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The Utility of Tradition: Building a New Polonia for the 21st Century

September 27, 2008

What is tradition? It is, in the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, the living faith of the dead. It is the living fabric of faith, culture, values, mores, life rhythms and stories that shaped the lives of those who came before us and that they have passed on to us. It establishes the outlines and structures that define us and provide us with the raw materials out of which we create our future. It is not an attempt to re-live the lives of our predecessors in our own time. Nor it is not primarily about preservation of what they have bequeathed to us. Slavish preservation is what Pelikan in his famous Jefferson lecture, The Vindication of Tradition has called “traditionalism — the dead faith of the living”.

Let me read you at some length what Jaroslav Pelikan wrote:
“To move into the future requires a kind of ‘leap of progress’. A ‘leap of progress’ is not a standing broad jump, which begins at the line of where we are now; it is a running broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight — in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology — has not come through progressively sloughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work that way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation.” 

Tradition is also not made by individuals; it is communal. An attempt to create insights that are entirely private and at odds with all tradition — if that were possible —ends up simply solipsistic and self-indulgent. Such efforts can produce neither insight nor a living tradition.

We are products of a Polish Culture that is permeated by Catholicism, with its notion of the union of the dead, the living and the yet unborn and its sacramental tradition that sees grace coming through the community of the Church. As such, we are better able to understand how tradition works than many other people. We are also a people who for better or worse have been haunted by a sense of history and a need to remember. So we are used to carrying on a discourse with the dead in sacred and secular time all the time.

We are met here precisely to further that conversation. As the heirs of a rich blend of Polish, Polish American and American culture we have come together today to celebrate the beginning of our story in America four hundred years ago.  It happened not very far from this place. Although there are still many aspects of the story that are obscure and may never be fully known, we do know that these first Polish pioneers at Jamestown acquitted themselves well. They were conscientious, courageous and hard working by all accounts — a trait that marked Polish achievements in America for centuries. More about that in a moment.

More importantly they, like all immigrants, sought from the beginning to make themselves at home in the new place and to create the basis for a life different from the one they left behind. Their demand for the right to vote was the translation of the Polish spirit of independence into a practical right here. It is highly unlikely they voted in Poland — noble gentry, who did have the right to vote, did not take up artisan trades — but they had probably observed the process. Here in America they claimed the right of their social betters as they demanded the rights claimed by their English colleagues. They created a new way of being at home as Poles in America just as the English were seeking to make their own traditions fit the new place. They were inventing America together by their dialogue and disagreements.

This story is primarily a Polish American story not a Polish one. It is vital to our history and to us as our first, foundational encounter with the new world even if it has little resonance for Poles, if they know it at all. It is our beginning here even if the Jamestown story does not have narrative continuity with later immigrations.

Kosciuszko was our representative at the creation of the American Republic before he went back to lead the struggle to try to save Poland from the partitioning powers. In the process he became a great international hero of liberty. He is a good example of the richness and complexity of that tradition of ours that spans two continents. He left Poland with distaste for the rigid class structure of the old world and an antipathy to serfdom.  His sojourn in Paris of the Enlightenment confirmed his convictions and gave them an ideological structure.

In America the battle for Independence solidified his belief in democracy and the capability of ordinary citizens to fight for their liberty and manage their own affairs.  His experience of the horrors of slavery turned him into an even more committed foe of all servitude.  His Polish, French and American experiences led him to make an original and important contribution to the ideological battle against slavery in America.  In turn, these same experiences coalesced in the 1790’s into his idea of a Polish Citizen Army, a democratic state and a desire to end serfdom.  He was in this sense the first prominent Polish American, the product of two worlds.  He was also in a real sense, the heir of the Jamestown artisans. His life and ideas demonstrated the best that the two traditions and experiences could produce.

