Embattled Polonia Polish-Americans and World War II

By Kurk McGinley, Theresa | East European Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Embattled Polonia Polish-Americans and World War II


Kurk McGinley, Theresa, East European Quarterly


Polish-Americans in the early 1940s were diversified in their opinions of world and state affairs, as were many ethnic and political groups at the time. Yet certain common factors were evident in this immigrant group that set them apart from American society. The majority of Polish-Americans preserved their language and cultural identity as Poles although they had lived in the United States for several generations. Many of the Polish-Americans in the early 1940s were descendants of Poles who had immigrated to the United States in the latter part of the nineteenth century. These people, predominantly from rural villages, came to America seeking individual economic advancement. The majority were also devout Roman Catholics. For social and economic reasons, the Poles settled in urban areas with high concentrations of other Poles. Polish-Americans had by the 1940s developed a national community, referred to as "Polonia," with a dualist ideology of loyalty to the United States and loyalty to Poland. Polish social, educational, and fraternal organizations were found in the nation's major cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. Many of the Poles continued to support relatives or friends in Poland through money or goods. The Polish-Americans retained their native language, cultural heritage and traditions of their former homeland. They established Polish language newspapers, schools, clubs and churches. The role of the Catholic Church was central to religious, political, and social life in the Polish community. Many Polish-American organizations were affiliated in some way to the Church. Polish Catholics however, differed from other American Catholics. Services were more traditional, the mass was celebrated in native language and with Polish customs, and often by a Polish priest, much to the chagrin of the local church hierarchy. Traditions, ceremonies and rituals celebrated in native Polish churches had carried over to Polish-American ones.

What is particularly important about the Polish-American experience of the 1940s is that the Poles unified under one central politically motivated organization due to the wartime situation in Poland. The various Polish organizations--social, educational, including most importantly the Polish language press--joined as one political voice. This organization, the Polish-American Congress (PAC), would be responsible for lobbying and protesting the foreign policy of the United States, and committed to forcing a change in the immigration laws of the United States to admit displaced Poles. The response of the American Poles to the wartime situation in Poland and the postwar diplomatic tragedy in view of the recognition of the United States of the Soviet-dominated Polish government rather than the free Polish government-in-exile, is a study of a tremendous outpouring of initially humanitarian relief programs and then organized political protest of an allied nationality wronged by the allied powers. Most significantly, the efforts of the American Poles resulted in an innovative change to immigration law. The quota system which had dominated immigration legislation since the 1920s, was liberalized to allow European refugees entry into the United States. Unlike earlier immigration patterns, refugees were required to have employment and sponsorship waiting for them in the United States prior to passage. Due to the persistent lobbying of groups such as the Polish-American Congress in bringing the plight of the Poles to the forefront of the American public through the press, President Truman and the reluctant 80th Congress responded with the passage of a series of new immigration laws culminating in the DP Act of 1948. The DP Act of 1948 was further reformed in 1950 once again due to the pressure of organized public opinion.

When Hitler invaded Poland, the action that started the Second World War, Polish-Americans became active in providing relief through numerous drives for donations in food and clothing. …

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