Saturday, June 16, 2012

The State-Mandated Sterilization of a Polish-American Teenage Girl

Ewa Holody Pacosz with 4 of her living children, circa 1919. 
Walter Pacosz, Christina Pacosz's father, born in 1914, is in the sailor suit. 
Janina is a toddler in her mother's arms.

Aunt Janina
by Christina Pacosz

Janina Pacosz was the youngest of five living siblings and my father's sister. But not the very youngest. An unnamed baby girl died from meningitis or possibly flu in St. Louis and was buried in an unmarked grave after the family's flight from Leadwood, Missouri because of the 1917 Leadbelt Riot. My father was only four when that sister died and he couldn't recall her name.

But he never forgot his sister Janina who had been committed to the state institution for the mentally retarded in Lapeer, Michigan. She tumbled out of her high chair and was never right, my father said, afterwards. The official sterilization order survived the terrible fire that took Walter Pacosz' life October 16, 1987. My mother kept important papers in a fireproof, steel box.

The University of Michigan Bentley Historical Collection has the papers now.

My father told me his father, Antoni Pacosz, didn't know what he was signing, and when he did understand what he'd done, it was too late. Dated May 1, 1933 "The Order for Personal Service" (Sterilization Law
Act 28l, P.A. of 1929) declaring "Janine Pacosz" to be "an alleged mentally defective person" had already been carried out as ordered by Glen L. Hollenbeck, Judge of Probate in Lapeer County. Antoni Pacosz signed the petition and was her "duly appointed guardian ad litem". Her mother, my grandmother, Ewa Pacosz, was notified by registered mail. Two dates were noted in the official papers, April 13 and May 1, 1933. No one had a car or the ability to drive, so it is doubtful the family had any representation at either of the proceedings. Years later my grandmother signed her social security card with "her mark" – an X – and it is very likely she was illiterate in both of her spoken languages, English and Polish.

The paper my grandfather signed authorized Janina's sterilization, too. Unable to read English, he didn't fully understand what he was doing. Neither could my grandmother. Translators for official state business weren't required by law.

According to Philip R. Reilly in his book, "The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) more than sixty thousand mentally retarded or mentally ill individuals, most of them residents of large state institutions, were sterilized for eugenic reasons in the first six decades of the twentieth century. My Aunt Janina was in good company.

Documents regarding the sterilization and incarceration of Janina Pacosz at Lapeer State Training Home until she died.

Janina was filled with a highpitched excitement when we visited her. I went with my father, not just for the train ride, which I barely remember now, but for her, this aunt with the childlike simplicity and joy which exceeded my own. I was five or six, and mentally so was Janina, or possibly younger.

I'd take a favorite doll or teddy bear for company on the long journey. Janina and I would sit on the lawn beneath a huge elm – they weren't yet sick and dying from Dutch elm disease – and, screaming with delight, Janina tossed my bear into the air.

She was always dressed in institutional clothes. A green and white checked cotton dress, starched and pressed, its collar solid green, as were the short
sleeved cuffs. On her legs and feet, thick, cotton hose and brown oxford shoes. Janina looked like a waitress in one of the hamburger joints my mother took me to during our outings to downtown Detroit.

I don't recall what my father talked about with his sister but I do remember the sun pouring down through the leaves and the sweat beading her upper lip and her forehead. Her eyes were blue jewels that matched my father's and my grandmother's eyes. Bright and inquisitive as a bird she'd lean toward me, our faces just inches apart. When she laughed it was impossible for me not to.

Janina was locked behind red brick walls and died in that awful place. Sterilized. At fourteen. When I was fourteen my head was filled with the thrill of boys, though few paid attention to me. When I was fourteen, Janina was forty
one years old, just a year and a month from her death.

I don't remember ever setting foot inside the Lapeer State Home and Training School. We visited Janina outside, on the lawn. It was always summer and hot.

I can only imagine what it was like inside the state home and training school. Each day a dull repetition of the one before no matter the season. The stench of ammonia and urine. Of neglect and loss. The lack of privacy. The starchy sameness of the food. Making potholders for recreational time. The numbing gray paint on the scarred walls. The strong steel grills on the windows. The harsh, artificial light.

My father brought her home to our house on an outing once, after he had learned to drive and could make the long trip by car and back with her. She was lost outside her familiar surroundings, though she seemed happy enough to be with us. Busia was there, too, crying and smiling as she took this lost, stolen daughter into her arms.

I wonder what those visits cost my father who had spent ten years behind bars for petty crimes. The forcible and violent loss of rural community both in Missouri and then again in Modliborzyce, Poland with a decade-plus separation from his father in Detroit had left my father emotionally scarred. That family separation had been caused by U.S. anti-immigrant laws. He and my grandmother came back to the U.S. in December 1929. Not a good time for a fifteen- almost-sixteen year old boy seeking his own way in the world. He had been locked up when their father signed Janina's life away.

His being jailed may have been what led to scrutiny of the family and, ultimately, Janina being removed from the family home on Otis Street.

Included in the Order was the stipulation that an additional "order be made for an operation or treatment to render said Janine Pacosz incapable of procreation." And, also, "that the Court appoint two reputable physicians to make an investigation of the mental and physical condition and personal and family history of said Janine Pacosz." These individuals listed on the court documents were Dr. H.G. Merz and Dr. J.A. Spencer.

Eugenics was an up and coming pseudo
science and had its scientific community of devotees and adherents in most states across the United States and then later in Germany. Janina was an early victim of Nazi ideology, only she lived in Detroit, not the Third Reich, and she took a long time to die from the State's neglect.


The noon sun spills an abundance of gold on the green expanse of lawn beyond the shade of the elm.

Head tossed back, Janina brays with laughter, yellow teeth flashing. Her light brown hair, cut in a utilitarian Dutch Boy style, swirls across her rosy cheeks. She squeals and throws my brown plush teddy bear into the air; it falls into her lap.

Eyes gleaming like the first stars at dusk, she clutches the stuffed toy to her breast.

My father smiles at his sister's obvious delight and opens the brown paper bag of food my mother has prepared.

Beneath the elm, poised on the brink of blight and death, we eat our lunch: ham sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, potato chips.

Ignoring the crowded, bloody bed of our familial history, we tilt our heads back, and gulp fizzy Faygo strawberry soda.

Years later the phone rings late in the night. An anonymous call from a Training Home employee. Janina is dead.

No one in the family had been notified she was ill.

She died all alone in that place where the life was cut out of her by a knife wielded by the authority of the state.

Cause of death: encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain resulting in paralysis of the respiratory centers. According to the death certificate mental retardation contributed to her death.

That death certificate should have read: Abandoned, lost and lonely. Imprisoned.

She lay in her coffin, bright blue eyes shut forever.

I wanted to put a teddy bear beside her, some comfort for her long sleep in the earth. Instead, I kissed her cold cheek, remembering how she'd laughed during our visits.

This aunt who was not right, but never wrong, though the wrongs of the bloody bed blossomed red about her.

© Christina Pacosz

First published on the West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society member newsletter, April 2012.

Christina Pacosz's new book of poems is published by Seven Kitchens Press. Ordering information here

Janina Pacosz in the middle with her mother Eva Miazga (r) and her sister-in-law Elizabeth Pacosz (l),
date unknown.

***   ***   ***

I'm honored that Christina Pacosz granted me permission to post her essay about Aunt Janina here.

The essay is especially timely.

There is a tendency among some Polonians to blame Jews for the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype. I've recently reviewed two books, one a rather good book, the other not so good, that either state or imply that Jews and leftists are either partially or fully responsible for the Brute Polak stereotype. One of those reviews can be found here, the other here.

I regularly receive emails, and see posts on Polish-interest internet discussion sites, naming Jews or Leftists as responsible for the Brute Polak stereotype.

This identification of Jews and leftists as responsible for the Brute Polak stereotype is wrong, and it must stop.

It is factually wrong. Jews and leftists are not responsible for the Brute Polak stereotype. This is demonstrated in "Bieganski."

It is morally wrong.

It is strategically wrong. It does Polonia no good, and much harm, to scapegoat Jews and leftists. It does Polonia no good, and much harm, to turn Polonians against each other: Catholics v. non-Catholics, right-wingers v. left-wingers, Christians v. Jews.

The Brute Polak stereotype is produced, supported, and disseminated by Jews and non-Jews, by left-wingers and right-wingers, and indeed by some Poles themselves.

The Brute Polak stereotype has been resisted by Jews and non-Jews, by left-wingers and right-wingers, and by some (but not enough) Poles.

A case in point. Art Spiegelman's book "Maus" is used to teach the Holocaust to young people. "Maus" depicts Poles as pigs. I've joined others in protesting the use of this book, for example here and here.

Several years ago, a Polish-American professor politely protested the use of "Maus" to teach English as a foreign language to visiting Japanese tourists. That professor lost his job. He had been teaching at St. Mary's, a Catholic institution. The person who defended his firing was Brother Craig J. Franz, a Catholic man of the cloth.

I could cite many such examples. In 2012, I was allowed to read a pre-publication manuscript from a Catholic publisher. The book addressed Polish issues. BIG Polish issues. The book was rife with errors about Polish matters. On other matters, the book was fine. When it came to Polish matters, from the smallest (borscht is made from turnips) to the largest (the source of anti-Semitism in Poland) the book was rife with errors. I blogged about this here.

Another example – Commonweal's treatment of Polish-Jewish relations and the convent controversy. I blog about this here.

Another example: Bill Tammeus, author of the Bieganski-style book "They Were Just People," covered in this blog post, is himself a liberal Protestant of German descent. He is now a blogger at the National Catholic Reporter.

Another example. James Carroll, as "Bieganski" describes, went out of his way to misrepresent Polish history in his own blockbuster bestseller, "Constantine's Sword." James Carroll is not just Catholic, he is a former priest.

These examples and others demonstrate that Catholics have been all too ready to support and disseminate the Bieganski stereotype.

In my own work, I can say that many Jews have supported me and my work financially, emotionally, academically, and in every other way they could.

Why I mention all this in relation to Christina Pacosz's heartrending essay about her aunt.

A few reasons:

Christina Pacosz is a leftist, and she is not a practicing Catholic. John Guzlowski, who has also supported my work on the Brute Polak stereotype is also a leftist and is not a practicing Catholic. Danuta Reah, who has also supported my work is a leftist and is not a practicing Catholic.

Every one of these people: Pacosz, Guzlowski, and Reah, have taken public stands against the brute Polak stereotype, and paid the price.

When it comes to religion or politics, I argue with leftists. I argue for Catholicism. I have argued with Pacosz, Guzlowski, and Reah.

When it comes to the Brute Polak stereotype, I put my political and religious arguments aside. I do that because Polonians can and should unite to eliminate this stereotype.

Aunt Janina was not victimized by a Jewish or a leftist ideology. Her story is not isolated. She is not one of thousands. She is one of millions of people victimized by Scientific Racism. "Bieganski: The Brute Polak" outlines this history. More Polonians need to read it. They need to understand the roots, rationalizations, and applications of the Brute Polak stereotype. The Brute Polak stereotype is more than the phrase "Polish Concentration Camp." When Polonia decides to educate itself, Polonia will be able to have an impact, and not before.

We Polonians need to overcome our failings, which I have outlined in a three-part blog post entitled "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision." You can read those blog posts here.

Blaming others for our failings, scapegoating leftists and Jews, is a no-win approach. We must reject it utterly. We must focus on victory against the Brute Polak stereotype, and unite with others similarly focused on victory.


  1. A heart wrenching story. She died far too young, a victim of the eugenics program in the US. Something that should be better known.
    On the second point, I would agree that the anti-Polish stereotype is not a religious or leftist issue. I am also non-religious, though of mixed religious heritage, and left of center in my politics. I oppose prejudice against any group.

  2. In unity is our strength it says on the cornerstone of the crumbling Dom Polski Hall on Detroit's West Side, which is the neighborhood I write about.

    There is too much to lose if we don't find our common ground as Poles and as human beings. Christina Pacosz

  3. Margaret, thanks so much for weighing in.

    Christina, "In unity is our strength." Amen. Thank you.

  4. A sad sad story and thanks to you Christina for telling it, and to Danusha for publishing it, on behalf of your aunt, who could not tell her own story, and on behalf of the many victims of those chilling Eugenics policies.

    What a pretty little toddler your aunt Janina was, Christina.

    I am sure she will wake up from the dreamless sleep of death when the time comes. Her Creator must long to see her again.

    "If an able-bodied man dies can he live again? All the days of my compulsory service I shall wait, Until my relief comes.  You will call, and I myself shall answer you. For the work of your hands you will have a yearning." - Job 14:14,15

    Jehovah yearns to see your aunt again, for the time to come when He will call her out of death.

    But much as we long to see those we have lost in death, if God woke them up now, it would be into an earth more full of violence than the one they knew before.

    When your aunt opens her eyes again, it will be into the restored earthly Paradise - an earth more lovely and more full of joy then we can now imagine. Isn't this what we pray for when we say The Lord's Prayer, for God's will to be done on earth?

    Truly, we do not say that prayer in vain.

    Oh, and thanks for reminding me about "Maus" Danusha. I have always meant to write to a member of the Catholic hierarchy about that, given what Jesus has to say about the love and respect we owe to each other.

    I am wondering how they justify teaching it?

    Maybe I will find a moment...

  5. I've known other real life histories like this. This story is not wildly unusual. I've been told similar stories about young
    women of working class origins who ended up destroyed by the legal and institutional agencies of the state they lived in. What happens is the relatives are too frightened to do anything or they work in collusion.

  6. What awful, AWFUL places those state institutions were back then. When I was a student nurse, we were required to tour the remnants of our state hospital -- originally a place underground with dirt floors where "patients" were chained like animals, and later housed in colorless cells, victimized by cruel caretakers. I suspect sterilization back then was not done for any "eugenic" reason, but so the staff would not make babies with the patients.
    As always, Pacosz documents her Aunt's existence through beautiful prose. And Danusha makes the valid point that -- regardless of political leaning or religious belief -- there is more than enough blame to go around for such injustices.

  7. The story of Janina Pacosz is truly heart-wrenching. Period.

    On a different note, how much I would love to see the following short video (34 seconds) from 1940 as a Super Bowl commercial...

    These videos are not half bad either:



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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