Reviewed by Dominic A. Pacyga
Columbia College, Chicago
Joanna Wojdon’s latest study of the Polish American Congress (PAC) and the role it played during the Cold War is the best study of the subject in English. For those who can read Polish, her two-volume study W Imieniu Sześciu Milionów and W Jedności Siła remains the classic interpretation. Wojdon, who teaches at the University of Wrocław, has done a yeoman’s job in the various archives that she has visited. Her patience with, and scrutiny of, the primary sources has created an encyclopedic look at the events that surrounded the creation of the PAC and its reaction to national and international events. The book follows a somewhat chronological outline, although given its focus on various themes and sub-themes it at times moves back and forth. This can be slightly confusing to the reader. The title, White and Red Umbrella, of course reflects the national colors of Poland, but also the role of PAC in the American Polonia. When it was founded during World War II, it provided an umbrella organization that could lobby on behalf of both Poland and the Polish American community. It continues to play that role today, although, I would argue, on a more limited basis.
White and Red Umbrella focuses on the administrations of the PAC’s first two presidents, Charles Rozmarek and Aloysius Mazewski, both of whom also served as presidents of the Polish National Alliance, Polonia’s largest fraternal organization. They also led the association through a most difficult period in both Polonia and Poland’s postwar history. For the American Polonia the years after World War II saw increased Americanization as well as the influx of several waves of Polish immigrants. Poland, of course, fell under the domination of the Communist Party as a result of the victory of the Red Army during the war. The Polish American Congress thus faced tremendous challenges on both the domestic and foreign front as it attempted to play out its role as protector of the cultural ethnic community at home and the role of supporter of Poland’s independence abroad. Neither Rozmarek nor Mazewski ever recognized the communist regime in Warsaw, although as Wojdon points out, PAC’s stance toward communist Poland did show some flexibility as events played out both in Europe and the United States.
Wojdon places PAC’s origin at a meeting held on March 4, 1944, in the offices of the Polish Women’s Alliance on North Ashland Avenue in Chicago. At this meeting Rozmarek called for a united American Polonia in support of the Polish cause of independence and freedom. The gathering began plans to hold a national organizational meeting in Buffalo the following May. The fifty-member group representing major Polonia organizations elected an executive committee with Rozmarek as president of the new organization. PAC was another in a long line of attempts to unite Polonia’s often warring organizations that date back to the nineteenth century. In fact, only the events surrounding World War I even temporarily imposed a type of unity on Polish American organizations. The stresses of both World War II and the Cold War made unity once again possible for the Polish diaspora in the United States.
Wojdon does an admirable job of relating various events and PAC’s responses to them. One of the themes that emerge from this study is the frustration caused by PAC’s inability to reach its various goals. Chief among these were financial targets. PAC always seemed to be short on funds and therefore political power. Even opening an office in Washington, D.C. caused financial hardship for the organization. Also, its various state divisions often pursued their own agendas at times in conflict with the Chicago based leadership. Creating and maintaining an umbrella organization in a frequently divided community proved difficult. What Wojdon refers to as the “steadfast” post-1945 immigration, which came to dominate many of Polonia’s organizations, sometimes tied PAC’s hands because of their strict attitudes toward the Warsaw regime. The tension between the various immigrant waves, as depicted by Mary Patrice Erdmans in Opposite Poles, could not help but also cloud the picture and hamper PAC’s ability to respond to events during the Cold War and Solidarity eras. 1
While PAC suffered from a lack of funds and also with a sense of political frustration given the realities of the post-Yalta Conference years, it put its best foot forward in the period after 1968 culminating in its support for Poland during the Solidarity movement and martial law in the 1980s. As during the World War I era, the American Polonia heartily supported the homeland in its struggle for freedom and independence. The Mazewski years (1968–1988) were especially important for the PAC and its objectives, on both the domestic and foreign fronts. Wojdon skillfully portrays the balancing act that Mazewski had to perform in guiding the congress during this crucial era. He always had to deal with different factions within Polonia. Mazewski also hoped to revitalize interest in Polonia organizations among the quickly Americanizing descendants of the earlier immigration. He created an anti-defamation campaign and fought against perceived prejudices against Polish Americans. On various occasions, Mazewski sponsored studies of Polonia and employed then young scholars in the pursuit of an accurate profile of the American Polonia (I among them). While the election of Pope John Paul II and the emergence of the Solidarity Movement shortly thereafter, improved Polonia’s and Poland’s standing in the eyes of the American public, there was still much work to be done. Wojdon again does a thorough job in describing these efforts.
Once the Solidarność movement began its decade long struggle that led to the eventual downfall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe, the Polish American Congress was able to successfully play the role it originally intended to pursue, that is to promote the cause of freedom and independence in the homeland. As Wojdon states its impact is not widely celebrated or even understood in either Poland or the United States. PAC organized a tremendous amount of aid for the Polish nation during those trying times. It put a good deal of pressure on Washington to respond to events in Poland and to encourage the Solidarity Movement. As during the two world wars, Polonia sent relief and aid to those suffering during the economic and political struggles of the 1980s. It again fulfilled the role of what was once called the “Fourth Partition” as a valuable ally to those who struggled for change in the homeland.
White and Red Umbrella is an excellent study of the Polish American Congress. The author also outlines PAC’s relationship with other ethnic groups such as Jews and Germans. Wojdon examines PAC’s flaws and those of Polonia as well as its triumphs. For those interested in American or immigration and ethnic history it will be the most important study of this crucial Polonia organization.
1. Mary Patrice Erdmans, Opposite Poles: Immigrants and Ethnics in Polish Chicago, 1976–1990(University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).