would be in much worse shape than we are today, but also because it adds to the confusion and gossip that influences even honest people wishing to learn what the real situation is.

Three people are the team that helps you organize and run the Polish Institute. Can you introduce them to the Polish Weekly readers?

Dr. John Radzilowski: I am very fortunate to have three very capable Polish ladies assisting me.

Sr. Genowefa Potaczała, SChr., is our archivist. She has master’s degrees in theology, history, and education and great experience as an educator working with Polish and American schools in Chicago and New Jersey. Sister is very keen about preserving our collections and is particularly interested in the history of Polish American parishes. Our archives are rich in material on this topic. In the future, we hope to create an atlas of Polish parishes in North America under her direction. Sister Genowefa’s major duties relate to caring for and overseeing the archives. This quite challenging due to the problems I listed because to have a proper archive, things have to be arranged in the correct way and not simply moved around randomly or put in boxes. In addition, she has been assisting me with the book collections and has oversight of the collections of books and periodicals that we have.

Our curator is Agnieszka Przychodnia. She has the task of overseeing our art collection and researching and creating an inventory of art. She is extremely well qualified and has worked in Museum of King Jan III Sobieski in Warsaw and the Office of the Capitol City Conservator of Monuments. Over the past few months, she has uncovered facts about items in our collection showing that we hold items of high artistic and cultural value. For example, we had two marble statues labeled as “Roman muses” which she researched and found they were in fact valuable statues of two Old Testament women by a well-known 19th century Italian sculptor, Giovanni Lombardi.

Anna Bieciuk is our Associate Director for Polonia Affairs. Her main task is the development of our public programs, social media, website, communication, and outreach. She is highly energetic and capable with lots of fresh ideas. She is especially interested in inviting to our Institute and to OLS segments of Polonia who may not know about us or were not involved here in the past, in addition to those who are our regular friends and supporters.

This is a very small staff, but it is powerful and able to accomplish a great deal.

Much information and concern about the liquidated library of Cardinal Adam Maida appeared on social media. What happened with the books? I know that you and Sister Genowefa looked over these books. Will the preserved books begin a new library for the Institute? Do you also have such plans?

Dr. John Radzilowski: As I noted above, I did not expect the closing of the library when I arrived. There was no clear plan of what do to with the library after the closing of the seminary since the Prep had no need for it. There was no one to take charge of it. Most of the “information” that appeared on social media about the library is false. One of the features of social media has been the spread of the idea that there are some deep plots afoot to do this or that to OLS. The problems we had at the library were caused more by lack of any clear plan and lack of communication, particularly when they had some high school students with work hours so they decided to use them to pack books. Had there been the dark conspiracy that some allege things would have proceeded much more smoothly! In the end, it was the Institute (i.e., me) that had to step in to make a plan because there was no one else. What do you with more than 80,000 books? It is not like you can put them in the corner somewhere and decide later what to do. We had to step in and take charge of this. Inevitably, whoever took on that role would get blamed for something awful by those whose have many hours each day to spend imagining conspiracies. As the joke goes, “no good deed goes unpunished.” This is how I ended up compared to Hitler by those nice people on social media!

So, Sister Genowefa and I packed or repacked many thousands of books. We are primarily focused on saving all books on Polish topics (or related to Polish topics) and theology and religious books that may be of help in creating a library for the center dedicated to Pope St. John Paul II that is now being formed with Fr. Witek. This is the core of the collection. The plan is to develop research library collections to support both our Institute with its museum and archival collections and to further research and understanding of the life, teachings, and ministry of the Great Saint. Of course, in addition to the books from library, the Institute has many thousands of books already so one of the next big tasks will be to make a complete inventory of all the books we have to identify gaps and duplications. I wrote a statement explaining this process in a little more detail which is still on our website.

At what stage of implementation is the project honoring the graves of Haller’s soldiers? I call it the project of Henrietta Nowakowski, a project that the Polish Institute is implementing jointly with the Institute of National Remembrance. It has been going on for the fifth year.

Dr. John Radzilowski: I agree that this should called Pani Nowakowski’s project because of all the work she has done! I am happy to say that we are moving forward. This week we received the long-awaited funds from Institute for National Remembrance in Poland. The grave markers are to be shipped soon or so our partners in Poland have told us. Working with all large government bureaucracies is always time consuming and requires filling out many forms, sometimes in two or three versions. This is even more the case when the government is located across the ocean. I have not announced any dates for completion because there have so many starts and stops along the way that people have become jaded. I am praying that all the work can be finished yet this fall. “Hold your thumbs” for a warm autumn so the ground doesn’t freeze. Once we know when the memorial and new gravestones will be in place, we will announce an event to dedicate the gravestones and bless the memorial.

