In Poland today, former communist party officials continue this practice. They make a living as yellow journalists ridiculing the same values they fought against under communism. They have fooled many people who look for an easy laugh at anybody's expense.
Iwo C. Pogonowski, Blacksburg, Virginia
My friend and colleague of many years, John J. Kulczycki, presented a number of thoughtful comments on Polish studies (SR, XIV/3, September 1994). Having myself coordinated a Polish Studies Program at my university for twenty years, I can well appreciate the frustrations and concerns that he voices, particularly in regard to the clientele for Polish history.
In spite of more than nine million Americans of Polish origin counted in the 1990 US Census, this clientele is very small, a distant second to the numbers pursuing Soviet and Russian studies. The precarious state of Polish studies occasions breast beating among academicians, rather modest concern among a few community leaders, and anger, contempt, and feelings of frustrated inferiority from numerous Polish-born and educated immigrants to this country.
Kulczycki points out that roughly half of his students are of Polish origin, and that a much higher number could be expected in a city which the community leadership fancifully calls the capital of American Polonia. While there are those who duck demanding courses, Kulczycki finds that "far too many students of Polish origin see no practical 'use' for the subject." Additionally, he argues that the older immigrant community "does not seem to have instilled in its younger generation an interest in Polish studies, not to speak of pride in one's roots and ancestry."
These observations, based on my own experience, are valid up to a point. However, I have encountered many second-generation Polish Americans who were thoroughly familiar with Polish Romantic poets or with the great novelists of Poland, and others who were well-versed in Polish history. Professor Kulczycki's generalization may be too broad.
We live in a pluralistic society where myriad attractions compete for one's attention, including courses that will help one find a job. A pragmatic approach to education is common and understandable.
I believe that individuals function better in society if they possess a knowledge of their heritage, including ethnic heritage. It is important to be able to place oneself in history's continuum. Nevertheless, millions of ethnic Americans have made their way in American society, apparently undamaged by this educational deficiency.
In his final criticism of his clientele, Professor Kulczycki blames the older immigrant community for not instilling pride in one's ancestry and roots. He touches on a complicated problem. Liberal educators discourage fostering ethnic pride among white European Americans. Polish Americans and others are subjected to that discouragement. But I think there is an even more important reason that the peasant immigrants act as Professor Kulczycki asserts.
Perhaps the question should be rephrased as follows: Why has Polish national culture failed to hold the affection and loyalty of all those assimilated, acculturated, and Americanized Polish Americans? Why has Polish culture lost out in the competition with American culture?
The response to this question may help us to understand how some of the Polish-educated elite contribute to the alienation of the Great Peasant Emigration and of its descendants from their ancestral heritage. I am not a Marxist, and have always been loath to interpret history in terms of class conflict. However, the longer one is exposed to Polish emigres in America and absorbs their contempt for old Polonia, the harder it becomes to avoid concluding that old world class antagonisms were transplanted across the ocean. After World War I, the reports of Polish diplomats reflected their gentry pretensions, which peasant petitioners in the consulates felt. After World War II, there were the well-documented tensions between old Polonia and the postwar generation of soldier exiles and political emigres. In recent years, Czeslaw Milosz, crassly complaining that American Polonia did not turn his History of Polish Literature into a bestseller, encapsulated and sanctified the contempt that many Polish intellectuals and emigres feel for their Polish American cousins.
Milosz's contempt for his trans-Atlantic kin is well-documented and public (see his "Separate Nations: Poetry and People," The New York Times Book Review, 11 October 1987, and Stanislaus Blejwas, "Milosz and Polish Americans," The New York Times Book Review, 22 November 1987; also Stanislaus Blejwas, "Cz. Milosz i S.A. Blejwas o Polonii w Ameryce," Akcent, XIII:4/50, 1992). Among others, Milosz tried to excuse his arrogance and meanness of spirit by criticizing Polish Americans for not supporting the creation of the Adam Mickiewicz Chair of Polish Studies at Columbia University, proposed by him when he was cultural attaché for Warsaw's communist regime in Washington in the 1940s and '50s (S.A. Blejwas, "The Adam Mickiewicz Chair of Polish Culture: Columbia University and the Cold War, 1948-1954," The Polish Review, XXXVI, nos. 3 and 4, 1991; and Aleksander Fiut, Rozmowy z Czeslawem Miloszem, Krakow 1981, p.108).
American Polonia bitterly attacked this cultural initiative which was nevertheless partially funded in 1948-54 by the government of "People's Poland," a regime that was busily arresting and killing its political opponents. Milosz asks in the Polish, but not in the sanitized English edition, of Rok Mysliwego [Year of the Hunter]: "But what can one expect from such collective oafishness?" (Rok Mysliwego, Krakow 1991, p. 156). He apparently never forgave American Polonia for its temerity in opposing his creation, while at the same time rather disingenuously failing to recall the political circumstances in which this occurred. Perhaps it is painful for a Nobel Prize winner to acknowledge that his peasant cousins in the American Polonia comprehended the nature of "People's Poland" long before Milosz went into exile in 1951 and authored The Captive Mind.
In explaining why in his view Polish Americans do not support culture, Milosz attributes the problem to Poland's exceptional caste system. The extremes were so far apart that they rarely met, and "The lowest, those who emigrated after bread, certainly had no one to model themselves after because those who stood higher were too high for them." And in another sentence hinting at class stereotyping, the poet comments: "In reality, the lowest in the old country, here (in the new world) were the lowest category of laborers, stigmatized like Black workers. One can understand their susceptibility to the contempt of the middle class, which expresses itself in Polish jokes." (Rok Mysliwego, pp. 156-7).
Milosz verbalizes views that were and are common among many (not all) emigre Poles, and in so doing contributes to our understanding of why old Polonia and its descendants were alienated from Polish class-oriented culture and why they rapidly gravitated to the culture of a pluralistic democracy. Milosz and "his crowd" bear a share of responsibility for the small clientele for Polish studies among American Poles. They, like the prejudiced bigots who revel in Polack jokes, have inflicted deep wounds upon the psyche of American Poles, and continue to turn the knife.
It is difficult to work up enthusiasm for Milosz's History of Polish Literature knowing that the author holds in contempt the paying readership that he should court instead. The bitter irony is that an individual who is now a Polish cultural icon has, together with those who share his views, done harm to the cause of Polish culture among Polish Americans.
It is time, in Poland, to begin to address Polish prejudices against Polish Americans.
Professor Kulczycki is right to raise the issue of old Polonia's failure to instill an interest in Polish studies and a pride in their roots and ancestry among its children. There have been factors here that I have not discussed, such as the inferiority feelings that rural peasants acquire when they transfer to urban societies, the reaction of Polish rural and Catholic mentality to the urban host society, and the powerful attraction of various aspects of American culture. However, Polish emigres usually fail to acknowledge that they all too often scapegoat Polish Americans to convince themselves that they, the "Polish intelligentsia," are a better class of people, or to impress their American friends. It is high time to confront this issue in the discussion of Polish studies.
Stanislaus A. Blejwas, CSU University Professor of History and Coordinator, Polish Studies, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut