Some of my ancestors enjoying their "white privilege."
Ilya Repin's "Barge Haulers on the Volga"
My dad was not in this photo - but he could have been.
Lewis Hine. "Breaker Boys"
"Get me a Hunky; I need a donkey."
According to my dad, Anthony Goska, that's what the coalmine bosses called out in Throop, Pennsylvania, early in the twentieth century when they needed some work done. They were seeking "strong backs," Bohunks, Poles, Hungarians, and Slovaks.
I really love one of my students. She's smart and she cares and I'm confident that, if she got the right degree and the right job, she could use her brains and heart to make the world a better place.
There's no guarantee she'll get there. Her parents have bequeathed nothing to her but hard times. She's done pink collar work, just to scrape by.
She came to me one day and told me she was leaving university. In one of her teacher-education classes, the professor was talking about poverty as if it were only experienced by "people of color." My student raised her hand. Said, "There are poor white people in this country, too." Professor said, "Their poverty doesn't count because they are white." Quote unquote.
When my student heard that, she had an epiphany. She realized that the ivory tower world she had hocked so much to be part of was, in its allowance of dominance by unquestioned Politcal Correctness, bullshit.
"Stay," I begged, pleaded, commanded, struggling to find a strategy that would get her to stay. "This academic world needs minds, hearts, like yours, needs a sense of outrage like yours. Stay." I hope and pray that she does.
I interviewed my dad on tape twenty years ago. Rereading the transcript breaks my heart, and not just cause he's gone. I'm a Jersey girl; lemme let Springsteen do the talking: "The first kick I took was when I hit the ground. You end up like a dog that's been beat too much. Till you spend half your life just covering up."
What was God thinking? What were you thinking, God? A child, didn't even speak English, constantly beat, and beating, and never able to get his head above drowning tides: peasant status, Poland's colonization, mass migrations, racism, The Industrial Revolution, world war, displacement, deracination.
Not just my father. Millions of others like him. Bohunks: Eastern European, Christian, peasant immigrants who came to the US between 1880 and 1929 to mine coal, and forge steel, and get blown up, and their skin stripped off, and chopped to pieces by industrial fans: industrial accidents that killed many young. Then they came of age, and they were shipped off to places like the Western Front and Omaha Beach.
Why isn't their story told in the Ivory Tower?
Poor, enserfed, whites. Can't have that. I could tell so many stories. Ask me sometime. I could go on all day. Just one more: in a class, on a university campus, professor says, "Well, yes, there was racism against the [1880-1929] immigrants, because they were dark-skinned, and this is a white supremacist country."
Believe that? Can I sell you a bridge, or a war, or a hate? Or a lie, disguised as your own history?
But our silencing and erasure is not the fault of academic limousine liberals. It's our fault. That's right. It's OUR fault.
Have we made our voices heard? No. Have we bought copies of "Out of This Furnace" or "Laughing in the Jungle" or "The Poems of Anton Piotrowski"? No. And demanded that they be placed on syllabi? No. We have not.
Have any of you even READ "The Poems of Anton Piotrowski"? Links below. Buy. Read. Learn. Get back to me.
My dad's interview is brutal. Most of it I wouldn't even share. It's all just too harsh. Below are some of the milder excerpts.
DVG: Why did the Poles come to America?
AG: Because the czars burned our books.
DVG: What was everyday life like in Poland?
AG: Well, all it was, was grubbing. Grub. You know what I mean? They was no really, nothing. And it kept getting worse.
DVG: Do you have any idea of what sort of expectations your parents had before they came to America?
AG: Just the work. Better than there. Terrible under the czar. Everybody wanted a piece of Poland. They had no chance whatsoever. My folks were just peasants. That's the situation.
DVG: And what did the people who recruited immigrants say? Did they say you could have a better life here?
AG: Well, it couldn't be any worse.
DVG: So, did your parents ever talk to you about Poland?
AG: Hey – I heard them talking all the time about Poland.
