Poles came to New York virtually as early as the Jews. In 1659 the Dutch colonists of Manhattan hired a Polish schoolmaster for the education of the youth of the community. There are some half-million Poles in the United States, and if figures are true when given by the Poles themselves, I gather there are above a hundred thousand Poles in New York City alone. Yet they are not living, as most other nationalities live, in one particular part of the city, and developing their own center of activities. Whether this is due to their lack of clannishness or to the fact that they are more migratory than other peoples, because so many of them are unskilled laborers and are hired out from time to time to work in mines and in steel-mills out West, I don’t know. But there is not a single place in New York where within walking-distance you could not find a number of Poles, little groups of two or three families, or perhaps ten, rarely more than fifty living anywhere apart from the others. You can see the signs on windows, “Russky-Polsky Restaurant” or “Polsky Restaurant,” anywhere on the lower East Side from Houston Street up. Polish book-stores, in the windows of which are those beautifully colored and illustrated and magnificently bound volumes of queer and unaccustomed formats, are almost anywhere on the avenues cutting the east and west streets from north and south. You can meet Poles everywhere. They are easily distinguished from any other Slavic race. There is a deeper blue of the eyes ; and the longish face, in spite of the broad and high cheek-bones and the golden hair, is also of different cast than any other face. In the Italian quarter below Avenue A on Fifteenth Street the blond children are playing with the dark-faced sons of the South. In Jackson Park and on Tompkins Square the Polish children are playing with Hungarian and German children. Some of the older Polish inhabitants, perhaps three or four hundred in number, cluster over the area from Second Street to Seventeenth and Eighteenth Streets on what was formerly Stuyvesant’s Bouwerie.
One knows whenever there is a Polish wedding in the neighborhood, for the noise and the quarrels and the dance and the stamping of feet and the sad singing disturb the night till the early hours of the morning. A certain kind of noise is called “Polish wedding” in the neighborhood.
There are Poles living among the Hungarians further up town in the lower East Side Hungarian district. There are Poles living among the Croatians and the Slovaks in the sixties and seventies. There are Poles living among the Germans and the Austrians above Eightieth Street. There are Poles in Harlem and Poles in the Bronx and Poles in Brooklyn, little groups of Poles all over the city.
And yet there is no Polish life of any magnitude among them. It is true that Haller’s army, that band of heroes that played such a spectacular part in the war, was organized here. It is true that the Poles living here have shouted louder than others, greatly helping to make the noise that drowned all other clamor for independence, and attracting the attention of other peoples toward them during the war. But it is also true that their patriotism did not go very far beyond that. No Poles have become impoverished buying Polish marks as the Germans have impoverished them-selves because of their faith in their country, as the Czechs and Italians and Frenchmen have done. A good deal of the actual load of the Polish fight for independence was left to the few intellectuals, to the celebrated musician of their nationality, and to the American’s habit of giving without much thinking.
The Poles of this city have not entered any of the activities that have given to the city its magnitude and size. Unskilled laborers of a comparatively low standard of living, with only a small earning-capacity and extremely large families, they have always been too busy with their own misery, scratching out a livelihood, to occupy themselves or to have leisure to think of any other thing but themselves; for among all the Poles in the city there are not a half a dozen whose names have to any degree reached national prominence.
And wherever they are they don’t neighbor well in a social sense. They have inherited century-old quarrels and grievances with almost all nations. They sneer at the Jews. They detest the Russians. They are not at peace with the Germans or the Austrians. They consider the Czecho-Slovaks traitors. The only nation they have always been at peace with is the French.
And yet wherever these little groups are they add a certain piquancy, a certain color of their own, a pigment which saddens and gives pleasure at the same time. Their meetings and affairs are generally held in so tense an atmosphere that one can expect almost anything to happen. Even without understanding their language, I have frequently been moved to tears by the impassioned words of their orators. Their speakers possess to a high degree an arresting theatricality with gestures as cadenced as master poetry, a flow of language so perfect that it sounds more like the reading of some national epopee than an impassioned improvised speech.
Before the Poles won their independence the little coffee-houses downtown were the senate chambers and the parliaments of the future country. Theories as to what was to be done with Austria and Russia, once they themselves were independent and powerful enough, were debated with the greatest earnestness; and there arose fist-fights over differences of attitude.
Apathetic to all political movement, more ignorant than their illustriously illiterate husbands, the women, in their own national colors of eyes and hair, distinguished from the women of other nationalities even if they did wear the haphazard clothing one picks up in the shops of lower New York, sat and listened to all that was said as if it were merely a gallant combat, with the winner always winning the ladies’ hearts.
Today the discussions are still going on, but in a much milder form. Really the Versailles Treaty played the Poles a shameful trick. They clamored for independence. They obtained it. And the world is now anxiously waiting to see what they are going to do with it. The first pogroms against the Jews may only have been a mistake of policy, but they are undoubtedly an indication. The boycott against Jewish traders, though not very harmful, is actively enforced in New York. And if all the articles in their newspapers were to be translated into English, it would easily be seen what un-American intolerance they are propagating.
But it is at Polish weddings that one can see Poles at their peasantesque best. A good many of them come arrayed in their national costumes. The polkas and mazurkas are danced with all the charm and fury with which such dances are executed at home. And while the dances are going on, the bride’s mother and her relatives, standing in a corner, are weeping and crying and looking suspiciously at the parents or relatives of the groom.
There are so many castes among the Poles that social intercourse among them is only possible on a very small scale. For want of anything better, the castes in New York are established among them according to the rents they pay. I remember a case while I was doing some investigation work when I urged a Polish woman to call in a Polish neighbor, who lived two flights below in the rear of the apartment, to stay with her until her husband should return home. He had been arrested in some connection or other, and she had wept her eyes red. In her hysterical mood she clawed the doors and walls and hit herself with her clenched fists. Yet she remained dumb when I suggested that she call her Polish neighbor to stay with her while she was in such a state.
“What? She?” she finally called.
“Why, she is Polish,” I answered, “and she is your friend most certainly.”
“How can you think that, Pania?” she answered. “Bozhemi. She only pays sixteen dollars a month rent !”