By Greg Kowalski
“A man holds dear what little is left. When much is lost, there is no risking the remainder.”
Oscar Handling wrote those words in “The Uprooted,” his classic book on immigration. His topic was religion, and how it played a crucial role in the lives of the immigrants.
Consider that it was typical for immigrants to give up what little they had in the Old Country to come to a new land. Usually they had little idea of what to expect in the new country. Often they did not even speak English; nor did they have a clue about the American judicial and governmental system.
But they did know God.
Religion was a cornerstone of their lives back home. There, separation of church and state was not the normal state of affairs. And while governments might fail them in their native lands, their core religion could provide them with a solid foundation to overcome, or at least cope with, the most trying events. Religion often predominated their lives.
But when they came to America, they were pretty much on their own, especially the Poles, and the intensity of their religion was determined by them, not the long-standing culture.
Poles began arriving in large numbers in Detroit in the mid-19th century.
At that time, the archdiocese, the effective government of the church, was controlled mainly by Germans. And the Poles and Germans had a long-standing animosity stemming from centuries of warfare.
Yet, generally, the Polish immigrants settled at first in German neighborhoods and attended German Catholic churches, but that was because they knew who they were facing in the Germans. The other Americans were a great unknown to them.
As soon as the Poles could, they established their own churches and split off into their own communities, where they could share in the services with customs from their homeland that were uniquely theirs.
Easter was a prime example. All Christians value Easter as the most holy of days, but different ethnic groups added their own particular touches.
These circumstances made Easter a particularly colorful and meaningful event in Hamtramck, which became overwhelmingly Polish in the first two decades of the 20th century. Easter represents rebirth, a fitting end to the long gray days of winter, which were especially drab in the lives of the immigrants. Hamtramck was a gritty industrial town then, and the living was often grim.
Easter coincides with the coming of longer, brighter spring days, and the end of Lent, which is a time of sacrifice and reflection. Easter is a time of rejoicing, when special foods can be prepared and fine clothes are traditionally worn. And a hundred years ago, the church played a greater role in the lives of the Poles than it does today.
In the 1930s, Good Friday was an unofficial city holiday in Hamtramck.
Virtually the entire city shut down between noon and 3 p.m., and on Saturday, the churches were packed with people bringing their Easter baskets to be blessed. They usually contained bread, horseradish, boiled eggs, kielbasa, ham and a butter lamb.
The blessing of the baskets still takes place today, but not nearly to the scale it did back then, when Hamtramck’s population stood at about 50,000 people – about 40,000 of them Polish Catholics.
Stores learned early on that, while Easter was a solemn religious holiday, it was also a good source of business. Brawer’s dime store offered marshmallow rabbits five for 5 cents, and chocolate eggs for 5cents to 39 cents in 1938. Many people dyed their Easter eggs in water colored by boiled onion peels, but you could buy egg dye for 5 cents. And if you wanted to look right for the occasion, you could get a permanent for only $1.15 at J. and S. Beauty Shop on Jos. Campau. It was their Easter special.
The Kowalski Sausage Company was offering Easter smoked ham and “Special Easter kielbasa” — whatever that was.
On April 15, 1938, 3-year-old Sandra Bonczak, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs.
Marion Bonczak of Lehman St., appeared on the front page of the New Deal newspaper. She was adorable, with a big smile, and was clutching a stuffed bunny while surrounded by other stuffed animals at the front window of the Kresge store.
The caption noted: “It pleased the little lady to have all the fuzzy soft creatures around her.”
The accompanying story listed the upcoming Easter services at the local churches. The package captured the blending of what had become the traditional religious, with the more typically American, celebrations of Easter.
Easter itself, however, was supremely religious. It was a busy day, with processions and Masses. Most people belonged to at least one of the dozens of church-related organizations, and they packed the churches.
Then there was the Easter dinner, which brought the family together for a feast, and also time just to be together.
Easter, of course, isn’t only a historical event from years past. People will go to church on this Good Friday, and tote their baskets to church on Holy Saturday. And many Christians who haven’t seen the inside of a church since Christmas will find their way to one for Easter Sunday Mass. The celebration of Easter has taken place for some 2,000 years, and will continue to take place for many more.
It may not be felt in the same way it was decades ago in Hamtramck, but it always was, and is, a religious celebration that touches the souls of the believers.