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Polonia and Its History

by Dr. Thaddeus V. Gromada

Many Polish Americans have no difficulty understanding that Poland’s history and culture are worth studying if they are to retain their Polish identity. But, unfortunately, they do not show much interest or inclination to study the history of the Polish American ethnic group. Yet, no ethnic group can survive if it suffers from historical amnesia.

Polish immigrants began to settle in the United States in significant numbers in the 1850s, (Panna Maria, Texas 1854; Polonia, Wisconsin few years later) which means that the American Polonia has a history that goes back more than century and a half. These historical experiences are not only important for our self-understanding, but they are important for a better understanding of the general history of the United States. After all the early Polish immigrants helped create a modern industrial America working hard in the steel mills,, mines, stockyards and factories and at the same built mature, nearly institutionally-complete communities with a parish at their heart, that supported a wide range of institutions. And they did it without a government safety network that exists today, namely social security, unemployment and health benefits, etc. As Tad Radzilowski said some years ago, “Polish Americans established a model of liveable urban neighborhoods and built some of the most beautiful churches in the ugliest industrial areas in the United States.”

KNOW THYSELF. Sadly, many Polish Americans still do not have much respect for their history. They simply underestimate the contributions that were made by Polonians. When some years ago I began researching the important role of a Polish American leader in New Jersey politics in the early decades of the 20th century (Paul Supinski of Jersey City) I found that there were hardly any sources available to a researcher today. Not one Polish American organization in New Jersey was concerned about preserving historical records such as letters, newspapers, souvenir books, and so on. No one seemed to care that a repository had not been established, and that much of the raw material of Polonia’s history in New Jersey had been lost through neglect and still others are in danger of being lost. This appalling situation that exists in New Jersey no doubt exists in other states as well.

But the situation regarding the preservation of Polonia’s past may not be so bleak everywhere, especially after one reads the special issue of Polish American Studies Vol. LX, No.1, 2003 which was guest edited by Dr. Anna Jaroszynska-Kirchmann, professor of history Eastern Connecticut University and Joel Wurl, curator, Immigration History Archives, University of Minnesota. The issue contains articles describing Polish American archival holdings at thirteen locations: nine in the United States (Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Conn.; Hoover Institution, Stanford, Calif.; Polish Museum of America, Chicago; Polish National Catholic Church, Scranton, Pa.; Central Archives of Polonia, Orchard Lake, Mich.; Polish Book Collection , Orchard Lake, Mich.; Polish Institute of Arts & Sciences of America (PIASA) New York, N.Y.; and Pilsudski Institute of America , New York, N.Y.); and four in Poland (Archiwum NowychWarsaw; Archives of the Polish Emigration, Torun; Polish Emigrant Periodical in Poznan and Dom Polonia Archives in Pultusk).

There was once a lack of books and other printed publications about Polonia but that is not the case today. They are now available in both English and Polish. So there is no good reason why Polish Americans or their compatriots in Poland should continue to be uninformed about Polonian history. In America we have the works of historians and social scientists such as Helena Znaniecka Lopata, Frank Renkiewicz, John Bukowczyk, Joseph Wieczerzak, Stanislaus Blejwas, Daniel Buczek, James Pula, Donald Pienkos, Thomas Napierkowski and many others. In addition, there are periodicals like the Polish American Studies published since 1944 by the Polish American Historical Association and The Polish Review published by the Polish Institute of Arts & Sciences of America since 1956. A special expanded bicentennial issue on Polish Americans (Vol. XXI No.3, 1976) edited by Thaddeus V. Gromada and Eugene Kleban appeared as well as a volume on Polish-American Community Life: A Survey of Research by Irwin T. Sanders and Ewa T. Morawska. Both research projects were funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

In Poland, since the 1970s two important centers of Polish American studies have existed: one, at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and the other at Catholic University in Lublin, known in Polish as KUL (Katolicki Uniwersytet w Lublinie). The Polonia Institute of the Jagiellonian University (now called Instytut Amerykanistyki i Studiów Polonijnych) published a series of books on American Polonia by such scholars as Grzegorz Babinski, Adam Walaszek, Andrzej Brozek, Andrzej Pilch, Dorota Praszalowicz and many others. It also continues to publish a quarterly journal Przeglad Polonijny. In the Catholic University in Lublin a research institute on American Polonia has existed since 1976 now called Instytut Badan nad Polonia i Duszpasterstwem. It not only published books by Rev. Mieczysla Krapiec, Rev. Piotr Taras, Rev. Boleslaw Kumor, etc., but also a journal Studia Polonijne. These Polonia centers understand that the history of Polish Americans is also part of the history of Poland.

MORE TO BE DONE. Yes, considerable progress has been made in Polish American studies, but there is still much to be done. Most of the past research focused primarily on large urban centers like Chicago, Milwaukee, Buffalo and Detroit and omited middle- and small-sized cities and towns in New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, etc.

YOU CAN HELP. An additional challenge for scholars will be to include in their research Polish Americans in suburbia and in the sun belt states like Florida, California, Arizona, the Carolinas, etc. So writing a more balanced and inclusive synthesis of the Polish American experience will not be easy. It will require not only more research scholars but also the help and cooperation of ordinary Polish Americans. Individuals and organizations in Polonia will be needed in every state to document every aspect of their Polish experience and then place the documentation in a proper depository. If such a depository does not exist in your state, then it might be well to follow the example of Maryland Polonia which helped create an “Archives of Maryland Polonia” maintained at the University of Maryland in The University archivists are encouraging Polonian Marylanders to donate newspaper clippings, brochures, correspondence, souvenir books, photographs, etc. There is no reason why similar Polonian archives could not be established by other state universities.

Time has come for Polish Americans to become a more confident, expressive, and demonstrative group, determined to retain its identity and ensure its survival. Knowledge of our past in America and being conscious and in touch with our Polish culture and traditions are indispensable.




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