Polish American Historical Association // Polsko-Amerykańskie Towarzystwo Historyczne

76th Annual Meeting, January 3-6, 2019, Chicago

A review by Florence Vychytil-Baudoux (CEFRES/EHESS)

The 76th Annual Meeting of the Polish American Historical Association // Polsko-Amerykańskie Towarzystwo Historyczne (PAHA) was held in Chicago on January 3-6, 2019 as part of the 133rd yearly meeting of the American Historical Association, of which PAHA is an affiliated society. Both the place (Chicago is often considered the largest Polish city outside Poland) and the theme (“Loyalties”) of AHA’s Annual Conference seemed particularly fitting for PAHA, an organization that has been promoting scholarship on Polish American history and culture as part of the greater Polish diaspora for the past 75 years. While the 100th anniversary of the restoration of the Polish state has stimulated scholarship on state building and national membership, papers covered a much wider array of research questions and historical periods (see program), thus nurturing productive discussions on how loyalties “[conflict or change] across time, space, and human experience […] and how they have shaped trajectories of change”, as intended by the general CFP. This report focuses on three key transversal issues.

Panel sessions reflected the multiplicity of attachments and loyalties at play in the context of Polish transnational migrations: to Poland, to host states, to ethnic, religious, sexual or other forms of identity, etc. One key question thus concerns the relationship between those variables. Both Mary Patrice Erdman’s analysis of naturalization rates of new Polish immigrants and Hubert Izienicki’s study of immigrant gay men in Chicago provided compelling examples of conflicting loyalties and of the importance of pragmatism at the individual level. Several speakers also emphasized enduring attachments to local or regional identities and traditions. In general, PAHA’s sessions contributed to shed light on the versatile and polymorphous notion of Polishness across time and space. For example, Marta Cieślak convincingly argued that the redefinition of Polishness by Warsaw positivists during the second half of the 19th century was anchored in contemporary Western European philosophical and political ideas, while Weronika Grzebalska’s brilliant paper on “Women’s History in Times of Illiberal Revisionism” critically assessed the use of gender in nationalist “Herstories”. Similarly, Florence Vychytil-Baudoux emphasized how Polish American notions of Polishness and Polonia were circulated among Poles in France after WW2, contributing to the remodelling of collective self-representations as “French citizens of Polish origin”.

Another important question pertains to “Polish exceptionalism”; it can be summarized as follows: what is specifically or uniquely Polish? And to what extent? With a stimulating paper on the social theory of the peasant migrant in the 19th and 20th centuries, Kathleen Wroblewski explicitly addressed that question by situating the narrative of the Polish diaspora within the broader framework of economic mobility. Similarly, papers examining Polish American history within the broader American context or in relation with the greater diaspora were highly appreciated as they contributed to highlight the complex and interwoven dynamics at stake. For instance, Donald Pienkos discussed the intellectual and political impact of the “New Ethnicity Movement” on the Polish American community, while the paper delivered by Anna Jaroszyńska-Kirchmann on “Urban Renewal and the Response of American Ethnic Groups, 1949-1974” provided a fine analysis of interethnic relations at times of critical change. Some panels included papers on non-Polish topics, which proved highly beneficial to the subsequent debates.

The conference was also framed by methodological and epistemological discussions. By highlighting how small communities have been largely neglected by scholars so far, James Pula drew attention to a blind spot in Polish American historiography. In his paper on Poles in New York Mills, who successfully organized and mobilized from the very beginning of the 20th century, he showed that their trajectory differed significantly from the experience of the larger settlements that have received most of the attention (Chicago, Detroit, etc.), thus pointing out to new potential research questions and calling for further explorations. On another note, Anna Mazurkiewicz made a strong case for micro-historical approaches with her paper on William J. Tonesk (1906-1992); this Navy and intelligence officer born to Polish parents was a close collaborator of Arthur Bliss Lane and his life, albeit untypical for a Polish American of his generation, “epitomizes” the major changes of the 20th century, particularly those pertaining to Polish­­­­­-American relations. Finally, papers focusing on the greater Polish diaspora contributed to underscore the benefits of transnational approaches to engage critically with the emic concept of “Polonia”.

Bringing together more than 29 established and emerging scholars of Poland and of the Polish diaspora, PAHA’s 76th Annual Meeting fostered many stimulating discussions, which, hopefully, will turn into new exciting academic and intellectual collaborations. Organizers should be credited for putting together such a rich program and pushing towards increased problematization and comparison, thus ensuring meaningful exchanges. One can only hope that this tendency will be carried on in the future. The next annual meeting is scheduled to take place in New York City, in January 2020. While AHA has announced that there would be no theme this time round, PAHA encourages submissions “reflect[ing] on the three most recent anniversaries, the 100th anniversary of Poland regaining independence, the centennial of Polish women gaining voting rights, and PAHA’s 75th anniversary.