Sunday, July 11, 2010

Looking Down a Mineshaft

Michael Stanley Jaworski 1918-2010
PFC NJ State Guard Calvary 1943-1946

I received a couple of moving posts from Chris Jaworski and Michael Kelemen in response to "Get me a hunky; I need a donkey."

Chris is of Polish Catholic descent, Michael, of Polish Jewish.

Chris wrote:

"I read your hunky-donkey blog post and feel I am standing at the top of a mine shaft, looking down into it. There is so much in our underground past, entire worlds, hidden from view. A hard life for your father. I am glad you sat down to interview him, and he was open to telling you about his life.

Contrast to my father's way, which was to impose a media blackout on his past. I'm joking, but not entirely.

Only when I was about 30 did I ask him about himself. He was born in Portage, southwestern Pennsylvania, 217 miles from Throop, as the googlebird flies. I just read now of the Slavic workers in that area.

The only memory my dad had of living there was of standing alone in the middle of an open field, crying. Not sure when that was, or how old he was, or how many years his parents and two brothers were there, but at some point they moved to Newark."

Chris supplemented his reply with this information:

"Mines in the immediate vicinity of Portage were contained within the valleys of Spring Run and Trout Run which form a "V" shape with an intersect at Portage on the western end. A number of satellite mining communities were also established in association with these mines including Sonman, Shoemaker, and Benscreek to the northeast and Blue Bird, Miller Shaft, Red Bird, Fiddler's Green, Puritan, and Martindale to the southeast. Portage's Main Line location at the base of the "V" and the center of operations made it a natural residential and commercial hub. Although there were no mines listed as Portage mines, Portage miners worked in all mines up and down the line." source

Michael's responses, and my responses to him, below:

"Very interesting story. It would make a good movie starring Charles Bronson."

Charles Bronson, of course, was of Lithuanian and Lipka Tartar ancestry, one of the diverse ethnic and religious groups in the old, Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

My dad was very handsome – a cross between Errol Flynn and Clark Gable. He really had the look of his era, the 1940s, when he was a soldier in the Pacific under General Douglas MacArthur.

It's funny how people can look like they are from a certain place or ethnic group – can look Polish or Jewish or Native American or what have you – but they can also look like they are of a certain time. My dad was of a more elegant, more homey time in American history.

"It sounds like your Dad didn't know much about Poland"

I'm not sure that that is what was going on.

Rather, I think this was part of it: I've interviewed many people, and the "I don't know anything; why are you asking me this" response, often borderline hostile or escapist, is fairly common among c. 1880-1929 Bohunk immigrants.

When you really nail these people down, you often discover that they do know a lot.

Why, then, do they swat questions away? Several factors:

1.) Shame. The c. 1880-1929 immigration generated the most violent and terminal racism of any immigration to the US, bar none. They were the only group voted by congress to be banned from America on the basis of their proven racial inferiority. They had virtually no supporters. The mainstream press, the universities, many writers, the White House, the unions – everybody hated them and openly assessed them as near animals. These accusations were standard in the New York Times, the floor of congress, etc. There were violence, lynchings, and other killings, sometimes sanctioned by the government and carried out by government thugs.

I interviewed one woman who insisted she had nothing to say. With prodding, she produced detailed accounts of life in her Old Country village, but before and after every morsel of information, she distanced herself from it. "the villagers believed … but I'm not superstitious. I don't believe that stuff. The villagers did this and that … but I don't do that. I'm much more modern."

2.) Personal pain. These departures were very traumatic, and there was often no connection with the homeland. People couldn't write, or didn't write heart-to-heart letters. No phones. No easily accessible air travel. No money. No stability in the homeland – World Wars One and Two saw to that. People learned not to think about it, not to feel about it. What people left often also caused them pain they didn't want to revisit. Christian peasants might say something like, "I had one bowl of cabbage soup a day to eat. I left and never looked back and I don't even want to think about it." This period of immigration was a tough one for Jews. Many didn't want to focus on the anti-Semitic attitudes and violence they left behind. They wanted to look forward, not back.

"When you asked him about life there he just said it was bad because the Czars wanted everything. It's hard for someone reading to know what that means."

The Russians are widely assessed as having been the worst of Poland's three colonizers after the late eighteenth-century partitions. In the Russian partition, as my book "Bieganski" states, "Russification forbade the Polish language in public places; eventually students were forbidden from owning any book not assigned in class; this was just part of enforced, methodical educational stagnation" (163) Under Russia, in the early twentieth century, 65 % of the population was illiterate. The Russians, after the Prussians and the Austrians, were the last to liberate Poland's serfs, only in 1861. Prussia liberated serfs in 1811, Austria in 1848. Brian Porter talks about this in "When Nationalism Began to Hate" 79, 81.

Do I know that because I heard it from my dad or because I read it in Brian Porter? Both, I guess. I heard it throughout my childhood from my dad, and what I read in scholarly texts just backed up his comments.

"Later in your interview you note that the Polish nobility had no regard for their peasants so I'd assume that there was oppression with or without the Russians."

Absolutely. There are many texts from many would-be social reformers decrying the brutal oppression and exploitation Polish peasants were subject to.

That attitude is not dead. A scholar of Polish history (who would probably prefer not to be named here) told me that he regarded Poland as one of the most class-conscious countries in the world. It all stems from the szlachta society.

In twentieth and twenty-first century America I've received emails from Polish Americans condemning me for being open about my peasant and working class roots. Why don't I shut up about peasants and serfs and blue collar workers and focus on Chopin, Kosciuszko, Pope John Paul II?

"That's how it is with most family info especially before they had education. Vague answers are the most you get. Even today, if you ask me for much about certain topics I couldn't say much more than your Dad did about Poland."

I think you really have to be like a persistent mosquito, trying and trying before you can alight and find the vein. You have to figure out the right angle to go at the question.

"When I was interviewing my family for my genealogy research I found that they would get irritated when I asked for details because very often I couldn't understand the context which framed the event they were talking about so I had to ask a million questions that they didn't expect."

Try booze. Language teachers say that foreign language learners speak more fluently with a little booze in them.

But, seriously.

Here's just one example. I asked an informant if he had ever experienced anti-Semitism in the US. He kept saying no, but somehow I had a sense that he wasn't telling me the whole story. Just as one attempt, I asked, "Did anything ever happen to you that made you – " and I cringed. And it all came out after that. He said that my cringing brought the memories forth.

"In the late 80s I attended some classes about American labour history. They gave us reading materials every week and one long chapter was about ethnic people like your Dad who worked in the American steel mills. The key point was that the companies deliberately played the different ethnic groups off against one another (eg. by means of favouritism) in order to keep them from uniting in a workers movement against the company."

Yup, exactly, and that is – to get off on a controversial tangent – one concern I have about immigration to the US today.

New Jersey is a wildly diverse state, racially, ethnically, linguistically, religiously. With the recent huge numbers of immigrants, there is a real hostility and attendant atomization here. Link to John Leo's article about Robert Putnam's research, below.

Research suggests that mass immigration and failed assimilation produces a society that is, potentially, easily dominated and manipulated by elites, because there is no sense of community, no social capital, to make participatory democracy and a sense of civic duty function.

My dad's take on the role played by the Irish is echoed by immigration historians. The Irish came in overwhelming, more or less uniform numbers after the potato famine. Though they were hated, there were so many of them that they were able to flood various centers of power, including the cops on the beat and Catholic priests. Up till, say, 1960, it was standard in Hollywood movies to depict cops and priests with an Irish accent. (See, for example, "Bells of St. Mary's.") The Irish, so mindful of their own victimization, became very good at representing the wishes of the elite vis-à-vis the c. 1880-1929 immigrants. Older Poles, for example, talked about being unwelcome in Irish-dominated Catholic churches.

John Leo on Robert Putnam's work on immigration and social capital

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Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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