Polish Americans

views updated May 18 2018


by Syd Jones


Poland, the seventh largest country in Europe, occupies an area of 120,727 square milessome-what larger than the state of Nevada. Located in east-central Europe, it is bordered to the east by Russia and the Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south, Germany to the west, and the Baltic Sea to the north. Drained by the Vistula and Oder Rivers, Poland is a land of varied land-scapefrom the central lowlands, to the sand dunes and swamps of the Baltic coast, to the mountains of the Carpathians to the south. Its 1990 population of just over 38 million is largely homogeneous ethnically, religiously, and linguistically. Minority groups in the country include Germans, Ukrainians and Belarusans. Ninety-five percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and Polish is the national language. Warsaw, located in the central lowlands, is the nation's capital. Poland's national flag is bicolor: divided in half horizontally, it has a white stripe on the top half and a red one on the bottom. Polish Americans often display a flag similar to this with a crowned eagle at its center.


The very name of Poland harkens back to its origins in the Slavic tribes that inhabited the Vistula valley as early as the second millennium B.C. Migrations of these tribes resulted in three distinct subgroups: the West, East, and South Slavs. It was the West Slavs who became the ancestors of modern Poles, settling in and around the Oder and Vistula valleys. Highly clannish, these tribes were organized in tight kinship groups with commonly held property and a rough-and-ready sort of representative government regarding matters other than military. These West Slavs slowly joined in ever-larger units under the pressure of incursions by Avars and early Germans, ultimately being led by a tribe known as the Polanie. From that point on, these West Slavs, and increasingly the entire region, were referred to as Polania or later, Poland. Under the Polanian duke Mieszko and his Piast dynasty, further consolidation around what is modern Poznan created a true state; and in 966, Mieszko was converted to Christianity. It is this event that is commonly accepted as the founding date of Poland. It is doubly important because Mieszko's conversion to Christianity Roman Catholicismwould link Poland's fortunes in the future to those of Western Europe. The East Slavs, centered at Kiev, were converted by missionaries from the Greek church, which in turn linked them to the Orthodox east.

Meanwhile, the South Slavs had been coalescing into larger units, forming what is known as Little Poland, as opposed to Great Poland of the Piasts. These South Slavs joined Great Poland under Casimir I and for several generations the new state thrived, checking the tide of German expansionism. But from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, the new kingdom became fragmented by a duchy system that created political chaos and civil war among rival princes of the Piast lineage. Following devastations caused by Tatar invasions in the early thirteenth century, Poland was defenseless against a further tide of German settlement. One of the last Piasts, Casimir III, succeeded in reunifying the kingdom in 1338, and in 1386 it came under the rule of the Jagiellonian dynasty when the grand duke of Lithuania married the crown princess of the Piasts, Jadwiga. Known as Poland's Golden Age, the next two centuries of Jagiellonian rule enabled Poland-Lithuania to become the dominant power in central Europe, encompassing Hungary and Bohemia in its sphere of influence and producing a rich cultural heritage for the nation, including the achievements of such individuals as Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernik, 1473-1543). At the same time, Poland enjoyed one of the most representative governments of its day as well as the most tolerant religious climate in Europe.

But with the end of the Jagiellonian dynasty in 1572, the kingdom once again fell apart as the landed gentry increasingly assumed local control, sapping the strength of the central government in Krakow. This state of affairs continued for two centuries until Poland was so weakened that it suffered three partitions: Austria took Galicia in 1772; Prussia acquired the northwestern section in 1793; and Tsarist Russia possessed the northeastern section in 1795). By the end of the three partitions, Poland had been completely wiped off the map of Europe. There would not be an independent Poland again for a century and a half, though a nominal Kingdom of Poland was established within the Russian Empire by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In both Russia and Germany a strict policy of suppression of the Polish language and autonomous education was enforced.

After World War I, an independent Poland was once again re-established. With Josef Pilsudski (1867-1935) as its president and dictator from 1926 to 1935, Poland maintained an uneasy peace with the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. But with the onset of World War II, Poland was the first victim, and once again the nation was subsumed into other countries: Germany and the Soviet Union initially, and then solely under German rule. The Nazis used Poland as a killing ground to subdue and eradicate Polish culture by executing its intellectuals and nobles, and to "settle" the Jewish question once and for all by exterminating the Jews of Europe. In camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau this gruesome strategy was put into effect, and by the end of the war in 1945, Poland had lost a fifth of its population, half of whichover three millionwere Jews.