Have you seen the so-called Royal Letters preserved by the Museum conservation workshop in Grębocin in Poland? What about hundreds of letters written by students of Polish schools in 1922 to Americans as an expression of their gratitude. Did they come back to the Polish Institute after the conservation in Poland?

Dr. John Radzilowski: This was an example of the problem I mentioned in my answer about the past problems of the Mission/Institute. In 2019, the Polish ministry of Culture and National Heritage sponsored a program where paper documents from collections abroad would be sent to Poland for needed conservation work at the Museum of Literature and Printing in Grębocin, a professional museum with a good reputation. Both the Mission/Institute and the Polish Museum of America (PMA) in Chicago sent items. In our case it was the letters from schoolchildren as well as some of the royal letters. The PMA sent some of its valuable posters. Of course, since 2019 many things happened, in addition to COVID there was the controversy with the former director and the former chancellor and no one was in charge here. Important correspondence with our partners in Grębocin was lost or misplaced (especially emails). When I came, I found just a few items in the files. Fortunately, with the help of Sr. Genowefa and Ms. Malgorzata Kot at the PMA, we were able to establish basic facts. Most of the Royal letters have been returned. There remain a couple that we haven’t accounted for, but this may be a question of them being in our possession but misidentified. There was no point in time when we had a definitive list of the royal letters owned by OLS that we can compare to what we have now. According to a list prepared in ca. 2009/10 we have accounted for nearly all the letters. The children’s letters (and the posters belonging to PMA) remain in Poland for now. These items were exhibited in a number of museums in Poland, most recently in Szczecin. We are working cooperatively with our friends in Chicago and have been in contact with the museum in Grębocin which is cooperating as well. The letters are safe and we will arrange for their return soon.

Have you seen the exhibition of photographs from 1944 entitled “London – Capital of Poland”? Did they return from Poland?

Dr. John Radzilowski: I don’t yet have a clear answer. I am continuing to investigate, but unlike the items sent for conservation in Grębocin where we were able to find the relevant documents and find cooperative partners, in this case I have as yet very limited information.

In the Open Letter to Polonia it is written: “After decades of inaction, the Galeria restoration, costing $1.5 million, is nearly complete, and the art and historical material is being both preserved and prepped for public viewing.” What is the source of $1.5 million? What was done for this money? The essential condition that a Galeria building should fulfill is to provide the artifacts with high-quality protection in the long term. Light, temperature, and humidity are the most important elements influencing the state of preservation arts. Will these conditions be fulfilled?

Dr. Radzilowski: The source of the funding is the Edward and Josephine Wikeira Foundation. The foundation generously provided an extra amount to see this project through to completion. Over the years were many plans and proposal created for the Galeria, but we are grateful that restoration is finally being completed. Many people have seen the first phase of this. The most important elements of this phase were to repair structural and foundation issues so we can proceed with the next phase in way that will be safe. The next phase will add new flooring, new windows, additional bathrooms, and a modern HVAC system. The windows will be especially shielded from UV light which can harm certain works of art. The new HVAC system will allow us to control for temperature and humidity. Old paintings do not like big variations in temperature and humidity, so we will now be able to control these factors much more precisely. There will also be security and fire suppression. In addition to changes on the interior, there will be a new entry way in the front which will be compliant for people with disabilities. The overall design will modernize the Galeria but keep and enhance its historical character and connect it to other architecture on campus.

When we see Morgan’s collections of gold coins, should they be on display in the Galeria?

Dr. Radzilowski: As you know many opinions were aired in this newspaper and on social media about this collection, many which were not accurate. I already indicated that in many instances, documentation and records of particular collections here were lost or not properly kept. However, this is not the case with Mr. Morgan’s coin collection. We have full documents and much correspondence going back many years. There is no question from a legal and professional standpoint the Mission/Institute and OLS acted properly, Mr. Morgan’s unhappiness notwithstanding. However, in cases such as these when a museum is faced with any controversy about the ownership of a collection, even when the museum is in the right, the professional standard is to remove the entire collection from public view until the matter is resolved or comes to an end. The Institute and OLS are unquestionably the proper owners of the collection, but we will not display them until the matter is concluded. Unfortunately, it is Mr. Morgan and some of his friends who are the cause of this situation. In future, we hope to display the coins or a selection of them in accordance with the terms of the donation agreement. Here I wish to also point out for the benefit of your readers that when items are donated to any museum, archive, or library, the donor gives up ownership of those items. The terms of the donation agreement may specify certain conditions that the receiving institution must follow but unless explicitly stated, donors have no right many years later to come back and demand return of what they donated because they somehow grow unhappy with that institution or they simply want items back for nostalgic reasons. This is completely against professional standards and would create chaos and would make it almost impossible to operate any museums or archives.

