This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information



January 2001

Vol. XXI, No. 1

The 'First Immigration' Poles

I greatly enjoy The Sarmatian Review. I would like to add a note to the recent, very interesting and helpful letter from Anna Dadlez of Saginaw Valley State University (SR, XX:3, September 2000). Though very good on its portrayal of 'middle' and 'new' immigration, its portrayal of the first immigration Poles, though sympathetic, was, it seems to me, inadequate. I write as a child of a 'mixed marriage:' my father's people came before World War I, my mother herself came after World War II.

Though commonly done by academic experts, it is unfair, I believe, to judge the Polish Catholic community in terms of success used by other, often non-Catholic communities with very different notions of what counts for success. To say that the old immigration bad little visible success where it counted is a truth of sorts: few academics, few people in public places of leadership, few Polish names in the media, etc. But who says these are things that matter most? Judging from what it seems to take for individuals and groups to be 'public' successes in America, I for one take consolation in the profound honesty, integrity, lives of hidden hard work and strong family values that characterized the early Polish immigration. Not least of their virtues, to my mind, was a basic suspicion of government in any way, shape or form, a distrust of politics and politicians in our out of government, and a horror of accepting public monies.

In all the places of their immigration, it is the original Polish community that left the truly magnificent places of worship to God. Other ethnic communities not doubt built churches, decent enough; the Polish community, likely the poorest of them all, put their hearts and souls into building the most beautiful places for God. And those places remain witnesses to an awesome faith, if often forgotten by consumer crazed descendants or ignored by a sometimes unsympathetic hierarchy. The basilicas in Chicago and Milwaukee, the splendid mini-cathedrals of Buffalo's East and North Sides--these speak of a vibrant community of faith, perhaps more passionately committed to art, culture and beauty to the greater glory of God than any other Catholic immigrant group to this country.

They represented a different, an older, value system. The first generation certainly had its poetry and drama circles as IU discovered on a year's assignment in Buffalo. What happened to these cultural efforts of the early, industrial immigrants is a story yet to be told--and here, the letter's concern for history could find an extremely important focus. I suspect many, if not most, of those who could return to Europe did so, especially after 1918. I myself can testify that as in other cavalier cultures, too much bookishness was seen as unmanly and undesirable (and that not just among the first immigration Poles).

As to financial success, my Gawronski grandfather told me, as a very small boy, that to concern oneself with money was not worthy of a Pole or a gentleman. As he was a butcher by trade he was likely not tempted by great financial speculation; yet he was full of stories of his family's (a hrabina in the closet) role in the January 1863 Uprising. He carried himself like a prince. He read the New York Times though after Yalta he certainly never voted Democrat again.

There was a heritage, a proud and noble heritage, that was, I suspect ,ground to dust in the mines and factories and schools of America. Again it is a story that is yet to be told. I have at times found that some of the Poles who came to this country after World War II, rightly aware of their own sufferings, could not--and in any even did not--enter into the cultural tragedy that occurred to their fellow Poles in an earlier America.

To speak of the earlier immigration as merely unlettered peasants living in the frantic insecurity of the polka culture is too facile. The history is more complicated, and much more painful.

Fr. Raymond T. Gawronski, SJ, Marquette University

To be effective, think Polish Americans and not


I would like to thank Professor Anna Dadlez for her thoughtful response to my article "Poles, Poland, Polish Americans Polonia." To summarize the differences between the pre- and post-World War II immigrations is to say that earlier immigrants were enculturated as Poles in America, later immigrants as Poles in Europe and many of the differences are simply those that have long existed between Europeans and Americans. Although I agree with all her main points, I would like to shift the reader's focus slightly and perhaps disagree on a point or two.

The distortion of the historical record in the West and in America in particular regarding Poland is well known in Polonia. Nevertheless, I do not think Polonia's obsession with this problem is altogether a good thing. What ethnically conscious Polish Americans suffer from all too often is an over-emphasis on things Polish, not an under emphasis. Everything for Poland, nothing for Polonia seems to be the motto.

This has a myriad implications, none them particularly good. It results in a weak Polish- American identity, since being Polish American is identified with Poland and not with an American ethnic community. For the ethnically less-conscious majority, identification with a foreign country they have little personal connection to is highly unrealistic in the absence of any connection to a concrete local ethnic community. The fact that Polish Americanness (as opposed to Polishness) is not valued as something worthwhile in and of itself by either Poles or Americans contributes to the problem. Lacking a strong self- identity, Polish Americans are thus left with a source of identity that is external, rather than internal. One goes to Poland to get 'Polished' as it were. Hence, one is lacking something, one is not a 'real Pole,' etc. This identity is made yet more brittle by the drumbeat of anti-Polishness in the media and academe.

This situation developed gradually and perhaps only since World War II. To many Polish Americans, Poland was and is a charity, a 'suffering nation' in need of help. Thus, there was a quid pro quo: Polonia gave its resources and in exchange had its sense of Polishness validated as authentic. To this day, one can easily raise money for charities in Poland and collect all manner of warm, secondhand clothes for the wretched, shivering Poles. Yet, to raise money to fund education or cultural activities among Polish Americans is almost impossible. Even to apply for public or private grants for this purpose is almost unheard of. The situation grows dire, for Poles today are less wretched and less shivering than any time in the last 300 years. One can only imagine what is happening with all warm socks going to Poland: how many pairs each Pole will eventually possess?

