Chicopee, Mass. — In the cold-meats section of Pat's Foods, you can't miss the tins marked ''Polish Ham.'' The display of ham imported from Poland is just one reminder of a prominent feature of Polish-American life: the effort of former immigrants to maintain contact with the country they left behind.
To Polish-Americans who buy these hams at Pat's Foods, the purchase has an ironic twist: Many here send the tasty meat right back to friends and relatives in Poland. They say this is the only way Poles in Poland can eat the ham produced in their own country. The reason? The Polish government restricts ham to export in order to earn needed foreign exchange.
Pat's Foods in Chicopee may hardly seem like a starting point for a look at Polish-American life. After all, Chicago and New York have gained more fame as centers for Polish-Americans. But Chicopee - about 100 miles west of Boston on the Massachusetts Turnpike - is planted in the middle of western Massachusetts' historic Connecticut River Valley, where tens of thousands of Polish immigrants have settled since the late 19th century. Nearly 11,000 of Chicopee's 55,000 residents are Polish-Americans.
The influx began in the 1880s, as immigrant Poles settled amid brick-walled textile mills in cities such as Chicopee, Springfield, and Ludlow. These urban immigrants provided the work force for the area's growing industry.
Other arrivals spread farther north to farm the soil. Just before the turn of the century, as Yankee youngsters went off to college or to work in the cities, their families sought replacement for labor in the fields. The shortage of farm labor in the Connecticut River Valley drove field wages to $30 a month, compared with $20 a month in much of the Northeast. This was enough to draw in the Polish immigrants - many of whom had come from impoverished, rural parts of Poland and already had the farm skills needed.
Today, if you drive through small towns like Hadley, you will see plenty of Polish names on rural mail boxes - a reminder of the Polish immigrants who flocked from New York's Ellis Island to the farms here.
The families of many of these immigrants remain. While some of the young people leave the areas, many others stay to work in factories, shops, and professional jobs. Many attend local two- or four-year colleges or the nearby University of Massachussetts at Amherst.
Not far down the street from Pat's Foods, the twin spires of the 75-year-old Roman Catholic St. Stanislaus Church testify to another prominent feature of Polish-American life: the determination to have a place of worship where religious ceremonies can be conducted with a Polish touch.
Yet Polish-Americans in western Massachussetts, even in their religious observances, are not necessarily a homogeneous group. In fact, they are as distinct as the rings of a giant redwood. Poles who moved to America during the early 1900s, for instance, are very different from those who arrived in 1945; they reflect the vast political and social changes that have affected Poland and the United States over the years.
On a typical Sunday morning, Polish-born Polish-Americans - both those who arrived early in the 20th century and those who have arrived in the last few years - can all be found at St. Stanislaus. They gather here for the early morning Polish-language mass.
A larger mass, this one in English, is held later in the morning. It draws the numerically dominant group of English-speaking Polish-Americans, the American-born children of the immigrants.
And, within the Polish-speaking group, there are even more distinctions, according to the Rev. Marion Tolczyk of St. Stanislaus. The older members of the congregation, among the first from their country to come to the US, farmed Poland's rural areas, he explains. The more recent arrivals are relatively well-educated people from Poland's urban areas.
''Those of us born in the United States sometimes lack the more advanced command of Polish that is needed to meet the needs of the more sophisticated newcomers,'' Fr. Tolczyk adds. One answer has been to have one or two Polish priests from Poland assigned to assist in the Franciscan-affiliated diocese of St. Stanislaus.
There are other examples of differences within the Polish-American community. Take music, for example. Newly arriving Polish immigrants are often perplexed when they hear modern Polish-American music, which dates back to the turn of the century and sometimes includes an Americanized version of the Polka dance. According to some involved with the Polish-American community, the newcomer is more likely to reflect modern tastes in Poland and ask, ''Why is the polka so popular here, when in Poland what we really like is the mazurka?''
But despite the distinctions of age, language, education, and background, a number of Polish-Americans point to many things in common.