The birth of Polonia as a new people in America awaited the arrival of the waves of ordinary immigrants who came to these shores from the partitioned lands of Poland. The first thing the new immigrants did was create a new community, with new leadership and a different kind of society.  Most of the people who dominated Polish society did not make the voyage over.  The immigrants had to ask themselves, “Who are we?”  “How shall we live together?”  Who are our leaders?”  “How shall we choose them?”  Most of the struggles in early Polonia were the birth pangs of a new society and a new people being born.  To answer these questions they had to draw on the memories, traditions and resources they brought with themselves as well as their experiences in America.  Often the most important lessons they learned came from the experience of other new immigrant groups with whom they lived.

A key element of this new culture was a definition of themselves as Polish that required them to transcend stubborn local and regional identities.  The first step to becoming Polish American was to become Polish, as incongruous as that sounds to us today.  They became truly Polish in America.  They found themselves creating a community and a common identity with those who would have been aliens and foreigners to them in the Old World.  They had to answer the question “Who are you?”  in terms that the host culture understood. To their new found compatriots and their American interlocutors they were “Polish” not Galicijaks or Kaszubs or villagers from Raciaz or Baczal Dolny. 

The Polish revolutionary, Agaton Giller described with surprise the process by which the immigrants became Polish.  He wrote: “Every Polish peasant, from whatever Polish province he comes, even from one of those which, like Upper Silesia or East Prussia, have been for a long time separated from the national body, when transferred to a strange soil among foreigners develops a Polish sentiment and a consciousness of his national character.  This phenomenon is incomprehensible for those who saw the peasant at home without a consciousness of national duties.  And yet it is quite natural.  National consciousness originates in him spontaneously in a foreign country in consequence of the feeling of the striking difference between his speech, his customs, his conceptions from those of the people who surround him . . .”

They not only became Polish in America, but also often before their relatives in Poland did.  Polish sojourners, who came and went, sometimes with as much frequency as Mexican immigrants today do, brought with them the new identity and taught it to their families and friends.  Its expression in America, however, took different forms than it did in Poland.  These became part of the new culture of Polonia.  They invented these forms, often based on the example of American models. Sometimes they learned them from other immigrants, particularly Germans near whom they usually settled.  Let me read you an example from an 1891 letter written by Constantine Lamka from Detroit to his brother in the village of Boguszewicz (near Ciechanow).

“There will be a celebration on the Third of May, on the one hundredth anniversary of the Polish war.  Whatever armies there were there at the time will be depicted in costume.  The Cavalry and the Infantry will parade around the town.  Like the German celebration which you observed when you were here, the Poles will do likewise.  Father Mozejewski is going to arrange everything.  There will be religious services for the Poles who died in the war, and the Bishop will offer a requiem Mass for them and will give a sermon in English, and Mozejewski one in Polish.  I signed up for the White Lancers.  The horse will cost me 3 dollars and the clothes 2 dollars.”

This is clearly a celebration of Polish identity unlike anything Mr. Lamka would have participated in his home village in the Russian Partition, even if some observance would have been permitted at all by the Tsar’s officials. He himself will participate dressed as nobleman. The requiem mass will be celebrated by an American Bishop who will affirm to the immigrants in an English sermon the glory and significance of their history and legitimize their identity as Poles who are obviously also worthy Americans, the heirs of Kosciuszko.

We could multiply such examples ad infinitum  It is clear that Polonia was not simply transplanted rural Poland in urban America.  It was not a fading remnant of Polish village culture doomed to disappear as the immigrants became modernized.   Polonia was a new society born of Polish culture in its encounter – even collision – with a protean, dynamic America.  For all of the discrimination, prejudice and even violence Poles faced, they found an America more willing to accept new arrivals and to change itself to accommodate them than almost any other modern world culture, even as it itself  changed the newcomers.

We helped to shape and re-shape the America we entered.  We even formed its physical environment.  In many cities we built entire neighborhoods out of raw farmland and established in these institutionally complete communities with churches, halls, schools, thrift institutions, cultural centers and businesses.  We often created what there was of beauty and humanity in some of the bleakest industrial neighborhoods of urban America. And in the process we defined the meaning of neighborhood life for our neighbors and ourselves.

