Polish-Americana is a vast work in progress that stretches back to this country’s revolutionary period, when military commanders Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski helped the fledgling United States gain independence from British rule. In Poland, over the course of 200 years that followed, political upheavals and partitions, uprisings and insurrections, invasions, massacres and broken treaties, along with failures of ideology and economics, forced a western migration of millions of Poles to the United States.
Amid the chaos and brutality, nationalism and romanticism in 19th century Poland led to formal breakthroughs in visual and performing arts. In the mid-20th century, Polish artists embraced pop culture and the avant-garde, creating subversively psycho-investigative cinema, novels of ultimate self-critique and tragicomic humanism, not to mention acid-inspired poster art and sophisticated modern musical composition.
Two recent nonfiction books about the Polish-American experience give us glimpses of the worlds within worlds that make up the intellectual and emotional life of immigrants.
Karen Majewski’s Traitors and True Poles (Ohio University Press, $24.95) explores Polish works of fiction that encouraged U.S. immigrants to perceive a trans-Atlantic community, providing deep connections to the native land while building a new national identity that sought independence from it.
Author Majewski, who is the current president of Hamtramck’s City Council, initiated the book project as a doctoral thesis at the University of Michigan. Taking up the period between 1880 and 1939, when Poles first came to the United States, Majewski argues against the prevailing notion that fiction was not being produced by Polish immigrants: “These omissions are almost certainly not the result of deliberate choice, but rather evidence of the deep obscurity into which these works have fallen.”
Exactly how obscure? Well, had the author never written this book, we would likely have no knowledge of the works of Czeslaw Lukasiewicz, for example, a leftist anti-clerical writer who penned tales of hard-drinking, womanizing priests and nuns he referred to as “she-devils, not women.” At least one of his novels (The Strange Girl) is set in Hamtramck. Unfortunately, none of the work Majewski champions exists in English translation. Furthermore, no comprehensive English- or Polish-language bibliography has been published. Majewski also points out a sad fact of our cultural life: “Perhaps, the issues that mattered so much to well-educated immigrant writers failed to find lasting meaning in the lives of working-class immigrant readers. Perhaps American prejudices and the push for assimilation made Polish books, and immigrant memory, a matter of shame.”
Memory is the starting point of another book that adds to the tradition of Polonian literature. In A Polish Son in the Motherland (Texas A&M University Press, $17.95) Chicago-based author Leonard Kniffel, who is editor and publisher of American Libraries magazine, recounts his personal history, inviting readers along on a search for his mother’s family in a small town in Poland. Whether Kniffel finds his relatives or not is irrelevant; the pleasure of this book is the author’s dry-humored yet sympathetic take on the meeting of disparate worlds bound by family and friends. Here’s an example of Kniffel’s unique wit, a collision of old-world Polish sentimentality and the blunt force of American audacity, in which the author describes eating breakfast at a small hotel in the Polish town of Nowe Miasto: “Minutes later I have a hot cup of coffee in my room and food on a white plastic plate with matching plastic fork and knife, three slices of rye bread, packets of Danish butter and plum jam and ... cold chicken and vegetables congealed in gelatin. Also on the plate is a shot glass containing a bitter-smelling liquid. Vodka at eight o’clock in the morning? Well, this is Poland, so I take a sip. If it’s vodka, it’s the worst I’ve ever tasted.” Kniffel continues with “two blonde young women … laughing with alarm” who explain that the vodka shot was actually vinegar. The anecdote concludes with Kniffel using a stick to force the food “like a clump of rubber” down a toilet.
With different approaches, Majewski and Kniffel each succeed in expressing the Polish-American experience. Personalities come alive on the page and we make the acquaintance of strange but somehow familiar people whom we never would otherwise know. The power in these books is their people.
Leonard Kniffel reads from A Polish Son in the Motherland noon-2 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, at Polish Art Center (9539 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; 313-874-2242). Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer living in Hamtramck. Send comments to [email protected]