Polonia

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When Polish peasant immigrants began to arrive in America in the 1870’s, there had been no Poland on the maps of Europe for almost a century. Few Polish peasants had a notion of a homeland broader than the district which had contained their village; fewer yet spoke a language which all Poles could understand. For many of them, the realization that they were Poles came only in America—which is what made the Polish peasant immigrant experience unique among all others.

Like their Irish predecessors of the 1840’s, and the Italians who shared their immigration era, most of the Polish peasants who came to America were illiterate, unskilled, and Roman Catholic, but that is the extent of any similarity between them. The Irish had no doubt about who and what they were; their tiny country had not allowed for much diversity among them. They shared a common language and could make themselves understood in English. They were united by a rich national history and cultural traditions, and they were sustained by a powerful religion which they brought with them, along with its priests. The exploited and oppressed Italian immigrants of the 1880’s came closest to the huge loneliness of the Polish peasant in America, but they, at least, possessed a deep sense of their home country’s magnificent past (an Italian, after all, had discovered America itself) and a patriarchal family tradition that helped to hold them together in the New World. Furthermore, society allowed the Irish and the Italians to keep their European labels, hastening the organization and development of supportive ethnic communities.

The unskilled and impoverished Polish peasants, who came to America in search of land and money, had no such advantages. They came from a vast multinational state, with a variety of customs and traditions, which had been partitioned among rapacious neighbors who had done all they could to deprive its people of a national identity. If these hardhanded toilers knew anything of Poland’s culture and history, it was as folk tales and legends. Instead of one language, they spoke at least nine rural regional dialects, most of them mutually unintelligible. On arrival in America, they, like their country, were “partitioned,” most of them classified as nationals of whatever foreign tyranny happened to rule their part of Poland—as Prussians, Austrians, or Russians (such classifications, of course, make it impossible to determine how many Poles were among the approximately three million immigrants from Eastern Europe who entered the United States between 1870 and 1910). Catholicism had been a common constant in their European lives—indeed, priests were the peasantry’s natural leaders’but there were, at first, few priests in America whom they could understand, or who could understand them. The well-established Irish clergy had little sympathy for these newcomers; it was, in fact, often downright hostile to them, and the Polish peasants were thrown almost entirely on their own pitiful resources even for religious solace.

So they were alone here in America, alone as no other ethnic group had ever been. Ironically, they were not the first Poles to take part in the American story. There had been many here before them—the craftsmen who had joined English settlers and established the first industries of the Jamestown Colony, the soldiers and scholars who had joined with the Dutch in New-Amsterdam, colonial map makers and explorers, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, soldiers, financiers, and reformers. During the Revolution, Count Casimir Pulaski served brilliantly as a cavalry officer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko was George Washington’s chief military engineer and designed and built West Point, and New York merchant Haym Solomon helped finance the war. In the early and middle nineteenth century, Ernestine Louise S. Potowska-Rose became a leading light of the feminist and abolitionist movements and Dr. Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska founded two hospitals for women staffed exclusively by women and a school for professional women nurses. Some six thousand Poles served during the Civil War on both sides, including such officers as Brigadier General Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski, Brigadier General Colonel Jozef Karge, Colonel Joseph Smolinski, and Major Alexander Raszewski—while in Washington, Count Adam Gurowski agitated so vigorously for immediate emancipation of the slaves that he became known as “Lincoln’s Gadfly.” Yet these Poles and the many like them, cultured and well educated, were aristocratic refugees who had seen reflected in America the dream of independence and unity they hoped for their poor, dismembered homeland. They had little to give the great waves of immigrants who came after them—and even when help was offered, the peasants tended to view it with distrust as coming from the “nobility.”