If I am asked what is one of major contribution of Polish immigrants and their children I tell them it is the CIO in the 1930s.  Historians have not yet fully documented the extent to which that period marked an uprising of a large segment of the Polish community – as community – in the name of the justice and social ideals that they had brought from Poland and refined here. These, I hasten to point out, were not always identical with the ideals and values of the unions and their leadership. Their cooperation was the product of a very fruitful and creative cultural misunderstanding.  About 600,000 Poles came over to the new unions in a two-year period and helped to change America and in the process articulated a specific sense of social justice that became a part of the Polish- American ethos.

Later, Poles were to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces in higher numbers per capita than any other ethnic group in America.  A sense of patriotism tied to military service in a war for human rights and democracy against an enemy that had brutally subjugated their ancestral homeland reinforced for Polish Americans the Polish mottos that “wherever people fought for freedom, there was Poland” and “for your freedom and ours”.  The Second World War allowed us to combine seamlessly both our Polish and American legacies into what became a long standing element of Polish American identity.

The Children of the immigrant generation created a new American popular youth culture after the First World War – the so-called Polka Culture.  One of the most sterile debates that Polonia has ever entertained was the one about whether or not the Polka was “Polish”. Let us be clear here: The Polka was known in Poland by the 19th Century when it became the dance of the new European working classes. The Danish literary critic and travel writer, Georg Brandes in 1888 described the Polkas danced in the Podwisla district of Warsaw as the most “obscene” he had ever seen. Even though it was an urban dance, it did get out to the Polish countryside. Oskar Kolberg, the great Nineteenth Century Polish Ethnographer collected several dozen Polkas in rural Poland. The immigrant generation may have known Polkas in Europe before their arrival in America. The music certainly appeared in the repertory of musicians who played at immigrant weddings and other celebrations well before World War I.

Yet there is no question that the Polka Culture is a second generation Polish American creation. It was a vernacular youth culture created by the children of the immigrants. It was characterized by the enormous popularity of the dance as part of the cultural context of new social clubs, dance halls, illegal prohibition gin, and rebellion against Victorian standards. It was part of the Polish American response to the “Era of the Flapper” and the Jazz Age. Many Polish American Polka Musicians were also accomplished Jazz and Big Band music performers and those musical trends affected the evolution of the Polka. Its popularity continued into the period of the Great Depression and World War II and after.

At the same time, Polish immigrants and their children learned high Polish culture here in America. Few had ever heard Chopin’s music played or read Sienkiewicz or Mickiewicz in their villages. The first time most of the Polish newcomers to America ever saw a Polish play or heard standard Polish spoken on stage, it was in Chicago, or Detroit or Buffalo. It was in America that they learned Polish History. It was also here that young women adapted the Wigilia, the Swieconka and other family paraliturgies to life in crowded urban neighborhoods.

My own recent research has shown that the cycle of religious  practices and devotions that later generations regarded as a hallmark of Polish parish life and thus as indication of the “Polishness” of a Polish American parish were probably adopted as a whole here in the United States  earlier than it Poland. The practices of May devotions, the observance of October as the month of the Rosary, Forty Hours devotions,  Gorzkie Zale, Stations of the Cross etc. were all known and practiced in one part of Poland or another but not uniformly everywhere. The First Vatican Council regularized and implemented universally many of the practices and devotional forms that came out of the “Devotional Revolution” of the mid 19th century. Polish America usually implemented them (including a revised Hymnal) before they had all become a feature of parish life in the village churches the immigrants had left behind. In Poland many of these devotions were not fully introduced until the 1920’s.

One reason for this was that American Bishops as a whole pushed these reforms and had an easier time implementing them than did Polish Bishops in Partitioned Poland. Secondly, many of the most influential Polish clerical figures in the United Stated had been in Rome during the period of the Council and were committed to the changes. These included Father Jozef Dabrowski, founder of the Polish Seminary and Father Wincenty Barzynski who shaped Polish Religious life in Chicago.

I hope that I have given you a sense of how powerful and dynamic was the process of creating Polonia.  We have only scratched the surface of this story. There is indeed so much we can learn from our past and our tradition that can empower us as we seek to create a future for our community.