Can you tell us the most urgent problems you want to solve soon? What plans do you have in the long term? Say, during the year, what tasks would you like to do?

Dr. Radzilowski: The words “soon” or “long term” to a historian have slightly different meanings! Not a week goes by when some new issue arises at the Institute, some of them demanding urgent attention. This is part of the challenge of the job but also its joy. Sometimes we discover an amazing work of art in our collection we did not know we had. Each day we are preserving or documenting some piece of Polish or Polish American heritage which leaves us little time for chatter on social media. I pray for a quiet autumn and winter so we can accomplish some of the pressing tasks we have to do.
In addition to the renovations for the Galeria we are beginning to make concrete plans for our research center to house archives and rare books under the proper environmental conditions of temperature and humidity and of course security. This is both an urgent and a long-term issue. If we can succeed it will solve the greatest single problem that has faced the Polish collections at Orchard Lake for over 40 years. Once that is complete, we can focus on creating space to display our museum collections.
Of course, the Institute will play a role in the overall plans for the future of the Orchard Lake campus. In the past there was friction and lack of communication between the different parts. We can’t afford to repeat that. Additionally, we will be assisting and supporting Fr. Bernard in the creation of a center devoted to Pope St. John Paul II. Having such a center will be of great help to the Institute, practically and spiritually.
On a more practical level, over the next year we hope to create a system to catalogue our collections, to undertake some digitization of selected pieces of the collection as a test for how this will go in the future, and to continue the process of inventory. This is in addition to regular programs for the public.

How is your cooperation with the Board of the Institute and with the Board of Regents?

Dr. John Radzilowski: We have an excellent Board of Trustees for the Institute, led by our chairman, Mr. Richard Walawender. The board members play an active role in supporting our work and advancing specific projects. In addition to Mr. Walawender, I wish to single out Ms. Ann Bankowski, who assisted with our event for Polish Army Day, and Mr. Frank Dmuchowski’s participation in weekly project meetings has been a helpful input into the Galeria renovation project.

We are also blessed to have very good cooperation with the board of the Wikeira Foundation, led by Mr. Michael Obloy. So far, I have had very little interaction with the Board of Regents as a group, although I have met several of the Regents. Since I came the Regents have had many issues to deal with other than our Institute but there is no doubt that we will also be working with them in the future. Mostly I have worked with the Executive Committee (the chairs of the three boards and chair of the regents). They have been supportive of our plans. I believe there is a growing understanding here that a strong Polish Institute will benefit OLS as a whole. In the past, the different units of OLS were sometimes in conflict over space or resources and some leaders in the past even tacitly encouraged this. This was a significant factor in some of the serious problems OLS has faced and it wasted valuable resources and caused hard feelings. That cannot be repeated, and I see a realization here that working together will benefit everyone. It is something to which I am deeply committed.

Finally, I will ask you what you have to offer for the young generation of Poles and Americans of Polish origin. How do you want to invite them to participate in promoting Polish culture and the reception of Polish heritage?

Dr. John Radzilowski:
Keep the faith and seek out what is true and beautiful! St. John Paul II said out that culture could not thrive without faith in God and that faith is root of culture. If we look at the mainstream secular culture, we see the same tired themes repeated over and over. Each year, a nearly identical set of movies is made with the same types of characters doing much the same thing as in last year’s movies. The lack of creativity today is depressing and it is a direct result of widespread secularization and moral relativism. Only a culture that focuses on higher and transcendent values can truly create and inspire us to greatness. God creates ex nihilo. We humans must draw on what we are given in the world to create. In other words, the future of our culture relies on its past. There we find the building blocks to make something new. Poles and Polish Americans have a tremendous heritage to draw upon. To move forward, go back to the wellsprings of Polish history and culture, learn as much as you can and then create something great.

It is not sufficient to for the next generation to simply be passive consumers of culture. Of course, we want everyone to come to our May 3rd events, to read books and articles I and others have written, to see the Polish art we display in the Galeria. But for this culture and heritage to grow we need the artists, writers, composers of the future who will take what they see or learn at the Institute and create great and beautiful things. St. John Paul II said that each of us is made by God for greatness, so we invite all young people to become the next Stryjeńska, the next Herbert, or the next Szymanowski.

Thank you for the interview; I wish you further success in your work and in promoting Polish traditions and culture.

Sept. 19, 2022 – Orchard Lake Schools, MI

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