Old Homes of New Americans
Poles but no Poland -- A Pathetic Epitaph -- Where is Galicia -- Its Historic Cities -- The Four Millions of Poles in the United States -- The Novelist Sienkiewicz -- Poland's Weak and Wicked Kings -- Henri de Valois and the Democratic Spirit of Poland -- How a King stole away from his Kingdom -- Sobieski elected in spite of himself -- His Defeat of the Turks -- His Letter to his Wife -- Dr. South's Opinion of Sobieski -- The Decay of Poland -- The Revival of the Spirit of Liberty under Kosciuszko -- His Share in Our Own Revolution -- The Poles and Napoleon I -- Poland's Last Struggle for Freedom -- The Poles in Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
There are Poles, but alas! there is no Poland today, not even in the sense that there is a Bohemia or a Moravia. These lands, though provinces of another power, are little nations within a great nation. They have their own language and laws. Poland is like a garment rent in three pieces and divided among as many different owners. No wonder that the Poles, bereft of their nationalists, have looked with longing eyes, and ever more and more, to the Land of Promise, where Russian, Prussian, and Austrian can vex them no more.
The pathetic epitaph which Niemcewicz, the Polish poet and revolutionist, wrote for his own tombstone, shortly before his death, expresses the feelings of the patriotic Pole in many a land: -- "O ye exiles, who so long wander over the world, When will ye find a resting-place for your many steps? The wild dove has its nest, and the world a clod of earth, Each man a country, but the Pole a grave."
No more ruthless rapine of a nation is recorded in the history of the world than the division of Poland between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In this division, Russia took the lion's share (about one half of the territory and of the people); but Austria, with whose Polish inhabitants we have most to do in this book, took a very considerable slice of territory and many millions of inhabitants. Though the Poles acknowledge unwilling allegiance to all these powers, yet they have so many traits in common that a description of the Austrian Poles may serve for all.
They, live for the most part in Galcia. There is not even an "Austrian Poland," so called, as there is a "Russian Poland"; but they occupy a province which theg share with Ruthenians and Jews, whom they hate as devoutly as they do the Austrians themselves.
I imagine that many of my readers are somewhat hazy as to the geographical location of Galicia. As a recent writer has said, "Most People are in hether doubt as to whether Galicia is in Spain, or the land of the people to whom St. Paul once wrote an epistle."
A study of the map will show that Galicia is neither the Galician province of Spain, nor ancient Galatia in Asia Minor, but the most northern province of Austria, stretching, with its neighbor, the Bukowina, around the northeastern edge of the Kingdom of Hungary, with Russia on the north. It joins Bohemia and Moravia on the west, with the narrow little province of Silesia between. It is about the size of West Virginia, and is the largest of the Austrian provinces.
For the most part Galacia is one seemingly interminable prarie and as one travels across it in winter, it gives him a sense of dreary desolation that few parts of the world suggest. Yet it is by no means an uninteresting land. Its history is alive with great historic characters and stirring events. Its ancient cities, like Cracow and Lemberg, delight the traveler far more than the modern towns of Europe and America, which look as though they might be built by machinery from the same brick-kiln.
Its people are of supreme interest to Americans,since so many tens of thousands of new Americans are constantly coming from these old homes of Galicia. But with all its interest, it is a hard and rugged country, cold and wind-fwept in winter, and baked by the summer's suns. Yet it is from just such countries that the hardiest people come; those who, other things being equal, make the best citizens.
Of the three chief nationalities of the province, Poles, Ruthenians, and Jews, the Poles and the Ruthenians are about equal in numbers, and the Jews a scant ten per cent of the whole population, but a mighty factor, after all, in the commercial world of Galicia.
The Poles occupy the western end of this queer shaped, jagged province, the Ruthenians the eastern end; and though there is some overlapping territorially, there is, to put it mildly, no love lost between the races.
The four millions of Poles in America come from Russia and Prussia as well as Galicia, but they are much alike in racial characteristics and temperament, and all look back to the same splendid history, the same heroic leaders, the same glorious golden day when Poland stretched from the Baltic almost to the Black Sea, and when she was able to decide the destinies of Europe. The Poland of to-day cannot be understood apart from her history. The meanest Pole who lands at Ellis Island has a heritage in the annals of a noble ancestry. He is proud of his country, even in its disembodiment, proud of the story of her great achievements, proud of her language, which has been the vehicle of song and story and splendid prose.
No modern novelist has commanded a style more nervous and at the same time more elevated than Sienkiewicz, whose great religious novel, "Quo Vadis," is as popular in America as in Poland. No wonder that a Polish poet writes: -
Let the Pole smile with manly pride when the inhabitant of the banks of the Tiber or Seine calls his language rude; let him hear with keen satisfaction and the dignity, of a judge the stranger who painfully struggles with the Polish pronunciation, like a Sybarite trying to lift an old Roman coat of armor, or when he strives to articulate the language of men with the weak accents of childhood..... Our language has its harmony, its melody, but it is the murmur of an oak of three hundred years, and not the plaintive and feeble cry of a reed swayed by every wind.
The story of such a people, with such a history and such a language, should be familiar to all their fellow Americans. Poland differs from her near neighbor, Bohemia, in that she lacked in the days of her earlier history great kings and leaders, such as made Bohemia famous and powerful. Neither did the Reformation make much headway in Poland. Poland has no blind King John, no John Huss or John Ziska or Prokop, or any long line of heroes and reformers in her early days to make her illustrious.
Her people, to be sure, Were equally brave and virtuous, but in reading her history we have to search through a long line of weak and wicked kings and magistrates, who robbed the People of their rights, and constantly increased their own power and that of the nobles at the expense of the peasants.
The Boleslas kings, the Casimirs, the Jagiellos, all were wanting in true kingly traits. Some were weak, some stupid, some stubborn, some licentious; almost all sought their own advantage rather than the good of their subjects.
The year after the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the brother of the execrated King of France, Charles IX, who ordered the massacre, was invited to become King of Poland, and the invitation was accepted. A most gorgeous embassy was sent from Poland to Paris to bring the new king to his new throne. The splendor and pomp of this embassy, the magnificence of its apparel, the erudition of the ambassadors, who could speak fluently in Latin, French, German, and Italian, while the French nobles when addressed in Latin could only stammer or reply by signs, all these indications of Poland's wealth and learning astonished Paris and indeed all Europe.
The terms imposed on Henri de Valois when he became king showed that the Polish nobles at this time could boast not only education but spirit and common sense. The King was obliged to sign a compact in which he agreed that he should have no voice in the choice of his successor; that the non-Gatholics should have equal rights with others; that no foreigner could hold any public office; and that the King must neither marry nor divorce his wife without the consent of the National Diet. These terms showed the democratic spirit of poland ai this date, or at least the power of the nobles, and it can well be imagined they were particularly offensive to a brother of Charles IX, especially the provision that secured the rights of non-Catholics, However, he had to Sign the decree, though he soon got tired of his bargain, and five months later ran away from Cracow and escaped to France, leaving his Polish capital in the night and secretly, like a runaway schoolboy.
His brother, the murderer of the Protestants had in the mean time died, and he had inherited the throne of France. He never returned to Poland. The story of a king clandestinely escaping from his own throne, and being pusued by his subjects, who tried to bring him back to his duty, is one of the humors of history; but Poland was well rid of a worthless king.
One bad or weak king succeeded another, with only an occasional brief interregnum of valor and prosperity, as in the reign of Stephen Bathori, Prince of Transylvania, who ruled from 1576 to 1586. After this a hundred years more of gradual decay under incompetent rulers set in for poor Poland, when her national spirit flamed up again, and the sun of her old-time glory seemed about to rise once more. This was in 1674, when in one of the frequent kingly elections, Sobieski, a famous general, who had already shown his prowess against the Turks, proposed in the Diet the name of the Prince of Conde for king.
While this was being discussed, in a sudden burst of inspiration one of the nobles of the Diet cried out, "Let a Pole rule over Poland" The cry reached the popular heart, and Sobieski, in spite of himself, was elected King of Poland, and as the event proved, added a lustrous page to her history. The story reminds us of one of our own American Presidents, who was nominated practically while naming, and in good faith, another for the presidential chair.
During Sobieski's reign (his kingly title was John III), the Turks were threatening to overrun Europe. In fact all southeastern Europe was in their power. Servia, Hungary, parts of Poland were in the grasp of the Tartars, and it looked as though all Europe might become a vassal of the great Mohammedan power, The resources of Hungary and the other buffer states, which had so long kept the might of Islam at bay, though at their own expense, were well-nigh exhausted. In 1683 the Turks, with enormous forces of infantry and cavalry and uncounted camp stores, left Belgrade on their march to Vienna; if they conquered that city, Europe would be at their feet.
The cowardly Emperor Leopold fled from his capital, and all the wealthier inhabitants, to the number of sixty thousand, followed suit, leaving only as many more of the poorer people and some twenty thousand soldiers to defend the city. The fate of Vienna, of Austria, perhaps of Europe, seemed sealed.
But at last relief came to the beleaguered city. Sobieski set out from Cracow at the head of his Polish veterans. He was joined by the Elector of Saxony, and together they commanded an army of seventy thousand men. The Polish cavalry was especially conspicuous, with its fine horses and splendid equipment. Sobieski himself led the way, shouting in Latin: "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory."
