ANN ARBOR—The Polish language was dying out in Jeff Lemanski’s family and that was bothering the University of Michigan student. His grandmother and great aunt were the last ones fluent in their ancestral tongue.
So during his freshman year, Lemanski decided to take a Polish class to fulfill his foreign language requirement.
The language quickly became an obsession for the Ypsilanti native who hopes to go into accounting. He found himself spending two and a half hours a day studying Polish.
“It didn’t seem like work because I enjoyed it so much,” said Lemanski, now a senior.
In his dorm room, he always listened to Polish radio and television via the Internet. His roommate didn’t complain, but during the winter break, he sent Lemanski a text message saying, “For some reason, I can’t get the Polish music out of my head.”
Lemanski came to the right place to strengthen his Polish roots. U-M has more Poland-related programs than any other educational institution in North America. It’s the only university in the U.S. to offer four levels of the language each academic year.
The university also has a strong tradition of hosting Polish politicians, filmmakers, authors, rock stars and other leading figures who speak on campus.
“We go to Poland, but Poland also comes to us,” said Genevieve Zubrzycki, director of the Polish Studies Program.
Speakers have included President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a 2010 plane crash; Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, who also had a visiting professorship; the late composer Henryk Gorecki; and former President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who oversaw Poland’s admission to the European Union.
This fall, director Agnieszka Holland, a three-time Academy Award nominee, will give a lecture. Holland also directed episodes of the TV series The Wire. Before her visit, seven of her best-known films will be shown to the public for free at the Michigan Theater, including Europa Europa and The Secret Garden.
Zubrzycki, an associate professor in sociology, said that when she was earning her doctorate at the University of Chicago, she was envious of all the speakers and programs at U-M.
“I remember looking at the University of Michigan website and thinking: ‘Look at what’s happening there,’” she said.
U-M’s strength in Polish studies is partly due to the large Polish community in Michigan, which was instrumental in creating the Copernicus Endowment in 1973 that helps fund faculty appointments, fellowships and programming.
The Polish Studies Program also has experienced, well-connected support staff, such as Marysia Ostafin, a program manager who was awarded the Cross of Service Award by the Polish government in 1999.
Three years after Lemanski took his first Polish course, he is still studying the language and has decided to major in Polish. Last semester, he won a prize within the program for his dedication to the language.
Lemanski said his parents began to worry about the amount of time he was spending on Polish and wanted him to concentrate more on classes that they thought would better help him find a job.He said adding courses in accounting helped ease his parents’ concerns, and he also pointed out to them that Poland’s economy has been doing relatively well.
“I kept sending them articles about U.S. companies investing a lot of money in Poland,” he said.
Lemanski traveled to Poland for the first time last year when he did an intensive nine-week summer language course in the southeastern city of Lublin. Each day, he spent six hours in class and practiced as much as he could in the streets.
“It’s such a difficult language that many Poles are thrilled if you try to speak it,” he said.
Lemanski said he will never forget his first successful conversation with a native Pole. He was in a pharmacy and asked a clerk for a bottle of solution for his contact lenses. The clerk understood him and didn’t treat him like a foreigner.
“Words cannot express how great it felt to see all of my hard work come to fruition,” he said. “Never in my life has buying contact solution been so gratifying.”
He eventually hopes to find a job that will enable him to divide his time between America and Poland.
“My Polish ancestors must be beaming down on me now,” he said.
For more information about Polish studies at U-M: http://www.ii.umich.edu/crees/
The Polish program is hosted by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures: