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ASA member celebrates 100th birthday …

Professor Feliks Gross: Sociological Humanist

by Jerome Krase, City University of New York-Brooklyn College

Footnotes asked me to write a “brief” (600- to 800-word) article on the life and times of Feliks Gross the oldest living member of the American Sociological Association. That translates to about six to eight words per year, and here is it is:

Brooklyn College Professor Emeritus Feliks Gross celebrated his 100th birthday on June 17, 2006. To mark the occasion, the Academy of Humanities and Sciences of the City University of New York (CUNY) and the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America (PIASA) held special events. The CUNY Academy, which he helped found in 1980, held a special “Feliks Gross Endowment Award” luncheon at CUNY. The honor is given annually to emerging scholars for their research and scholarly achievements. After lunch, friends and colleagues spoke of his contributions to the intellectual life of the university, and the Graduate Center’s President, William P. Kelly, gave the keynote address.

Celebrating a Century

PIASA honored Gross with an exhibition from its archive on his exceptional century- long life. Two sessions at PIASA’s 64th Annual Meeting at Hunter College focused on his life and work. The first session, “Feliks Gross: The Enlightened Pluralist” featured presentations by Jan Kubik, Rutgers University, “The Humanism of Feliks Gross’s Social Science”; an illustrated presentation “Feliks Gross and His Cracovian Roots” by Grazyna Kubica- Heller, Jagiellonian University; and my own, “Feliks Gross: Between Assimilation and Multiculturalism.”

The second session, which I chaired, “Feliks Gross: Teacher, Friend and Colleague,” brought together many former friends, students, and colleagues. Henry Wasser, CUNY Academy on the Humanities and Sciences; Hans Trefousse, Brooklyn College; Joseph Wieczerzak, editor of The Polish Review; and Thaddeus V. Gromada, Executive Director of PIASA spoke about his life and works. His daughter, Eva Gross Friedman was also in attendance as her father was recognized not only for his intellect but also for his exceptional character, charity and respect for people of any social station.

Beginning in Poland

Feliks Gross was born June 17, 1906, in Krakow. At that time Krakow was part of the autonomous Austrian province of Galicia and a vibrant center of Polish intellectual and cultural life. Gross was raised and educated in this city and studied at the esteemed Jagiellonian University where he earned a Doctorate in Jurisprudence. Later, on a fellowship to the University of London, he came to know the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski whose influence led him into the social sciences. As a member of a prominent Jewish Polish family, Gross became a courageous and respected social and political activist as well as a scholar. He was the founder and Director of the Labor Social Science School in Krakow (1934-38), a committed and energetic labor lawyer, and a member of the prewar Polish Socialist Party. Despite all his ample credentials however, he was denied the opportunity for a university appointment as he once put it, “… because of my religion, origin, and political views” (Gross, 1986).

There is no need to explain why he and his wife, Priva, hastily left Poland in 1939, fleeing both Nazis, and, later, Soviet Communists, before making his way to the United States. It is also understandable that, without ignoring its all too many lapses, Gross sees America as a model Civic State; a multiethnic state founded upon the principles of democracy. After settling in New York City, he became a member of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, which was established in 1942 by Malinowski along with other prominent Polish scholars. Gross helped convince Malinowski to become PIASA’s first President. The Institute has served as a democratic and independent beacon for Polish scholars and scholarship until Poland again became “free” in 1989. He and Priva were married for 55 years and he has frequently said that if not for her, he could not have done as much as he did.

Teacher, Author, Awardee, Idealist

From 1946-77, Gross was a faculty member at the Brooklyn College Sociology Department and lectured at the CUNY Graduate Center on political sociology. Over the years his interests expanded to include American issues of civil rights and developing African nations. Over his long career he held positions at the League of Nations, the London School of Economics, Eastern European Planning Board, and lectured at New York University, University of Wyoming, University of Virginia, and the Universities of Florence, Paris, Rome, and the College of Europe. He authored more than 20 books beginning with The Polish Worker (1945) and countless articles, which have been published in many different languages including, Chinese. His Ideologies Goals and Values (1985) is an important synthesis of his work. During the last decade, he published The Civic and the Tribal State (1998), Citizenship and Ethnicity (1999). His many honors come from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, Order of Polonia Restituta, Polish National Archive, and the Phoenix King of Greece. Gross also received awards from the Public Affairs, Sloan, Rockefeller, Fulbright, and Columbia University Foundations.

For Feliks Gross the answer to the question of what makes it possible for people who are different from each other to live in peace has been a perennial quest. He notes that diverse groups can be bound together by coercive means, but that to do so with consensus calls for different techniques and principles. “Such an association of different peoples, ethnic groups with equal rights for all, free of discrimination by public authorities, necessitates the need for a common bond that would embrace all, a broad bond, and in the hierarchy of accepted standards, one that rises above ethnic or racial identification; in a word, a common denominator for all. Citizenship is such a bond; it is also a vital common denominator” (Gross, 1999).

References

Gross, Feliks. 1986. “Young Malinowski and His Later Years.” American Ethnologist 13:556–70.

Gross, Feliks. 1999. Citizenship and Ethnicity: The Growth and Development of a Democratic Multiethnic Institution. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.