How World War Two Changed the Relationship of Polish Americans and Influenced Their Involvement In American Life

             When the first large wave of Polish American’s immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, they were fleeing from a life of poverty, hard labor, and a lack of education. It was their peasantry nature upon arrival and lack of involvement with their own Polish culture that would influence their placement in the working class community. The confusion of the bustling cities in Industrial America had strengthened the original desire for Polish immigrants to settle in isolation and away from the unfamiliarity of American life. This led to the initial need for the preservation of their polish heritage. As families began to settle, they were seen as nothing more than unskilled European peasants with little desire for Americanization. World War Two and the complexity of its aftermath had directly changed the relationship of Polish Americans and increased their involvement with American culture.

It was during 1912 that Russian Poland had experienced the largest volume of polish emigrants to leave their homeland, and out of those same emigrants, 29.61% of them had left their homes completely illiterate without any prior knowledge of reading comprehension or written communication.[1] This was a direct result of their former life in Poland, which consisted of nothing more than family, farming and community living. “The peasant had to work, and he thought of nothing else but his work. He did not worry about change in government or government policies, for this was not his business. He was expected to carry out his duties with humility…”[2] With their lack of money and knowledge on the new individualistic styles of American prairie farming, Polish immigrants were forced to settle in the growing industrial cities of North America, where the demand was high for unskilled immigrants willing to work for any pay.[3]

Finding few similarities between their life of simplicity in Poland and their work in the factory, Polish immigrants immediately found comfort in the familiarity of their common language and heritage. As the first arrival of Polish immigrants were clinging to what little information they knew about their lost Polish identity, they were also struggling to find a common sense of their self identity as Polish Americans.[4] With the overwhelming effects of enculturation, Polish Americans found a sense of comfort ability in the mutual recollection of their history.

The many differences of life in the city along with the traditional farming lifestyle with which they were accustomed to in Poland, had pushed the first generations of Polish immigrants to live in cultural solidarity and free from the fear of Americanization. This would remain true until the beginning of World War Two. When Hitler had invaded Poland in 1939, Polish Americans were quick to defend their former fatherland and fight for the safety of America. In order to prove their allegiance, Polish Americans were among the first to sign up for multiple branches of the military along with being the largest purchasers of war bonds in the U.S. As the extent of the war was being recognized and their native land was in jeopardy, Polish Americans realized their need for political action. With Poland’s people in danger and concentration camps continuously being built, Polish Americans recognized their duty to help the Pols left behind. This forced Polish Americans to become more politically active to assure the representation and safety of their people, “They knew they had to get into politics to be recognized and be part of the community – to be represented.”[5]

After the loss of Germany had put the future of Poland at risk, the threat to polish independence had initiated the first official meeting of the Polish American Congress in Buffalo New York, 1944. Their goal was to support polish independence against Soviet communists while promoting the interests of Americans of polish origin.[6] Immediately following the war, President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin had met at the Yalta Conference in 1945 to discuss the future territory of Poland. The conclusions of the Yalta Conference decided for the cession of a major chunk of Polish land east of the Curzon Line.[7] Meaning that the future of Poland, along with its people, would be at the hands of a coalition government solely dominated by Soviet Union communists. This decision had prompted Polish Americans to break out of their silence and come together as one, “No issue had unified the Polish American community as much as the Yalta decisions concerning Poland.”[8]

Not only did it unify the Polish Americans and increase their involvement with the American public, it had changed the nature of their relationship as well. While Polish American’s were doing all they could to influence America’s involvement in foreign affairs, they felt the U.S. government itself was not nearly worried enough about the wellbeing of Poland or the future of its people. In late October of 1945, the leaders of the Polish American Congress had issued the following statement: “As Poland’s Independence is being strangled by a Soviet military noose, there is not a single word of protest from our government. This silence only intensifies the mental, physical, and spiritual anguish of the people of Poland.”[9]

With little aid from the U.S and nothing actively being done abroad in their name, it was the question of why America wasn’t helping Poland that changed the nature of their relationship with Polish Americans. On November 28, 1947, the political cartoonist for the St. Louis Dispatch, Daniel Fitzpatrick, put the Polish question on display. The cartoon showed nothing more than two question marks of different proportions as his drawing simply questioned the American public and their feelings on Poland. He brought the American people to think of the ‘The Bigger Question’, “Can we afford not to help Europe?” By writing this in the larger question mark, he was exposing the underlying issue behind the federal government and their involvement with Europe. The United States’ involvement in foreign affairs had jeopardized the future of not only Poland, but the growing achievements of Polish Americans and their accomplishments in American History.

The actions taken by the United States government as a result of World War Two and the Yalta Conference had left Polish Americans to avenge their sacrificed fatherland and challenge the actions of the United States government. These actions became the politically driving force that increased the involvement of Polish Americans and changed the nature of their status in American life. Prior to World War Two, their previous relationship with Americanization was nothing more than the immediate effects of enculturation upon arrival. The cultural and social accomplishments of Polish Americans directly resulted in their newly politicized relationship with becoming Americanized. As their cultural appropriation was acquired through heavy involvement with American culture, it transcended their Polish American identity into the evolved dualistic culture its made up of today.



[1] Paul Fox. The Poles in America (New York City, New York: Arno Press, 1970), 60

[2] Joseph A. Wytrwal. “American Polonia During World War II,” in Americas Polish Heritage (Brooklyn, New York: Endurance press, 1961), 150

[3] Multiculturalism in the United States (Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 136 Multi culture

[4] John J. Bukowczyk. Polish Americans and Their History (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), 106

[5] Joseph A. Wytrwal. “American Polonia During World War II,” in Americas Polish Heritage (Brooklyn, New York: Endurance press, 1961), 150

[6] Richard C. Lukas, Bitter Legacy (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1982), 119

[7] Richard C. Lukas, Bitter Legacy, 119

[8] Richard C. Lukas, Bitter Legacy, 120

[9] Paul Fox. The Poles in America, 121


Works Cited

Bukowczyk, John J., ed. Polish Americans and Their History. Pittsburgh,

Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996. 121-180.


Fox, Paul. “Social Conditions and Educational Forces” The Poles In America, 88-99.

New York City, New York: Arno Press, 1970.


Lukas, Richard C. Bitter Legacy. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of

Kentucky, 1982.



Polish-Americans.” In Multiculturalism in the United States, edited by John D.

Buenker and Lorman A. Ratner, 131-148. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press,




Wytrwal, Joseph A. “American Polonia During World War II,” In America’s

            Polish Heritage, 260-276. 1st ed. Brooklyn, New York: Endurance press, 1961.



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