February 14, 2023 at 5:58 p.m.
Bieniek honored for sharing Polish-American culture, heritage
Jon Bieniek has fond memories of his homeland, Dabrówka Dolna, Poland; of walking in the garden at his ancestor’s farm during his first trip in September of 1984.
“I was so emotional,” he said Feb. 8 sitting in the kitchen of his rural Holdingford home.
On the table is a box of yellowed letters from relatives in Poland.
Bieniek is proud of his Polish heritage. He has spent a good portion of his 84 years sharing the Polish culture and language, including translating which led to one of his 16 trips to Poland.
In recognition of his contribution to the Polish-American community in Minnesota, Bieniek was the recipient of the Polish-American Cultural Institute of Minnesota honorary award presented Jan. 28 during the Bal Karnawalowy, an annual carnival ball, at Midland Hills Country Club in Roseville.
Bieniek’s roots go back to grandparents, Vincent and Paulina (Yeager) Bieniek who
immigrated to the United States in 1882 from Poland, with relatives eventually homesteading near Holdingford. Bieniek’s home farm is two miles “as the crow flies” from where he lives in rural Holdingford, he said. It is where Bieniek and his first wife, Phyllis Mary Lichy, raised their three children, Danial, Michelle and Gregory. After Phyllis Mary passed away in 2005, he remarried Phyllis Anne Husted in 2008, and he travels between her home in Brooklyn Park and his home near Holdingford.
Bieniek talks about the river running through Holdingford, and if a person travels west of the river most people have German ancestry and east of the river people have Polish ancestry.
“So the farm I was raised on, I can go 360 degrees and all surrounding farms are Polish farms with the exception of two German farms,” he said.
A farm boy, Bieniek appreciates his parents sending him to St. John’s Prep School, mainly because they thought he might become a priest.
“That was a huge cultural jump,” he said. “I was not an intellectual, so I had to work for my grades.”
His family attended St. Hedwig’s Catholic Church in Holdingford, which he said was called the “Polish church.” He would see his aunt in church, who had a major influence on him learning Polish.
“She was the only person, to my knowledge, that was able to read and write Polish and she spoke it slowly,” he said. “Now, there is me.”
spoke some Polish at home, and John spoke very limited Polish.
“We knew a few smart words,” he said laughing.
He yearned to learn more about the Polish language.
“There was a stirring in me that would not stop,” Bieniek said.
Bieniek’s curiosity about his Polish lineage started in the mid-’70s when he and Phyllis Mary lived in Arizona. In 1972 he and Phyllis moved back to Holdingford.
Bieniek took continuing education Polish classes at the University of Minnesota and later at the Maria Sklodowska Curie University in Lublin, Poland.
“My professor at the U of M said, ‘I wish I could bottle your enthusiasm for this Polish language for other students,’” Bieniek recalls.
Learning Polish led to him teaching the language five years at community education classes in Holdingford and in Little Falls.
“It was wonderful,” he said.
He recalls the first letter he wrote to a relative in Poland.
“I did so in my very humble Polish, and I asked my professor to look at it, and I got it back and there were red marks all over it,” he said.
Bieniek received a letter back from Poland – written in Polish.
“They were so overjoyed, and my cousin, Teresa, said, ‘God sent you to us,’” he said.
In September 1984, he took his first trip to Poland, visiting relatives in Rzeszów.
“We squeezed each other to death,” he said, adding, “It was quite the reunion.”
Martial law had just been lifted in Poland, and people talked in “very low voices,” Bieniek said.
“They didn’t want to be heard because they were in communism yet. If you misspoke you were turned in by one of 400,000 paid listeners,” he said.
They toured the Poland countryside, and Bieniek loved learning about his Polish roots.
In 1985, Bieniek invited his second cousin and her husband from Poland to Holdingford.
“I wanted to spread the joy in our community,” he said. “I have a vast amount of relatives, and they invited them to their homes, and we shared them for three months.”
Bieniek’s Polish culture also helped him connect with his second wife, Phyllis Anne, after his first wife passed away. Phyllis Anne coordinated trips to Polish Constitution Days in Chicago. That led to the president of a Columbia Heights, Minnesota, Sister City organization discovering Bieniek knew Polish, which led to Sister City trips to Poland where he translated during a commemoration ceremony. He explains during the 1944 Warsaw uprising of the Polish people, at the time of the Hitler regime, 110 American B17 planes flew overhead in Warsaw, Poland, dropping food, medicine and ammo and one of the planes was shot down. A 12-year-old boy observed this. Three survived the flight, including Walter Shimshock, from Columbia Heights, who was killed because he was Polish, Bieniek said.
So smitten with that story, Bieniek, during one of his trips to Warsaw, Poland, recited a speech he wrote in Polish during the ceremony, sharing the story of the young boy.
“It brought me to tears, and I almost didn’t finish my speech,” he said.
His Polish pride came into play.
Sharing his heritage is second nature to Bieniek. That’s why his involvement with the PACIM was important. It is a Minnesota-based organization that works to promote Polish-American culture and heritage and connects globally by providing a venue and sponsoring events that bring together leaders in the arts, history, literature, language, science and culture with the Polish community to Minnesota.
Bieniek, who retired from the organization this year, had been an active member since 2007, organizing activities, volunteering for events like the Twin Cities Polish Festival and October soup festival and serving as president and on the board of directors.
He appreciates the award he received, noting he had “a lot of help” with projects from dedicated volunteers.
Turning 85 in April, Bieniek is not slowing down.
“I’ve studied everything I could about Poland, and I only know a sliver of it,” said Bieniek who plans to write his memoirs.
He has many mementos, including prayer books in Polish donated to him.
“I’ve kept it all,” he said.
Bieniek will keep learning and sharing his Polish lineage and language.