Polish Americans and Their History Community, Culture, and Politics

Edited by John J. Bukowczyk. Pittsburgh, PA. University of Pittsburgh Press (3347 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15261). 1996. xiii + 278 pages. Index. Hardcover. $49.95.

Patricia A. Gajda

In his opening essay of Polish Americans and Their History, John Bukowczyk achieves two important things. He breaks new ground when he finds a discernible shape in the scope and depth of discourse concerning the Polish American immigrant experience. In doing this, he also provides a credible paradigm into which the seven essays that follow can be set.

He deftly documents what it was that the Polish American recorders and historians saw when they tried to define themselves. At first, much that was said about the immigrants emanated from others who summoned them to assimilation and provided descriptions of them in which they could not even recognize themselves. But they, too, sometimes had problems defining themselves, frequently recording their historical experience solely in a Catholic context that ignored America's Protestant roots and Jewish presence. Supporting the re-creation of a Poland to which they could return, provided focus to their energies, so when the country was restored after World War I, one of the reasons for their unity evaporated. It became clear to most of them that they had no real intention of leaving America.

Bukowczyk shows how the literature records them making the trek from being, first, Poles in America, then American Poles, and finally Polish Americans or Americans of Polish descent whose new goal was to find recognition in the United States. The rise of Polish Studies, albeit limited, provided one avenue to achieve this. While Bukowczyk highlights the historical articulations of the intellectuals, he remembers to include some popular expressions of self-definition among American Poles such as their embracing the causes of American patriotic themes, as first recorded by Mieczysaw Haiman. The coming of World War II had a profound effect on Polonia and the subsequent recording of its identity and history. New organizations arose, such as the one that later became the Polish American Historical Association, devoted to the study of a Poland once again in the grip of invaders. Catholic clergy and female religious were important in the Association for a long time, providing, in the early years, the majority of members as well as journal articles, frequently on religious themes. Bukowczyk stretches the topic a little when he suggests that the nuns were proto-feminists, contributing significantly as authors and benefiting from the empowerment that flowed from the long-standing Marian tradition in Roman Catholicism.

Little research has been done on the Polish American family of the interwar period, perhaps because its extraordinary stability after the war definitively demonstrated how wrong had been the prognostications of disorganization theorists.

The anti-communist Cold War years witnessed Polonia's renewed interest in the 'old country,' and he cites, in this regard, the scholarly work of Oscar Halecki and that of organizations such as the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America and the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. The latter, however, became dominated by Russian studies. Polonia's scholars worked hard to break down stereotypes - one, for example, that viewed Poles as a mass of rude peasants led by a few cultured landowners, and another that ignored the distinctions between Poles and other central and eastern Europeans, simmering them all together in an essentially Russian soup. Bukowczyk laments these and other limitations that prevented the growth of Polish studies in America. The situation changed, however, as Polonia's college-educated scholars in the 1960s began to conduct their own historical studies, sometimes in conjunction with Polish scholars in a changing world where more contacts between them became possible. PAHA saw increased secularization of membership and research interests; government funds to document and preserve ethnic heritage in America encouraged more scholarly activity among Polish American historians. From the last initiative, many of Polonia's newspapers were microfilmed, archives assembled, curricular materials developed.

Finally, Bukowczyk outlines a new social history, pioneered by Victor Greene and developed by scholars such as Paul Wrobel, that regards the perspective of the industrial worker as quintessential to the Polish American experience, a revisionist interpretation that attracted criticism from those who earlier had tried to counter the stereotype that Poles were a mass of unskilled peasants and laborers. He rounds out his description of the new social history by characterizing what Thaddeus C. Radzilowski has called the Detroit School.

Bukowczyk declares the current status of Polish American historical studies to be vibrant; he observes a concurrent decrease in the number and influence of clergy, religious, and women in PAHA. He has come under some fire for crediting the vibrancy to the increased secularization and for seeking a deus ex machina, of sorts, in more Polish American academics like himself. He leaves himself open to the first charge because he discusses the two in tandem, even though he claims no cause and effect explicitly. The second charge is unfair; Bukowczyk announces at the outset that he aims to describe how Polonia has identified itself and recorded its historical experience, a process carried out largely, with some exceptions, by professional scholars like himself.

