- Historic Sites
The Face of Poland in America
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
Yet the Polish peasant would endure, for if he had brought with him his vices and failings, he had also brought his virtues. Clannish, suspicious, dour and unforgiving when oppressed, he was contemptuous of fine language, given to smoldering hatreds and bursts of violence that could explode in alcoholic frenzy. But he was also painfully honest and self-reliant, and he knew how to bide his time. The peasants picked huckleberries on the hills behind the coalpits, scratched gardens into the wasted soil, raised potatoes, cabbages, and onions. They kept pigs, chickens. They were deliberate and watched what other people did. They raised large families in which everybody worked; grandparents went to work at dawn beside their children and grandchildren, and, with them, tumbled into bed long after sunset. The children were the first wealth of the Polish family; the larger the family, the more work it could do, the more money it earned. Penny by penny, dollar by dollar, the money went into savings; the savings bought land. Within ten years of their arrival in America, thousands of Polish immigrants were buying abandoned and depressed farms all over the Northeast: little hard patches of earth on the outskirts of the great industrial cities and soil that had been ruthlessly worked in Long Island, Connecticut, western Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.
Citizenship papers seemed magical to them as both exit visas from a dispossessed ethnic minority and entry permits into the American nation, so they formed social clubs and political clubs to prepare themselves for naturalization examinations. Then they began to organize to secure a living wage and working conditions fit for human beings, and suddenly, through the 1880’s, 1890’s, and well into the twentieth century, such places as Hamtramck, in Michigan, Pittsburgh, and the Pennsylvania coal fields of Shenandoah in Schuylkill County and Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in Lackawanna County (where the peasants made up three-quarters of the labor force) were bloody union battlefields as antilabor citadels fell one by one. Poles bought and then converted blighted slum property into that purely American phenomenon: the clean, safe, and orderly Polish neighborhood, with its churches and social institutions, where cleanliness could give godliness a chance. Within thirty years, Polish home-ownership in the United States exceeded that of any other ethnic immigrant group. When they found that American schools and churches humiliated them, they built more than nine hundred Roman Catholic parishes and more than eight hundred schools of their own, including eight institutions of higher learning. Slowly, step-by-step, as laboriously as the construction of a coral reef, the Polish peasants created their own civilization in America: Polonia , it was called.
For most of them, this long journey from the life and customs of Polish village society, through the purgatory of American mines and mills, to a sense of worth, identity, and economic independence, took all of a generation, often two. Along the way, the American experience taught them in those generations what a thousand years in Poland had often failed to accomplish: that they were Poles, and could take pride in the fact. They learned to know the heroes, history, and legends of their past; they named streets after Pulaski and Kosciuszko, and gave the name Warsaw to a town in Illinois; they worshiped such native Polish artists as Ignacy Paderewski and Wanda Landowska; during World War I, they flocked to join the Polish army and fight the armies of the German Kaiser; they created their own Polish-language newspapers, Zgoda (“Harmony”), Ojczyzna (“Fatherland”), Pielyrzym Polski (“The Polish Pilgrim”), and innumerable others.
The creation of Polonia was a triumph of endurance and determination, but it must be said that it was, in its own fashion, a ghetto—and like all ghettos it had a self-centered, inward-looking culture and its own imprisoning bars. The peasant’s vision was confined to what he could reach, or what instinct told him, and it took its price in creative and intellectual backwardness. Intelligent but untrained young minds were forced, by their parents’ drive for safety, to stay within such limits as those peasant parents were able to comprehend, and to them, a narrow middle-class horizon of material security and success seemed like the farthest edge of all possible human aspirations and dreams. It would take the third generation to break out of this spiritual and intellectual confinement.