Origins of the Polish American Congress
by Donald Pienkos
The Polish American Congress (PAC, or Kongres Polonii Amerykanskiej, KPA) was established at a massive gathering in Buffalo, New York at the end of May 1944 in what proved to be the last year of the Second War. (The great Allied invasion of Normandy occurred just five days after the Congress adjourned.)
In Buffalo more than 2,500 elected representatives of the Polish community across the United States spoke in one voice to express their total support for the victory of the United States over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in the conflict and for the restoration of a free and sovereign Poland once the War was won.
Charles Rozmarek of Chicago was elected president of the Polish American Congress. He and his fellow officers immediately set to work to mobilize the organized Polish community in support of the aims of the Congress. Sadly, the Allies’ victory in World War II did not lead to a Poland restored to freedom and sovereignty. But the Polish American Congress, under Mr. Rozmarek and his successors, Aloysius Mazewski and Edward Moskal, never wavered in their energetic efforts on behalf of the Polish cause, a cause that was at last realized in 1989 with the creation of the Third Republic of Poland.
The record of the Polish American Congress in its constant support of a free and sovereign Poland, its humanitarian work on behalf of Poland’s people, and its key role in bringing about Poland’s entry in to NATO should be well enough known to its members and to well informed Americans and Poles alike.
But the story of how the Polish American Congress is less well known. What follows is a summary of this most interesting subject.
On September 1, 1939 Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany, an act that shattered the lives of its people and precipitated the start of World War II. For the then 6 million member Polish community in America, Germany’s ruthless aggression, followed by the Soviet invasion of Poland from the east just weeks later, was a profound shock. Not only were many in America linked to suffering family members in Poland, there was the blow to Polonia’s morale, since the community’s efforts to work for the achievement of Poland’s independence back in 1918 had been one of its proudest organizational achievements.
Given America’s initial neutrality in the conflict, the only way for Polish Americans to respond on Poland’s behalf was by collecting goods on behalf of Polish refugees under the auspices of the Rada Polonii Amerykanskiej federation. Yet even when the U.S. did enter the War after Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the Rada Polonii was forbidden as a humanitarian organization from operating as a political lobby for Poland’s independence. This U.S. government decision effectively paralyzed the organizations of the massive Polish community in addressing the issue of Poland’s future fate to America’s leaders in Washington.
At the same time, however, a small group of Polish Americans sympathetic to America’s war time ally, the Soviet Union, succeeded in organizing the American Slav Congress and the American Polish Labor Council. Claiming to speak for the millions of Polish people in America in their patriotic support of the war against Germany and their commitment to American-Soviet friendship, they gained considerable influence with the U.S. government. At the same time they did their best to blacken as anti-American, and worse, any Polish American group that was not with them.
But there were activists in the Polish community who refused to buckle under the intimidating propaganda of the pro-Soviet Polish Americans. Centered largely in New York, they included leaders from the pre World War II Polish government exiled in this country, most notably Ignacy Matuszewski and Waclaw Jedrzejewicz, and like-minded Polish Americans, led by Max Wegrzynek, publisher of the New York Nowy Swiat Polish daily newspaper and Frank Januszewski, publisher of Detroit’s Dziennik Polski. In 1942, they and their colleagues organized the National Committee of Americans of Polish Descent (Komitet Narodowy Amerykanow Polskiego Pochodzenia, KNAPP). In their view, Poland’s very future as an independent state was threatened by an unmindful Soviet-American alliance, a view that also made them sharply critical of the Polish exile government in London headed by General Wladyslaw Sikorski.
Though vilified by its critics and even subjected to U.S. government harassment, the KNAPP group persisted. But after the discovery of the devastating Katyn massacre in March 1943, the Soviet government decision in April to break diplomatic relations with the London government in favor of its own handpicked communist followers as leaders of a future Soviet-dominated Poland, and the tragic death of Gen. Sikorski at Gibraltar in July, conditions dramatically changed. Soon enough, KNAPP’s warnings were receiving greater and greater recognition. In December 1943, leaders from KNAPP met in Chicago with Charles Rozmarek, president of the Polish National Alliance fraternal, Honorata Wolowska, president of the Polish Women’s Alliance, Teofil Starzynski, president of the Polish Falcons of America, and John Olejniczak, president of the Polish Roman Catholic Union, and leaders of the Polish clergy and the Polish American press. There they agreed that the time had come for the true representatives of the Polish community in America to organize politically and speak their mind to the U.S. government.
What followed was the call to elect delegates from across the country to meet in Buffalo, a major Polonia center located midway between the vast Polish populations in the East and the Midwest and to set up a true political lobby on Poland’s behalf.
The Polish American Congress was the product of this extraordinary gathering. It was an organization Congress that from Day One has remained true to its founding principles.
Dr. Pienkos is the author of the official history of the Polish American Congress and its predecessor organizations, ‘”For Your Freedom Through Ours’: Polish American Efforts on Poland’s Behalf, 1863-1991″ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).