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Uncommon Valor in a Skirt

In Polish  IPN


To volunteer to serve a cause greater than ourselves propels the most noble of humans.


The formidable Agnieszka Wisła aka Wizła (1887–1980), a naturalized American of Polish birth, ranks among the best of them. A community organizer, an educational worker, a military nurse, a combat veteran, a charity volunteer, an innovative businesswoman, and, above all, a patriot both for Poland and America, Wisła blazed her way through life never giving up on her ideals and sticking to them through thick and thin to the detriment of her private existence and public relationships.

Agnieszka Wisła was an awesome presence, sometimes a veritable virago, who never swayed from her desire to serve the Polish-American community and its veterans. Her mission was, first, to rally military volunteers for Poland during the First World War and its aftermath; second, to provide medical and educational assistance to the troops in the field; and third, to take care of the returning veterans. The last endeavor became her life-long pursuit. After the fighting, back in the US, the activist promptly joined the Polish American Veterans Association (PAVA/Stowarzyszenie Weteranów Armii Polskiej — SWAP) upon its creation in 1921. “She was the first and for a long time the only woman accepted into the Association” (p. 117). Later, on August 11, 1925, Wisła became the founding mother of the Ladies Auxiliary Corps (Korpus Pomocniczy Pań) of PAVA (p. 146).

A disclaimer: I am a proud legacy member with PAVA New York City Post, having had a number of my family as participants in the organization. Most notably, my greatly beloved, if very many times removed, late Ciocia Dzidzia, Maria Zub-Zdanowicz, was the penultimate president of the Ladies Auxiliary Corps (1988-1991) (p. 226). Therefore, I wholeheartedly approve and support the effort to honor and restore to public consciousness the sacrifices and deeds of the Polish-American veterans, including PAVA participants. Anitta Maksymowicz’s Agnieszka Wisła and the Blue Army: The Efforts of Polish Women in America on Behalf of Volunteers and Veterans of World War I, transl.  by Albert Juszczak (New York and Zielona Góra: The Polish Army Veterans Association of America, 2019) is a bold step in the right direction.

Born in Szlachcin outside of Środa Wielkopolska in Prussian-occupied Poland as a child of a landed estate hand, Agnieszka Wisła emigrated to America as a young woman in 1906. She was nationally conscious already when growing up in her Polish small settlement. To object to Germanization, she was sent to study literary Polish in Lwów at the grade school level. The move to the US allowed her Polish patriotism to grow and, in the atmosphere of freedom, she also gradually acquired an American consciousness and loyalty which fostered a simultaneous waxing of her US patriotism. In this, Wisła was not unusual for a first generation emigrant. Rather than “dual loyalty”, she should be seen as cherishing a complementary dual consciousness as a Pole and an American. America stood for freedom; her Old Country, Poland, yearned for freedom.

Both of Wisła’s motherlands were thus compatible. And the new domicile allowed her to help her achieve the dream of freedom for her birthplace. To become an American, she did not have to renounce her Polishness. That was the key to assimilation. That is the way it worked for her. It is rather complicated to understand for those who lack the dual experience of Poland and America. And it requires more studies in consciousness along the lines developed by Thaddeus and John Radziłowski. One wishes Polish scholar Anitta Maksymowicz was more conscious of this dimension of her protagonist.

Like all great people, Agnieszka Wisła was a complex individual with a singular drive to serve. She brokered no opposition and took no prisoners. Her biographer pointed out: “Agnieszka’s unusually strong character, and her practically nonexistent tendency to compromise” (p. 25). Her stubborn individualism alienated foe and friend alike. Her iron will served her icebreaker personality to the hilt. Virtually invariably, she carried out whatever objectives she set out for herself. She never took a no for an answer, whether it concerned the refusal to accommodate her wish to travel overseas with the troops in 1917, or to monitor a fundraiser in Chicago in the 1950’s.

She was pushy, bossy, and demanding. Yet Wisła always demanded most of herself. She rode rough-shot over all detractors, onlookers, and, alas, well-wishers. She complained little, in particular in public, whether when she succumbed to “physical exhaustion” that seriously undercut her health at the end of 1920 or when she was seriously injured in a hit and run accident in the fall of 1950 (pp. 96, 193). The plight of others always took precedence over her own welfare. When she suffered in another car accident in the 1970’s, “she donated her entire awarded damages to the [PAVA] Invalid Fund and Polish American Institutions and organizations” (p. 195). According the here biographer, “Wisła was a person unusually sensitive to the fate of those who were victimized, for whom Poland represented the highest value, and whose greatest hero was the Polish soldier.” (p. 11).