William G. Falkowski's essay is an historiographical analysis of works published within the last fifteen years that give more than marginal attention to Polish Americans. It is devoted largely to English-language sources because they, more than Polish ones, reflect contemporary theoretical debates. One debate, for example, pits the older view that the Polish immigrants to America were passive victims of American capitalism and impediments to unionization, against newer views that credit them with ingenuity and reject unilinear theories of modernization. Falkowski's characterizations are clear and concise. He shows that lack of a standard definition of radicalism breaks down the dialogue among social historians who consequently do not know whether to view the Polish worker's regard for the moral capitalism embedded in papal encyclicals as conservative owing to its religious links, or radical owing to its affinity with progressive theories.

In a beautifully crafted and written essay on family and women, Thaddeus C. Radzilowski reviews the extant literature and points out the significant gaps that still remain. He describes and then contrasts the older view of the Polish immigrant family, based on Thomas and Znaniecki's classic analysis, with more recent scholarship that rejects their thesis of family disorganization. The new social history shows that the once-Polish family was much changed in the New World: a woman's role was often augmented because of the husband's prolonged absence at work or his perceived lower status owing to his recent arrival from the old world. Women emigrated to America, he shows, largely for the same reasons men did. When they arrived, they joined or took husbands, found work and, like the men, organized themselves into groups that advanced the social welfare. Many entered religious orders, some founded by Poles in America, and devoted themselves primarily to education of children. By staffing the Catholic schools, they also provided important links between separate Polonian parishes where they served. Little research has been done on the Polish American family of the interwar period, perhaps because its extraordinary stability after the war definitively demonstrated how wrong had been the prognostications of disorganization theorists.

The nature of the literature regarding Polish Americans and religion determines the shape William Galush's historiographical essay takes. It largely reflects an old ecclesiology that focuses on institutional history: development of parishes or dioceses, uncritical biographies of church leaders, filiopietistic histories of religious orders. Newer and more critical treatments of some of these topics are appearing, but they are few. Galush describes both the conventional treatment of the Polish National Catholic Church's development and some more interesting contemporary analyses. Not only does he identify traditionally studied topics that suffer from a dearth of sources, but he also calls for study of new questions which, although he says it more kindly, would be more suitable to accompany a changing post-Vatican II ecclesiology.

Let us hope that this book will spawn a cohort of theses and dissertations that will enrich our understanding of the Polish American experience.

Unlike the contributors who appear ahead of him and describe the extant literature in their area of specialty, Daniel Stone sets out to invent the field of Polish-American-Jewish history by examining secondary sources whose focus is in other related fields. He reminds the reader of the centuries-old Jewish presence in Poland characterized by self-governing privileges. With the rise of modern Polish nationalism came the call for abolition of all medieval privileges, which included those traditionally enjoyed by Jews. Because the life of independent Poland was cut short by World War II, the public education system that would have polonized Jews reached very few. Their cultural life in Poland,both religious and secular, however, was lively. When the industrial revolution threw many into poverty, they emigrated. Writing their history has its challenges, Stone indicates, since it is difficult to even define a Polish Jew, much less trace the patterns of emigration, given the nature of official data. Stone says the relationship between Polish Christian and Polish Jew in America was a good one; he points to existing literature that tends to focus on New York. It describes the arrival of families who gave every indication that they meant to stay. Polish Jewish women played an active role in unions. Yiddish theater flourished. With time the immigrants became a lower middle-class American ethnic group; their ascent into the middle class came well after World War II. When they encountered discrimination, they set up their own institutions for education, entertainment, and business. The Polish Jews in America maintained considerable links with the old country - not the Catholic Poland recalled by the older Polonia but the Poland of the Jewish shtetl. They sent aid to their communities there, helped dislocated Jews, and tried to raise America's consciousness about the fate of Jews under Nazism, work that led to the formation of the War Refugee Board. Jewish American links with Poland virtually came to an end with the Holocaust. Stone notes the striking absence of Jews in American Polonia and suggests that future research might change this perception. He suggests that Christian Poles and Jews had historically lived in Poland in a symbiotic relationship and that the literature, which tends to disproportionately deal with conflicts between them, had little effect on the lives of either of them in America.

