Elvis Presley Singing and dining in downtown Chicago restaurants were not for Poles. When he was a kid, all he wanted was to be an American kid.
I am from the city of Tarnów, Poland. In school, I always had a few classmates who had at least one parent in the United States. In my case, it was my mom who left (my father had diabetes, he couldn’t do any work that required physical effort) and she was only supposed to be away for a few months. She returned after three years. When my parents divorcedHe went to America once again.
In his letters he wrote how much he missed me; He told me how American pizza tasted, he sent me packages. In these packages, which he eagerly awaited, were magazines and car advertisements, as well as candy and gifts that smelled like America. Once I even got a copy of Playboy. Then I was an absolute star in my class: I changed the magazine, page by page, for slinkies, stickers and keychains.
So they were two different worlds, and only the packages I received proved that this second world was real.
There was a time when Polish-American businessman Walter Kotaba was looking for new viewers for his cable channel. He sent letters to Chicago residents who had Polish surnames. They began to shout indignantly that they did not want to be associated with Poland. But that was so much time ago. Today no one would respond this way.
Fear took the place of contempt.
A friend who was born in chicago, told me that he got into fights during his school days because his friends saw him as one of those “dumb Poles.” They tried to humiliate him. But now, just a couple of decades later, there is a tendency to look for Polish roots. People arrange family trees; They look for memories of his grandfather. They don’t want to be “from nothing.” A month ago, at the prestigious Chicago History Museum, an exhibition titled “Coming Home: Polish Chicago” opened. It was unprecedented: an extraordinary legitimization of this community and an admission that Without us, Chicago would not exist in the way it exists today.
I write about Polish Chicago in the 1920s. So Poles were scapegoats: they were often described as drunks, prone to aggression and impulsiveness, just insecure. People believed that the Poles were to be feared. This alarmist rhetoric, which continues to this day, led to a significant tightening of the immigration rights. The Poles in Chicago were locked in immigrant ghettos, cornered and distrustful.
When I read “The Gang” by sociologist Frederick Thrasher, my head exploded. He studied a total of 1,313 gangs in Chicago and observed that most of them were Polish. At that time the streets were divided between youth gangs, who were dedicated to robberies and assaults. Later, as a result of Prohibition, these informal gangs evolved into organized crime. The last notable and very brutal Polish gang, which was actually Polish-Mexican, was the Almighty Saints, which was active in the Back of the Yards neighborhood until the 1970s. The gang extorted protection money and carried out contract killings.
Today there are no Polish gangs, although there are, of course, Polish criminals.
How did fear take the place of contempt? We take it into our own hands. The more Poles distanced themselves from American cultural codes, the more they failed to understand the reality around them. They were easy targets for jokes like this.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Polish diaspora was still quite isolated. When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t want to live in Polish-only neighborhoods. They looked like someone had scooped up a small Polish town from 20 years ago and dropped them in America: there were Polish hairdressers, Polish video rentals, Polish grocery stores, Polish flags. In At Polish picnics there was beer and kielbasa – Polish sausage — and disco polo Music was heard and folk groups danced traditional dances. It was like an amusement park of Polish culture.
From a sociological point of view, this makes sense, because emigration increases fear of the unknown and people want to stay together.
Chicago Poles don’t have this anymore. They seem to hate everyone. They try African Americans and Latinos with contempt, and other Slavs with poorly concealed superiority. Most of all, they hate themselves.
However, this litany of hate is not as radical as the political programs of the far right and comes from overcompensation: we don’t like something about ourselves, we feel bad or scared, and so we look to others to help us. blame.
The endless social ladder
Successive generations of Poles are moving up the social ladder and someone else has sat on the lower rungs they once occupied. The old Polish neighborhoods, which they have since abandoned for more prosperous suburbs, are populated by immigrant families from Mexico.
Chicago remains, as Professor Dominic Pacyga said, “a snake that sheds its skin every 30 years and puts on another to adapt to a new reality.”
Today I don’t receive any contempt. But, and this may be a slightly paranoid reaction, sometimes I feel that people hear my accent and speak to me more slowly and with simpler vocabulary. I really don’t like this. Then they ask me what I do, and when I say I’m a psychologist and writer, not a truck driver, for example, their eyes immediately widen. Traditional notions of Polish Americans are dissolving.
We left our neighborhoods behind, packed up and moved to bigger houses with backyards in the suburbs, becoming part of American Society.
