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Dr. Chodakiewicz reviews book on the Polish-American veteran experience

Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, the holder of the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies at IWP, has published a review of Teofil Lachowicz’s book on the Polish-American veteran experience inThe Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 91, No. 2, April 2013: 357-360.

The review may be accessed via the JSTOR academic database or viewed as a PDF here: PAVA in Battle and Fraternity. The longer version can be found below:

PAVA in Battle and Fraternity

Teofil Lachowicz, Polish Freedom Fighters on American Soil: Polish Veterans in America from the Revolutionary War to 1939, trans. by Albert Juszczak (Minneapolis, MN: Two Harbors Press, 2011). It is a translation of Weterani polscy w Ameryce do 1939 roku (Warszawa: Rytm, 2000).

Anyone expecting an opus contextualizing, comparing, theorizing, and pondering the “Otherness” of Polish veterans in America should look elsewhere. Instead, Teofil Lachowicz has given us an indispensable, if hermetic almanac of the Polish ex-combatant experience in the United States. His Polish Freedom Fighters on American Soil is divided into two chronological parts: first, the period between the War for Independence and the First World War; second, the interwar years. Tellingly, given his Polish perspective, Lachowicz ends his monograph in 1939 rather than in 1941, the latter standard American periodization because of Pearl Harbor.

The first part of the narrative is based almost exclusively on secondary sources, some of them rather hard to find. The second part draws on a wealth of primary sources chiefly from a single, if exhaustive collection – that of the Polish Army Veterans Association of America (PAVA), Orchard Lake, MI, but also with some documents from the Piłsudski Institute in New York; the Hoover Institution at Stanford, CA; and the Archive of New Records in Warsaw. The monograph sadly fails to include any English language primary sources and hardly any non-Polish secondary ones. Its first part concerns veteran personalities; the second one describes an organization of the veterans.

To set up the story, the author briefly recounts the exploits of the likes of Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kazimierz Pułaski during the War for Independence and Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski and Kasper Tochman during the War Between the States. Many others, often obscure and forgotten, surface in the author’s chronological laundry list of personalities. Most get an honorary mention. A few merit a mini biography. Lachowicz also mentions here a number of Polonian organizations set up by the veterans of Poland’s martial catastrophes: the Confederacy of Bar (1768-1772); Kościuszko Insurrection (1794), Napoleonic Wars (1795-1815), November Rising (1830-1831), and January Rising (1863-1865).

The losers were virtually the first Poles on these shores since the Jamestown Polish crew in the early seventeenth century. Perhaps a few thousand Polish veterans had settled in the U.S. by the 1880s. Lachowicz’s numbers are regrettably scattered and inconclusive. Most of them came voluntarily, but several hundred were forcibly deported here by the Habsburg authorities in the mid-nineteenth century. Only a few returned to the Old Country, or, at least, Europe, to fight again or to retire at home. The remainder stayed behind and sampled the whole gamut of the American experience.

A few lucky ones did very well for themselves. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, for example, married rich, which freed him from the mundane obligations of life. Józef Truskolaski enjoyed the patronage of James Fenimore Cooper who sponsored his engineering education. Chopin’s manager and friend Julian Fontana embarked on his own successful career as a composer and a concert pianist. Wawrzyniec Gębicki excelled at knife making and built up a successful company. Most impressively, Erazm Józef Jerzmianowski became a multi-millionaire through his own effort. Virtually all of the fortunate ones assisted generously their fellow Poles and the cause of Poland’s freedom.

Most ex-soldiers, however, had a tough time making it in America. They generally experienced indifference from federal and state authorities, who sometimes limited themselves to declarations of sympathy, exceptionally backed by political resolutions that, in theory, aimed at relieving the hardship of the Polish veterans but, in practice, failed to deliver, like the unrealistic congressional Ohio land grant project for the Poles of 1834.

The Polish encounters with the denizens of the United States usually reflected the latter’s utter ignorance of Poland and its plight. Public celebrations of high profile emigrants or guests were few and far between and lasted but fleetingly. The Poles could count only on a few Americans, WASPs from the highest echelons of the society, to advocate for them: for instance, Dr. Paul Fitzsimmons Eve, who fought in the November Rising, or Major Cedric Fauntleroy, who fought in the Polish-Bolshevik War.

