And My Children Did Not Know Me:
A History of the Polish-Americans

By John J. Bukowczyk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1987. xiii + 190 pages. Hardcover and Paper.

Reviewed by Joseph A. Kotarba

Response by John J. Bukowczyk

Professor Bukowczyk, who teaches immigration and ethnic history at Wayne State University, has given us a concise and scholarly history of the Polish American experience. The theme of his book is identity: what does it mean to be American and Polish at the same time? The author describes how, over the years, Polish Americans themselves have wrestled with this question individually and collectively. Individually, immigrants have long been concerned with the fear that their children will lose their sense of ancestry as they are seduced by the process of becoming Americans. Jan and Maria Kowalski, a fictional married couple that Bukowczyk uses effectively to illustrate the dynamics of the working-class immigrant family, felt this way about their children. Collectively, groups ranging from fraternal organizations like the Polish National Alliance and the Polish Roman Catholic Union to neighborhood parishes, have used the issue of identity as a medium for working out relations among themselves as well as with the outside world.

Both time frame and the topics covered in the book are sweeping. Bukowczyk wisely begins his story with a brief yet useful political and economic history of Poland since the 1500s. The various partitions of Poland set the tone for distinctions among the waves of Polish emigration to the United States. Bukowczyk then discusses a fairly typical list of topics related to Polonia: distinctions in the emigration patterns by social class; adapting to the new world; the structure and function of the immigrant family; inter- and intra-community conflicts; the centrality of the Catholic Church in the history of Polonia; assimilation; the renaissance of the Polish American identity in the 1970s; and the emergence of a political agenda in Polonia. Bukowczyk should be commended for correctly refuting grossly exaggerated claims of anti-Semitism and racism among Polish Americans.

This book would serve well as a primer on the Polish American experience. The text is well referenced, and the author provides the best bibliographic essay on this topic IÕve seen anywhere. There is even a pronunciation key for the linguistically faint of heart. Nevertheless, I finished reading the book feeling a bit ill at ease. Clearly, the book satisfies what sociologists refer to as the members' test of validity. Most Polish Americans reading this book could easily locate themselves in it, whether they grew up in Chicago or Buffalo; whether their grandparents came from Austrian, German, or Russian Poland; and whether their parents belonged to the Polish National Alliance or the Polish Roman Catholic Union.

But, the book falls short in addressing the issue of Polish American identity as experienced today. In the Epilogue, Bukowczyk raises the following questions:
Is the retention of ethnic identity important to Polish American descendants? Does it mean anything? What good does it do young men and women to practice an occasional ethnic custom, to speak a few words of kitchen Polish, to visit a Polish parish at Eastertime or Christmas, to bear a Polish-sounding surname, or even to know that their distant forebears were [Polish] immigrants? They would never know their parents for what they were, never know what they sacrificed--no more than the second generation Polish Americans had known their parents of the immigrant generation. (p. 145)

The author does not provide much of an alternative to these admittedly thin identity experiences, except for a few platitudes, but neither has the Polish American community in general. It does not do any good to bash third- and fourth-generation Polish Americans for not practicing an implicitly correct or better identity. My point is that the first- and second- generation Polish Americans have not created much of a Polish American culture for their children to see, hear, read, feel, learn and live. We need more novelists like Shalom Aleichem and Alex Haley to create some Tevyes and Kunta Kintes for us. We need more, and more relevant, Polish American myths and heroes. We need more student and cultural exchange programs with Poland. We need more well written and well intentioned histories like Bukowczyk's, but histories that go a bit further and that take a few more chances. Works on Polish American identity should have epilogues that tell us how to finally do away with the dysfunctional if not simply irrelevant chasm between peasant and aristocrat that still lingers in our community. My point is that the rest of American society, whose images of Polish Americans we should really want to change, couldn't care less whether any of us came from peasant or aristocratic stock.

My litmus test for the adequacy of analyses like Bukowczyk's is Jim Miklaszewski. Jim is the probably the most visible Polish American in America today: he is on network television just about everyday. Jim is the White House Correspondent for NBC News. He is a native of Milwaukee, via Fort Worth, Texas. Jim is noteworthy, not because he is any sort of heroic advocate for Polonia and its economic and/or political agendas, but because he is simply a very talented and popular media personality who happens to have a four syllable surname. He does not look like "Killer" Kowalski, and he does not talk like Stanley Kowalski. He obviously did not have to shorten his name to "Michaels" or something similar in order to pass for an Anglo. When his on-air colleagues refer to him as 'Mik,' itÕs OK...itÕs only a nickname, much the way my students refer to me as 'Dr. K.' Overall, Bukowczyk's book is a pretty good start towards making sense of the Jim Miklaszewskis of the 1990s. But it is only a start.

