Once in a while a very interesting phenomenon occurs in Poland. Let’s call it the Rob Gronkowski Effect.
Someone with a last name ending in ‘ski’ will pop up on the world stage and the Polish media will go into a twitter. The genealogical libraries will be busted open, the parish books dusted off and sure enough, a great-grandfather will be uncovered from some village in the Mazury.
But what happens if the name doesn’t end in the proverbial ‘ski’ (or any other typical Polish suffix) and the holder is as polski as pierogi?
(The fillings might vary but they’re all wrapped up in the same pastry made from the same Polish flour, ground from the same Polish wheat, grown from the same Polish soil.)
What happens when the names of these famous Polish expats look like Goldwyn, Warner, Singer, Mayer or indeed Columbus?
I’ve decided to visit the same genealogical library for myself.
But this time I will be bypassing the well-lit upper floors and heading straight for the basement to see what surprises I might be able to dredge up. It turns out that there is more than one level down here.
We’re talking stacks and stacks of genealogical records going back nearly 1000 years. That’s a lot of forgotten files to sift through.
First up, a word or two about methodology.
It’s always a headache when talking about identity and a brain-tumour-inducing nightmare when it comes to national identity. There are great swathes of literature pondering these eternal questions.
I suppose, when it comes to identity, you are the only person who can answer that question with any real authority.
Geopolitical boundaries fall in the same boat and the cartographer has been especially busy in Poland over the centuries.
Austria-Hungary one day, the Second Republic of Poland the next, only for Comrade Stalin to crash the whole party. Yep, I’m talking about Lemberg.
No, I mean, Lwów.
Or should that be Lviv?
Or rather, Львів?
Oh, stop it.
So I’ve decided to do the only sane thing and that’s to adopt a pierogi-based system.
In the next few weeks leading up to the 15th Singer’s Warsaw Festival, we’ll be testing the Pierogi Scale of Polishness against a sample group of fourteen famous Polish expats, including Isaac Bashevis Singer himself.
They come from the fields of Cinema, Science, Literature, Glamour, Politics and Nautical Exploration.
We might also make a few honourable mentions along the way.
The Hollywood Poles?
The creator of these apple-pie classics, on the other hand, was more like a szarlotka or challah type of guy.
Samuel Goldwyn, the gold in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, was born Szmuel Gelbfisz on 17 August 1879 in Warsaw to a Hasidic Jewish family.
His parents, Aaron Dawid (aka Abraham) and Hanna Reban Gelbfisz, were also born in Warsaw to families with long and deep roots to Poland.
He and his five siblings lived in two rooms of a flat in a tenement house located most likely around the former Jewish enclaves of Mirów and Muranów.
His grandparents used to live down on the more well-to-do Browarna. Goldwyn once described his childhood as simply ‘poor, poor, poor’.
When his father died in 1895, Goldwyn went straight to the tailor (or krawiec, as in Lenny Kravitz) and had a few of his father’s suits re-fitted to his tall, gangly frame.
He then left for the port of Hamburg on foot. He was just sixteen years old.
But his Polish story did not end there.
Cooper plays a struggling writer who relocates to rural Connecticut and falls in love with a Polish beauty by the name of Manya Novak.
This film has it all: the Sobieski family, Janusz moustaches galore, a feisty babcia, triple portions of everything, trysts, betrayal, dodgy business deals, drunken brawls, and a big Polish wedding to cap it all off.
The Warner Bros.
Moving across the studio lot, we come to the Warner Brothers, aka the Wonsal Brothers, aka the Wonskolaser Brothers, aka Bracia Wrona.
Whatever spelling you want to use, the founders behind the iconic film studios were neither born with the surname Warner nor under the palm trees of Los Angeles. As a matter fact, the likes of Casablanca, Gone with the Wind or Bugs Bunny might not have graced our screens had a Jewish shoemaker from Mazovia not boarded the Chester steamship in Hamburg in January 1888.
The three eldest of the Warner Brothers were all born in the village of Krasnosielc, just over 100km north of Warsaw. Harry entered the stage as Hirsz Mojżesz on 12 December 1881, Albert as Abraham on 23 July 1884 and Sam as Szmuel (Levy) on 10 August 1887 to Benjamin and Pearl Leah Wonsal.
When the boys were still very young, Benjamin left the family in Krasnosielc to scout out a better life in America. He would ultimately arrive in Baltimore in 1888 via Hamburg and Liverpool. A year later, the rest of the family followed suit. It was here in Baltimore where the anglicised name of Warner first appeared.
Now that we’ve scaled the heady heights of the Golden Age of Hollywood, let’s turn our attention to Tommy Wiseau … What?
OK, OK, I agree. He probably shouldn’t be here, but his film was so catastrophically bad that it was actually kind of … good?!
The Room, known as the worst film of all time, started off as a $6 million flop before Hollywood began to whisper and hipster irony conspired to turn it into a cult classic, so much so that James Franco felt its genesis story worthy of the big screen.