If Poland no longer needs Polonia's charity, then how will Polonia retain its sense of Polishness? Barring some future catastrophe, Polonia will find itself unneeded. This means that either Polish American identity will gradually vanish, or Polonia's leaders will try to create imaginary threats to Poland to rally the troops, or Polonia will need to take a new direction altogether.

The difficulty in retaining young people in such an ethnic identity, let alone in organizing effectively in politics or in academe, is clear. It is hard to convince others to take us seriously when we consider ourselves either 'sham Poles' or at best an interested lobby for a foreign country and a people of which we are not really a part. This is further undermined by certain Poles--whether visitors or recent immigrants--who are not afraid to tell us or the world at large that Polish Americans are fake Poles. Shunned by 'real Poles' to whom they are at first often pathetically attached (since everything from Poland is wonderful), Polish Americans have tended to react by Americanizing. I have seen this in communities where people thought of themselves as Poles until the arrival of recent immigrants from Poland. I do not raise this to point fingers, because one can find blame on all sides, but merely to point out what is already occurring.

Hence the first need is not to educate our young people about Poland, but about Polonia. Even if one believes that Polonia's ultimate goal should be as a permanent charitable auxiliary or lobby for Poland, this can only continue to exist if Polonia can create self-sustaining American ethnic communities that exist independent of Poland. Identity and culture are the key aspects. There must be an emphasis on Polish American culture, history, art, literature. Once Polonia can value its own culture, it is a short and easy step to valuing Polish culture. Yet, Polish American identity has ossified and ceased to be relevant, just as Polish American images of Poland consist too often of Chopin and colorful peasants in folk costumes.

Yet, the situation is far from universally bleak. There are, for example, numerous talented Polish American writers. There has been an astonishing growth interest in Polish American genealogy, a sociological phenomenon not confined to Polonia and one which has largely escaped notice. There is often lively and raucous discussion among Polish Americans on the internet (in both Polish and English).

Perhaps one of the most important issues to any viable future for Polonia is to have a 'usable past'--that is, a history and a story that is meaningful, interesting, and comprehensible to the broad majority of the group. Although there has been an impressive body of scholarship on Polonia's history and culture, it is almost entirely unknown in Polonia, in Poland, or among American academics.

This is displayed in Dr. Dadlez's comment that Polish Americans "participated in the labor force, and they were generally law-abiding people. They made it economically but . . . they did not make headlines." This is the history of Polonia that most people seem to find palatable, perhaps because it is so non-threatening: it is the story of a people who desperately wanted to be accepted by their fellow Americans in an age when foreign equaled sinister. Kosciuszko and Pulaski lived in the heroic age of the Revolution when picking up a saber against the status quo was acceptable. Hence, their stories were for years the only interesting stories Polonia had to tell. Those days, however, have long passed and my own study of Polonia's history reveals a far more colorful and interesting story, but one that does not lack a dark side either. That neither Poles nor Polish Americans see Polonia's past (or present) as interesting or valuable is at the crux of the problem.

The question of language is also a key point. I disagree that Polish Americans spoke Polish "crudely"; such terms, beloved by supercilious cultural Olympians like Milosz, reveal only arrogance without understanding. Polish American Polish was a dialect that developed like all dialects in response to the world in which people found themselves and the resources they had at hand. It is entirely too much to insist that there is only one Polish cultural form to which all must adhere, and it confuses the issue to mistake Polish American for Polish. Although one cannot prevent educated Poles from despising Polish Americans, I do insist serious research and understanding occur first. If, after coming to some informed understanding of American Polonia, Poles still feel some inner need to look down on us, so be it. There is, however, a depth and a richness to the Polish American experience which few, Polish or Polish American, are aware of. I would prefer this be of some benefit to the world at large rather than discarded a priori. Polish Americans need neither conform to mainstream American nor mainstream Polish cultural forms.

Finally, to return to the matter of anti-Polish propaganda in the media and academe: producing a new class of confident and well educated Polish Americans is, I agree, of crucial importance. This will not occur, however, under present conditions that include: A) a community with an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the motherland; B) incompetent and backward leadership in Polonia's major umbrella organization; and C) the attitude that Polonia is simply a collection of rich but stupid uncles with Poland in their hearts and dollars in their wallets. Ethnic groups are publicly defamed when they lack power and influence. African Americans used to be defamed in America. Then they fought for and won power and influence. As the current leadership in Polonia is not inclined to do anything to seriously change this situation and majority of ethnically conscious Polonia is politically inert on the matter of its own leadership, it is doubtful this will change for the foreseeable future. It is far easier to blame other ethnic groups, or the world at large, and write angry but useless letters to the editor than to commit to the hard work Polonia will need to do to correct the problem.

One can only hope that through journals like SR, the few voices crying out in the wilderness will eventually have some effect.

John Radzilowski, Roseville, Minnesota


Back to the January 2001 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated January 2001.