From the Spinner Archives
This week we have chosen to feature a series of essays published in Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts Volume IV. These essays, which deal with ethnic surveys of various groups in southeastern Massachusetts, were originally produced as part of the Federal Writers Project, one of the programs that made up the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
To read more from the Federal Writers’ Project and to learn about other WPA projects in Southeastern Massachusetts check out Spinner IV, available on iBooks.
From These Strains
The Polish of Fall River
To avoid giving mortal offense to the most vigorous exalters of Polish nationality and inviting stern rebuke therefore, one must not address them or write of them as “Polanders.” It is held to be a term of belittlement, being like ‘harp” to the Irish and “dago” to the Italians, though applied promiscuously without intended offensiveness. Authoritative information about the harmful signification of the term has lacked publicity hereabouts. To escape rebuke one needs to be told that only “Polacks,” “Poles” and “Polish people” are appellations that provoke no rancor and guarantee courteous treatment of a request for Polish favor.
The writer, after long years of innocent employment of the misnomer, leaned in dismay that, in his blissful state of ignorance, he had incurred the penalty for unwisdom when he presented his credentials to a Pole and asked for information about “Polanders.” A whirlwind of wrath was stirred and an awesome demand made for an explanation. The plea of common usage of “Polander” was not received as a palliative, for it resulted in the dogmatic and angry comment that American education in European affairs was of a low standard and sadly needed elevating.
Stanley Kania, holding a license for a package store at 276 Fourth Street, in a neighborhood which houses few Poles, was the irate mentor and valorous champion of pure and undefiled characterization of the Polish race without muddling. Under the cooling influence of liberal ordering of canned and bottled goods by customers, the fierceness disappeared from the Kania demeanor and a short bit of autobiography was unfolded for the caller’s benefit, without, however, healing the temperamental wound unwittingly inflicted and since reprehended by others who have been interviewed in the quest for Polish data.
In calling attention to a long scar on the forehead, just above the eyes, the spokesman said that just before he had reached his fourth birthday, a vicious Cossack of the Czar’s army, which was persecuting mercilessly the people of Poland, then under Russian dominance, slashed him with a saber, while he was playing on a street. It was only through providence that the weapon did not halve his skull. For six months the victim of the murderous assault lay in the hospital.
Excepting the two years he lived in Detroit, where a younger brother occupied an educational post, which pays $6,000 a year, Mr. Kania has lived in Fall River about forty years. He has just been chosen financial secretary of the Thaddeus Kosciusko Polish American Citizens Club, is an official of a wholesale grocery company and was represented to the offending inquirer as the one Pole who was the best informed national to be interviewed about Polish activities. Evidently he believes that the unreported praise is his deserving without the right of anyone to demur or to accord to others equal amplitude of historical knowledge.
Before Mr. Kania exuded his indignation, he went to a desk and brought out a large bundle of manuscript. It contained, he remarked, a history of the Polish colony in this city, comprising 7,000 persons, most of whom were American-born. So much time had been given by him to its preparation that through the date he had been able to collect, Mr. Kania, as the historian, boasted of his ability to name the first Poles to settle here, the first to be born and to die and to detail unerringly the salient facts in the lives of most of the early settlers and their relations.
After having gone to the trouble of getting personal histories and transcribing them, it was not his purpose to yield the opportunity to publish a historical work on the people of his nation just to serve the ends of promoters of the Writers’ Project under the auspices of the W.P.A. No words served to disabuse his mind of the competitive idea, which he appeared to entertain as though it had assumed the form of an obsession, of the possible loss of the glamour attaching to his role as a writer.
Edward Everett considered to be “a singular coincidence of events that our country was constituted the great asylum of suffering virtue and oppressed humanity.” The people of Ireland so regarded it in their struggles against British rule and so sought relief by hundreds of thousands. Poland’s story is more heartrending, not that there was greater solidarity, but that the soldiery of the oppressors were more ruthless in executing the governmental policy toward the unfortunate patriots, who remained adamant in devotion to their national ideal and refused to dissemble in order to escape brutality. “The whirlwind of the ukases and manifestoes of the Czars, the hurricanes of the wrongs heaped upon Poland by the Prussians, the maelstrom of Austria’s insidious politics,” another orator declared, “have endeavored to sap the national life in Poland, and nobody has endeavored to interpose, inasmuch as she has been guarded on the one side by the Russian policeman and on the other by the Prussian gendarme.”
In spite of that anomalous situation and the open roadway to freedom that ended on American soil, the Poles were singularly slow in seeking the asylum, judging by the local figures on population. Their country was not restored to its original status as an independent nation until the end of the Great War. In the meantime they endured torture. In the hope of freedom they fought valiantly on the side of the allied forces. In the last twenty years the stream of immigration has been dammed up so that Fall River has received few of the 2,000 who have been allowed to enter annually.
Louis Smolinksy, who died on December 18th, was said to have been the oldest pole in point of age and also in length of resident, having come in 1880, but in registering for an old age pension, Anthony Gosciominski gave 1872 as the year of his arrival. The first to land did not go far from the dock of the Fall River Line, finding tenements on Brady, Summer, Spring and Washington Streets, like others who preceded them from abroad.
Poland was not the chief source of the local supply. New Jersey contributed from its hat-making and textile communities and Chicopee attracted a number before Fall River was decided on over Hampden County. Some of the people found work at hat-making in the Marshall factory on Globe Street.
Whatever might have been the number of Poles which the tide brought here, after it had turned in this direction, the movement was in progress for years before the pastor of St. Mary’s Church, in which a priest of the race ministered to them, recommended the erection of a church for Polish Catholics. In 1898 the dedication of the Saint Stanislaus building on Rockland Street took place. Rev. Hugh Dyla is pastor.
With the creation of a Polish settlement in the territory bounded by Plymouth Avenue and Rodman Streets, another house of worship was deemed necessary. It was called the Church of the Holy Cross. In competition for Polish spirituality, the head of the National Polish Church, who has his headquarters in Scranton, Pennsylvania, made provision for the dissident element of the nationality. Two churches were created. In one, which is near the Roman Catholic edifice, Latis is used in the services; in the other that idiom is discarded for Polish. The tie of nationality is too strong to be weakened by the difference about rubric, one is told upon inquiry.
[Top Banner Image: Kuras’ Variety Store at Rodman and Tecumseh Streets, was a longtime establishment in the Polish neighborhood. The 1920 photograph show Albert Kuras with his son, John, and daughter, Louise, posing inside of his tenement storefront. Courtesy of Al Cartier, Louise’s son.]