The air resonated with the sounds of Central European folk music and the smells of rousing mazurkas in downtown Syracuse this weekend as the Syracuse Polish Festival returned to Clinton Square after a three-year hiatus.
The three-day family-friendly celebration of Polish culture, heritage and traditions marked its 66th anniversary, kicking off Friday, June 17 and running until Sunday, June 19. It drew thousands of local residents to downtown Syracuse this weekend. (The festival is open until 5 p.m. Sunday).
Sonya Stanejko is a young Polish-American woman who comes to the festival every year with her family and works as a volunteer. She said she was excited to be back after a long break.
“A lot of volunteers and everyone work really hard to set it up, make it good,” Stanejko said. “It’s nice. This year we have more Polish food tents than last time.”
The Polish Fest, produced by the Polish Scholarship Fund, a tradition in Syracuse’s Clinton Square each June, was canceled by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and by uncertainty last year.
Downtown Syracuse was packed with events this weekend — it was also the 32nd Juneteenth Festival nearby in Hanover Square and around City Hall. Thousands visited the area despite the brisk weather and clouds overhead.
For Madisen Maxwell, a Baldwinsville resident, this year was her first time experiencing the Polish Fest.
“We got some Polish food, and the music is great. It’s a really good vibe here,” said Maxwell, who is half-Polish.
“Even if you are not Polish, come down here to see what the Polish people like. We are fun. We love music and dance.”
“It’s awesome to get different types of communities together,” Maxwell added.
For many festival-goers, including Maxwell, pierogis are a highlight of the event. The European-style dumpling is arguably the most recognizable Polish food internationally.
The festival offered many traditional Polish foods, beers, live music, dance, and a variety of Polish merchandise, including arts and crafts, plus the popular annual pierogi eating contest and the presentation of Miss Polonia.
For Gina Sakowski from East Syracuse, this is her family’s heritage.
“I enjoy it very much. My father was Polish. He really enjoyed stuff like this. The people are wonderful. This is a very friendly atmosphere,” Sakowski said.
The festival features a guest performance of folklore dance by the Ukrainian Dancers from Syracuse Ukrainian Home, along with regional acts like The John Stevens Polka Band, Salt City Brass Band, Simone Band, and more.
“We are lucky and happy to have them. They are going to raise money for Ukraine. This is a great effort. We are putting things together, reaching out to each other,” Mirka Banach, the Polish Festival president, said.
Two major highlights of the festival included six scholarships awarded, as well as the “Pole of the Year” award, an honor given to the person who has helped grow and maintain Polish culture in the community.
“Usually, we have been awarding 10 scholarships each year. Unfortunately, we had to cut the numbers, but our main goal is to provide the scholarships to the students in our area,” Banach explained.
The Polish Scholarship Fund has served the communities within the Central New York area since its inception in 1954.
Many participants agreed that this kind of festival keeps bringing together everyone: children, young adults, and older generations.
“This is the 66th anniversary. It is amazing. We need to keep doing this. Just keep it up,” Maxwell said as her final message to fellow Polish descents and all the residents of upstate New York.
Sunday schedule at Polish Festival:
Noon — Simone Band1:30 p.m. — Ukrainian Dancers Folk Group2 p.m. — Annual “Pierogi Eating Contest”2:30 p.m. — Mike MacDonald – Folk Rock3:15 p.m. — Miss Polonia Awards3:30 p.m. — Simone Band5 p.m. — Festival Closing Ceremony
Read more coverage from this weekend’s festivals: