The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1979, Volume 25, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Polish Americans in California 1827-1977 and Who’s Who. Edited by Jacek Przygoda. Los Angeles: Polish American Historical Association California Chapter, 1978. Illustrations. Partial Index. 372 pages. $12.00.

Reviewed by Daniel E. Weinberg, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University, editor of Ethnicity: A Conceptual Approach (1976) and author of several articles concerned with immigration and ethnic history in the United States.

This compilation is a product of the Los Angeles Polish American Committee for the Bicentennial’s interest to make its participation in the 1976 celebration more than a transitory experience. Approximately 600 persons are identified in the text. A short section on Polish place names in California and a valuable directory of Polish organizations are also included. Despite its title, the emphasis of the history and biography are 20th Century. A mere 14 individuals and 18 pages are concerned with Polish American and Polish Californian experiences before 1900.

The historical overviews are the weakest parts in the compilation. More than their simplistic and grossly general character, they are flawed by the writers’ fileopietism. Understanding Polish history, whether concerned with the United States or Poland, is not assisted by an explanation that depicts causation as an “inner command that induces every sensitive Pole to stand faithfully in the defense of. . ,liberty. . . “(p. 11); or reduces the “Polish personality” to “two principal traits. . . [of] fierce love of freedon [and] a strong, strong religious faith” (p. 25). Sweeping judgments without data or analysis to support them compromise the text equally. The editor was remiss for allowing exaggerated assertions such as: “The history of Poles in California in the 1840s and 1850s and their contributions to the development and growth of this country is quite different from that of any other ethnic group that arrived here during the same period from states East [sic] of the Mississippi” (p. 34).

The contribution of this book is its additions to our knowledge about specific Poles and Polish Americans. Perhaps as much as 80-85% of the individuals identified in the 20th Century section are not to be found elsewhere. Nine of the 14 persons considered in the pre-1900 section are easily found in other, earlier collections. Readers should be alerted, however, that the book is more a biographical directory than “Who’s Who,” and that both the extended biography section and the alphabetized biographical list have pronounced biases. In the former, 33 of the approximately 75 people included, or 44%, were either authors, musicians, artists or actors. (A total of 35 different occupations were identified in this section.) In the alphabetized list, 57% of the entries (138 of 241 people) claim professional association with but 10 of the 81 occupational categories: writer, educator, clergy, architect, engineer, student, librarian, physician, businessman, artist. Such information is worthwhile; the selectivity should have been noted as it makes a difference in the utility of the book. In addition, the editor could have assisted the reader enormously had he presented some context for the occupational pursuits. How do those included in the book, as well as the occupational emphases, compare to Poles in the United States, West? How many of the people are first, second, third generation immigrants, and how do occupations correlate with time resident in the United States and in California?

Poles in San Diego are noted occassionally in the book, and a four page description is presented in the section on Polish organizations. For someone interested in learning about local Polish history, good leads can be found. Historians and others depend upon biographical information for their work. “Who’s Who,” biographical dictionaries, etc. perform a necessary service, and when they provide access to people typically ignored by standard collections their value is even greater. Reverend Przygoda and the others who prepared this book have made a useful beginning. Hopefully, future editions will expand the entries, enlarge the occupational spectrum and save whatever group glorification the compilers feel must be included for the preface.