The Changing Destiny Of Chicago's Polish Diaspora
Based on conversations with author and psychotherapist Gregorz Dzedzić, who is part of the Polish diaspora in Chicago, as well as the diary entries of generations of Polish immigrants, journalist Joanna Dzikowska has crafted a narrative that characterizes the history of the community, from its beginnings to its modern-day assimilation.
“There were instances when people came here from Polish villages, in traditional shoes and clothing, and, the next day, everything was burned, and I no longer recognized the people who came up to me, dressed and shaved in the American fashion. The newly-dressed girls quickly found husbands, who in turn had to cover all of their new wives’ expenses. There were quite a lot of weddings here, because there were many single men, so every woman — lame, hunchbacked or one-eyed — if only a woman, found a husband right away."
- From the diary of Marcel Siedlecki, written from 1878 to 1936
CHICAGO — To my father, Poland was always a country with a deep faith in God and the strength of Polish honor. When he spoke about Poland, his voice turned into a reverent whisper.
Elvis Presley songs, and dinners in the restaurants of Chicago’s downtown were not for Poles. When I was a young boy, all I wanted was to be an American kid.
I’m from the city of Tarnów, Poland . In school, I always had a few classmates who had at least one parent in the States. In my case, it was my mom who left — my father suffered from diabetes, he couldn’t do any work that required physical strain — and she was only supposed to be gone for a few months. She returned after three years. When my parents divorced , she left for America once more.
In her letters, she wrote how much she missed me; she told me how American pizza tasted, she sent me packages. In these packages, which I eagerly awaited, there were magazines and car advertisements, along with sweets and presents smelling of America. Once I even got a copy of Playboy . I was an absolute star in my class then — I traded the magazine, page by page, for slinkies, stickers and keychains.
These were two different worlds then, and only the packages I received proved that this second world was real.
There was a time where the Polish-American entrepreneur Walter Kotaba was looking for new viewers for his cable channel. He sent letters to Chicago residents who had Polish surnames. They started calling indignantly that they did not want to be associated with Poland. But that was a long time ago. Today, nobody would respond in 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, only a couple of decades later, there’s a trend of searching for your Polish roots. People order family trees; they search for memories from their grandfather. They don’t want to be “from nowhere." A month ago, at the prestigious Chicago History Museum, an exhibit titled “Back Home: Polish Chicago” opened. It was unprecedented: an extraordinary legitimization of this community, and an admission that without us, there would be no city of Chicago in the shape in which it exists today.
I write about the Polish Chicago of the 1920s. Then, Poles were scapegoats: described as often drunk, prone to aggression and impulsivity — simply unsafe. People believed that Poles should be feared. This fear-mongering rhetoric, which is in effect to this day, then led to a significant tightening of migration rights . Poles in Chicago were locked up 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 noted that the majority of them were Polish. The streets back then were divided between youth gangs, which dealt with burglaries and break-ins. Later, as a result of Prohibition, these informal gangs evolved into organized crime. The last notable, very brutal Polish gang, which was actually Polish-Mexican, was the Almighty Saints, which was active in the Back of the Yards neighborhood into the 1970s. The gang extorted protection money and took contract murders.
Today, there are no Polish gangs, though there are of course Polish criminals.
How did fear take the place of contempt? We took that into our own hands. The more Poles distanced themselves from American cultural codes, the more they stopped understanding the reality that surrounds them. They were easy targets for jokes in this way.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Polish diaspora was still quite insular. When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t want to live in the Polish-only neighborhoods. They looked as if someone had picked up a little Polish town from 20 years ago with a spoon and plopped them in America: there were Polish hairdressers, Polish video rentals, Polish grocery stores, Polish flags. At Polish picnics there was beer and kielbasa — Polish sausage — and disco polo music played, with folk groups dancing traditional dances. It was like an amusement park of Polish culture.
From a sociological point of view, this makes sense, because emigration leads to an increased fear of the unknown, and people want to stick together.
Poles in Chicago no longer have this. They seem to hate everyone. They treat African-Americans and Latinos with contempt, and other Slavs with poorly concealed superiority. Most of all, they hate themselves.
This litany of hatred is not as radical as the political programs of the far right, however, and comes from a place of over-compensation: we don’t like something in ourselves, we feel bad or scared, and so we seek others to blame.
"Emigration leads to an increased fear of the unknown, and people want to stick together."
The never-ending social ladder
Successive generations of Poles are climbing up the social ladder, and someone else has sat on the lower rungs they once occupied. Formerly Polish neighborhoods, which they have since left for more affluent suburbs, are populated by immigrant families from Mexico .
Chicago continues to be, as Professor Dominic Pacyga put it, "a snake that sheds its skin every 30 years and puts on another to adapt to a new reality."
Today, I’m not met with any contempt. But, and this might be a bit of a paranoid reaction, sometimes it feels like people hear my accent and speak to me more slowly, and with a simpler vocabulary. I really don’t like this. Then they ask me what I do, and when I say that I’m a psychologist and a writer, not a truck driver, for example, their eyes immediately widen. The traditional notions of Polish-Americans are dissolving.
We left behind our neighborhoods, packed up and moved to larger houses with backyards in the suburbs, becoming part of American society .
It’s difficult for me to assess whether this is good or bad. We are risking our own identities, but maybe this has to be done, in order to get rid of the backwardness of our community’s conservatism.
I don’t believe that the exhibit in the Chicago History Museum will be visited by many Poles — they’ll be too busy trying to earn more money. And as for whether Poles in America care about the country that they came from, that depends, and always has.
"Duda was chosen by the Polish community from Chicago"
Poles in America want to have contact with their families in Poland. It is desirable that representatives of Poland come to America and that they tell us here, in exile, how the economy is managed in our country for the benefit of all citizens in Poland, without making a difference of family origin and religious denomination or party affiliation. So that those coming from Poland would bring us our beautiful language, tell us about our mountains and forests, about flowering meadows, about fields sown with grain. That they 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 from 1937 to 1947
I have lived in the States for more than 20 years now. I am blown away by Poland, but I wouldn’t want to live here and deal with the issues of everyday life . Still, many people, including myself, are considering returning to Poland for retirement.
I don't want to decide for you about a country where I don't live.
Patriotism in general, I believe, is necessary, but I learned of its ills in America. I don't hang the American flag on the fourth of July — I don't like this 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 I find it immoral. I don't want to decide for you about a country where I don't live.
During a recent visit to Poland, I talked to a saleswoman in Krakow's Kazimierz neighborhood about what Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński has done to this country. And suddenly she said, "Well, but (Polish President) Duda was chosen by the Polish community from Chicago!"
"Patriotism in general, I believe, is necessary, but I learned of its ills in America."
"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 didn’t return to Poland out of shame. They left years ago for “the land of opportunity," and they felt that 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 in the street, because when I was in Poland I heard that there are so many that those that are not collected are lying on the streets. And he says to me: “When you stay here, you will see for yourself that it will be difficult to find them in your pocket, not only on the street.” I looked at him in surprise and I told him: if that’s the case, then what was I coming here for?
- From the diary of Stanisław Szelążka
There are plenty of Polish psychotherapists’ offices in Chicago. In my case, about 80% of the patients I receive are Polish. The richer and the poorer 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 for the elite. Therapy is a human right .
I had some clients who were ordered to come to my office by the court. They were rebellious men; they did not admit to themselves that they were the perpetrators of violence. They explained that their wife provoked them, that she did not respect them, that nothing is black and white.
When you feel like garbage, aggression towards someone weaker is the easiest way to grow taller.
God created a woman from Adam's rib.
In this program for abusers, I noticed that the most resistant to insight and change were conservative Catholics . They did not want to discuss at all. At the end of the day, their crowning argument was the statement that the Holy Scriptures stand behind them: God created a woman from Adam's rib. And that's how it's supposed to be.
Forty-five years have passed since I came to the United States. The first few years were a constant search for a job, a fight for something to eat and a place to live, then for improvement and independence from the bosses. When I set up my garage, I thought I was on my way. Circumstances showed 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 I am. 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 has lived in Chicago since 1999, and is a psychotherapist by education and profession. In the U.S., he was a construction worker, laid tiles, and worked in perfume and loudspeaker factories. Later, he worked as an addiction therapist in the only Polish-language drug rehabilitation program outside Poland for homeless Poles in Chicago. From 2014, he headed the city section and wrote columns for Dziennik Związkowy, the oldest Polish-language newspaper in Chicago. 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."
- Rydzyk Reigns: How Poland's Controversial Televangelist Has Wielded Power For 30 Years ›
- Moose In Our Midst: How Poland's Wildlife Preservation Worked A Bit Too Well ›
- Barbie's Mom: How A Daughter Of Jewish Refugees From Poland Created An American Idol ›
- Gùsto! How · What · Where Locals Eat (And Drink) In Chicago - Worldcrunch ›