American Warsaw?

American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago
By Dominic A. Pacyga
University of Chicago Press, 2021, 329 pp.

5 Stars

This book is a fascinating history of the large Polish diaspora in Chicago, Illinois. Polish immigrants came to the city in droves as part of the Za Chlebem “for bread” migration in the years 1860-1918. These immigrants of partitioned Poland were mainly poor peasant stock seeking better opportunities in the United States. They were attracted to Chicago because the city was a growing industrial center that required many low-skill, manual laborers. Next to Warsaw, Chicago would eventually become home to the world’s second largest Polish population.

The Catholic church, the repository of Polish nationalism in partitioned Poland, played a leading role in the establishment of Polish immigrant neighborhoods. Tensions arose as Poles challenged the dominance of Irish Americans in the American Catholic hierarchy, leading to the splinter Polish National Catholic church and the rivalry between the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America and the more secular Polish National Alliance fraternals. Many Poles intended to return to their homeland if Poland were ever re-established as a nation (that happened in 1918), but those dreams faded over time. The relationship between the Chicago Polish diaspora and Poland, with its struggle for independence and subsequent trials and tribulations under Nazi and Soviet domination, is a fascinating story.

Subsequent waves of Polish migration to the city occurred following World War II and during the Solidarność (Solidarity) opposition to the Soviet Polish government, 1980-1989. There were often tensions between the new arrivals and the Americanized Poles over Polskość (Polishness) or who is really Polish?

Following World War II, returning Polish American vets and their families began moving out of the city to the suburbs. Some Polish institutions remain within the city proper, but many of the old Polish neighborhoods with their modest houses are now home to African Americans and Hispanics. In Greater Chicago, generational assimilation continues to grind away at Polish ethnic identification.

“American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago” is a thoroughly enjoyable read for Polish Americans and for others interested in the history of immigration to the United States. This book would have been even better if the author had given some focus to a particular Za Chlebem immigrant family or two and their generational journey through assimilation and acculturation.

Postscript: Roman Catholicism is so interconnected with Polskość (Polishness) that a Pole who is not Catholic, like myself, is considered by many to not be a “true Pole.” For a believer, while our ethnic, racial, or national identity can be a positive and enjoyable aspect of who we are, it’s (very) subordinate to our identity in Jesus Christ.

Postscript 2: While reading this book, I could not help but think of the millions of Ukrainian refugees currently fleeing Putin’s genocide. Local news has reported that a few of the refugees have already made their way to the Ukrainian diaspora community here in Rochester.

17 thoughts on “American Warsaw?

  1. Well I learned something I didn’t know Tom. I was adopted but my birth mother was Ukrainian and my birth father was Polish or of Polish decent. His last name was Dow and he was born in Wenatchee, Washington USA. Who knows, we could be related! Blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bruce. Well, whaddaya know! We are fellow Poles, too! I grew up during the “Polish Joke” era and was actually embarrassed of being Polish. To fill the void when I walked away from the Lord during my very long “prodigal season,” I immersed myself in studying Polish history and culture. I wrote about this deep dive into my Polish heritage several years ago if you care to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love immigration chronologies, they open up the history and culture of people. Thanks for this review, between Boston and NY, I’ve known many Poles and enjoyed working with them.
    Have a good week Tom!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lisa Beth! I enjoyed this book quite a bit. The Polish diaspora in Rochester has a very similar history, although on a much smaller scale than Chicago.
      Thanks and have a good week as well!


  3. Thanks, Tom.

    I learned a lot from reading this review. Not only is it informative, it is well organized and easy to read because your writing leaves no room for misunderstanding.

    Books like this are so interesting. Around the same time in our country’s history the Danish as well as the Poles were making their way across America. Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin were major places many of the Lutheran Danes settled. I have a booklet written by an early Danish settler in Nebraska that starts in 1856. It was edited and printed in 1986. Its subtitle gives a good general feel for the content of the 60 page booklet: “Adventure and Memory of Pioneer Days.”

    It is mostly about the early inhabitants of a town called Dannebrog which, from 1890 to today, has had a population that has continuously hovered around 300. The booklet ends with the original author’s obituary which includes:

    “…he was a sincere and humble follower of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He was the last surviving charter member of the Dannebrog Lutheran Church.”

    Works like the book you have reviewed here and my small booklet can give us a real idea of what life was like for immigrants during a time of great immigration to the U.S.

    Your review has made me curious about this book. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to read it because I’m curious about a lot of things and have several unfinished books laying around now. I don’t spend as much time reading as I would like.

    Thanks again for the great review, Tom. Not only did I learn a lot, I just had to pull out Peter M. Hannibal’s “Beautiful Dannebrog” once again to remember the place where my father was born and where the family farm was once located.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Chris, for the Danish immigration perspective. I enjoy learning about various immigration groups and their ethnic enclaves. All European ethnic neighborhoods in Rochester have largely disappeared, a casualty of assimilation and suburban flight.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome, Tom. Our immigration history is so interesting. I can see why sites like get so much interest. I’ve never used it but my son has.
        I did some research on immigrants on my Dad’s side through genealogy records that the Mormon church had.
        Mormons preform “posthumous proxy baptisms” thinking they are giving the dead person a chance at everlasting life. I suppose they figure if those people may be gods, or subservient to gods, they want to know something about them. They have compiled quite a great deal of genealogical information. I know I wouldn’t have supported a cult, so I must have gotten the information for free.
        Too bad about Rochester but that’s progress for you.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I was given a 23andMe DNA kit as a present. Interesting results, but nothing shocking. I understand that some families have to deal with buried secrets because of DNA test results.
        Crazy how the Mormons built a huge part of their false religion out of one shyster’s bad misinterpretation of 1 Cor. 15:29

        Liked by 1 person

      3. My son had the same experience. His results said that he is a descendant of Western Europeans. No real surprise there. His kit was a $70 Christmas gift from us. He’ll have to spend his own money if he wants to find out more. I suppose some people want to know more whether it’s good or bad. Someone traced my last name back to Bremen, Germany in 1293. That’s good enough for me.
        The Mormon site gave me better information on recent relatives in America than the general DNA test from Ancestry.
        I’m sure some people find out stuff they wish they never knew.
        It is amazing how cults twist verses that have been studied thousands of times and interpreted with general consensus.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I love history! Love how this book review is so informative. I see you gave it a 5 out of 5. To know you are of Poles background makes me appreciate this book more with this topic. Great discussion about immersion, dispora population, identity, etc. It made me think of the Ukrainian refugees too

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, brother! It was a fascinating read for me. The Rochester Polish community has a history very similar to that of Chicago, although obviously on a much smaller scale. I need to stop at Rochester’s Polish deli very soon, although it’s on the other side of town.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I googled it and it looks like there are 6 Polish restaurants and a couple of Ukrainian restaurants in the Greater LA area. After doing that google search, I’m really jonesing for some Polish food.

        Liked by 1 person

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