DVG: What did they say?
AG: The reason they got outta there, they were slaves, you know?
DVG: Did they pass on any Polish culture? How about holidays? Did you do any traditional things on holidays?
AG: Ya sat around. Ya didn't work. On Sundays, and on Christmas. And that's when you dressed up.
DVG: Come on, give me some details.
AG: The Russians were really hammering at them. They went to sleep hungry a lotta nights. My mother said to me once, "I don't wanna tell you anything about there, because I never had a good moment there. I came here to make a life. Because there was nothing there. Where we lived, we were under the Russian rule, all the time, and we were starving."
DVG: Did she write to her relatives in Poland?
AG: My mother couldn't write. Couldn't read.
DVG: So, she didn't get letters from Poland. How about when Germany invaded in 1939?
AG: Oh, hey, they were all sick. She had a few sisters there, but she never, ya know – got to talk to them, because they were poor, poor [No phones, no letters]. And the only information they got when Mrs. Sykowski went over there and came back, before the war and told them how bad it was over there. My mother said to me, "There's nothing you can do about it. And it's too late for me now to worry about them." She said, "They wouldn't know me and I wouldn't know them."
DVG: Why did you call Throop [his coal mining town in Pennsylvania] "Skunk Hollow"?
AG: The public sewers emptied out – you know your grandma's house? Remember the cemetery? The Lithuanian cemetery? You remember the coal dump? The slag dump? Well, right there, from the colliery, they pumped the water out, and it became a black stream. Now the city sewers were put in for the affluent people, and they let it come out right by that cemetery. The last house by grandma. [I remember a pervasive sulfur odor from the perpetually glowing slag heap.]
The Brown Road section that they called has the road that was a brown clay. So they called it Brown Road. Then, down in Smoke Town, they called that Smoke Town because it seemed that when [the mist or fog would rise], people would say, "Smoke." And the kids called it Smoke Town.
You'd be surprised to see how many people want to go back to Skunk Hollow. It was the nicest – everybody knew everybody. And nobody squealed on anybody.
[Indeed, he remembered so many names from Throop: Szymankiewicz, Sykowski, Kormas, Sirotnik, Cieciorka, Gedvilas, Wencko, Legemza, Maknowski, Klimuszko, Minczewski.]
DVG: How about Polish culture in Throop? You had all these immigrants from Poland living there.
AG: We really had no culture. The Polish, the Slovak, the Hungarian. Cause all the schools were based around the English, Scotch, and Welsh. And most of them predominantly Protestant. So we had none. The teachers, were all English, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh. They had no use for Polaks. All the teachers like I told you, were Scotch, English, Irish, and Welsh. And they had no use for the Hunkies except that they had a job. But they – they didn't care whether you learned or not. I didn't like school at all. But, when I went down to Jefferson school, Mrs. Legemza, who's Slovak, had more tolerance. Whereas the one's down to Brown-Columbus school were strictly all English, Scotch, and Welsh.
They hated the Hunkies because when they went to some of the taverns in Throop, most of them were run by Polish, Hungarian, and that. Irish, Scotch and English got their stuffings kicked out of them because they used to know the English language they got away with things with the police. If my folks wouldda had money for college I wouldda buckled down. [One teacher, who was Polish, did mistreat Polish children. My father resented this, and guessed that this Polish teacher mistreated Polish children in order to "fit in" with the other teachers.] I know we were good people, the Polaks. Why does he have to do what the Irish teachers were doin' on some of the foreign kids?
DG: Your name used to be Gąska. They changed it in school?
AG: They changed it to make it easier for themselves. There was no things about illegality. The Scotch, English, Irish, Welsh did everything they wanted. They were the teacher and they made it easier for themselves.
DVG: What was it like in the coal mines? [He worked in the minds as a boy.]
AG: The coal companies wanted the donkeys. That's what they called us. "Strong backs." Nobody in the world should work in the coal mines. You had to wear winter underwear down the mines. It was cold, and once you start perspiring, if you didn't have that heavy underwear, you would freeze, you would get sick. At least that way the perspiration was kept warm. You're coming out and you stink. You blow your nose three or four times it would come black like them shoes. What else you want to know? It was hard work. And when I first went down I was working in high coal, then I got a job it was four foot coal, and then would be three foot coal. You know how high three foot is, right? [I've heard that coal shafts could be as low as eighteen inches.]
Then you gotta be on your belly, like this, that's why they used to have them kneepads. Four foot wasn't bad. You could kneel down and really throw it far. And then if you had to throw it too far you could still bend over and really whip it sideways – but that makes it tough, because now your whole body is hanging on your waist. And then with the extra coal … in other words, then, as far as I'm, in my opinion, there should never have been any coal mines, but you had 'em. That God should have never made them.
They had no benefits like you have over here. And if you didn't work, you didn't get paid. No benefits. No nothing. No holidays. When a holiday came, the mines were closed. Cause, ya know, years – today they have some benefits. Ya know. But that's today. Don't forget. Going back then, they had no benefits. You worked or you didn't get paid. You didn't get paid by the hour. You got paid by what you produced. And, then, like, uh, sometime the company, uh, would, uh, not pay 'em. They say, "Wait a minute. We give you twenty-ten cars." "You didn't clean out the rock. You only get paid for the coal." That's the way it goes.
We were three-handed. And we were what they call robbing the coal. You know. You're not robbin it. But that was the expression they used. In other words, you were, remember I told you they did pillars? You know, say, as big as this room – a pillar – to keep the thing from coming down. Now what we did, we went all the way in to where they quit, and we'd start taking the coal up there. From the front. And that's what the call stealing the coal. Till we came to the end of where they had the mines. Eventually we close and then that's why they had a lot of caves. Because there were no pillars there and the props rotted.
They had the expression in the coal mines "Lazy Irish." They're always – the Irish were always lazy. They didn't wanna work. And they were heavy drinkers. And that, more, you should realize, in history, if you study that, they were always bein cheated. So, as a result, they were always drinking, and that became hereditary. But the good workers were the Polish, Slovak, Magyars. They wouldn't shovel as hard as you, or nothing. If you start a fight? There you get fired. They knew, because the Irish could speak English, you didn't stand a chance. Expression was always, "Drunken Irish."
A lot of people got hurt and killed. Well, most of them, if they had a cave-in, that's most of them. But then sometimes, when they were ramming, the dynamite. And someone mighta took a drill and created a spark … right in the face. But most of them … cave-ins. And the company was always tryin a save money, cause to get props cost them a lot of money. That's why people got hurt, killed.
DVG: How about black lung?
AG: Oh, loads of people. And they didn't get any help till, oh, God, way late. Way late. They here like thirty years before they started giving them all kind of respirators. You know? And then, a lot of 'em, wouldn't wear 'em. Because it's tough breathing and doing heavy work. So, that was a sad part, too. You know yourself. If you start running, right? Put a respirator on ya? Wouldn't be good running, would it? That's what happened. In the beginning, there was no benefits. People would pick mushrooms [and forage in the forest for food]. You know something, people would help people. There was no welfare then. People would help people. They were very cooperative with each other.
DVG: There were gangs.
AG: In my time, everybody fought. And the Polaks from Dickson used to fight us Polaks from Skunk Hollow. And then we used to fight the other guys that had some money in Throop. We'd always be fighting. It was a way of life in them days. They'd chase us up; we'd chase them back to the river. A couple guys get their heads split. And a couple of guys lost their eyes.
[If a child got beat by other children, his parents might beat him for losing a fight.]
