Cook County’s 900,000 residents of Polish heritage have much to celebrate this month

We recognize and are grateful for the contributions of those who share our Polish heritage.

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Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc., is of Polish descent.

Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

The latest census data tells us Cook County has 900,000 residents of Polish heritage in Cook County. about one in seven. Each October, America observes Polish Heritage Month, a time when Polish Americans and Poles around the world take time to reflect on the contributions to our daily lives made by Poles throughout history.

Starting in 1619, Polish immigrants to Capt. John Smith’s Colony of Virginia brought the principle of human dignity to these shores when they held a nonviolent work stoppage to achieve the right to vote and own land. Dr. Alexander Kurcyusz founded the first university in New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1659.

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Our independence was helped greatly by the contributions of two Polish warriors: Tadeusz Kosciuszko was critical to the success in the Battles of Saratoga and West Point, where he is honored with a statue in his honor. More significant, perhaps, was his will in which he left money for the education of freed slaves. Gen. Casimir Pulaski, the father of the American Cavalry proudly proclaimed: “I come to hazard all for the freedom of America.”

And whenever we look to the skies, we cannot help but see our solar system, first described by Polish astronomer, Nicolai Copernicus.

Frederic Chopin gave us compositions that still evoke the beauty of complex music,and which were the inspiration for countless popular songs, including “Till the End of Time,” “Could it be Magic?” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”

Ralph Modjeski, known as the greatest American bridge builder, gave us the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Bridge.

During World War II, it was Polish mathematicians Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rosycki and Henryk Zygalski who first broke the German Enigma code; Henry Magnuski, while working for Motorola invented the first “mobile walkie-talkie” the forerunner of our ubiquitous cell phones; Lt. Col. Matt Urban was the most decorated American soldier in World War II.

We are all inspired by the commitment of Irena Sendler, honored at Yad Vashem, for her work helping to save Jews from Nazis during World War II.

Those X-rays you get are the result of Marie Sklodowska Curie, a Polish physicist and chemist who discovered radium.

More recent Poles have also contributed to the lives we live.

Martha Stewart continues to give us great recipes, cooking and decorating tips.

A. J. Pierzynski was a fan favorite catching for the World Series White Sox.

Stephanie Kwolek developed Kevlar, which to this day serves and protects police and military personnel around the world.

Paul Baran was an internet pioneer, who developed the earliest version of the internet. Edward Rosinski was the co-inventor of our modern gasoline. Thaddeus Sendzimer is known as the inventor of modern steel.

Steve Wozniak, a brilliant mathematician, was a co-founder of Apple, developing with his friend, Steve Jobs, the first modern personal computers.

Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, provided leadership in demanding the fall of the Iron Curtain, thus freeing millions from the tyranny of Communism. Lech Walesa showed that an ordinary electrician with courage could give human dignity to millions of people.

Andrew Pietowski, a math teacher from Carmel, New York, identified the source of the Amazon River.

And, my own personal favorite (and my father), former U.S. Rep. and Chicago Ald. Roman Pucinski, without whom we would not have those “black boxes” in every commercial airplane.

We are entertained by men and women  of Polish Heritage, including Billy Wilder, Stephanie Powers, Lauren Bacall, Nina Siemaszko, Casey Siemaszko, Jonathan Lipnicki, Samuel Goldwyn, Bobby Vinton, Marilu Henner, Loretta Swit, John Krasinski, Leelee Sobieski, Christine Baranski, Jerry O’Connell, Jared Padaleckiand the Wachowski Brothers (“The Matrix”) who have all brought us stories worth telling.

This October we recognize and are grateful for the contributions of those who share our Polish heritage.

Aurelia Pucinski is a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court and a lifelong Chicagoan.

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