Then & Now | A Polish Wedding

(Halka Singing Society Group #4 at Polish wedding. WRHS Library.)

Polish weddings in the old country didn’t look much different than those here in Cleveland! This photograph, of the Halka Singing Society of the Association of Polish Women, portrays the cast of a locally staged production of a “Polish Wedding” from 1937. To be sure, this wasn’t a real wedding. But it was an effort of a local Polish group to recall the folk traditions of the old country and to socialize with other Poles while teaching others about their background.

The photograph was found in Digital Cleveland Starts Here, and not much more is known about it other than the information already included online. But it looked very much like a staged wedding, and so I decided I would try to find out more. The picture shows various types from the village, such as a priest and a Jewish man lying in front of the group, stereotypically depicted in traditional clothing. The folk costumes are another clue that this was not a real wedding (notice the fake moustaches on the women dressed as men). 

The reverse of the photograph confirms that this “Polish Wedding” was “played” in 1937 by Group #4 of the local branch of the Association of Polish Women. It was most likely simply a stylized production of a village wedding, a theme which would have resonated with many immigrants both because of their ties to village life or, quite possibly, because of their general knowledge of Polish culture. The women of the Halka Singing Society made an effort to evoke folk tradition while adapting to American circumstances. Examining the photograph, Ray Vargas, a founder and leader of Syrena Polish Folk Dancers, a group founded in 1999, said, “During the early years in the United States, Polish dance and theatrical groups all used the white skirts with multicolored ribbons as a representation of a Polish folk costume. During that time frame, it was the Polish folk garb. It would appear on advertisements and was used by polka bands. Even dolls and paintings were created.”

A Cleveland-based publication of the Association of Polish Women, Jedność Polek (Unity of Polish Women), wrote a lengthy description of the first such staged wedding in Cleveland in January 1927. “Góralskie Wesele” (A Mountaineer Wedding) was held at St. Stanislaus Church on January 16, 1927, as a fundraiser for the parish school. Also described as a “Kraków wedding”, the event was likely quite similar to the wedding photographed ten years later. The cast included the bride and groom, their parents, bridesmaids, peasants, and extras. The account of the 1927 staged wedding describes the action that takes place in the local tavern and points out that the Jewish tavernkeeper, Icek Szwarcenkopf, was an essential part of village life.

The wedding has a natural place of prominence in village and family life, but it has also taken on a significant role in Polish literary culture, due to the success of Wesele (The Wedding), a 1901 play by the noted playwright and artist Stanisław Wyspiański. While it is hard to know how well Cleveland’s Polish immigrants in the early twentieth century would have known the play, it is also difficult to overestimate the importance of this play in Polish culture. The play is based on the real-life wedding of a Kraków poet and a peasant bride and is set in a nearby village that is now part of Kraków. Wyspiański used the characters of village life to spin a fantastic tale that commented on the role of the peasants and intellectuals in society at a time when Poland itself did not exist on the map of Europe. The great Polish film director Andrzej Wajda turned Wyspiański’s play into a film in 1973.  

By the 1930s, the Association of Polish Women in the U.S.A., a group based here in Cleveland, had about nine thousand members. Singing societies were only a part of their work, which also included the establishment of a newspaper and an insurance fund for members, language and heritage classes, and social service projects. While the group’s membership declined significantly from the mid twentieth century on, local lodges became part of the Polish National Alliance in the 1990s. The presentation of Poland’s folk traditions continues, though, with groups like Syrena entertaining and educating local audiences.