We need new models of identity that account for Polish Americans like Jim Miklaszewski, those of us who do not feel they must anglicize their names. These models should be based on a revised history of Polonia that neither self-consciously excuses nor unabashedly glorifies our past, but portrays us as many of us truly are: happy and successful Americans who happen to have this really neat secret: we are a people who all have both the magic and warmth of the simple peasant, as well as the elegance and authority of the aristocrat.

Joseph A. Kotarba is Professor of Sociology at the University of Houston.

In response

The project to write a book-length manuscript on the history of Polish Americans was suggested to me in the early 1980s by a series editor at Indiana University Press. The editors who accepted And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish-Americans (as well as, later, many of the readers of the volume) might have viewed the book as an offshoot of the so-called "new ethnicity." The "ethnic" sensibilities of the book indeed were informed by historian Rudolph VecoliÕs influential revisionist article on the survival and uses of South Italian peasant culture, Contadini in Chicago: A Critique of The Uprooted. But, as historian Thaddeus Radzilowski, who reviewed the book elsewhere, rightly has commented, the book focused less on the ethnic and more upon the class dimension of the ethnic working-class experience; and subsequently I have continued to privilege class in the social analysis that has informed my work. In emphasizing class, And My Children Did Not Know Me perhaps curiously did draw upon the powerful story of immigrant travail told by Oscar Handlin, whom Vecoli had criticized, but the more direct intellectual and political influence on the book was the so-called "new social history" (and its "radical" wing) that aimed to tell the story of ordinary working people, to write history "from the bottom up." In particular, the early chapters of the work set forth an argumentative line inspired by the scholarship of the late Herbert Gutman and the late E.P. Thompson.

Scholars of the Polish American experience accordingly have associated the book with that strand of revisionist group scholarship that sought to recover and, in a sense, celebrate the working-class Polish American ethnic experience, what Radzilowski has called the "Detroit School" of Polish American historiography. But, it may come now as a revelation or a confession that, to my knowledge, at the time the book was in preparation, no comparable working-class ethnic study existed to influence the form and content of the work. The best and largest literature at the time which helped shape the work was the growing body of excellent scholarship in African American history; and the specific work, above any other, on which in some sense my own book was modelled was Meier and Rudwick's From Plantation to Ghetto, which treated different themes and a very different history, but which was at the time probably the best brief group synthesis extant. Perhaps acknowledging these various influences in the Introduction might have made my book more accessible to general readers.

In retrospect, I wish I had written some things differently in this book. For example, I wish I had rendered a more nuanced portrait of working-class ethnic life than that presented using the device of a fictive immigrant family. But with many aspects of this book I remain comfortable. The book tried to engage several subjects that had not at the time (and, I think, to a great extent still have not) been treated by most immigration and ethnic historians, and certainly not by Polish American scholars. Some of those subjects have been perceived, I believe, as "too hot to handle." Although I did not research many of them deeply (on many of them virtually no secondary literature existed) and based my own generalizations upon observation and even intuition, And My Children Did Not Know Me did at least broach subjects like Polish-Black relations, Polish-Jewish relations, anti-Polish discrimination, anti-Polish prejudice, intra-community relations between the older Polonia and "displaced persons," the "new ethnicity" itself (and, for example, how it figured in upward mobility). These are tough subjects which still need elementary scholarly treatment. For these reasons, the last few chapters of the book seem to me the most innovative, original, and provocative.

And My Children Did Not Know Me is, I think, an intellectual artifact of its time, a primary source that allows us to glimpse the intersection of a set of political strands, with a group of historiographical developments, with a moment in the history of an American ethnic group. And it still pleases me immensely that the book was well received not only by specialists in the field but also by community audiences, precisely, I think, because it tells a commonplace aspect of the immigrant/ethnic storyÑof the struggle by decent people to achieve a decent life for themselves and their families and, by and large, to realize a humane society. This is a story that, alas, we still do not find in many standard historical accounts of white ethnic groups, particularly as they view the history of those groups in the late twentieth century.

John J. Bukowczyk is Professor of History at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

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