American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
January 2016
Volume 
44
Issue 
1

My Childhood Memories of Florian Znaniecki

Marcia Kaplan Rudin, writer

Florian and Eileen Znaniecki in July 1956
Credit: 

Florian and Eileen Znaniecki in July 1956 (photo taken by Max Kaplan)

My father, Dr. Max Kaplan, came to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana in 1945 to earn his PhD in sociology. His mentor there was the great Polish sociologist and philosopher, Florian Witold Znaniecki.

I was only five years old when Daddy began his PhD, but I remember the reverence and awe in his voice when he announced he was going to study with this great man. He told my sister, my mother, and I how important Dr. Znaniecki had been in Poland, that he had founded the field of empirical sociology as we know it.

Although I was very young in the early years my father studied and taught at the University of Illinois (U of I), I have memories of Znaniecki, his wife Eileen, and their daughter Helena. Even as a small child I was caught up in my father’s academic life and career, vowing I would become a college professor also. (I did.)

Although youngsters in the mid-1940s and early 1950s did not have smartphones and other electronic devices for amusement, most had toys to play with. I did not. We could not afford them. I remember hearing the figure of $1,000 per year as my father’s income as an instructor teaching freshman sociology courses while pursuing his PhD. Even in the 1940s this was barely a living wage. In addition, no TV set yet graced our home (we didn’t get one until the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings). Most of my “amusement” in those years consisted of joining my parents and their guests in our living room and listening to adult conversations for hours, perhaps contributing to these discussions at times. I remember one of my parents’ friends exclaiming how bright little Marcia was because I sat for hours and absorbed the adult conversation.

Many of these guests were fellow sociology department members, all men in those days, of course, and their wives. Through listening to these conversations at an early age, I became aware of byzantine university and departmental politics well before my own time as an assistant professor at a New Jersey college in the 1960s.

I don’t believe the Znanieckis came to these frequent departmental social gatherings, but they visited us at our house in Champaign several times. And we went to theirs. I have recently viewed slides my father took of Florian and Eileen standing in front of our house on West John Street in Champaign and others he took in the Znaniecki home, where they hosted a wedding shower for my sister Terry in 1956.

Florian Znaniecki and his daughter, Helena Znaniecki Lopata
Credit: 

Florian Znaniecki and his daughter, Helena Znaniecki Lopata

Eileen had been an attorney, but I don’t remember that she worked in those years in Champaign. She was a beautiful woman with sparkling blue eyes. Florian was tall, erect, and dignified, with white hair, a moustache, and high cheekbones. He spoke in a thick Polish accent, forcing people to listen to him carefully. The Znanieckis were extremely proud of their vivacious and brilliant daughter Helena, who later also became a renowned sociologist. I remember their joy when Helena met and became engaged to handsome Richard Lopata, a fellow Polish-American.

World War II had just ended, and many refugees from Europe settled in our small Midwestern town. I don’t recall knowing at that time how Dr. Znaniecki happened to be in America. I have since read he was a visiting professor in the United States and was on his way to Poland when his ship was intercepted and returned to a British port when the Nazis invaded Poland. He returned here, his family still in Poland. I also read about the brief internment of Eileen and little Helena in a concentration camp; they managed to escape the country and fled to freedom with Dr. Znaniecki in America.

I remember fondly Dr. Znaniecki’s sense of humor, grace, and charming old-world ways. But mainly my sister and I recall that he was very, very old and frail. But while writing this memoir I discovered he was only 76 when he died in 1958—one year older than I am now! So during my childhood years he was in his sixties. Of course, people in their sixties were considered old in those days, especially by young children.

He would have been proud of my father’s career. Daddy was a pioneer in the field of community-based arts and the sociological study of leisure time. Even today when I meet people who have taken sociology classes in college, they have often heard of my father or read one of his books. He was a prolific writer and dedicated teacher until the University of South Florida forced him to retire at the tender age of 68. He continued to write articles and books until his death in 1998. Recently two students writing doctoral dissertations about him interviewed me. This felt very bizarre.

I miss my father and those early years in Champaign when I was caught up in university academic life via faculty party gossip most likely unsuitable for a child’s ears. I was privileged to have met and known the great scholar, Dr. Florien Znaniecki.

Editor’s Note

Florian Znaniecki, the 44th President of the American Sociological Association, taught and wrote in Poland and in the United States. He is a major figure in the history of Polish and American sociology.  He made major contributions to sociological theory, introducing terms such as ‘humanistic coefficient’ and ‘culturalism.’ In Poland, he established the first Polish department of sociology at Adam Mickiewicz University where he worked from 1920 to 1939. He taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1942-1950. With William I. Thomas he authored The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-20), which was long considered the foundation of modern empirical sociology.  Aldon Morris’ recent book, The Scholar Denied, has raised questions about the ways systemic and individual racism may have led the discipline to overlook and discount the much earlier contributions of W.E.B. DuBois to the founding of empirical sociology.