Immigration of Polish Ancestors to Minnesota Inspired DC Art Exhibit Near Russian Embassy

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Featuring colorful multimedia portraits of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, an art exhibit by Minnesota-born artist titled “Facing War” is on display at a boutique hotel across from the Russian Embassy in Washington. , CC

“It’s not supposed to be a finger in the eye of the Russian people,” said Wayne Brezinka, 53, a graduate of Upsala High School in Upsala, Minnesota, not far from St. Cloud. “I hope it’s more contemplative, a chance to reflect on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Brezinka, who lives in Nashville, wondered what the war had to do with him. Then her cousin in Minneapolis, Kristi Brezinka Wacker, sent her an 1894 wedding photo of their Polish great-grandparents, who immigrated to Minnesota in the late 1800s.

The photo shows mustachioed bricklayer Urban Brezinka and his veiled, stern-faced fiancée Anna, who left central Europe in their twenties. They got their marriage license in Little Falls, where Urban laid the bricks for many local buildings, and farmed near Opole in Stearns County, according to Kristi, who researched the family’s genealogy.

Research was easier said than done. Censuses from 1900 to 1940 spell Urban’s surname as Brzeimka, Brzazenka, Brzezinka, Brezinka and Brezezinka, Kristi said, listing both Poland and Germany as the land from which Urban emigrated in 1889 or 1892. Anna Pelsick, about four years younger than Urban, came from Poland, although it is unclear when.

Urban’s birthplace is “one thing that has always intrigued us,” Kristi said. She unearthed her certificate of Morrison County citizenship, signed on November 21, 1894 – the same day the two received marriage licenses. On the citizenship form, Urban claimed German roots and renounced “forever all allegiance” to any foreign ruler, in particular “the Emperor of Germany”.

According to family history, the Brezinkas take their name from their hometown of Brzezinka in southern Poland – about 250 miles west of Lviv, Ukraine, in an area now awash with war refugees. Urban apparently served in the German military before leaving for Minnesota, Kristi said, but he spoke Polish rather than German.

“We guess with shifting borders that the real heritage is Poland,” she said.

Urban and Anna had six children, two of whom died in infancy in the early 1900s. Anna died of unknown causes in 1909 aged 38 and is buried in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery in Opole.

Widowed for his last 43 years, Urban built a house in 1927 at 3618 6th St. N. in Minneapolis, where he lived with his youngest child, Julia, until his death at age 85 in 1952. He is buried at St. Anthony Cemetery in northeast Minneapolis.

“Family stories say he always enjoyed hard work,” Kristi said. “And he always liked the quiet.”

Urban and Anna’s second oldest child, John, married Johanna Kostreba in 1923. They produced 20 children, including Wayne’s father, Daniel, and Kristi’s father, David.

“My family history has always been there, but I didn’t feel alive until Kristi sent me this wedding photo of Urban and Anna,” said Wayne, whose art show runs until to May 15 at the Glover Park Hotel in Washington (waynebrezinka.com/ facing the war).

As Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks noted a few weeks ago, the hotel’s proximity to the Russian Embassy drew protesters and prompted managers to display a huge Ukrainian flag in front. When they asked Brezinka if he wanted to use his works to comment on the conflict, he jumped at the chance. This, in turn, prompted him to explore his Polish roots.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine evoked for him a “visceral and emotional connection to my lineage from this region,” Brezinka said. “I saw these devastating images that looked like earthen ashtrays, and I felt drawn to and curious about my ancestors on whose shoulders I stand.”

After graduating from Upsala High in 1987, Wayne studied graphic design at Staples Technical School, worked at a Little Falls nursing home, and spent time at an advertising agency in Duluth. He moved to Nashville in 1993, designing logos and album covers until he struck out as a freelance artist. He also teaches, helping veterans and nurses use art as an outlet to deal with stress.

When asked what a Nashville artist’s show in Washington had to do with Minnesota history, Wayne replied, “Everything. This is my way of expressing my sorrow over what is happening in Ukraine to all my ancestors. does the war have anything to do with me? »

The answer, he said, lies in the ties we have that connect the past to the present through people such as his great-grandfather, Urban Brezinka – those “who define who we are in many ways. “.

Curt Brown’s Tales of Minnesota History appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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