Polish ancestors’ immigration to Minnesota inspired D.C. art show near Russian Embassy

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

“It shall not be a finger in the eyes 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, an opportunity to reflect on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Brezinka, who lives in Nashville, wondered what the war had to do with him. Then his cousin in Minneapolis, Kristi Brezinka Wacker, sent him an 1894 wedding photograph of her Polish great-grandparents, who immigrated to Minnesota in the late 19th century.

The photo shows the mustachioed bricklayer Urban Brezinka and his veiled and stern-looking bride Anna, who left Central Europe at the age of 20. They got their marriage license in Little Falls, where Urban laid the bricks for many of the local buildings, and farmed near Opole in Stearns County, according to Kristi, who has researched the family’s genealogy.

The research was easier said than done. Census records from 1900 to 1940 spell Urban’s last name as Brzeimka, Brzazenka, Brzezinka, Brezinka, and Brezezinka, Kristi said, listing both Poland and Germany as the country from which Urban emigrated in either 1889 or 1892. Anna Pelsick, about four years younger than Urban She came from Poland, but it is unclear when.

Urban’s birthplace is “one thing that has always puzzled us,” Kristi said. She found his Morrison County citizenship, signed November 21, 1894—the same day the two were issued a marriage license. On the citizenship form, Urban claimed to have German roots and renounced “forever all allegiance” to foreign leaders, most notably “the Kaiser of Germany”.

According to family history, the Brezinkas got their name from their hometown of Brzezinka in southern Poland — about 250 miles west of Lviv, Ukraine, in an area now inundated with war refugees. Urban apparently served in the German army before going to Minnesota, Kristi said, but he spoke Polish rather than German.

“We suspect, given the shifting borders, that the real legacy is Poland,” she said.

Urban and Anna had six children, two of whom died in infancy in the early 20th century. Anna died in 1909 at the age of 38 from unknown causes and is buried in the cemetery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Opole.

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

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

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

“My family history was always out there, but it didn’t feel alive until Kristi sent me this wedding photo of Urban and Anna,” said Wayne, whose art exhibition runs through May 15 at Washington’s Glover Park Hotel (waynebrezinka.com/ war faced).

As Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks noted a few weeks ago, the hotel’s proximity to the Russian embassy has drawn protesters and prompted managers to display a giant Ukrainian flag in front of the hotel. When they asked Brezinka if he would like to use his artwork 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 created for him a “visceral, emotional connection to my ancestry from this area,” Brezinka said. “I saw these devastating images that looked like ashtrays and I was attracted 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 in a nursing home in Little Falls, and spent time at an advertising agency in Duluth. In 1993 he moved to Nashville, designed logos and album covers before becoming a freelance artist. He also teaches and helps veterans and nurses use art as a stress management tool.

When asked how a Nashville artist’s exhibit in Washington has anything to do with Minnesota history, Wayne replied, “Everything. This is my way of expressing my sadness to all my ancestors about what is happening in Ukraine. We all ask ourselves, ‘What does this distance mean? War has to do with me?'”

The answer, he said, lies in the connections we have that connect the past to the present, through people like his great-grandfather Urban Brezinka — the ones “who define who we are in so many ways.”

Curt Brown’s stories of Minnesota history appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book focuses on Minnesota in 1918, when flu, war and fires collided: strib.mn/MN1918.