Thursday, October 15, 2009

Warren Harding

Yes, friends, today marks another exciting round of Guess the Obscure Seventies Song Reference!  Here's how we play:  the title of today's posting is also the title of an obscure song from the Seventies.  Your task is to identify the performer or performers who created the tune.  Are your ready!  OK, let's play!

Give up?  It's Al Stewart, Scotland born and Bournemouth raised, the great singer of "history songs," including "Constantinople", "The Last Day of June, 1934", "Roads to Moscow", and of course, "Warren Harding", a peppy little number, driven rather incongruously by steel drums, paralleling the rise of an immigrant turned small-time bootlegger, and the fall of America's most corrupt president (a notorious gambler, boozer and grafter, whose prodigious womanizing, according to one historian, "makes John Kennedy and Bill Clinton look like Dominican friars.")  Al Stewart continues to release beautifully written, exquisitely played music.  While more famous contemporaries are content to be slightly creepy nostalgia acts (can you believe there was once a time when Elton John was taken seriously as a singer-songwriter?), Al Stewart is still creating art that is relevant, thought-provoking, and just plain wonderful.  Spend some money.  Buy "A Beach Full of Shells" or "Between the Wars" or just about anything else in his catalog.  You won't regret it.

In "Warren Harding", a recently landed immigrant complains, "I got no shoes upon my feet, I've been all day with nothing to eat, It sure gets hard down here in the street, but I know where I'm gonna be..."  He gets there, security and stature, the American Dream, by getting involved in the bootlegging business.  The immigrant scrambles to make it, while the old order, the Warren Hardings, "play cards in a smoke filled room, winning and losing, filling the time."

Americans are fascinated by immigrants.  We're scared to death of them, demonize them at every opportunity, but we can't stop looking.  They come here, usually poor and always desperate, speaking languages unfamiliar to us, looking unlike the rest of us, eating strange foods and practicing strange customs.  Old Mr. Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life" dismisses the immigrant customers of Bailey Building and Loan as "a bunch of garlic eaters."  He wasn't, of course, adverse to moving their house notes over to his bank: It doesn't matter what color you are, so long as your cash is green.

It has always been this way.  Benjamin Franklin spoke out against anti-German movements, way back in the 1760's.  The Palatines, Germanic people who settled in the Mohawk River Valley, were often ostracized and mistreated.  A few years back, historian Eric Rauchway wrote a fascinating book called Murdering McKinley, which examined the ways that anarchist Leon Czolgosz's assasination of the president unleashed a storm of pent-up mistrust of eastern European immigrants, particularly Poles and, since they were central to the anarchist movement, Jews.  The anti-Catholic "No Nothing" movement in the 1850s, the efforts to outlaw the Mormon Church (its phenomenal 19th century growth driven in large part by the emmigration of thousands of European converts), organized opposition to Irish and Italian immigration in the 19th and early 20th century are all examples of the fear that drives us when a stranger comes to the table.

What is amazing about the immigrant is that somehow, no matter the opposition, he finds a way not only to become accepted into American culture, but to become a driving force in that culture.  It seems silly today, but there was a time in this country when sane, responsible citizens were convinced that the Pope had orchestrated the influx of thousands of his Polish, Italian, and Irish followers, and had given them clear instructions to procreate, procreate, procreate in order to drive the White Race into extinction, and remake the United States as a Catholic homeland.  Last time I checked, we aren't speaking some sad pidgin mash-up of Italian, Polish, and English, delivered in a thick brouge -- "Sure and I'ma gonna buy me some kielbasa down to the wee drogheria, you bet! Abbondanza!" -- and the Pope doesn't run the government.  Our culture has been changed: from the Marx Brothers to Frank Sinatra to Stan Musial to Carlos Santana to Duke Ellington to Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, immigrants and their children and children's children have lifted us, improved us, made us more American. 

On May 24, 1911, a seventeen year old boy named Piotr Litwin landed at Ellis Island.  He was from a little farming community, a tiny spot on the map called Wylewa, in southeastern Poland, less than 20 miles from the Ukrainian border.  He was five feet, one inch tall, had black hair and brown eyes, and was in good health.  He told government inspectors that he been a farm hand in Poland, and that he was headed to Tonawanda, New York, to live with his father, Jan Litwin.

