Marianne Frederick remembers when East Baltimore was the center of Polish immigrant life
Published: January 15, 2014
If you walk down Eastern Avenue and look up, you can still see the stone headers on the buildings: the names of the Polish businesses, a lot of them savings and loans, all reminders of an earlier Fells Point.
Long before it was the darling of historic preservationists, partiers, tourists, and developers, Fells Point was the home of longshoremen, large Catholic families, and Baltimore’s biggest Polish community.
This was the Fells Point of Marianne Frederick’s Polish-American childhood.
“I lived in a world where everything was Polish: the vendors in the Broadway Market, the people, the churches, the food,” says Frederick, owner of Polish Treasures, a shop at 429 S. Chester St., off of Eastern Avenue in Upper Fells Point.
“It wasn’t until high school, where my best friend was Italian, that I realized not everyone in Baltimore ate pierogis and golabki (stuffed cabbage), spoke Polish and English at home, and was taught by Polish nuns from Lodi, N.J.”
Frederick, a Hopkins nurse and Fells Prospect resident, grew up Marianne Groah on the 2200 block of Pratt Street. Her mom, who was from Lublin, Poland, arrived in America in 1915 at the foot of Broadway (at that time, a large national immigration point) and hardly left East Baltimore.
Like many kids of first-generation families, her world revolved around relatives, ethnic customs, and the church.
As Frederick grew up and expanded her social circle outside of the ethnically homogenous east side, she discovered that not everyone in Charm City was as enamored of Poles and Polish culture as she.
The expression “dumb Pollock,” now an anachronism, was once commonplace and accepted, she says.
Frederick, who earned two degrees from Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, grew frustrated with the jokes and derogatory remarks about Polish people and wondered why detractors didn’t appreciate and respect the Polish culture she knew and loved.
Maybe they just didn’t know any better.
By opening a Polish store in 1987, Marianne and her husband, David, then a paramedic, sought to change that.
“I wanted to teach people about Polish culture and help them understand we’re not dumb Pollocks,” she says. “Did you know that Poland has over 60 regions, and each has its own traditions and costumes?” she adds, picking up a papier mâché-costumed doll off the shelf.
In those days, she says, there was no Polish retail store in Baltimore.
“People would buy Polish items for the whole year at the Polish festival, and that was about it. Before the fall of communism, you couldn’t find a lot of Polish products in the U.S. The Polish government owned everything.”
Polish Treasures sells a variety of Polish goods, including silver, amber, carved wood, reproductions of religious icons, decorative items (need a George Bush Matryoshka nesting doll?), pottery, books, religious items, and music.
David, who runs the store during the week, went to culinary school after he retired from the fire department, and he makes the poppy-seed loaf, paczki (a kind of Polish donut), and chrusciki (bow-ties) that the store sells.
“Polish food is so much more than people realize. Did you know that some of the best duck in the world comes from Poland?” David says.
The couple, who still have family in Poland, visit Krakow, Chenstahova, and other cities there at least once a year to buy for the store.
“I handpick every item. I buy directly from the artisans, a lot of whom are farmers. When I go to do business with them, the farm comes first. It’s like stepping back in time,” Marianne says.
“The Polish people learned early on that the roosters, the chickens, and the cows are important. They help keep you fed. That’s why you see the rooster on so many Polish decorative objects. It’s not a kitsch thing. In Poland, your farm animals are you life.”
Marianne, 61, says the shop has changed a bit over the last 25 years, as has East Baltimore’s Polish community.
Polka music and novelty Kiss Me I’m Polish-type items don’t sell as well as they used to. Neither do rosaries.
“The older Poles bought more religious items. We sold hundreds of rosaries. Today, I have to order pamphlets to go with them, because people don’t know how to pray the rosary anymore.”
Marianne acknowledges that East Baltimore’s Polish community is only getting smaller but says Baltimore Poles are drawn back to the neighborhood for holidays and Polish mass at Holy Rosary Church.
“This part of town is still the center of things. In December we had our annual East Baltimore Polish Christmas celebration and homecoming,” she says. “People walk through the streets singing carols and then go to the Polish Home Club on Broadway for Polish dancing and music. There must have been 500 people this year.”
A gentleman comes in the store looking for a gift made in the Polish town where his granddad grew up.
“Customers want a connection to their heritage, to their history,” Marianne says.
Another customer asks David how long it will take to mail a card to Poland.
“What do you think . . . six days?” the man asks as he grabs a few packs of oplatek (Polish Christmas wafer) to give to friends.
“Better add a couple more,” David advises.
But not everyone who visits Polish Treasures is there to shop. Some people come in to reminisce, Marianne says.
“The Polish immigrants say, ‘Hey, do you mind if I just look around? I feel homesick,’ and the Polish-Americans say, ‘Oh, I remember . . . My grandma had one of those. It feels so good to be here.’”
She adds: “If we help them remember Poland, or the Polish people of East Baltimore, I love that. That is what we’re here for. We were never just a store.”
See a gallery of items from Polish Treasures at citypaper.com/polishtreasures.
> Email Danielle Sweeney