One of the reasons we don’t recognize the significance of all we have done and how we have shaped the life and culture of many parts of the United States is because we have succeed to a considerable degree in making our contributions a part of the American fabric. America has made our contributions its own.

The debates about whether we have “assimilated” or not are sometimes wrongheaded.  We have not so much “assimilated”- if that means we have become identical to Anglo-Saxons- as made ourselves “at home” in America.  If we “assimilated”, it was into a world we ourselves created.  In many respects and in many localities our fellow Americans are living in our world as much as we are in theirs. It is not a “Polish” world but one shaped by people from Polish lands informed by values and traditions they brought with them.

Later waves of immigrants, though not as large as the “Great Immigration”, impacted Polonia significantly, even if they did not have as large a direct influence on the American society to which they came. The Immigrants who came after World War II from displaced persons and resettled soldiers to the Solidarity émigrés to the newest arrivals from post communist Poland brought new and sometimes dramatically different meanings of the Polish experience to us. What it meant to be Polish changed almost as much in Polonia as in Poland each generation since the first settlers from Silesia landed in Texas more than 150 years ago.

Polish Americans who came of age in the nineteen sixties and seventies could still identify with the folk culture and migration story of their grandparents, the exuberant Polka world of their parents or the dark tragedy of the Polish experience from the partitions through the Nazi Occupation and the Communist takeover.  Many of us were shaped by all of those legacies. However, the outburst of Polish creativity which began to catch the World’s attention in the sixties and seventies also allowed them to find themselves in an admired Avant Garde Polish culture. They could identify with Grotowski, Kolakowski, Penderecki, Wajda, Milosz, and Kantor or if they had a spiritual bent, with Tischner, Styczen or Wojtyla. One could be Polish in a way that was admired by educated, cultured Americans.

After a lecture I gave in Chicago in the mid-seventies in which I spoke about the affect of then new intellectual and artistic developments in Poland on the self image of Polish Americans, I was approached by a young Polish American lawyer who indicated that it was precisely those new cultural achievements that caused her to re-identify with her Polish heritage. She said she could not find herself in the tragic, romantic tradition of earlier Polish popular historiography. It was a story she said “of defeat and I didn’t want to be seen as a loser” 

It goes without saying that our relationship with Poland has also profoundly marked us and shaped who we are every generation. The compelling struggle of Poland for freedom and independence drew mightily on our emotions and our energies and focused our attention and resources away from our own needs in America. It relegated our own quite dramatic story to a second place. In this way Poland always remained at the heart of our experience and affected the way we related to our American milieu and the way our fellow citizens saw us.

Drawing on this rich and complex history should convince us that a new Polonia for the 21st century could be as interesting and dynamic as earlier ones, albeit quite different.  But who would expect otherwise?  So, how do we do it?

Let me suggest some first steps.