It is difficult for me to assess whether this is good or bad. We are risking our own identities, but perhaps it is necessary to do so to rid ourselves of the backwardness of conservatism in our community.
I don’t think many Poles will visit the Chicago History Museum exhibition: they will be too busy trying to make more money. And as to whether Poles in America care about the country they come from, that depends, and always has.
“Duda was elected by the Polish community of Chicago”
Poles in the United States want to have contact with their families in Poland. It is desirable that representatives of Poland come to America and tell us here, in exile, how the economy is managed in our country for the benefit of all Polish citizens, without making differences of family origin, religious confession or party affiliation. . So that those who come from Poland bring us our beautiful language, tell us about our mountains and forests, our flowery meadows, our fields planted with cereals. Let them tell us about emerging factories where millions of workers find employment.
Most of us here in America dream about our beloved country every night.
– From the diary of Marcel Siedlecki, written between 1937 and 1947
I have lived in the United States for over 20 years. I am impressed by Poland, but I wouldn’t want to live here and deal with the problems of everyday life. Still, many people, including me, are considering returning to Poland to retire.
I don’t want to decide for you about a country where I don’t live.
I think patriotism in general is necessary, but I learned from its evils in the United States. I don’t hang the American flag on the 4th of July (I don’t like that kind of symbolism), but I do go to the polls and vote when the time comes.
I consciously do not participate in the Polish elections. Some friends get angry with me, but it seems immoral to me. I don’t want to decide for you about a country where I don’t live.
During a recent visit to Poland, I spoke with a saleswoman in Krakow’s Kazimierz neighborhood about what Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński has done to this country. And suddenly he said, “Well, but (Polish President) Duda was elected by the Polish community in Chicago!”
“I think patriotism in general is necessary, but I learned from its evils in the United States.”
“A man who honestly wants to earn a piece of bread will earn only a piece of bread.”
Many of the people I worked with did not return to Poland out of shame. They went years ago to “the land of opportunity” and felt they were supposed to conquer the world.
When we got off the train, we had to walk for a few minutes. On the way, I looked around for those dollars that were supposed to be lying on the streets, but I didn’t see a single one. I ask my guide why I don’t see dollars on the street, because when I was in Poland I heard that there are so many that those that are not collected are left lying on the streets. And he tells me: “When you stay here you will see that it will be difficult to find them in your pocket, not just on the street.” I looked at him surprised and said: If so, why did you come here?
– From the diary of Stanisław Szelążka
There are many offices of Polish psychotherapists in Chicago. In my case, around 80% of the patients I receive are Polish. The richest and the poorest come to me; some, I accept for a reduced price. I can’t leave them, I feel responsible. I would not like treatment to be a privilege of the elite. Therapy is a human right..
I had some clients who were ordered by the court to come to my office. They were rebellious men; They did not admit to themselves that they were the perpetrators of the violence. They explained that their wife provoked them, that she didn’t respect them, that nothing is black and white.
When you feel like trash, aggression toward someone weaker is the easiest way to grow.
God created a woman from Adam’s rib.
In this program for abusers, I noticed that those most resistant to knowledge and change were conservative Catholics. They didn’t want to discuss anything. At the end of the day, their culminating argument was the claim that the Holy Scriptures back them up: God created woman from Adam’s rib. And that’s how she’s supposed to be.
It has been forty-five years since I came to the United States. The first years were a constant search for work, a struggle for something to eat and a place to live, then to improve and become independent from the bosses. When I set up my garage, I thought I was on my way. Circumstances proved otherwise. Depression destroyed my 20 years of work.
To make money in business here and get anywhere, you have to be a little better businessman than me. You have to take when you can, where you can and what you can. A man who honestly wants to earn a piece of bread will earn only a piece of bread.
– From the diary of Stanisław Kazimierowski
Author Grzegorz Dziedzic
Grzegorz Dziedzic She has lived in Chicago since 1999 and is a psychotherapist by training and profession. In the United States she worked in construction, laid roof tiles and worked in fragrance and speaker factories. Later, she worked as an addiction therapist at the only Polish-language drug rehab program outside of Poland for homeless Poles in Chicago. Since 2014 she headed the city section and wrote columns for Dziennik Związkowy, Chicago’s oldest Polish-language newspaper. For the novel “No Gods, No Masters” he received the prestigious Grand Calibur award in 2022. He has just published the second part of his Chicago trilogy, titled “Gangway”.
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