In Baltimore, the Polish presence may be dwindling, but it still persists

July 10

The pierogi at Sophia’s Place sure are yummy. As good as my mother ever made. And the golabki? Mmm-mm. Hard to believe, but they’re better than Mom’s. So tender and melt-in-your-mouth — and the sauce!

“This sauce is delicious,” says my husband, tucking heartily into his Sobieski’s Feast platter of golabki, pierogi and kielbasa at the grocery-deli-eatery in Baltimore’s Broadway Market where we’ve dropped in for a bite. And for a little taste of the old country.

Which is all around me, not only on my plate. The clerks are speaking Polish to each other — music to my ears. Polish goodies — pastries, meats, cheeses and more — fill the deli cases. The shelves are laden with packaged and canned goods straight from Poland: sweets from Wedel, the famous Warsaw confectioner (gotta get this halva for my father), and other makers; bags of poppy seed (blue!), essential to the Polish baker; jars of preserves and pickled veggies and more.

Sophia’s Place (1640 Aliceanna St.; 410-342-6105, www.sophiaspolishdeli.com ) is a bright outpost of Polishness in a city once overrun by immigrants of my heritage but who are now a rather dwindling presence in the inner city. Little Poland, as the area around Fells Point, Canton and Highlandtown is sometimes called, has gotten a lot littler over the decades. But hey, it’s still there — you’ve just got to look.

If I want a Polish fix, it’s just a short skok (that’s a hop, of course) from Washington. Less than an hour on the road, and I’m walking down streets with buildings still engraved with Polish signage and some banks and other businesses still bearing names (amid a lot of Latino monikers) like Kosciuszko and Kopernik.

Also Krakus, as in Krakus Deli (1737 Fleet St.; 410-732-7533, www.krakusdelibaltimore.com), where the clerk and a customer converse in the mother tongue while I peruse the stack of used Polish-language books — selected poems of Juliusz Slowacki, anyone? — and my husband ogles the bins of bagels and jelly-filled doughnuts called paczki. (Yes, we’ll get some, don’t you worry!)

Krakus carries five kinds of kielbasa, but we’ll get some around the corner at Ostrowski’s Famous Polish Sausage (524 S. Washington St.; 410-327-8935), where the iconic rings are made by hand on the premises the old-country way, without preservatives, and the lines of buyers stretch around the block at holidays.

Handing me my own frozen coil, employee Peter Lerkaram imparts the news that the new owner of the shop — longtime owner John Ostrowski had sold it before his death in April — is a non-Pole but promises to keep everything just the same. Whew, I think, grabbing a box of homemade chrusciki, a bow-tie pastry supplied to the shop by, Peter says, “a little old Polish lady.” But it’s sad that another Polish spark has gone out.

Same with the National Polish-Slavic Museum just up from the laid-back Ze Mean Bean Cafe (1739 Fleet St., 410-675-5999, zemeanbean.com), where we down the delish Slavic Sampler (and I take note of the pierogi happy hour; great idea!). Manager Todd McKay informs me that the museum, in an old Polish social hall two doors over, is closed. Boo. But he and the owner (who also owns the cafe) are refurbishing the building and hope to reopen in the fall with a space for events upstairs and a reorganized museum below. “We want to keep the flavor of the culture,” he says. Yay!

There’s still flavor at the Polish Home Club (512 S. Broadway, 410-276-0636), a social club that’s really open only on Friday and Saturday evenings for dancing (to both live polka and pop) and occasional karaoke. But when we walk in on a Friday afternoon, club president Theresa Giza (“I’m Polish through and through,” she says) graciously offers us a beer (Polish, natch), a look at her newly refinished dance floor (gorgeous!), and stories of the old days among the Polish families in the ’hood.

Then she sends us around the corner to the Polish National Alliance (1627 Eastern Ave.), a cultural center that offers language and cooking classes and sponsors a folk dance troupe for children. We’ve no sooner stepped into the bar than local council president Jim Mislak announces: “Yes, we serve Polish beer.” Now, how did he know?

If anyplace keeps the old Polish culture and traditions alive, though, it’s Holy Rosary Church (408 S. Chester St., 410-732-3960, www.holyrosarypl.org ), an ornately Old World church where we pop in for an evening Polish Mass. Talk about feeling like I’m in the old country!

“The Polish church is very strong. It keeps all the traditions going,” like the blessing of Easter baskets and door-to-door Christmas caroling, says parishioner Maryanne Frederick. Besides owning Polish Treasures (429 S. Chester St., 410-563-8760, www.polishtreasures.com), a gift shop across the street filled chocka­block with beautiful pottery and crafts, Frederick also serves on the Polish Community Association of Maryland, which held a Polish festival in town for 37 years until rising city fees forced a switch to the Maryland State Fairgrounds, in Timonium. (It’s July 19-20 this year.) Sigh.

I’d been to that festival when it was held in Patterson Park, and I remember the Pulaski Memorial honoring Casimir Pulaski, a Polish hero of the American Revolution, that stood in the middle of it. We’ve already had a gander at the National Katyn Memorial in Harbor East, a stunner that the community erected in 2000 to commemorate the 1940 massacre of thousands of Poles by the Soviet secret police, but I figure that we should see the Pulaski for old times’ sake.

And, why — there’s a festival in the park today! A Latino festival. It takes us a bit, but we finally spot the memorial — right in the middle of the tents.

See? The Polish presence is still there. You just have to look a little.

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