Historical Markers
Polish Army Historical Marker
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Polish Army

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
97 S. 18th St., South Side Flats, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
April 3, 1950

Behind the Marker

Ignace Paderewski speaking to crowd
Ignace Paderewski speaking to crowd somewhere in the United States, circa 1917....
Ignacy Jan Paderewski's appearance at the 1917 convention of the Polish Falcons was one of those great historical moments freighted with cultural significance. On April 3, just three days before the United States' entry in World War I, this world-acclaimed piano virtuoso and statesman came to Pittsburgh to champion the creation of a Polish army to help the Allies defeat the Central Powers and to fight for an independent Polish state in Europe.

TOP ROW (standing), left to right, Konstancia Figlerowicz, Wiktoria Zagata; SECOND ROW FORWARD (standing), left to right, Wanda Czerniak, Zofia Zagata, Marya Mielcarek, Marta Stenclik; THIRD ROW FORWARD (seated), left to right, Marya Dylewska, Anna Czaban, Marta Chudziska, Anna Sykut, Marya Zajaczek; FOREGROUND, left to right, Marya Sokolska, Stanislawa Dukowska, Instructures.
Polish Falconettes, circa 1913.
Following the American Civil War, ethnic Poles, drawn to the Commonwealth's coal and steel towns and the prospects for better lives, were among the largest group of foreign immigrants to Pennsylvania. By 1900, an estimated 50,000 Poles lived in the Pittsburgh, with tens of thousands more in the outlying industrial communities of the Mon-Ohio Valley. That year an estimated one-third of western Pennsylvania's industrial work force was either Polish or Slovak. Next to Chicago, Pittsburgh on the eve of World War One had the largest Polish population in the United States and was a prominent center of Polish and East-European cultural and political activity-a center of what many thought of as Poland in exile.

An ethnic fraternal society first organized in Chicago in 1887 to promote Polish culture and identity in America, the Polish Falcons emphasized physical culture and fitness, and a respect for heritage. After joining the Polish National Alliance in 1905, which then splintered into a number of separate organizations, a number of these factions reunified in Pittsburgh in 1912. Two years later, new articles of incorporation registered the group as the "Polish Falcons of America." As its April 1914 charter revealed, this social organization now embraced a quite explicit political agenda:

"The object of the Polish Falcon Alliance of America is to regenerate the Polish race in body and spirit and create of the immigrant a National asset, for the purpose of exerting every possible influence towards attaining independence of the fatherland."

Poster showing Kosciuszko and Pulaski, and the Polish flag.
Recruiting poster for the Polish Army, circa 1918.
World War I's outbreak four months later created a crisis for many of America's immigrant communities, especially those with close cultural and family ties to the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Although the Wilson Administration remained officially neutral, tremendous pressure was placed on immigrants and their children to demonstrate loyalty to the United States, and there was widespread suspicion of those said to be "hyphenated Americans." For German-Americans in particular, the European conflict led to official and unofficial persecution in the name of national security-especially after American entry into the war.

For Poles in America, World War I represented an opportunity to realize an independent Polish state, something that had not existed in over a century. Loyalty to their adopted country, the United States of America, need not rule out allegiance to Poland, the land of their forbearers. This was a common sentiment among Eastern-European communities during the war. (In 1918, Slovaks and Czechs in Pittsburgh would sign the markerPittsburgh Agreement, which called for an independent Czechoslovakia to be carved out of Austro-Hungary).

Even before the outbreak of war in 1914, Dr. Theophil Starzynski and other leaders of the Polish Falcons prepared the organization to participate in the war, should it come. Hundreds of members trained at officer schools in Pennsylvania and Canada, and local lodges, called "nests," encouraged the rank-and-file to volunteer. An estimated 7,000 American Poles answered the first call for troops following the American declaration of war in April 1917. As many as 40,000 more served in the U.S. armed forces during the war.

The greatest Polish piano virtuoso and composer of his generation, Ignacy Jan Paderewski had moved the California in 1913, and since the outbreak of World War I been active in the international movement for Polish independence. A beloved figure to American Poles, Paderewski came to Pittsburgh in the summer of 1917 to encourage the formation of a Polish Volunteer Army (PVA) that would help liberate Poland as part of the larger Allied initiative. His international stature within the Polish-American community brought greater visibility to the movement for an independent nation.

The PVA never formed, but more than 25,000 Poles from North America did fight under the auspices of the French government. Known as the "Blekitna Armia," or the "Blue Army," for the color of their uniforms, the Polish Legion fought with the French under the leadership of General Jozef Haller. At the end of the war, the corps, which eventually numbered 100,000 recruits, was recognized as an independent allied army under its own Polish leadership. Transferred east after the Armistice, they continued to fight Russian Bolsheviks in defense of the newly created independent Polish state. In 1919, Paderewski became Prime Minister of the newly independent Poland and signed the Treaty of Versailles in Paris later that year.

The Polish Falcons repeated their support of the United States during the Second World War. By 1941, however, the overwhelming majority of Falcons were American-born, and had less direct personal ties to Poland.

In 2010, there were still more than 100 Falcon "nests" in the United States, most of them spread across the East and Midwest. Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania's industrial towns and cities have remained strong centers of Polish ethnic and cultural heritage, and the Falcons remain a vital force in keeping that ethnic identity alive. The Polish Falcons also remember proudly the important role their fraternal society played in combat during the First World War and in the recreation of an independent Polish state.
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