Poles, Poland, Polish Americans, Polonia

John Radzilowski

Not long ago, I was chair of the Polish cultural committee for the St. Paul Festival of Nations. This is a "diversity" fair selling all sorts of ethnic trinkets and foods, with some pretensions toward educating the public about 75 ethnic cultures. It presents the smiling face of ethnicity to Americans who want a dose of fashionable "diversity" without being perceived as too different or threateningly un-American.

I was at the ten-foot wide booth allotted to each group for a cultural display for the throngs of people who pass by like mildly curious shoppers outside a department store, when I was approached by a younger couple with two small children. Their soft Slavic accent immediately identified them as Polish immigrants. As the husband chased after the toddler, the wife and I struck up a short conversation in which she expressed some interest in our local Polish cultural institute. After about a minute, she asked, "Do you speak Polish?" To which I answered, in Polish, "Only a little."


The notion that there is only one unchanging form of Polish culture that is accessible only to a few chosen interpreters is a stultifying one.


By the time the words had left my mouth, I knew I had committed a major faux pas and had violated one of my cardinal rules of being a fourth-generation Polish American: never speak Polish to Polish immigrants.

The woman immediately got a strange look on her face, excused herself, and left in a hurry without sparing a glance at the shop-window Polish display we were standing in front of. I have not seen her since.

I arrived at my cardinal rule for communicating with Polish immigrants through bitter experience. The irony is that were I an Anglo-Saxon or African American who could read a fair amount of Polish, and speak and understand some, my forays into speaking the language would have been met with amazement and encouragement. The further irony is that although Poles tend to view Polish Americans as completely Americanized, evidence to the contrary in the form of speaking halting Polish, or archaic Polish (e.g., Jak sie masz!), is frequently met with contempt. Better, I have learned, to express myself well in English than poorly in Polish.

The complex dance between Poles, recent Polish immi grants, and third and fourth generation Polish Americans all to often ends in confusion and frustration for all concerned. At the heart of the problem is a tangled thicket of misperceptions each group has about each other and about themselves.

No group has a single point of view or a wholly unified background, yet we can point to two distinct groups who come into contact with each other most frequently: Polish Americans whose families arrived in America during the great wave of immigration between 1870 and 1922, and more recent Polish immigrants. In between is a group of immigrants and refugees and their children who arrived after World War II. Despite many conflicts in the 1950s between the older Polonia and these refugees, today they enjoy largely harmonious relations.

Class conflicts in Polonia are nothing new. Helena Stas' 1911 novel Na ludzkim targu (In the Human Market) provides a bitter commentary on the attitude of literary elites toward second-generation Polish Americans. Those conflicts, like the later conflicts between post-war refugees and Polish Americans, are a relic of the past and their fading over time gives one hope that current attitudes will change for the better. In the meantime, however, such attitudes do severe damage to Polonia which it cannot afford.

Differences between Poles (especially recent immigrants) and Polish Americans stem from many sources. Perhaps the greatest of these is simple lack of knowledge about each other and about themselves. Poles have little understanding of Polonia and Polish Americans. The same can largely be said of Polish Americans themselves, for the history, mentality, and culture of Polonia has been all but ignored and when it had been seriously studied, those studies have not reached the general public. Furthermore, a serious intra-community discourse about what it means to be a Polish American in this day and age has been hampered by a lack of effective ways to communicate within the community. Among major obstacles are the following: virtually no access to mainstream media, and a central leadership in the main umbrella organization that with few exceptions is crudely anti-intellectual.

Poles who encounter Polish Americans often do not see them as fellow Poles, but as Americans or sham Poles. At best, they isolate themselves from Polish Americans, and at worst they are openly contemptuous, especially in front of non-Polish Americans. All of this greatly furthers the "cleansing" of America of Polish ethnicity.

Polish Americans, by contrast, following a long isolation from Poland, are at first apt to see anyone or anything coming from Poland as wonderful. Few can conceive of Poland as a modern nation rather than a collec tion of thatched-roofed huts, with storks nesting on the chimneys and people dancing in colorful folk costumes. The contrast with the modern, urbane, well-educated immigrant could not be more dramatic. Many Polish immigrants are quite blunt about Polish Americans' failure to measure up. The extreme example of this was Czeslaw Milosz's cruel, calculated, and unfair public attack on Polish Americans in The New York Times in 1987, comments that did immense damage to Polonia, since they came from a Pole many in Polonia idolized.

The problems are not all on one side of the ledger, however; we see many Polish Americans--especially within the leadership--who feel Poland would be much better off if they were in charge. This stems from the long-held belief among some that American Polonia carried the torch of Poland's national spirit during the long darkness of foreign occupation. Although this belief is not wholly without foundation, the ways it is stated are guaranteed to irritate.

This is not to say that relations between Poles and Polish Americans are necessarily all bad. To the contrary, there are often good relations and mutual friendships. The problems stem not so much from ill will as from fundamental misunderstandings about culture. Polish Americans are not Poles, nor are they identical to other Americans. No culture is pure and all immigrants, regardless of when they arrive or what their background is, are changed by the experience of living in a different culture. Polish American culture--in all its forms--is a hybrid containing both Polish and American elements to varying degrees. It is a product of generations of creative adaptation. This is the only way Polish immigrants and their children could have maintained an ethnic identity in America. This creativity needs to be appreciated for what it is, by Poles and especially by Polish Americans who all too often wallow in self-hate for not being "Polish enough" compared to "real Poles."

The notion that there is only one unchanging form of Polish culture that is accessible only to a few chosen interpreters is ultimately a stultifying one. Culture is far more flexible, interesting, and enduring than we realize. The fact that most Polish Americans cannot speak Polish does not mean they are un-Polish or "sham Poles." Few Irish speak Gaelic. Is Irish identity in America dead? Obviously not. Other groups have also retained a strong cultural identity without language retention. It is obvious that in the immigration culture will change, often quite dramatically. But then culture in the homeland undergoes constant change as well.

The long years of foreign domination have forced Poles--wherever they live--to value culture and fear change in that culture, since that change was so often forced and manipulated from the outside. Such an attitude is, however, a relic of the past and could quickly turn into narrow-mindedness.

Better relations between Poles and Polish Americans must be predicated on more learning, more scholarship, and more conversations. Both have something to say to each other and both deserve to be heard.

Back to the January 2000 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 2/10/00