On the other hand, why should the American people have catered to the Poles? Self-help was the American way. The former military men were usually ill-equipped to take advantage of America’s individualistic freedom. They found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder. They complained that the blacks enjoyed status superior to them because of their lack of command of the English language: “We are worse than the Negroes, under whom we work in domestic service situations.  We are placed under their supervision because they know the native language” (p. 15). The Poles performed the most menial jobs and suffered hunger and hardship: “aside from deepest desperation I feel like laughing when I recall Olszański, who keeps being pushed around now by the servants in the house, now by the Negroes. This one tells him to shine shoes, that one tells him to empty the urinals. Or when I see old Morawski removing rubble in a wheelbarrow out onto the street and then when I see the kids peeing in his wheelbarrow, or Komar carrying a huge pipe across town and behind him several hundred boys shouting Pole! Pole!” (p. 16). All this was hard to swallow for intrepid freedom fighters, many of whom were noblemen.

After a while, the veterans set up a number of organizations, most of them ephemeral, like the Polish Committee in New York. Some veterans were also active in setting up major fraternals, including the Polish National Alliance (PNA) and the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA), which eventually laid framework for the PAVA. But most ex-military Poles remained unorganized. Many intermarried with the locals and quickly assimilated, as there was a dearth of Polish women. A number wandered around the continent, settling as far west as California, for instance Korwin Piotrowski, the inspiration for Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Zagłoba.

The fate of the wanderers was checkered. Some experienced kindness from native Americans in Ohio in 1834; others died at the Indian hands, like the band of Polish ex-military brothers who left Louisiana for Texas in 1835; still others fought them, for example during the Seminole wars between 1834 and 1842. Overall, only a few Poles joined the U.S. military in the nineteenth century. The exception was the Civil War when the volunteering of the Polish warriors markedly increased. Yet, they fought in every American conflict and often paid the highest price, for example, the Petrussewicz brothers killed by Mexicans at Fort Goliad in 1836 or Gustaw Szulc who was hanged by the British following his participation in the ill-fated American military incursion into Canada in 1838.  The first casualty on the Confederate side was reportedly an American Pole: Tadeusz A. Strawiński, who died accidentally at Fort Moultrie, SC, on January 25, 1861.

Statistically, after 1863, Polish veterans were not representative of the American Polonia. Following the 1870s at the latest, most arrivals from Poland in the United States were economic migrants, mostly peasants. Military and political figures were exceptional. However, those peasants and their offspring (and here the author unfortunately fails to include any references to the superb work on Polish-American consciousness by Thaddeus and John Radziłowski) became Poles in America and, thus, about 20,000 of them, spurred by patriotism, resolved to fight for Poland during the Great War and its aftermath in the “Blue Army” under General Józef Haller. In addition, nearly 40,000 American Poles joined the U.S. armed forces to struggle for the same aim.

The freedom fighters of 1914-1921were inspired by the Polish veterans of 1830 and 1863 as well as by their patriotic priests. They were crucial against the Ukrainians and they contributed mightily to the victory against the Bolsheviks, even though Józef Piłsudski treated them rather shabbily throughout. This was in response to the solid support of the Polish Americans for Roman Dmowski and Ignacy Paderewski, which reflected not only their preference for nationalism over socialism but also, primarily, the logical embrace of the Entente over the Central Powers, which was in congruence with the war-time policy of the United States. The American Poles insisted on remaining patriots for both the U.S. and Poland.

Parenthetically, the blood of the “Blue Army” was not the only contribution of the Polonia to the cause of the Old Country’s freedom. “The Polish American community… gave Poland $5,939,419.34 from October 12, 1914 to December 31, 1920…. In this way the Polish American community realized its and its ancestors’ dreams and longings” (p. 96).  That is $68,878,094.79 in today’s U.S. money. The generosity is simply mind-boggling, particularly in light of recent history and contemporary times.

After the victory, most of the veterans returned home to America; a few stayed behind or re-emigrated afterwards. Although designated as “Americans” in Poland, and evacuated home by the White House in 1921, the soldiers of the “Blue Army” were denied veteran status in the United States. This was on spurious grounds that Poland had not yet existed as an allied state when they volunteered. Thus, they received no U.S. government help whatsoever. For example, unlike, say, the Belgian veterans resident in the U.S., the Polish ex-combatants had no right to federal health care. Never mind that they went into action as allied units in France already in 1917 and the political leadership of the “Blue Army” was uniformly recognized by the heads of the Entente, including President Woodrow Wilson, as a de factoPolish government. Having arrived back home, the Polish Americans had to fend for themselves and reestablish their lives after the military interlude on behalf of Poland. Most challenges were economic: how to re-integrate the former warriors into the civilian life during a severe post-war recession.

