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Elmwood Park Local Finds Polish Pride Through Bilingual Storytelling

Zaneta Zachwieja (left) as Miss Polonia in Manhattan, New York City.
Zaneta Zachwieja (left) as Miss Polonia in Manhattan, New York City. Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Zaneta Zachwieja
Zaneta Zachwieja rides in the back of a car as Miss Polonia in Manhattan, New York City.
Zaneta Zachwieja rides in the back of a car as Miss Polonia in Manhattan, New York City. Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Zaneta Zachwieja

ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. — As a kid, Zaneta Zachwieja spent her Saturdays at the local Polish school in Elmwood Park learning about the language, history and culture.

But what she remembered most was how much she hated the whole thing.

"Being in Polish school for 12 years made me pretty angry," Zachwieja said. "I’d have to spend five hours of my weekend to go learn Polish."

Although she was born in Poland, Zachwieja grew up in New Jersey since she was four years old.

Her childhood memories were filled with going to the Garfield Public Library and entering reading competitions or attending events.

Zachwieja kept in touch with the library staff and eventually volunteered at the library to fulfill a class requirement assigned at her college.

After her volunteer work, the staff recommended she host a bilingual session for the Polish kids in the area. Staying involved with the library sounded intriguing, but Zachwieja wasn't convinced.

"I didn't feel that close to my heritage," Zachwieja said.

The idea stayed with her. Soon afterward she visited Poland for the first time in her adult life for the country's World Youth Day. The experience changed her.

"Being [in Poland], it really hit me: I’m Polish.'

She sought out additional avenues to explore her culture, including a parade in New York City. Zachwieja attended as "Miss Polonia," representing Polish American Club of New Jersey.

Although she was frustrated by the constant classes in her youth, Zachwieja came to appreciate her Polish teachings.

While working at Hackensack's University Medical Center, Zachwieja came across a patient who only spoke Polish. The department that typically relied on a translator for foreign-speaking patients was relieved by Zachwieja's bilingual abilities.

"I spoke to her in Polish and her facial expression changed immediately. She said she was so happy that someone understood what she was saying," Zachwieja said.

"It feels really good to help someone that’s really struggling."

With her new life experience, Zachwieja returned to the Garfield Library idea. She intends to begin Polish Storytime at the beginning of 2017.

Zachwieja remembers her own views on Polish school as a kid and hopes her storytime will be more fun for kids.

She intends to read stories related to Polish culture, including "The Dragon of Krakow" and other popular fables from the region.

The 30-minute storytime sessions will begin in mid-January and are intended for kids through kindergarten and second-grade.

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