When Stanislaus A. Blejwas examines the relationship between Polonia and politics, he debunks the stereotype that participation in American politics by Polonia is inadequate. He contends that various events in Europe, as well as realities of life in America, helped to nationalize the Polish immigrants. First, this country's free atmosphere gave them the opportunity to decide openly what their views toward Poland should be. Then, also, when they encountered discrimination in America, it tended to disregard their European regional origins and group them all simply as Poles, which had the effect of strengthening their national bond and consciousness, a process that reached its height during World War I. Victor Greene's earlier work sees this growth of Polish national consciousness as an American experience that actually had little to do with Europe. As they sought higher social status, American Poles performed military service and contributed to relief efforts in greater proportion to the American than to the Polish cause; when the opportunity to return to a resurrected homeland became a reality, few took it. Blejwas describes the vigorous life of Polonian politics that not only contributed to Americanization but also served as a prelude to participation in American politics. After a broad description of the political activities of Polish American women, Blejwas points out that little has yet been written on this issue, particularly on the post World War II period, sometimes considered the period of greatest Polonian influence on local government. He briefly deals with the tensions between Polish Americans and African Americans during the course of the civil rights movement. When Poland fell to communist rule, the homeland displaced local political concerns in the attention of Polonia. They formed the umbrella organization, the Polish American Congress, but it lacked sufficient power to influence American foreign policy in Poland's favor. Its lobbying activities, despite some important shortcomings, have been revitalized in the last two decades in response to the election of Pope John Paul II and the formation of Solidarity. Once sovereign and independent Poland was restored, Polonia's focus once again needed redefinition.

Anna D. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann takes on the hydra-headed task of studying the wave of displaced persons, emigres, refugees, and other Polish immigrants who came to America during and after World War II. She observes that, despite the abundance of original sources, little analytical work has been done on the common experience of this group. For this reason, her essay concentrates heavily on some of these primary sources: records, for example, of their new self-help and cultural organizations. The first wave of emigres came between 1939 and 1941; the next large wave arrived in 1946 under the so-called Truman directive and later under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and its subsequent amendments. American Polonia assisted with the resettlement. From the research conducted in the last generation, a profile emerges of the postwar arrivals as a Polish intelligentsia with relatively high social status and level of education, actively anti-communist in orientation and interested in world affairs and American foreign policy. Within this group, Jaroszynska-Kirchmann singles out the Polish ex-servicemen who arrived in America from Britain. Those who arrived in this post-war period frequently established their own organizations, separate from those of old Polonia, and provided aid to newcomers whose wartime experiences they could more closely understand and identify with. Some of the new arrivals were Polish Jews who, although they also tended to organize their own groups, often were able to bridge the gap between themselves and the other Polish new arrivals because of their common memories of the war and pre-war years in Poland. Polish escapees from communism continued to arrive in America as did some notable intellectuals who were able to enter the country under revised immigration laws. Subsequent new waves of immigration were initiated by European circumstances, economic and political. Danuta Mostwin's sociological studies provide information about not only the refugee group but also the 1974-84 immigrant group. The 1970s in America saw ethnic revival and revitalization in which Polonia participated. Anti-defamation projects brought together old and new Polonias. Solidarity exiles actively sought Polonia's and the rest of America's support for Poland, but the lack of sources concerning this group calls for added scholarly investigation. Not only did Solidarity exiles come in large numbers in the 1980s, so too did others seeking free expression or economic improvement, such as the turysci who arrived with a tourist visa and intended to earn enough money to improve their lives when they returned to Poland. Mary P. Erdmans has done some important research on intergroup relationships within Polish communities in America, but the author reminds us that much still remains to be done.

In the last essay, Andrzej Brozzek writes, from the European side, about post-World War II Polish historiography of emigration. He mentions Polish social scientists who were interested in this subject even before World War I and analyzed the exodus to the United States. When Poland came under communist control after World War II, research on prewar emigration ran into difficulty, especially with the imposition of strict Marxist methodology, a pressure that remained fixed for more than a decade. Some limited university contacts with the West were initiated after 1956 and made possible the study of Polish emigration to the United States and other western countries. Some important studies were published in the 1970s, some of them by Brozek himself. In the mid-1950s, Polish scholars had become attracted to the methodology of the French Annales school which has since dominated the historiography of Polish emigration. While this essay addresses a broader issue than does the book, it offers a useful counterpart to the American historiography as it views Polish emigration to America within the context of a larger Polish diaspora.

This is a valuable and important book that deserves a fuller description than is possible in a review. Here we have some of the finest scholars of Polish American history bringing together for the first time an identification or analysis of the best extant primary and secondary sources in the field. Although their historiographical task is meant to inform the serious scholar, they tell their story of Polish America in such an engaging manner, with little jargon, that it proves to be interesting to the non-specialist reader as well. Contributors not only assess the major lines of much impressive work already completed, but they also reveal where lacunae exist and ask questions that future historians need to address. Indeed, let us hope they spawn a cohort of theses and dissertations that will enrich our understanding of the Polish American experience. This volume, with its scope, substance, and scholarship, should go a long way to counter any lingering defamatory images of uncultured Polish Americans that may still abide in this country. Bukowczyk deserves our thanks, and his book should be in every college, university, and public library.

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