I believe I owe an apology to Dominic Pacyga, whose book, “American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago” was recently published.
Before I even cracked the book open, I asked a question that was also a judgment:
What if he ignores the Jews?
Because if I have learned one thing from reading my mail, it is that being Polish and being Jewish are often viewed as mutually exclusive, at least by the former. Having a grandfather born in Bialystok — definitely in Poland — and other grandparents from Galicia and Belarus, which are sometimes Polish, sometimes not, means nothing.
If Pacyga overlooked Jews entirely, what would I do? Confront the distinguished history professor? I had so enjoyed his “Chicago: A Biography.”
Should I even venture into this realm? Polish Chicagoans can have a ... choosing my words carefully ... finely calibrated sense of outrage. I’ll never forget their indignation when I came back from Vilnius after interviewing the Lithuanian president. Vilnius being the nation’s capital led me to the ignorant blunder of assuming it is therefore Lithuanian, and not, as I was informed with various degrees of asperity, a Polish city under occupation.
Still, I plunged in.
I’m glad I did. Pacyga starts debunking untruths about Chicago on page one: “The city often proclaims itself as Poland’s second city, with only Warsaw containing a larger Polish population ... it is a myth...”
Turns out my question echoes the book’s central premise.
“Just who is a Pole,” Pacyga asks. “Could a Pole be an Orthodox Christian, a Protestant, a Jew, or an atheist? Was a Pole anyone who believe in a free and independent Poland, even if their first language was Yiddish?”
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