peace through a just settlement rather than through force. “For the first time in history,” wrote Jan Ciechanowski, “a President of the United States come to Europe to inspire the Old World with new, American, hitherto untired concepts of statesmanship, to persuade its statesmen to adopt a new code of morality in international relations, a code conforming with the principle of Christian civilization, and to apply this new code to a peace settlement that would preclude future armed conflict and make the world ‘safe for democracy.’”
Although its boundaries remained somewhat ambiguous, a new, independent Polish state came into existence as a result of the peace negotiations. In the United States, Polonia scarcely rejoiced less than those in Poland about the resurrection of their ancestral land. In fact, as Robert Szymczak eloquently illustrated, when a Polish consulate opened in New York after World War l, pilgrimages from all over America began to make their way there, merely to see the Polish flag and the White Eagle over the building. It reached such a point that the New York Police had to close the street to traffic, since it was always crowded with Pilgrims, sometimes kneeling to pray and weep.”
Yet beyond the the euphoria of Polish independence, serious problems existed in wartorn Eastern Europe. As Szymczak observed, “when the celebrations subsided, the world was shown an old a battered nation reconstituted as a democratic republic without secure, guaranteed borders and suffering from a severely depleted agricultural system which was unable to feed its war-weary citizens. The problem of malnutrition was so severe that the very future of the country appeared to hang in the balance, Immediate relief measures were necessary, especially to save Polish children from starvation.” Typhus, smallpox, cholera, dysentery, and tuberculosis spread rampantly thoughout Poland, adding to the starvation, destruction, and displacement of war--first the World War and then the Bolshevik invasion.
Stories of suffering and privation gradually found their way westward, causing a tremendous revival in sympathy for the destitute Polish nation. Indeed, the cause of Polish relief soon became the new cause célèbre in Polonia, and briefly revived throughout America an empathetic outpouring. Herbert Hoover, who took part in the subsequent relief efforts, later wrote in his memoirs that “many hundreds of thousands had died of starvation.” The home of millions had been destroyed and the people in those area were living in hovels. Their agricultural implements were depleted, their animals had been taken by armies, their crops had been only partly planted and then only partly harvested…. The cities were almost without food; typhus and diseases raged over whole provinces. Rats, lice, famine, pestilence—yet they were determined to build a nation.
Given this picture of desolation, Americans of all denominations and political persuasions joined the effort to assist the Polish people. The American Cross, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, the Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, the Knights of Columbus, the National Catholic Welfare Congress, the Young Men’s Christian Association, and many other organizations collected funds, clothing medical supplies, books and other items for shipment to Poland.
The American Relief Administration (ARA), headed by Herbert Hoover, created a committee to distribute relief material from the United States. The ARA sent money and food, provided transportation for supplies and specialists, and assigned personnel to assist in the collection and distribution of aid. The first American food shipments arrived in early January 1919 and increased thereafter to a total of 751,135 tons. The United States also donated used military clothing, medical supplies, 60 million pounds of raw cotton, and $176,541,079 in credit and charity. In January 1920 alone, the ARA’s Children’s Fund distributed 700,000 sets of children’s clothing and fed 1.2 million children. It did so without regard to race, religion, politics, or ability to pay.
In one of the more unique relief efforts, the Young Women’s Christian Association recruited bilingual Polish American girls and trained them as nurse for work in Poland. Ninety young women were selected and sent to New York City for a six-month training program , during which they underwent “welfare training in the slums of the city, attended lectures at the New York School of Philanthropy, and were given Red Cross courses in cooking, health and hygiene.” They underwent further training in business principles and art and crafts at Columbia University, as well as attending YWCA lectures on social manners. Seventy-five graduated, receiving badges and grey uniforms, from which they took their name--Grey Samaritans—and reciting the following pledge: “I _________, in accepting the Polish Grey Samaritan uniform, pledge myself to uphold the highest ideals of womanhood in every action of my life; To be faithful in the fulfillment of the duties of a Polish Grey Samaritan; To be obedient to the orders of my Superiors; To serve the cause of Poland; To allay suffering and bind up the wounds of those by the wayside; Believing that in so doing I serve the cause of humanity.
The first group of 20 Grey Samaritans sailed for Europe in July 1919 aboard the SS Rochambeau. There were assigned to hospitals as nurses’ aides and also sent out as social workers to make the home visits and distribute food and clothing. Amy Pryor Tapping or Utica, New York, assigned to oversee the Grey Samaritans in Poland, recalled that Madame Paderewski “calls them szary kotki, little grey kittens. For so do they look in their blue-grey uniforms. And… they are my job, these Polish American girls; I wish that you might know them in their youth and enthusiasm. They are Poles and to be a Poles is to be a patriot. They have been in America and America has given them something to bring back to their newly reconstructed country. And here they are, ready to serve, my basket of szary kotki.
The Grey Samaritans treated wounded soldiers from the Russo-Polish War in a hospital that Josephine Tarkowska of Cleveland described as “a death trap” where the wounded had no sheets of blankets, subsisted on black bread and bitter coffee, and lay about for weeks without proper medical treatment. Despite the disease and privation, the Grey Samaritans served in Poland almost three years. A YWCA report concluded that “their work was an act of devotion to the land of their ancestors,” while ARA director and future President Herbert Hoover asserted that “the hardships they have undergone, the courage and resource they have shown in sheer human service is a beautiful monument to American womanhood.
The re-creation of an independent Poland was a major emotional victory for Polonia, a development that at once removed a traditional rallying cry and provided the impetus for new relationships with Stary Kraj.
- Polish Americans: An Ethnic Community, James S. Pula, 1995, pp. 60-62