PROUD TO BE POLISH; by Jeff M. Hulewicz.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.— The courage that the Poles have demonstrated by standing up to the Russians is being applauded everywhere. Nowhere is this approval being expressed more strongly than in the United States. As a second-generation American of Polish ancestry, I can personally attest to this fact. Everywhere I go, there seem to be infectious outbursts of pride among Poles. On a personal level, after years of enduring witless Polish jokes and hearing my last name badly mispronounced, I am experiencing something strange and new: a sense of dignity in my Polish heritage.
Just the other day, a co-worker approached me and said: ''That's really something about what those Polish people are doing, isn't it? My prayers are with them. You're Polish aren't you?''
My usual response to questions about my nationality always was a meek ''yeah'' followed by a quick change of subject. Although I never denied or tried to hide the fact, the endless derogatory jokes had conditioned me to feel embarrassed about being Polish. But this time I felt a flush of satisfaction when I answered: ''Why, yes, I am Polish.''
Such feelings have been a long time in coming. Growing up Polish in America has been for many a trying experience. After always hearing that the people of your country of origin are supposedly dimwitted, even when the joke is made in a light-hearted manner, you almost begin to believe it yourself. Unlike most fads such as hula hoops and streaking, Polish jokes seem to be a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation. I have been hearing them for at least 15 years.
Over the years, I have developed several defense mechanisms for dealing with the Polish joke. At first, I would get angry. But this only seemed to encourage the person who told the joke. This person knew that he had gotten my goat and would delight in in it and learn more Polish jokes. When the indignation approach didn't work, I tried getting even. I would take the current Polish joke and switch the nationalities involved. This didn't offer me any relief, either. I would just feel as if I had descended to the vulgar level of the offending ''comedian.'' After exhausting every possible avenue of escape, I finally decided to be a good sport. I would laugh along with everyone else and hope that no one in the group remembered I was Polish. However, this strategy often backfired when someone recalled, and the howls of laughter quickly dissolved into muffled titters and embarrassed, insincere apologies.
Ever since the Polish workers' labor victories began, I have had yet a fourth response to Polish jokes. When I hear one, I simply shrug and say: ''Tell that one to the Russians. I don't think they find the Poles to be a laughing matter anymore.'' This almost invariably results in total agreement and quick contrition.
Another disadvantage associated with being Polish is the constant mispronounciation and misspelling of the last name. The combination of ''cz'' at the end of my name manages to tangle the tongue of even the most practiced elocutionist. It has been pronounced in every possible way except the right one. And the misspellings are even more numerous. I used to envy the way a Smith or Jones could breeze through life without ever having to correct pronunciations and spellings of their names. Not any more.
I hope the struggle in Poland will be resolved peacefully and positively. And I don't mean to make light of its seriousness by relating my trivial problems in comparison. But I can't ignore the heartening implications these developments have had in my life. Bravo, Poland!
Jeff M. Hulewicz edits technical-training publications for an airplane-engine manufacturer.