The united armies were victorious all along the line. The Turks fled in wild dismay. many thousands were killed, including six pashas, while the Grand Vizier himself, with a mere remnant of his army, managed to reach Belgrade. This was the 12th of September, 1683. On the following day Sobieski wrote a most interesting letter to his wife, which tells of the tremendous extent of his victory.
Only Joy of my Soul [he wrote]; Charming and Much-Beloved Mariette! God be praised forever! He has given the victory to our nation! He has given such a triumph as past ages have never seen. All the camp of the Mussulmans, all their artillery, infinite riches, have fallen into our hands. The approaches to the city, the fields around, are covered with the dead of the infidel army, and the remains of it are flying in consternation. Our people are bringing us every minute camels, mules, oxen, and sheep, which the enemy had with him, and besides an innumerable guantity of prisoners. . . . It is impossible to describe all the refinements of luxury which the Graad Vizier had collected in his tents. There were baths, little gardens with fountains, even a little parrot, which our soldiers pursued but could not capture Today I went to see the city. It could not have held out five days longer. It is all riddled with bullets. Those immense bastions perforated and half tumbling to pieces have a terrible aspect; one would think they were great masses of rocks. All the soldiers did their duty; they attribute the victory, to God and ourselves. . . . All have embraced me and called me their savior. I have been in two churches where the people kissed my hands, feet, and clothes. Others who could only touch me at a distance cried out, "Ah! let me kiss your victorious hands!"
I have quoted at some length from this long letter, which Professor Morfill tells us was discovered by accident nearly two centuries later, because it tells in graphic language the story of one of the world's decisive battles in the words of the great general who won it. Incidentally, it shows Sobieski to be a writer of no mean power, combining in himself gifts of the sword and the pen, as did Julius Caesar and Napoleon.
It shows him, too, in the light of a devoted husband, whose first account of the victory was to his beloved wife. The next day after the battle a solemn service was performed in the Cathedral of Vienna, at which John Sobieski was present, and the priest preached from the text: "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John" -- a case surely where an "accommodated text" was most appropriate.
The King lived thirteen years after his great victory, but his later years were embittered by dissensions at home and trouble abroad. The Polish nobility were factious and treasonable, as was their habit. Sobieski was snubbed by the foolish, cowardly King Leopold of Austria, whose kingdom he had saved. Louis XIV of France plotted against him, and tried to accomplish his overthrow. The common people were harassed by the constant wars that Sobieski had to wage against his enemies.
At last the old king, worn out in body and soul by the intrigues of his enemies and the ingratitude of his nobles, died, saying with his last breath: "Corruption universally prevails. Judgment is obtained by money. The voice of conscience is not heard, and reason and equity are no more." This was not merely the pessimistic utterance of a sick old man. It too well indicated the condition of Poland, whose decay had set in long before the time of Sobieski.
The following description of the great king and general is interesting because it was written by a personal acquaintance, and that acquaintance no other than the famous divine, Dr. South, whose sermons are so much admired by modern scholars, and who was chaplain to an English embassy that visited Poland during Sobieski's reign.
As to what relates to his Majesty's person [wrote Dr. South], he is a tall and corpulent prince, large-faced and full eyes, and goes always with the same dress as his subjects, with his hair cut round about his ears like a monk, and wears a fur cap, but extraordinarily rich with diamonds and jewels, large whiskers, and no neck-cloth. . . . He never wears any gloves, and his long coat is of strong scarlet cloth, lined in the winter with rich fur, but in the summer only with silk. Instead of shoes he always wears, both abroad and at home, Turkey leather boots, with very thin soles and hollow deep heels made of a blade of silver bent hoopwise into the form of a half-moon. He carries also a large scimitar by his side, the sheath equally flat and broad from the handle to the bottom, and curiously set with diamonds.
After the death of Sobieski the decay of Poland went on apace under the succession of Saxon kings. We can understand better how a century later Poland came to be divided into three parts, when we read what a French abbe, a vigorous contemporary writer, tells us, as quoted by Professor Morfill: -
The nobility of Poland had power of life or death over the serfs, so that they could put them to death whenever they chose. The nobles were splendid in their dress. They shaved their heads, with the exception of a tuft on the top. They did not wear beards, but long, thick mustaches, which almost entirely covered their mouths. The ladies were dressed in the French style. If one of them left her house to go to church or to pay a visit at but a distance of twenty paces, she always went in a carriage drawn by six horses. The peasants were obliged to work five days a week on their masters' estates. If they neglected this duty, they were liableto personal chastisement.
Here is the story, in a paragraph, of the causes of the fall of a great kingdom and a vigorous, gifted people: weak and imbecile kings; luxurious, pleasure-loving, selfish, autocratic nobility; a depressed, despised, and down-trodden peasantry, working five days out of the seven for their feudal masters and two days for themselves.