AG: His dad came over and "What the hell are you crying for? Get up and [kick] get the hell home!" He didn't want to know nothing. That's the way people were then. And, as my father taught me, all of us, the three boys before Bernie came. "Don't you dare come home crying unless you got that guy going home crying!" After the third time that I got a lacing with that barber strap, I made somebody else cry. And, like, uh, Mr. Malcolm. He almost killed his two sons. They got their fannies paddled. It was a way of life. Cause, when the men came over there, they had the same situation, you know? In other words, the Protestants and the Irish, whenever, you know, they seen some Hunky coming home staggering, they'd pick on him. Beat him up. [So Hunky parents taught their kids to be tough, to survive a tough world.]
My mother was a scrapper, too. And she'd stand up. I'm sure you'd do the same. She didn't care how big somebody was. They ain't gonna tell her to shut up. They ain't gonna tell her.
[My dad learned to take beatings, and to beat, in school. He served time. He was about ten years old when this happened. He was trying to protect his little brother.]
AG: A woman worked for the county. Miecz [his little brother] got in some kinda trouble. And, I said to her, "You goddamn bum, get out of here. You leave my brother alone! Who the hell do you think you are? Bitch!" My mother and father didn't know. They never learned anything in English. So, I told her, "You try taking him outta there, and I'll bust your head." Mrs. Rinsler. That was her name.
She said, "Now I got you, and you're going to jail."
I said, "So, what's the big deal?"
He was sent to St. Michael's Industrial School for Boys.
AG: It was beautiful. The nuns took care of us. We called them sisters. There was no such thing as nuns in that day. You know, they were known as sisters. And I stayed there for a year. That's the nicest place I ever been. I enjoyed it there. There was swimming. Sister Cecilia, we called her the cowboy, cause she was bowlegged. She walked like a cowboy. We got what they call bendovers. Bend down, touch your toes, and fwt! [hits hands] A stick about that thickness. Sister Cecilia give me a whop right in the nose.
Bohunks are silenced and invisible in American culture. We do that to ourselves. And some of the others who do that to us are, sad to say, upper class Poles, who wish we did not exist. The most notorious expression of this snobbery occurred in 1987. Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, in the New York Times, denounced "the incredible cultural crudeness of Polish Americans … It's probable that some civilizations do not shape people so they have enough resilience to be able to stand on their own two feet outside their ghetto." Stanislaus Blejwas, a Polish-American himself, responded, asking, "Why a poet, an individual concerned with human values," resorts to" "intolerant prejudice unique to intellectuals, the contemptuous condemnation of the masses."
I used to run into Milosz regularly when I was getting my MA at UC Berkeley. I always had to resist the temptation to walk up to him, hug him, shout, "How ya doin, Chet? Wanna go polka wid me? And eat some kielbasa?" And then start a rousing rendition of "In heaven there is no beer." And encourage him to sing along. I fantasized this many times.
Really, what I should have said to Chet was this: my grandmother was trod upon by those in power. But they never crushed her. She could not read - but she came to America for books. My father mined coal, and I'm getting a PhD. And I have not met better people in the Ivory Tower than I met working as a nurse's aid or a landscaper or a carpenter to fund my degree.
Milosz' contempt is not unique. Serfs, peasants, in Poland were notoriously ill-treated by upper class Poles. Norman Davies' "God's Playground" quotes one protest against a Poland that was "heaven for the nobility, paradise for Jews, and hell for serfs." Poland suffered, Krzysztof Opalinski surmised, because God was punishing the evil nobility for their mistreatment of serfs:
God does not punish Poland for nothing,
but chiefly for the harsh oppression visited on the serfs,
which is worse than slavery: as if the peasant
were not your neighbor, nor even a person.
My heart sinks, and I shudder to reflect
On that oppression, which outweighs pagan bondage.
For God's sake, have you Poles lost your minds completely?
Your whole welfare, your supply of food, the wealth you amass
All derives from your serfs. It is their hands which feed you,
and still you treat them with such cruelty
In Poland, another commentator wrote, was where "The cattle live like people, and the common people like cattle."
"Out of this Furnace"
"Laughing in the Jungle"
"The Poems of Anton Piotrowski"
"Anthracite Coal Region's Slavic Community"