Neither America nor the Polonia was prepared for the influx of the “Blue Army” ex-combatants.  There was only one exception. “It ought to be noted that thanks to the provident care and the strong hand of Father [Lucjan] Bójnowski the Polonia in New Britain was the only Polish American center that was properly prepared for the return of its soldiers from war, in line with the assurances that had been given during recruitment for the Polish Army in France” (p. 122). In most places, the veterans had to fend for themselves.

To maintain the spirit of camaraderie from the trenches and to assist each other, the freedom fighters created the PAVA.  This was a fraternal par excellance. Its main objective was to look after the welfare of the members. Further, it participated in cultural, educational, and political events. That included speaking up in defense of Poland and America in print and deed: “to repel anti-U.S. and anti-Poland propaganda,” as their by-laws of 1937 reiterated. Accordingly, for example in October 1923 in Detroit the “Blue Army” veterans routed the rampant Communist and other leftist sympathizers who, while fomenting unrest and anarchy in an American city, first had besmirched the Old Country’s reputation in the press and then physically had lashed out at the Polish-American freedom fighters (p. 281).

Incidentally, although the PAVA members were Polish nationalists, they were not National Democrats. As Americans, they remained committed to parliamentary democracy and they felt much more comfortable with Haller’s Christian democracy than with Roman Dmowski’s emerging corporatist “Third Way.” For the same reason, the PAVA failed to embrace Piłsudskis coup’d etat. Yet, from the early 1930s, the Polish American veterans also endeavored to achieve reconciliation with the Piłsudskites. It was not only because the latter were in power and could dispense largesse from public coffers, but primarily because the followers of the Marshal represented the independent Polish State. And they were a military lot, which appealed to the PAVA much more readily than the civilians of the National Democracy. With the Nazi and Soviet danger looming menacingly, by 1939 the former Polish army soldiers in America stood squarely behind the Polish government.

Meanwhile, the erstwhile freedom fighters never forsook the mundane. The main function of the PAVA was self-aid, after all. Most of its funds, collected from the dues and generous contributions of supporters, most notably Ignacy Paderewski and some of the clergy (“among the larger donors the names of priests predominated” p. 193), went to sustain widows, orphans, war invalids, and down-on-their-luck veterans. Some of the accounts of their plight are truly harrowing. There were even several deaths by starvation and suicide among homeless veterans, for example Piotr Malinowski in 1922. The Great Depression caused more victims. “About 45 persons” died thus in the interwar period, all of them unaffiliated veterans (p. 190). In distinction, the PAVA took care of its members and often extended free membership to the needy who turned to the fellow freedom fighters for help. The PAVA Women’s Auxiliary Corps under Agnieszka Wisła distinguished itself enormously in this endeavor. Substantial subsidies went to the Polish American veterans who settled in Poland, including a few ill fated enterprises, most notably several economically unsustainable retirement houses and work farms in the Old Country (which, confiscated by the Nazis and Communists, should now be returned to the rightful owners).

Generally, in the interwar period, the PAVA played an important, albeit ancillary role in the Polonia. It was a relatively small outfit, roughly 4,500 members by 1939, as most veterans failed to enroll (p. 146). Also, the PAVA could not compete with more universal organizations like the PNA and the PRCU. However, there was a great deal of overlap with those and other Polish-American institutions, in particular the Falcons, which had been the main source of recruitment for the “Blue Army.” Rather than competing, the PAVA complemented others.

Teofil Lachowicz has unequivocally succeeded in demonstrating, even if it was not his intention, that the Polonia was at its most powerful in the United States before 1921, when it unabashedly invoked the greatness of the Commonwealth in general and the Polish armed struggle for freedom in particular as its universal source of inspiration; when it brazenly advertised its Polish ethnicity; when it sustained itself by its Christian religion; and, last but not least, when it drew leaders among the priests, businessmen, and professionals, and other practitioners, rather than intellectuals. Lachowicz has also shown that, inspired by the spirit of nationalism and camaraderie, the American Poles not only fought for Poland gallantly and greatly contributed to its resurrection, but they also were able to take care of their own with their own means when the victorious troops returned home. That is truly admirable and shines proudly throughout Teofil Lachowicz’s equally proud account of the efforts of the Polish American freedom fighters. Take careful note of that.

There are a few problems with the translation, many with copy editing, and a plethora with the computer lay out, including some text missing and incorrectly broken up paragraphs. But that is immaterial, for the information assembled by Teofil Lachowicz is well worth such inconveniences.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 11 November 2011