Saturday, June 30, 2018

Anna Muller on Teaching Polish and Polish American History in the US

 A moja babcia mówiła….  Teaching Polish and Polish-American history at an American University 

Anna Jaroszynska Kirchmann and Anna Muller, Washington, D.C.

On January 4th 2018, we gathered in an elegant room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, to listen to four Polish historians share with us their thoughts on what it means to teach Polish and Polish American history. This was the first day of the annual Polish American Historical Association convention that meet during the American Historical Association convention.

The group of historians gathered around the table included a range of specialists.  Patrice M. Dabrowski is the author of a book on the history of Poland entitled Poland: The First Thousand Years, which was referred to often by the other panelists.  Elizabeth Morrow Clark is a specialist on Polish-German relations and author of a monograph soon to be published on the free city of Danzig. Nathaniel D. Wood is a cultural historian and author of a monograph on Kraków entitled  Becoming Metropolitan; his recent research investigates the attitudes toward bicycles, automobiles, and airplanes from their introduction until WWII. The final speaker was Michał Wilczewski, a recently anointed doctor of history who examines the daily life of farmers during the interwar period, focusing on local rural activism, transformations in traditional gender roles, generational tensions and family life, and rural-state relations.

Main gate of the University of Warsaw, Poland.

Why Poland?

The panelists talked about the profile of their students, shared anecdotes from their classes, and reflected on the value of teaching Polish history in 21st century American academia.
In general, their experiences come either from teaching specifically Polish history courses or from integrating elements of Polish history into their European or world history courses. As it became very clear during the presentations and ensuing conversations, Polish history can serve to illuminate many different issues from the past and present.

Polish history certainly serves as a case study for various “-isms” in history courses (Romanticism, communism, et al). It provides a good framework for teaching about the “transition of identity and belonging from an Enlightenment understanding to the Romantic, ethnic ideal” (Clark).  It also can be used to emphasize that “nation” and “state” are not always synonymous. As Dabrowski stressed: “This [last point] is more evident than most in a Polish history course, given the long stretch of multiethnic coexistence within the various permutations that we label Polish (although we should be careful about appropriating that which was the history of more than just Poles).”

Decorative Easter Eggs from Poland.

Clark singled out specific aspects of Polish history that can be integrated into courses dealing only tangentially with the Polish past:

The very characteristics of Polish history and culture which have made it easy to mythologize and to justify particularism  -- elected kings, liberum veto, the Commonwealth, the Constitution of May 3, ethnic diversity, being the object of imperialism, a perpetual “underdog” status in the modern era, and a kind of scrappy patriotism that occasionally blossoms into resistance, revolution or rampant Messianic and virulent nationalism – those same characteristics make Poland an easy go-to in a world history classroom.

Is Poland a good case study for teaching globalization and trans-border studies? As some of the panelists emphasized, Brian Porter-Szücs (the author of Beyond Martyrdom) has definitely influenced their willingness to break out of nation-driven models in studying Poland. The history of Poland can help engage in conversations about postcolonialism or about European modernization. Our panelists also teach courses on regions and cities, borderlands and peripheries, as well as historical memory that have a Polish component.

Finally, by studying Polish history, students can learn a lot about a sense of obligation toward the state and, perhaps more than anything else, towards fellow citizens. The example of World War II serves well in this regard.  Some of the participants of the panel emphasized that, while they do talk about the unique creation of the Polish underground state during the Second World War, they do not refrain from assigning controversial readings and discussing the sense of responsibility of Poles for crimes committed during the war. Discussions of  Jan Błoński's essay on Poles as bystanders and Jan Gross’ book Neighbors have proven fruitful.

.Wooden plate with Poland's emblem and a prayer for daily bread 
brought from Poland to the US in the 1920s. Private Collection.

Polish-American history did not come up often in the discussions, although references to classes being taught on the Polish diaspora appeared frequently. At times, academics engage with issues of Polish migration that is part of a larger conversation about nationalism.

As the speakers emphasized, each group of students presents its own challenges. Wilczewski, who has taught courses in Chicago, stated: “In my thousand-year survey of Polish history which is typically capped at 60 students, I almost always have 50/60 students who are of Polish heritage and 10 others who do not identify with Poland in any way. My students are similar to me in that we are Polish-Americans, heritage speakers of Polish, some of whom attended Polish School on Saturdays and grew up going to Poland to visit family members.” He stressed that his students always think: “Hey, I know Polish history,” and that kind of approach to learning comes with its own challenges. He continued: “I once even had a student's mother read all of the readings along with us. I also once had a friend's mother remind me that I ‘need to teach good Polish history.’. My response to her was, ‘Is there bad Polish history?’”

One of the obstacle to make Polish history available is the access to various primary sources. 

Not every topic from the vast Polish history is available to students who do not read Polish language. The base of translated primary resources is narrow and/or not readily available. Hopefully the knowledge that the PAHA members gathered during the panel will motivate some of us as an organization to look for ways to make that history more available.     

                                                             ~ Anna Muller, University of Michigan, Dearborn

Stalin's stamp on Warsaw - Palace of Culture built in 1951-55.

              Select Resources For Teaching Polish History      

 Patrice Dabrowski, Poland: The First Thousand Years (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014).
  Brian Porter, Beyond Martyrdom: Poland in the Modern World (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

Select primary sources available online:

selections from Anonymous Gaul, accessible at

 Jan Długosz, selections of his Annals, accessible at

 Marcin Kromer, Polonia, accessible at

  Mikołaj Rey, Life of an Honest Man, accessible at

  Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, On the Reform of the Commonwealth, accessible at

  Piotr Skarga, Sermons to the Diet (Eighth Sermon), accessible at

  The Treaty of Brest, 1595, available at
  Jan Słomka, The Life of a Polish Peasant, ca. 1900, accessible at

  Woodrow Wilson, Fourteen Points speech, accessible at

  American Jewish Relief Committee, report on Postwar Poland, 1919, accessible at

Report on Young Women Workers in Poland, 1952, accessible at
  J. Musiałkowski’s article on Warsaw women masons, 1949, accessible at

                                                                                                                                                                        NOTE: Reprinted from PAHA Newsletter, Spring 2018.  All Photos by Maja Trochimczyk