Today, a standard academic psychobabble trope would probably insinuate “penis envy” to Wisła. A typical feminist take would oscillate between “female empowerment” and “suppressed lesbianism.”   Thank God that historian and museum curator Anitta Maksymowicz took an entirely different methodology in her exemplary monograph on the Polish-American activist. A specialist in overseas migrations from Polish and German borderlands, she chose to pursue the logocentric way. Quite logically, to make sense of her heroine, the scholar first resolved to find out who the woman was.

She therefore buried herself in at least ten central and regional archives and document depositories, mostly public but also private, in the US and Poland. Those included most prominently: the Warsaw-based Archive of New Acts (Archiwum Akt Nowych), the Diocesan Archives in Zielona Góra, the Polish Falcons of America Headquarters holdings, and PAVA’s National Archives. Further, Maksymowicz augmented her research by delving into Zeitungsgeschichte and consulting an array of newspapers, including hard to find regional and community press like PAVA’s own publication – Weteran. Admittedly, one is struck by the poverty of secondary sources utilized, but not to the detriment of the scholar’s formidable effort: not much has, in fact, been written on the topic of her interest. Maksymowicz is a virtual trailblazer.

Agnieszka Wisła and the Blue Army is part biography and part broader history of Polish-American military volunteers. The author anchors firmly the female activist in the context of her times and her institutions. Therefore, the historian makes a wise decision to contextualize her topic. The explication of Wisła’s travails entails retelling an admittedly obscure story of Polish-American volunteers during the First World War and its aftermath. Sometimes, there is so much contextualizing necessary that Maksymowicz’s heroine disappears in the sea of events and people, only to resurface, as expected, to consistently claim the spotlight.. This is no mean achievement. The paucity of biographical material forces the historian to resort to this device as much as the correctly assumed ignorance of both the general public and, to a lesser extent, the academic reader.

As in many instances of Polish history, the absence of the Polish narrative compels the scholar to take widespread ignorance for granted and involve herself in at least some remedial exercises to shed light on Poland’s past. Only a few have bothered to revive the heroic and harrowing tale, including Paul S. Valasek’s valuable Haller’s Polish Army in France (compiled by the Author, Whitehall Printing, 2006). Arguably, no one has produced a more in depth monograph than Teofil Lachowicz in Polish Freedom Fighters on American Soil: Polish Veterans in America from the Revolutionary War to 1939, transl. by Albert Juszczak (Minneapolis, MN: Two Harbors Press, 2011), which I reviewed favorably elsewhere.

Maksymowicz manages to maintain a comfortable balance in her narrative without compromising the integrity and seriousness of her message. The challenge the scholar faces is formidable. How to tell a tale of a virtual non-person from a grossly neglected minority group, whose rare appearance in general histories of the United States consists of having slurs and insinuations hurled against it as a community, while making allowance, if at all, for a few formidable individuals of Polish descent, who, allegedly, serve as exceptions from the largely forgettable, if not despicable, Polish-American mainstream? Since Maksymowicz is a Polish, and not a Polish-American, historian, she tackles the task admirably, while seemingly oblivious to the larger American cultural context. And it serves her just fine. There is no trace of either deference to or an inferiority complex toward the American powers-that-be.

To rehash briefly, formidable grassroots organizing and stellar lobbying efforts allowed Polish-American leaders to prevail on US President Woodrow Wilson to break American law and allow American citizens and residents of Polish extraction to enroll in a military force destined to fight in France against the Central Powers when America remained ostensibly neutral. The credit for the clinching of the deal goes to the Polish superstar pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who hobnobbed with the high and mighty, counting the American President among his admirers. But Paderewski’s effort would have been in vain had it not been for a magnificent stubbornness of Polish grassroots organizers. “If it were not for the enlistments from the Polish-American community, the Polish Army in France, in fact, would not have been formed.” (p. 42).

