My Fulbright Studies in Polish History

By Michal Wilczewski, LAS PhD candidate in the Department of History

I am no stranger to Poland. Between 1989 and 2010, I can count 10 personal visits to my family’s farm in a small village called Makowo, a few kilometers from the northeastern city of BiaƂystok. Since I was born and raised in Queens, New York, those summers in Makowo were a retreat for me because I could escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city to the quiet solitude of what seemed an otherwise unremarkable place. Despite the fact that Makowo was and still is vastly different from my “normal,” it has in many ways become a second home to me.

Though I certainly did not recognize it then, those summers set the stage for my interest in pursuing a graduate education in history. I wanted to unearth the past through the lives of real people whose stories had been otherwise silenced. It was no surprise, then, when I decided that not only did I want to study Polish history, but especially the history of Polish-speaking rural society.

I came to LAS in 2011 largely because of the strength of the Polish Studies Program. With the support and assistance of the outstanding faculty in Polish Studies and in the Department of History, I have been able to study abroad in Poland every summer since I started my PhD work, spending my days conducting research in archives across the country. When I decided to apply for fellowships, those study abroad trips were critical to my fellowship applications because I could already identify which archival collections in Poland would be important to explore for my PhD work.

Michal Wilczewski

Michal Wilczewski

It all paid off when after a long year of writing fellowship applications and waiting not-so-patiently for responses, I was informed that I had won a Fulbright IIE (Institute for International Education) Student Research Fellowship. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program and awards grants for students to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, or teaching opportunities worldwide. I packed my bags and boarded the plane for Warsaw, which was my home for the next 11 months, thanks to my fellowship. Once settled, I began research for my project.

Tentatively entitled, “Broken Land: Everyday Life and the Imperial Legacy in the Polish Countryside, 1914-1939,” my dissertation examines the everyday lives of Polish villagers during World War I and the interwar period. I argue that because Poland was partitioned by the German, Austrian, and Russian empires for over a century, and developed under three different imperial traditions, ordinary Poles had a difficult time reconciling their social and cultural differences once Poland was reconstituted after World War I. As a result, I trace to what extent villagers and the nascent state minimized these differences and created a more socially and culturally unified Poland.

My first stop as a Fulbright Student Research Fellow was the archive of the Polish People’s Party, the historic peasant political party that was founded during the late 19th century in what was then Austrian Poland. There I read through numerous farmers’ memoirs—a rare treat for the scholar of a people who were largely illiterate.

In other archives and libraries across Poland I read newspaper articles, ethnographies, personal letters and poems, and government documents. I found a collection of over 100 questionnaires filled out by rural women about the conditions of their homes, the health of their families, the clothing they wore, the food they ate, and their work schedules. I learned that rural youth were among the most prominent voices for social and cultural change. I also discovered that farmers organized grassroots movements and led reforms, and when those reforms were not realized, they staged strikes that threatened to cripple statewide food supplies. In short, I found that the people who are often considered ordinary and unremarkable were anything but, because they were able to effect social change and influence reforms.

After returning to UIC, I am writing my dissertation with a new appreciation not only for the people I study, but also for my own ancestors who likely participated in the same movements and organizations I am writing about. Their lives, and the lives of countless others, are inscribed between the lines of each letter, memoir, newspaper article, and government document I found. The beauty of history is that I can now give their lives the attention that they deserve, and enter them into the record books.

My successful Fulbright fellowship application would not have been possible without the support and guidance of my advisor, Professor Keely Stauter-Halsted, and Professors Malgorzata Fidelis and the late James Searing who wrote letters of recommendation. Special thanks is also due to Professor Karen Underhill who conducted my language evaluation and to David Halsted who read countless drafts of my proposals. I am grateful to the Fulbright Commission in Warsaw for their help and expertise while abroad and also to the various archivists and librarians who helped guide me toward documents I would have otherwise missed.

To learn more about supporting student opportunities in the Department of History or the Polish Studies Program, please contact Katherine Veach, Assistant Dean for Advancement, at 312.413.3469 or katveach@uic.edu.