Piotr traveled with three others, all from Wylewa or from a neighboring village called Dobra.  There was Leon Bumoski, age 25, Adam Kwansicwicz, and Pavel Rojek, both seventeen years old.  (The last names may not be spelled correctly; the documents are very, very hard to read, as if the person writing things down was in a big hurry.)  Leon, the oldest, was a red head, with grey eyes.  The other two boys were fair, blonde haired and blue eyed.  They had come across the Atlantic on the SS Bremen, a ship that a year later would pass through the debris field left ny the sinking of the Titanic, passengers and crew reporting that hundreds of frozen corpses were floating on the ocean surface.

The Bremen in her prime

The Bremen was a workhorse, employed to transport the poor, the tired, the huddled masses from the docks of northern Germany to America's golden door.  Piotr would have seen all of it: the turrets and towers of Coney Island's pleasure palaces; the endless wharves and docks of Brooklyn and red Hook; the great throbbing energy of Manhattan; the verdigris colossus, raising her torch just for him.  He surely spoke not a word of English, this child, this farm boy, but those sights made his eyes shine and put a thrill down his spine and made him believe that God was in His heaven and anything was possible.

He appears to make quick progress, one he arrives in North Tonawanda.  The Poles lived, for the most part, in the Avenues.  If massive, red bricked OLC Church was the heart of the neighborhood, then Oliver Street was its circulatory system, the street lined with delis and butchers and barbers and bakeries.  Across the street from the parish there was a pharmacist.  A few doors up the street was the hardware store.  A few blocks the other way was the Dom Polski hall, the influential community organization.  Go back the other way, and there was the sprawling Buffalo Bolt factory; if you didn't work there yourself, you had a son or daughter or husband or wife who did.  (It seems like Avenue resident in the records of the era lists his or her employer as "B B Inc.")  Piotr was part of all of this, part of this city within a city, this place where you were as likely to hear Polish as English, and where the aroma of dinner cooking as often as not carried the scent of fried onions and stewing cabbage.

On 10 February 1915, Piotr married Rosalia Rusin, herself an immigrant girl, in OLC Church:

Image kindly provided by Steve Litwin

In 1920, they were living in a house on Seventh Avenue, sharing the property with two other families.  Their family now included Mary, Helen, and Joseph, and Piotr and Rosalia were now Peter and Rose.  The census records show that they still claimed Polish as their spoken language, but their Americanization was in full swing:  the census recorder had initially listed "Polish" as the preferred language of little Mary, Helen, and Joseph, but the entry is marked out with a large, black "X", as if the parents had corrected him, had insisted that no, we speak Polish, but our children are English speakers.  They are Americans.

By 1927, Peter had moved the family to a place of their own, at 671 Oliver Street.  He was no longer working at the bolt factory; a city directory lists his occupation as "barber" (but we all know that story!).  In the 1930 census, the Litwin family has grown to include four more children: Sophie; Roman (also known as Ray); Henry ("Uncle Jumbo); and Alice (another child, Loretta, or Lolly, was yet to come).  He lists the value of his home at $5400, the equivalent of about $70,000 today.  He was active in his parish, and at Dom Polski.  He was a member of the Tonawandas chapter of the St. Joseph Society, a benevolent association that provided insurance, scholarships, and cultural opportunities for Polish-American immigrants and their children:

Peter is front row, second from left.  The man to his left may be Joseph Cyrna, his maternal grandfather.
Photo is kindly provided by Steve Litwin

Peter remade himself, from Polish farmboy to immigrant factory worker to respected, successful American small businessman.  One of his children, Ray, was a member of the US Army Air Corps, defending America in the European Theater.  His grandchildren and great-grandchildren have become poets and teachers, physicians and attorneys, mothers and musicians and small businessmen themselves.  They are, to their boots, American.  They are because Piotr saw the possibilities, took the chances, knew where he needed to be, and said, "I am Peter now."

The next time you think it's a good idea to build a fence on our southern border, or you get disgusted because the guy waiting on you at the grocery store struggles with his English, you remember Piotr Litwin, and understand that these new immigrants, this army of Juans and Kofis and Tuans and Gamals are the kinsmen of the all the Piotrs who came before them.  They know where they want to be, what they want for their children, and soon enough they will be John and Charley and Tom and Gary, and their children will be laughing and talking in English, dreaming in English, and we will be the better for it, the richer for it.

 (One important note.  There are actually two Peter Litwins who lived in North Tonawanda.  One was our ancestor.  The other, who lived 696 Oliver Street in 1927, and on Seventh Avenue in 1930, was married to Anna, and had children named Francis, Florenz, Edward and Stanley.  There have been many instances where I believe that our Peter Litwin has been mistaken for this Peter Litwin by family history researchers.)



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