And that is when Agnieszka Wisła comes in along with an array of others, for example Dr. Teofil Starzyński, the head of the Polish Falcons in America, which supplied the majority among over 21,000 military volunteers (p. 45). Along with her confederates, Wisła pleaded, propagandized, and, ultimately, goaded young men to sign up for the Polish armed effort (p. 55). She supported them at every stage. First, she took care of them in Chicago and then sent them money, packages, and a flag to their Canadian boot camp, the Tadeusz Kościuszko Camp installation at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Then, she enrolled herself in the Polish White Cross in New York to travel to France and, later, to Poland to be with the troops, including on the front lines, until the victory in the Polish-Bolshevik War in 1921. According to her personal file, “In April 1819 [sic 1919] she left with this Army for Poland…,  where [at the front] she distributed medical supplies, warm clothes, cigarettes and other things sent from America and other countries for the soldiers at the fronts in the fight with the Bolsheviks,  because after regaining freedom in 1918, Poland was so exhausted that the soldiers fought in paper clothes, in many instances their legs were wrapped in rags instead of shoes, and they wrapped their wounds in paper.” (p. 86).

Afterwards, Wisła returned home to the United States where she started a business selling Polish and American flags, as well as other patriotic handmade symbols, trinkets, and gadgets. She thus established herself in the Chicago community. But soon the outside world beaconed again: she helped return 370 Polish orphans saved from Siberia via Japan and America to Poland (pp. 106-114). The activist escorted the kids back herself in January 1923.

Upon this rather unexpected detour, she further plunged into long term community organizing, busying herself with PAVA and, in particular, its Ladies Auxiliary Corps. Although the activist participated in a number of splendid galas, congresses, and other high profile functions, including a three months long sightseeing trip to Poland in 1927, her first duty was to the veterans. This was a hitherto unsung, yet indispensable, some would say tediously repetitious, service where Maksymowicz is at her best doing justice to her heroine.

The needs of the veteran community were overwhelming. Already in the 1920’s, some of the veterans fell on hard times. They gave up their jobs to fight. When they returned home, there were no jobs and no official American assistance to tide them over. Penurious Poland was in no position to support them. Through a horrible act of omission, no treaty was made to treat them as all veterans in America because at the time of their volunteering, Poland was not recognized as a combatant state. So even though the White House blessed their endeavor, they had no rights after their return home in America unlike, say, Belgian soldiers who were accorded full access to all privileges of the US Veterans Administration. Wisła outdid herself to remedy this injustice. She volunteered as a nurse, fundraiser, logistician, and cook. She organized fundraisers and dispensed free health care and food as well as helped locate affordable housing and jobs. The virtual one woman task force cracked the whip to collect overdue dues. And, incredibly, she also was able to help wounded veterans in Poland itself, for example by collecting and sending to them, between 1952 and 1955, a significant sum of “almost $5,000.00” (p. 166).

Wisła’s services on behalf of the veterans were particularly valuable during the Great Depression. But she continued her mission afterwards. Her contributing and volunteering intensified during the Second World War and after. “Even though the war was considered to be concluded – the Polish cause was under Soviet occupation” (p. 181). Increasingly embattled and of poor health, she nonetheless soldiered on practically until her death in 1980. Her last sustained effort concerned saving the legacy of the Polish-American soldiers of the First World War, members of PAVA in particular. She turned to history, documenting their efforts.

This incredible woman never started a family. Her personal relationships were gradually limited to her nieces. But now, Agnieszka Wisła has been restored to the American and Polish national Pantheon. Along with the heroine, other forgotten heroes reemerged, for example a Sioux native American, Jack Wheelbarrow (p. 41), who joined the Polish American volunteers out of his gratitude to General Tadeusz Kościuszko for opposing slavery and perished on the field of battle in France.  Footnotes are a virtual mine of information.  Who knows about the Polish-American Gray Samaritans, the nurses under the command of Princess Laura de Gozdawa Turczynowicz née Blackwell (fn. 142, pp. 255-256)? This obviously cries for another monograph.

For all this we owe a debt of gratitude to Anitta Maksymowicz and everyone who supported her intrepid foray into the Polonian and Polish unknown.

Anitta Maksymowicz, Agnieszka Wisła and the Blue Army: The Efforts of Polish Women in America on Behalf of Volunteers and Veterans of World War I, transl.  by Albert Juszczak (New York and Zielona Góra: The Polish Army Veterans Association of America, 2019).

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 12 September 2019


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