  1. We need to create a new public presence and to alter our image.  Our communities, organizations, parishes and families are still alive and, in some cases, very vital and recent immigrants have created new forms of organization and community.  However, we have to an astonishing degree privatized our ethnicity.  This withdrawal from the public square has been in good measure a result of prejudice against Poland and Polish Americans.  While those negative feelings have receded as our community has become more affluent and better educated, we have not reclaimed our place in civic life.  Our education and income level is, unlike 30 to 40 years ago, well above the national average.
  2. To return to the public arena as a recognized, participating community we need to begin to speak to the important public issues of the day and we must consciously develop sophisticated strategies to be heard in the mainstream media.  This strategy will not only call attention to our community by our fellow citizens but will also serve to mobilize Polish Americans, the vast majority of whom get almost all their news about Polish and Polish American affairs from mainstream media sources.       
  3. The issues we need to address should not be simply limited to those that serve Poland directly or address the cause of anti-defamation.  We need to speak to the common good from the unique stance that our history and experience on two continents have given us.
  4. Polonia has something to say about key civic and cultural matters that transcend the narrow confines of politics.  We have, for example, much to say about human rights and the meaning and culture of work in a materialistic and increasingly hedonistic society.  We can contribute a great deal to the discourse about community at a time when studies have shown that people of all races, classes and ethnic groups are withdrawing more and more from social and civic engagement.
  5. But, are not our insights likely to be unremarkable and perhaps identical to others in our society?  They will be only if we fail to understand and reflect on those distinct experiences and traditions of our rich Polish and Polish American past that should underpin our identity in the 21st century. 
  6. Human rights, human dignity, the nature of community and other foundational propositions are never just abstract ideas, they are rooted in  beliefs based on the particular experiences of peoples and their practical expression in their lives and laws.  Someone whose main practical concern about personal autonomy and liberty is based on a resistance to laws prohibiting the legal use of alcohol or marijuana, is likely to approach and understand those issues differently than someone who is denied the right to worship or to organize independent associations or who is forced to be sterilized by a government that seeks to reduce population. For example, African Americans, who suffered from slavery and brutality, and barbarous Jim Crow laws, have a distinct perspective on human dignity that is and should be a key element in our national discourse. It would be poorer and incomplete without it.
  7. Polish Americans also have something very distinct and important to contribute to the public discourse that is rooted in Polish and Polish American traditions, history and experiences.  That dialogue began right here in Jamestown.  The right to participate in public decisions that affect one, the courage to defend one’s rights, the importance of work all stand out starkly in the few brief extant paragraphs about the Poles in Jamestown.  It would be superfluous to rehearse the whole Polish and Polish American record in these matters of rights and the value of work that we are heir to. In the latter case, it is sufficient to note that no other tradition has produced anything comparable to the reflections of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Father Jozef Tischner and John Paul II on the importance of work in shaping the development of the human person and society.
    Catholic social thought as it developed in the modern age certainly addressed the issue of human rights from a variety of perspectives.  Yet we know that in his writings John Paul II gave the idea of human rights and dignity in Catholic thought a new emphasis, a new urgency and a rich new dimension because he reflected on them from the perspective of a Pole who had lived during some of the most terrible years of history under totalitarian regimes of unparalleled inhumanity who carried on genocide and vast terrible schemes human engineering.  Those reflections and experiences were informed by his religious faith and understanding of the sources of resistance and dignity he saw displayed by his countrymen in the face of raw evil.
    As Czeslaw Milosz, reflecting on the same experience in light of community noted in his Nobel lecture:
    “In many countries, traditional bonds of civitas have been subject to erosion and their inhabitants became disinherited without realizing it.  It is not the same, however, in those areas where suddenly in a situation of utter peril, a protective, life giving value of such bonds reveals itself.  That is the case of my native land.”
  8. Collateral with a return to the reassertion of a public identity, we need to establish or strengthen the identification with and commitment to the Polish American project by those who are only loosely attached to Polonia.  The return to a recognized, legitimate and confident public presence will obviously improve the image of Polonia.  Few, especially among the young and upwardly mobile, want to be members of a group that is seen by others as inferior, or humiliated, or conversely which is invisible and without power.  Despite the importance of emotional or nostalgic ties most people expect to reap other psychic, financial, employment, networking, patronage or political advantages as part of group membership.  Polonia needs a broad conscious effort, at local levels, to produce or reinvigorate some of those advantages if we are to recreate or strengthen an effective Polonia.
  9. We need greater understanding and support from Poland.  We need not just cultural and educational support, but an effort to understand and incorporate our story into the broader Polish story.  For better or worse we understand ourselves not only through our reflection in the mirror of American society, but also through our images in the mirror of Polish history and culture, yesterday’s and today’s.
  10. All of this means that we need to know and reflect on our traditions and to think consciously and strategically how to find solutions and guidance for our new age. We have much to contribute to the making of the world our children will live in and if we succeed, in the Polonia community they will share.

I leave you with the advice of Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

What you have has heritage
Take now as task
To make it your own.

To which I would add:
So that it lives and serves the future hour.

Thaddeus C. Radzilowski, Ph.D.
The Piast Institute

Delivered August 7, 2008
At the 60th Anniversary Meeting of the American Council for Polish Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia