Book Review: American Warsaw—The Story of Poles in Chicago

American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago
by Dominic A. Pacyga (University of Chicago Press, $27)

As Dominic Pacyga notes in his fine book about Chicago’s Polonia, American Warsaw, Chicago has often called itself Poland’s second city. Although it is more myth than fact, “there is some truth to it,” he writes, “as many Chicagoans know the difference between kielbasa and pierogi and have a few other Polish words in their vocabulary.”

Polonia refers to people of Polish descent living outside Poland. Although Chicago can hardly be called a Polish city—there’s too much ethnic and racial diversity, as Pacyga notes—Polish immigrants and their descendants have nevertheless made an indelible stamp on the place. According to Pacyga, Chicago has more than 50 Polish or Polish-dominated Catholic parishes while Polish business people, politicians, athletes, “and even mobsters” have contributed to the history of the city.

Poles arrived in Chicago as early as the 1830s but the first significant settlement occurred a decade or so later. Later still, Polish immigrants worked on the factory floor, in packinghouses, and in steel mills. Other waves followed––after World War II as well as during the so-called Solidarity exodus of the 1980s––each adding their own imprint, reshaping and reinvigorating the Polish community.

American Warsaw seamlessly tells the story of Polish Chicago and Poland itself. To try to explain one without the other would tell half a story, notes Pacyga. A professor emeritus of history at Columbia College Chicago, Pacyga is particularly interested in the history of the Polish peasantry and “the forces that motivated them, especially after the 1860s” as Poland tried to regain its independence from three separate countries: Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. By 1930, Poles made up the largest white ethnic group in the city and helped make Chicago the capital of the Polish diaspora. They settled in Pilsen, Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, and South Chicago; later in Hegewisch and later still in Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Avondale, and Jefferson Park.

Another part—a big part––of American Warsaw are the divisions that occurred within Chicago’s Polonia as it splintered over such complex issues as ideology, religion, and social class, and, in particular between such Polish-American institutions as the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America and the Polish National Alliance. The question that rose was one of identity: the idea of Polishness and what it meant to be a Pole. The struggle of identity also affected neighborhoods. “South Side Poles often did not trust North Side Poles, who they considered to be uppity and who controlled the leaderships of most of the fraternal organizations,” writes Pacyga.

Pacyga offers here a straightforward history of Polish Chicago but with a crucial difference. The story he wants to tell revolves around identity and specifically ethnic identity. Not only the relationship between Polish immigration and the mother country but also between the often fraught, and indeed violent, interactions between Polish Chicagoans and other ethnic and racial groups as well as notions of upward mobility and assimilation. In the 1920s, for example, American-born children of Polish immigrants adapted to the city’s ongoing gang culture that thrived in the working-class neighborhoods. But he also discusses more uplifting events that held special significance to the Polish community such as the visit of Pope John Paul II to Chicago in 1979.

Pacyga writes a personal note in the introduction. A Polish-American himself, his family arrived in pre-World War I Chicago, settling in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where family members stayed for three generations and spoke their own brand of Chicago Polish patois. “While we were Americans,” says Pacyga, “we also considered ourselves to be Poles. In that strange Chicago ethnic way, there was no real difference between the two.” Having such a rich background makes American Warsaw an even more bracing history of Polish Chicago.

American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago is available at bookstores and through the University of Chicago Press website.

Default image
June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!