Jan Trypaluk speaks English with only the slightest Polish accent.
In the 37 years since he defected from Communist Poland, the hints of his native language have all but faded away. He still recounts with excitement the short trip to Yugoslavia he took back in 1975.
“I crossed into Italy to see the Pope,” he said. “That was freedom. Basically I was a political refugee.”
In Italy, he went to the American embassy and the rest is history.
In the years stateside, Trypaluk raised two sons on a GE salary and Poland became a democracy. While his English got better, the number of people with whom he could share the mother language dwindled.
Now retired, Trypaluk is using his time to organize a Polish language group out of his Saratoga Springs home. He defined the fledgling group as a way to give back to the shrinking Polish community. Since many of the first-wave immigrants who grew up speaking their native language have passed away, Trypaluk is more focused on second-generation Polish-Americans.
“The ideal person is someone whose parents were Polish and who wants to go back to Poland for family research,” he said, “or anyone interested in the language.”
But his goal isn’t as simple as just sharing his language. He wants to keep alive a fading culture.
He pointed to the recent closing of the Good Shepherd Polish National Catholic Church in Amsterdam as proof of waning interest.
Even the Church of Saint Adalbert, a Polish Catholic parish started by a massive wave of immigrants over a century ago in Schenectady, holds more services in English now than Polish.
According to Saint Adalbert Deacon Joe Cechnicki, young people aren’t learning Polish.
“There are a few families that came from Poland in the last 10 years,” he said. “They’re fluent. The second generation, not so much.”
As a third-generation Polish-American growing up in Canajoharie, Cechnicki’s parents tried to teach him their language, “but there was no one around to talk to, so I wasn’t interested. That might be what’s going on today.”
As a collector and dealer in Polish art and a fluent speaker himself, Trypaluk is a connoisseur of all things Polish.
He believes all cultures are tied to their language.
“Without the language, what do you have?” he said. “You can go to a polka, but they don’t even dance the polka in Poland anymore.”
Unfortunately, the same lack of interest that closed the church in Amsterdam seems to be working against the new group. “I put flyers up in places all over Saratoga Springs,” he said, “and in Polish delis. People have taken numbers, but I haven’t gotten many calls.”
He even posted the group on Craigslist. In eight weeks of small-scale publicity, only two people have called, one of whom can’t start speaking Polish until after the holidays. While the lackluster reception might be tied to a general lack of interest in the Polish culture, Trypaluk admitted it might also stem from the language itself.
“I actually prefer Italian and French,” he said. “They are beautiful languages. Polish is very difficult.”
He struggled to express quite how hard it is to master: “In English a dog is a dog, in Polish there are an endless number of different tenses and forms.”
He also said there are whole sounds not included in English which are difficult to learn. His wife Barbara, who was born in the United States but spoke Polish most of her life, still struggles with certain grammar.
“My sons don’t speak much either,” he said.
Even so, he hopes to nurture the yet-unformed group one day into a physical Polish heritage center where Polish-Americans can learn about their actual roots, not just the polka.
Those interested in speaking some Polish with Jan Trypaluk can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.