Book review: Juggling identities

Dominic Pacyga’s work is an invaluable history of Chicago Polonia

POLISH PRESIDENT Lech Kaczynski (right) and Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley in 2006 at Chicago’s statue of Polish-Chicago hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko. (photo credit: REUTERS)
POLISH PRESIDENT Lech Kaczynski (right) and Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley in 2006 at Chicago’s statue of Polish-Chicago hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
American Warsaw, a new history of Polish immigrants in Chicago by historian Dominic A. Pacyga, is not a sentimental riff on Babcia’s pierogi, polka parties and little girls dressed up in flowered shawls for Constitution Day.
It’s also not a dry recitation of population statistics, and the names of famous settlers.
Instead, American Warsaw is something new and necessary, a book Chicago didn’t know it needed until it showed up. American Warsaw chronicles the unique nature of Chicago’s “Polonia” – its community of Poles and Polish descendants outside of Poland. Pacyga tells the story of how Chicago came to have such a large Polish population, and to even be considered a part of Poland in exile, the “fourth partition” of a country that had been divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia before 1918. Chicago was “Poland elsewhere,” where immigrants juggled becoming American with trying to hang on to their sense of Polishness, or polskosc.
Pacyga also tells of the sharp divisions in the community over what it means to be Polish, and describes how Polonia changed and rebuilt itself, fighting both outside prejudice and internal tensions, over successive waves of immigration.
“Many of Chicago’s Poles have maintained a vibrant sense of “polskosc,” Pacyga writes in his clean, matter-of-fact style. “To an extent, this is because of Chicago’s special place in the worldwide Polish diaspora.”
Pacyga is well-qualified to tell this tale. A professor emeritus of history at Columbia College, he is the author of several books, including Chicago: A Biography (2009). But he is also a Chicago Polish-American, who grew up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, going to a grade school run by Felician nuns and speaking “that special patois we call Po Chicagosku,” which involves adding Polish endings to English words.
In 1980, at a meeting of historians in Toronto, he recalled being startled when a Polish scholar told him that, of course, he was not actually Polish. At a recent talk at the Society of Midland Authors, Pacyga said he felt like the subject of Chicago’s Polonia had picked him, instead of the other way around.
American Warsaw starts with Polish Chicago’s participation in the Columbian Exposition of 1893, as well as its campaign to erect a monument to Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a hero in the United States for his Revolutionary War service, and in Poland as a fighter for independence. The campaigns illustrate how the immigrant community came to present itself to the world and to take a stand in the fight for an independent homeland.
While this history is interesting and illuminates trends that become important later, the book really starts to come alive in the next chapters about what Chicago Polonia was like before World War II. It may surprise owners of pricey West Town condos to know that the area between Ashland Avenue and Division Street to the southwest and Noble and Blackhawk streets to the northeast was such a wretched slum that it was called “The Black Spot.”
Pacyga described how the poorly maintained buildings had rats and other vermin, with windows that opened directly over garbage and manure boxes. New immigrants in Polish neighborhoods crowded into tiny flats without indoor toilets. They instead used privies, sometimes just holes dug in the ground, under the vaulted sidewalks. These were known as Jan Pod Sidewalkiem, Chicago Polish slang for “john under the sidewalk.” Most immigrants had been peasant farmers in Poland, and many saw nothing wrong with keeping livestock in their Chicago buildings, including pigs in the attic.
Pacyga also recounts the often bizarre history of Polish churches and civic institutions. He tells how the Polish Roman Catholic Union provided a home for those who defined Poles first and foremost as Catholics, and how this group mobilized around St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish. In contrast, the Polish National Alliance was open to all who believed in Polish independence, regardless of religion.
Nationalists gathered around Holy Trinity Parish, just blocks away from St. Stan’s. Parish civil wars broke out, which included street violence. Out of this grew the schismatic Polish National Catholic Church, not recognized by Rome.
Polish immigrants worked tough jobs – in the stockyards, at tanning factories, steel mills and garment manufacturers. Their children went to work early, sometimes not getting an education beyond the parish grade school. Juvenile delinquency and crime was a problem, with Polish youth adapting to the gang culture that was always a part of working-class neighborhoods. Polonia’s civic leaders loudly protested when writer Nelson Algren wrote about West Town’s pimps and drug dealers, but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist. In fact, the concept of taking someone on a “one-way ride” is credited to John “Dingbat” Oberta, a Back of the Yards gangster.
Polish immigrants faced the same kind of fierce prejudice experienced by other immigrant groups through US history: They were accused of being fit only for manual labor and too foreign to be assimilated into American life. A 1924 law, based on the notion that Eastern and Southern Europeans were inferior to Anglo-Saxons, slowed the flow of immigrants from Poland, Italy and Greece to a trickle. But more waves of Polish immigrants came after World War II. And during the 1980s, Chicago saw tens of thousands of both political refugees and those who came to the city “on vacation” and never left.
Despite all their challenges, Polish immigrants built a powerful community, with an emphasis on home ownership and upward mobility. Ironically, this proved to be the undoing of Chicago’s colorful Polish neighborhoods – with immigrants earning enough to leave the city and buy houses in the suburbs. Polonia is now more diluted, and no longer has the political clout it once had, though it is still an enormous part of what makes the Chicago region unique. Even if you’re not Polish, you know what kielbasa is, and you know to buy paczki on Fat Tuesday, though you may not be able to spell it.
My only problem with American Warsaw is that there were a few too many descriptions of rallies and parades. I love a parade as well as the next Chicago Pole, but I would have preferred fewer marches and more on Polka King Li’l Wally Jagiello and similar characters.
This is a minor quibble about an otherwise invaluable work. It’s recommended not just for Chicago’s many Poles and Polish descendants, but for anyone who wants insight into how a once-despised immigrant group overcame crushing poverty and stereotyping as it helped to build the country. It’s a valuable lesson, now more than ever.