Keeping Polish culture, music alive

Posted on Tue, 12/01/2015 - 11:30am

By Tracy Poyser

Lira DancersFor a little over eight years, my only contact with that friendly and very handsome couple a few doors down the hall consisted of the occasional cordial hello and some shared elevator rides. We probably introduced each other at some point – but I couldn’t remember their names: Lucyna Migala and her husband, Frank Cizon. And, after I moved 12 floors down in 2013, our paths rarely crossed until late November, when I had the privilege of interviewing our amazing, elegant neighbor Lucyna for the Dialogue.

Lucyna’s family story is one the most compelling and inspiring testimonials to the resilience of the human spirit – and the promise that this New World held and, I hope, will continue to hold for refugees from oppression and terror. And, the Migala family found a unique way to connect the culture of their native Poland with that of the United States. Lucyna’s parents, Joseph and Estelle Migala, became popular Polish language radio personalities in Chicago and prominent Polish-American community activists after barely escaping from behind the Iron Curtain and Communist oppression.

Even though she was just a toddler after the end of World War II and the ensuing Soviet occupation of Poland, Lucyna vividly remembers how her father barely withstood Communist pressure aimed at compelling him to join the party. The family had been bouncing between Chicago and Poland for two generations. Joseph Migala had actually been born in Chicago but had ended up back in Poland and had become a renowned agricultural economist, living in the city of Krakow. Standing up for his convictions and refusing to join the Communist Party got him arrested three times, leading to a lengthy interrogation, beatings and ultimately torture.

Convinced that he had to flee with his family, Joseph unearthed the U.S. passport from his childhood, which he had hidden on his mother’s farm, and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, which was about to close its doors. From the embassy, Joseph sent a telegram to his brother in Chicago, who in turn convinced one of his senators to telegraph the U.S. ambassador in Warsaw to secure passage for the entire Migala family on the last U.S. ship leaving Poland before the closing of the borders.

Lucyna’s mother got a call from the embassy while finishing laundry, so she packed wet clothing and raced to Warsaw with her three little girls and Lucyna’s godmother. Lucyna remembers that all the buildings were in rubble and looked very scary, so she started to cry and wanted to know in a loud little voice where this America was that they were fleeing to.

They finally made it through all the formalities, such as shots and applications at the U.S. Embassy, and got on the last plane out to the Baltic Sea harbor near Gdansk, where the last ship to make it out of Poland was waiting for them. The U.S. ambassador, who was on the same plane, personally carried Lucyna up the gangway just before it was pulled up, and said “Welcome to America” while all the people cheered. The family arrived in New York on Oct. 28, 1947, and rejoined their relatives in Chicago.

Both parents – having been anti-Nazi and anti-Communist – fervently believed in political and personal freedom. Starting out in America was difficult without knowing more than a few words of English, but Lucyna’s dad had a wonderful speaking voice, which landed him work with Polish radio, and ultimately ownership of a multi-ethnic radio station. The Migalas also became travel agents and managed to send more Americans to Poland than any other single entity in the country. As a teenager, Lucyna enjoyed helping them in the agency and would lead occasional tours. The family (now with five children) lived above their father’s office on California Avenue near Humboldt Park.

Their home was a lively one, filled with Polish music and song, but also classical music. Lucyna studied voice, theater, ballet and French, among other interests, and was so close to her father that she wanted to follow in his footsteps as a communicator. She started as a writer and reporter for NBC News and became the first woman producer of TV programs and documentaries in the Midwest, spending seven years in Cleveland during that time. But, in October 1979, her father convinced her to help him create an ethnic-concept radio station with her family. She left NBC on the highest possible note: covering the visit of John Paul II, the former Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyla, to his native Poland – the first-ever pope to visit a Communist country.

True to the family legacy, Lucyna is still vice president and program director of WCEV-AM 1450, one of Chicagoland’s major multi-ethnic stations, where she currently spends one day a week. But, her passion and desire to help “bring the best of Polish culture to American life” led to her becoming the co-founder of The Lira Ensemble, a nonprofit organization dedicated to just that mission. She is currently Lira’s artistic director, general manager and narrator. (For more information about Lira, check www.liraensemble.org).

The Lira Ensemble helps acquaint Polish Americans with the richness of their thousand-year-old legacy of music and dance, and helps build pride in Polish Americans through professional performances. It’s the outreach group of the Polish-American community of the Chicago metropolitan area, which numbers approximately 1.5 million. Lira strives to build bridges of understanding by presenting Polish music and dance for and with other ethnic groups, such as African Americans, Latinos and American Jews. During multiple concert tours of Poland, Lira also presents American music for Polish audiences. The company has at its disposal one of the largest collections of Polish vocal music outside Poland and serves as a resource for Polish music in America.

Lucyna’s past and present civic and community leadership involvement includes the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Ethnic Coalition, Chicago’s Polish-Jewish Dialogue and the Polish Women’s Alliance of America. Deservedly, Lucyna has won many awards and distinctions in both the U.S. and Poland, among them the Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit from the president of Poland.

Lucyna has lived at Malibu East since 1978 after returning from Cleveland, happy to be close to her sister, who lives next door in the Malibu condo building. Her biggest fan, supporter and best friend is her husband of 17 years, Frank Cizon. As a Polish American also, he shares her commitment and community spirit, having served as vice chairman of The Lira Ensemble and former president of the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs. Both of them love the fact that our own multinational condo community is a model of urban diversity and harmony.

As an immigrant and naturalized citizen with German-Polish roots, I see Lucyna and Frank as shining examples of what the American dream truly means for refugees from terror and political strife, and how much their contributions can enrich our culture. I hope their story brings joy and peace to your hearts also.