No wonder that Poland at last fell an easy prey to the three rapacious and unscrupulous powers that finally divided her vast and fair domain among themselves. With truth the poet sings, "Each man hath a country, but the Pole a grave."
The last gleam of hope for Poland as an independent country appeared on her horizon in 1791, the year so pregnant with great events for all Europe. Poland called herself a republic, but she was really a kingdom, ruled, as we have seen, by a line of corrupt kings and a scarcely less corrupt nobility.
In that year of turmoil and the assertion of popular rights throughout the world, a better spirit seemed to come to the Polish leaders. Even the weak Saxon king, Stanislaus, who was then on the throne, showed signs of a more unselfish spirit.
A new constitution, based largely on that of the United States, the young power which was just emerging into prominence on the other side of the Atlantic, was adopted by the Diet. It was somewhat vague, to be sure, and not free from the rhodomontade of the age; and those who have studied it critically declared that it contained a "joker," which still deprived the peasants of their rights. But it was an advance on anything in the past, and hope sprang up once more in the hearts of the patriotic Poles.
But Prussia and Russia objected to this new constitution, with its professions of "liberty, equality, fraternity," and deliberately decreed the division of unhappy Poland between themselves, and sent their armies to enforce the decree.
Austria at this time had troubles of her own, chiefly with France, and was disregarded as a negligible quantity in this first rape of the republic.
Then the candle of Liberty flamed up in its socket. The people, maddened by this cold-blooded disruption of their beloved land, rose in arms against their enemies, under the renowned Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who is not only a Polish but a world's hero. He won a brilliant victory at Warsaw, and compelled the Russian troops in I793 to abandon the siege. But his triumph was short-lived, for the fallowing year he was defeated and taken prisoner by the Russians, and Poland's struggle for freedom was over.
Kosciuszko's story is of special interest to Americans, for he loved our country and fought for her liberties. Very early in the War of the Revolution he sailed for America, and threw in his lot with the struggling colonists. He rose to be a brigadier-general, distinguished himself at the battles of Yellow Springs and Saratoga, and was afterwards governor of the Military Academy at West Point.
After his defeat at Warsaw and his release from a Russian prison, he lived again in the United States. Later he declined many positions of honor, even from the Russians, his former enemies, and he died in Switzerland nearly a quarter of a century after his last heroic effort to deliver his beloved country from the despoilers.
His devotion, self-sacrifice, and unselfish patriotism, however,were not in vain. His name is the synonym for patriotism the world around, and Campbell's eulogy is not yet forgotten, though perhaps it is too much to say that now, as fifty years ago, every American schoolboy knows that
The story of the succeeding century of Polish history is heart-breaking to the lovers of liberty. Her aspirations for freedom have never been quenched, though continually thwarted. A people who can keep alive within their hearts, under such awful disasters, the love of liberty and equality, and never allow the flame of patriotism to be wholly extinguished, have in them qualities which should make them welcome to our shores, for they have the true spirit of Americanism.
In the heroic days of Napoleon I, the Poles sided with the great general, and long hoped that he would deliver them from bondage. But he, selfish in this as in all things, did not deem it to be to his advantage to do so, and turned the cold shoulder on them, even though the Poles furnished sixty thousand soldiers for his fatal expedition to Russia.
In 1834 and again in 1860, Poland made other futile struggIes for freedom, which, though marked by desperate valor on the part of individuals, only served to rivet the chains of their conquerors more firmly. Austria had become one of the trio of despoilers of Poland by this time, and now rules about one quarter of the ancient kingdorn. Prussia owns another quarter, while Russia retains a generous (or ungenerous) half.
In Russia the Poles enjoy much economic prosperity, and Warsaw, Lodz, and other manufacturing towns are wealthy and prosperous, but the liberties of the people are sadly shackled. Being Slavs, like themselves, the Russians seem to have a fellow-feeling for this subject race, which the other nations lack. "The Russian," it is said, " alternately caresses and punishes his Polish brother."
In Prussia the Pole is systematically Germanized, He is not abused and maltreated so that the other powers are led to interfere, but his language, his ancient customs, the very spirit of his national life, is denied him, and he is losing his individuality more rapidly than in the neighboring lands.
In Austria he retains his language, and has a voice in the local government. He is the ruling factor in Galicia, but Galicia is poor, and much of it sterile, and his economic position there is probably worse than in the other lands.
From the boundaries of these three countries comes a constant stream of emigrants to America. May they find under the Stars and Stripes the freedom of which they have so long dreamed, and for which they have fought so bravely!
Back to Old Homes of New Americans Table of Contents
Back to Genealogical Research in Slovakia
Back to Genealogical Research in the Czech Republic
Back to Genealogical Research in Slovakia
Back to Genealogical Research in the Czech Republic