Updated: Jan 11
As many of you know, Nina Polan was the driving force of the Polish Theater Institute from the 1980s until her passing in 2014. She was a professional actress and a skilled producer/director. She made it her life's work to bring plays, songs, opera, poems, and the history of Poland to national and international audiences. She had unbounded pride in the heritage and the culture of Poland.
Nina was also my cousin. My family always affectionately called her ‘Janeczka,’ and just mentioning this name takes me back, back into the past –
It was the spring of 1956. My parents and I (seven years old) were on our way from New Jersey to Idlewild Airport (now renamed JFK). Eisenhower was President; Davy Crockett was on Disneyworld (TV) fighting to save the early American frontier; and Elvis was making history on the Ed Sullivan show. We were very excited driving on the Long Island Expressway. The reason for the excitement was that we were going to greet Janeczka, who was arriving from London for her very first visit to the USA. By that time, I had already heard many stories of Janeczka's triumphs on the London stage. I knew that she was also a regular performer on Radio Free Europe, the post-WW II radio station that was piping western ideology into the communist countries of Eastern Europe. Now she was coming to conquer the USA!
We sat in a small grey waiting area at the airport, and all of a sudden, I saw her walking through the door. She looked spectacular – tall, slim, blonde, and beautiful! She was wearing a flowing pastel-yellow dress printed with little flowers. She had a matching pastel-yellow hat, white gloves, and white heels. Wow, it was my cousin, the movie star!! After hugs and kisses, we drove back to Passaic, NJ, in my father’s big black 1949 Buick Dynaflow, a star in its own category.
My mom was delighted to be reunited with her niece. They knew each other since the 1930s, when they both lived in Kowno (Kaunas). When Janeczka was eight years old, her father became an envoy from Poland to Lithuania. Her parents traveled very often, and Janeczka stayed with my mother’s family, who were Polish gentry rooted in Lithuania. My mom became Janeczka’s guardian for several years, and they forged a close relationship, like a mother/daughter bond. So it was with much affection that the two reconnected in the USA after many years apart.
After a short stay with us in Passaic, Janeczka went off to NYC to claim her fame. I was thrilled to hear that she was working with producer/actor Sandy Becker. Becker was the host of a popular children's TV show called 'Wonderama', which I watched on Sunday mornings. How exciting for a kid to have such a cousin! In addition to this "day job" on TV, Janeczka auditioned regularly for roles in New York theatres. I remember seeing her on stage in a variety of 'avant-garde' plays, which I could not understand at all. (Hey, I was only seven years old). Very quickly, Janeczka took also part in the activities of the Polonia, especially those dedicated to anti-communist causes.
At this point I should mention that I had my own stage career going since the age of four. I was this cute little boy with a booming voice, who had the good diction, an incredible memory for long passages in Polish, and the ability to sway the emotions like an actor. During that time I was invited to perform at many different occasions, often in the role of a child praying to God or the Blessed Mother to free Poland from the shackles of communism. I remember feeling then that my performance was a success only if I managed to bring the audience to tears.
And so it happened that Janeczka and I participated together at a number of manifestations and Polish heritage events. One in particular comes to mind: a special tribute to the veterans of the Battle of Monte Cassino. It took place around 1958, in theater with an audience of over 1000 people. After the program of speeches and recollections, there were three final presentations: firstly, Janeczka sang a sentimental ballad, which stirred the raw emotions of the audience; next, I delivered my plea to God to free Poland from communism, which made the audience teary-eyed; and then, the tribute was concluded with the singing of “Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino” (Red Poppies on Monte Cassino), an ode to the heroism of the Polish Army of General Anders. The singer was Pawel Prokopieni, an internationally known operatic baritone. The huge crowd applauded, cried, and just went wild. I felt wonderful.
I’d like to end with another fond recollection. Holidays are always a special time in every Polish household. My parents made fabulous celebrations during Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and for our birthdays. Janeczka never disappointed my mom and dad, always came to NJ to be with us to celebrate these important events. Sometimes she brought her latest beau. On one occasion, her young man took me to see my very first movie “The Spirit of St. Louis,” the story of Lindbergh's historical transcontinental flight. Another time, the very handsome fellow who accompanied Janeczka to our house for Easter spoke no Polish, so it was my job to entertain him in English. He told me his name was Mike and that he was an actor. To this day I believe the fellow was Mike Connors who played the leading role in the 'Mannix' TV show. Well, that was Janeczka, who always managed to stir up excitement in my heart. My gracious cousin, with boundless energy and hope for the future.