Foremost among them are the ethnic-religious ceremonies built around church and family - most notably those surrounding Christmas, which some say has practically become the Polish National Day.
On the day before Christmas, the ancient feast of Wigilia - the vigil of Christmas Eve - begins. Families gather, sometimes from great distances, for the traditional supper, which includes the breaking of a bread called optalak.
Sharing this bread, sometimes known as the bread of love, symbolically cements ties among families and friends and dissolves any friction. The ceremony involves exchange of mutual wishes for health, happiness, and prosperity. After a seven- or nine-course meal, the families often attend a midnight mass.
The Christmas season is also a time when area residents ship packages of meat , underwear, shoes, and toys to needy relatives or friends in Poland.
Polish-Americans also agree they are a people with a strong sense of humor - a characteristic that traditionally has helped Poles to cope with the blows of economic misfortune or enemy invasion of their homeland. Many Polish-Americans are amused by Chicopee's annual summer festival, which features ''the world's largest kielbasa (Polish sausage).''
But some Polish-Americans are concerned about a possible exploitation of Polish customs. And many are sensitive to ''Polish jokes,'' sometimes repeated by non-Poles to mock or stereotype Poles or Polish-Americans.
The need for their sense of humor appears to be reinforced by current events. Continued Soviet dominance of their homeland, Poland's current economic malaise, and the failure of the now-outlawed trade union Solidarity to successfully push fundamental reforms are the latest setbacks in a national history that has seen perennial invasion or division by neighboring Germany and Russia.
Still, the Polish-American community shows as many signs of integration into American life as it shows distinctness.
Symbolic, perhaps, is the World War I memorial plaque just across from St. Stanislaus Church. The names honored in bronze attest that Polish-Americans comprised half of those from Chicopee killed while fighting in the US armed forces. The city's convivial Polish-American veterans clubs also attest to the many Polish-Americans who fought for the United States in two world wars.
In addition, a variety of Polish community and cultural organizations seek to stimulate study and consciousness of the past. One such group, the Society of Polish American Culture of Western Massachusetts, attempts to act as an ''umbrella group,'' bridging the generations in an attempt to get the young people involved with talks, exhibitions, and concerts involving Polish history, art, and music.
One director of the society, newsman Edward Cynarski of Holyoke, gives a cautious assessment of just what this heritage means to today's Polish-Americans:
''There is a strong family life and a sense of roots that people can stick to , yet there is also a sense of rapid assimilation. We know that this is primarily a cultural thing that we cannot make a living on. We must move into the United States to get along.''
Mr. Cynarski maintains that Polish-Americans tend to be highly assimilated in a political sense; that is, they don't have a long agenda of specifically Polish-American issues for domestic policymakers.
But the rise of Solidarity in Poland, followed by declaration of martial law in December 1981, has created some specifically Polish issues around which Polish-Americans and their elected officials have rallied.
Politicians like Chicopee's Mayor Robert F. Kumar Jr. and the area's state Rep. Kenneth M. Lemanski (both Polish-Americans) were strong supporters of resolutions or other steps in support of Solidarity.
At times, it has seemed almost enough simply to be Polish-American to garner Polish-American votes - without any need to actually carry out policies demanded by Polish-American constituents. With the rise of Solidarity and the inauguration of Pope John Paul II, the Polish-born Pontiff, western Massachussetts has seen a rash of bumper stickers espousing such slogans as ''Polish Power.''
Representative Lemanski, a Polish-American politician of the younger generation, maintains that Polish-Americans often have felt a sense of disunity among themselves - a sense of having been neglected and of not being accepted by society.
According to Lemanski, Polish Americans tend to range from moderate to conservative on the political spectrum, often sharing the belief that federal spending should be cut. But the younger generation tends to be less conservative , he adds.
Ironically, Lemanski adds, a government official who is Polish-American can count on the tolerance and loyalty of Polish-American voters to get away with a position ranging from moderate to liberal.