Remembering Edward Piszek
The late Edward John Piszek (1916 – 2004) gave a unique Polish-American twist to the classic “rags to riches” story, which is worth recalling on the 10th anniversary of his death. In the late 1940s he and a friend began experimenting with frozen crab cakes with which they supplied a Philadelphia neighborhood tavern. They went over so well that Piszek eventually bought out his partner and used his last name to set up a frozen-food firm called Mrs Paul’s Kitchens. The business prospered and before long it was turning a multimillion dollar annual profit.
Back then, he mainly thought of himself as a successful businessman, not a Polish American. Even though both his parents were from Poland, he never bothered to learn the language. And he wouldn’t have dreamed of using his own surname in the company brand. “Who would buy a product labeled Mrs Piszek’s Kitchens?” he once remarked. That would soon change when he made his first trip to Poland in the 1960s.
“When my plane was about the land in Warsaw I wondered whether it was the Germans or Swedes that piped in Poland’s electricity, because I didn’t think Polish people would be smart enough to handle such a problem themselves. Surely, not the Polish people I knew in Philadelphia,” he told this reporter. But his hands-on contacts with his ancestral homeland and interaction with its people soon filled him with new-found pride and admiration.
Piszek couldn’t help but admire the determination with which the Poles had rebuilt their war-torn land. It was still a poor country, but nowhere as backward as he had imagined. He had learned that TB was still a serious problem and decided to help by donating a fleet of mobile x-ray units and ambulances to the Polish health service. Increasingly identifying with his heritage, he next set about restoring and turning a derelict Philadelphia building, in which Tadeusz Kościuszko had stayed, into the Kościuszko House Museum. He also arranged to have it declared a national landmark.
Piszek’s response to the idiotic “Polack joke” craze then in vogue was Project: POLE. In cooperation with the PolAm Orchard Lake School in Michigan, Piszek bankrolled a nationwide public-relations campaign to elevate the Polish image and promote Poland’s 1,000-year heritage. When they opened their daily newspapers, Americans in various metropolitan areas found full-page spreads trumpeting the achievements of Copernicus, Kościuszko, Joseph Conrad and other prominent Poles. At a time when heretics were being burned at the stake in Western Europe and Jews were expelled from one country after another, as early as 1264 Polish ruler Bolesław the Pious gave Poland’s Jews a special bill of rights called the Statute of Kalisz.
When Copernican Year was being celebrated in 1973, Piszek set up the Copernicus Society of America and organized an eight-city tour of the Polish astronomer’s original scientific instruments. The Philadelphia industrialist shipped 40 million fish cakes to Poland during the height of its food shortage. At the same time he persuaded his friend James Michener to write a novel titled “Poland” and financed the author’s fact-finding trips to Poland as well as a staff of research assistants.
After Poland dumped communism, Piszek arranged to have the Peace Corps send teams of English teachers to Poland and also bankrolled the Warsaw-based World of English magazine to promote the study of English. Together with his good friend Stan Musiał he encouraged Little League International to build their European Training Center in Kutno, Poland. These are but a sample of the activities described in Piszek’s biography entitled Some Good in the world – A Life of Purpose.
As a self-made man, Piszek together with his family enjoyed the luxury and privilege provided by heard-earned wealth. The Piszeks lived in an historic mansion on the outskirts of Philadelphia which had once served as George Washington’s headquarters. But after he hit 50, he began displaying a new-found interest in his Polish heritage which soon became an important aspect of his life.
Some quick-to-criticize PolAms remarked: “If I had his millions I could also afford to be a philanthropist.” Over the years I have met numerous Polonians who have found different ways of serving the PolAm cause. There were the Kościuszko Foundation presidents: Eugene Kusielewicz, who first promoted broad academic contacts with Poland, and Alex Storożyński, who launched a major campaign to eliminate the fallacious words “Polish concentration camp” from the media.
There was Chester Grabowski, editor of The Post Eagle weekly newspaper, who launched a campaign to boycott products advertised on anti-Polish TV shows. In Boston, Joe Alecks (Aleksiejczuk), who ran the political campaigns of all three Kennedy brothers, till the day he died was a feisty fighter for pro-Polish causes who combated any hint of “Polack joke” humor.
Mention could also be made of the PolAm-themed novels written by such authors as Susan Strempek-Shea and Anthony Bukoski. The point is that each of them in their own way helped keep the flag of Polish heritage flying over these United States. And none of them were millionaires!
By Robert Strybel, Polish / Polonian Affairs Writer