Tommy is one big, fat mystery with questions hanging over his age, wealth and origins. If we are to believe Tommy, then he was a twenty-something real-estate investor from New Orleans when he made The Room in 2003. Sorry, Tommy, no one’s buying it for a second – not with that accent. ‘You are lying. I never believe you. You are tearing me apart, Tommy.’
A series of books and documentaries have since shed some light.
Greg Sestero, Tommy’s one-time sidekick, revealed in his memoir The Disaster Artist that Tommy was most likely born in the 1950s – with the year of 1955 being the best pick. In his documentary Room full of Spoons, Rick Harper then tracked Tommy’s roots to Poznań.
The best hypothesis now is that Tommy Wiseau was born in 1955 as Tomasz or Piotr Wieczorkiewicz in Poznań, before emigrating to France and then to the USA where he joined his uncle Stan Wieczór in Chalmette, Louisiana.
Given his thick accent and the idiosyncrasies to his speech (the definite article is definitely lacking), a conservative guess would have him leaving Poland either after or during adolescence.
The White-Coat Poles?
PROF. ANDREW SCHALLY
Dr. Schally was awarded the joint Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977 for … I don’t know … for something really, really smart. The ground-breaking endocrinologist was born Andrzej Wiktor on 30 November 1926 in Wilno (now Vilnius), the city on the Neris once known as the former pearl of the Polish Crown.
He comes with some serious Polish credentials. His father was Gen. Brigadier Kazimierz Schally, the Chief of the Cabinet of President Ignacy Mościcki and through his mother Maria (née Łącka h. Jelita) a gush of Polish-Lithuanian blue blood ran through his veins – a notable forbear being the former Castellan of Gdańsk, Tomasz Tadeusz Pruszak.
WWII forced his family to leave Wilno and join the Warsaw government on the great retreat to the Romanian Bridgehead.
After seeing out the war in neutral Romania, the Schally family emigrated to Scotland in 1945 where Andrzej-cum-Andrew would embark on his career in medicine.
Among his many accolades and twenty honorary doctorates from universities around the world, he was awarded in 1977 a doctor honoris causa from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. He has also been recognised as a Fellow of the Kosciuszko Foundation Collegium of Eminent Scientists.
Po polsku? I’ll let him answer that for himself. ‘I used to speak Polish, Romanian, Yiddish, Italian and some German and Russian, but I have almost completely forgotten them.’ I think we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and hand him a full mincemeat pieróg, meaning that he is the proud recipient of seven full pierogi.
PROF. CASIMIR FUNK
Prof. Funk not only gave the world vitamins but like his fellow white-coat colleague above, he also holds the perfect score of seven pierogi. The author of the seminal work The Vitamines was born Kazimierz on 23 February 1884 in Warsaw to Jacques and Gustawa Funk.
His father was also a handy scientist with sixty publications accredited to his name. He ran a dermatology clinic at Królewska 47.
Young Kazik’s education was entrusted to both a private tutor and a private gymnasium in Warsaw. Complementing his native Polish, he was instructed in German and Russian – he would add French and English in later life.
Precocious, wealthy and raised in an academic milieu, everything was set for Funk to conquer the world of science. Everything except the world in which he found himself.
This was Tsarist Warsaw at the turn of the century. A Jewish student could only go so far without resorting to bribery. Like so many others of his contemporaries, Funk was forced to complete his education in Switzerland, studying chemistry, physics, zoology and biology at universities in Geneva and Bern.
After receiving his PhD under the tutelage of the great Stanisław Kostanecki, he went on to work at a number of scientific institutions around Europe, including the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London.
It was here in London, while working on a cure for beri-beri disease, that he made his big discovery. He called his mystery substance ‘vitamine’: vita for life and amine for the chemical compound group to which the substance belonged. It would later be known as vitamin B3.
Twenty-three years later Funk returned to Warsaw with his family. With the help of the Rockefeller Institute, he set up two small laboratories at the State School of Hygiene in Warsaw.
Alas, political unrest would once again catch up with Funk in Warsaw in the form of the May Coup of 1926. During the fighting, his institute was hit with shrapnel and his apartment was riddled with bullets. A year later he left with his family for Brussels, never to return to his homeland.
Next up we’ll be making a literary turn. Two of the three candidates have won the Nobel Prize for Literature and it’s safe to say that the third was robbed. They each come from three different religious backgrounds. But watch out. There might be a few controversial twists in the established narrative.
In the meantime, can you think of any other Polish expats from the fields of Cinema and Science who might fit the bill? We definitely could have looked at Leonid Hurwicz, Hilary Koprowski, L. L. Zamenhof and of course the obvious ones of Nicolaus Copernicus and Marie Skłodowska Curie.
William Hastings Burke is an Australian author, journalist and researcher based in Warsaw. He is best known for his book ‘Thirty Four’, which chronicles the WWII rescue story of Albert Göring – that’s right, the younger brother of Hermann Goering. Along with his Albert Goering biography, he has worked on numerous documentaries on the topic and now provides pro genealogy services and custom research for business, TV & Film and publishing.