Liberation, however, did not mean freedom, for after the war Poland fell under the Soviet sphere; a communist state was set up and Poland once again had become a fiefdom to a foreign power. In 1956 Poland's workers went on a general strike in protest to Moscow's heavy-handed domination. Though brutally suppressed, the strike did force Poland's new leader Wladysław Gomułka to relax some of the totalitarian controls imposed by Warsaw and Moscow, and farms were decollectivized. Through successive leadership of Edward Gierek and General Wojciech Jaruzelski, however, the economic conditions worsened and the Poles struggled increasingly for more autonomy from Moscow. By 1980 three events had coincided that would be decisive for Poland's future: the Soviet Union was going bankrupt; Karol Cardinal Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II; and a new and illegal union, Solidarity, had been formed under Lech Wałesa. These last two especially brought Poland into international focus. By 1989, Solidarity won concessions from the government including participation in free elections. After their overwhelming victory, which brought to power their leader Lech Wałesa as President, Solidarity set up a coalition government with the communists; and with the fall of the Soviet Union, Poland along with all of central Europe, regained new breathing room in its heartland. The difficult task now confronting the country is a transformation from a centrally planned economy to a market economy, one that causes enormous dislocations including unemployment and runaway inflation.


Poles numbered among the earliest colonists in the New World and today, as their numbers exceed ten million, they represent the largest of the Slavic groups in America. Though claims have been made for Poles sailing with Viking ships exploring the New World before 1600, there is no hard evidence to support them. By 1609, however, Polish immigrants do appear in the annals of Jamestown, having been recruited by the colony as skilled craftsmen to create products for export. These immigrants were integral in the establishment of both the glassmaking and woodworking industries in the new colonies. An early Polish explorer, Anthony Sadowski, set up a trading post along the Mississippi River which later became the city of Sandusky, Ohio. Two other names of note occur in the early history of what would become the American republic: the noblemen Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746-1817) and Casimir Pułaski (1747-1779) both fought on the rebel side in the Revolutionary War. Pulaski, killed in the battle of Savannah, is still honored by Polish AmericansPolonia as the ethnic community is referred toby annual marches on October 11, Pulaski Day.


Since the times of those earliest Polish settlers romantics, adventurers and men simply seeking a better economic lifethere have been four distinct waves of immigration to the United States from Poland. The first and smallest, occasioned by the partitioning of Poland, lasted from roughly 1800 to 1860 and was largely made up of political dissidents and those who fled after the dissolution of their national homeland. The second wave was far more significant and took place between 1860 and World War I. Immigrants during this time were in search of a better economic life and tended to be of the rural class, so-called za chleben (for bread) emigrants. A third wave lasted from the end of World War I through the end of the Cold War and again comprised dissidents and political refugees. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and Poland's democratic reforms, there has been yet a fourth wave of a seemingly more temporary immigrant group, the wakacjusze, or those who come on tourists visas but find work and stay either illegally or legally. These economic immigrants generally plan to earn money and return to Poland.

The first wave of immigrants, from approximately 1800 to 1860, was largely made up of intellectuals and lesser nobility. Not only the partitioning of Poland, but insurrections in 1830 and 1863 also forced political dissidents from their Polish homeland. Many fled to London, Paris and Geneva, but at the same time New York and Chicago also received its share of such refugees from political oppression. Immigration figures are always a problematic issue, and those for Polish immigrants to the United States are no different. For much of the modern era there was no political entity such as Poland, so immigrants coming to America had an initial difficulty in describing their country of origin. Also, there was with Poles, more so than other ethnic immigrant groups, more back-and-forth travel between host country and home country. Poles have tended to save money and return to their native country in higher numbers than many other ethnic groups. Additionally, minorities within Poland who immigrated to the United States confuse the picture. Nonetheless, what numbers that exist from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service records indicate that fewer than 2,000 Poles immigrated to the United States between 1800 and 1860.

The second wave of immigration was inaugurated in 1854 when about 800 Polish Catholics from Silesia founded Panna Maria, a farming colony in Texas. This symbolic opening of America to the Poles also opened the flood gates of immigration. The new arrivals tended to cluster in industrial cities and towns of the Midwest and Middle Atlantic StatesNew York, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louiswhere they became steelworkers, meatpackers, miners, and later autoworkers. These cities still retain their large contingents of Polish Americans. A lasting legacy of these Poles in America is the vital role they played in the growth and development of the U.S. labor movement, Joseph Yablonski of the United Mine Workers only one case in point.

Confusion over exact numbers of Polish immigrants again becomes a problem during this period, with large under reporting, especially during the 1890s when immigration was highest. Most agree, however, that between mid-nineteenth century and World War I, some 2.5 million Poles immigrated to the United States. This wave of immigration can be further broken down to two successive movements of Poles from different regions of their partitioned country. The first to come were the German Poles, who tended to be better educated and more skilled craftsmen than the Russian and Austrian Poles. High birthrates, overpopulation, and large-scale farming methods in Prussia, which forced small farmers off the land, all combined to send German Poles into emigration in the second half of the nineteenth century. German policy vis-a-vis restricting the power of the Catholic church also played a part in this exodus. Those arriving in the United States totalled roughly a half million during this period, with numbers dwindling by the end of the century.

However, just as German Polish immigration to the United States was diminishing, that of Russian and Austrian Poles was just getting underway. Again, overpopulation and land hunger drove this emigration, as well as the enthusiastic letters home that new arrivals in the United States sent to their relatives and loved ones. Many young men also fled from military conscription, especially in the years of military build-up just prior to and including the onset of World War I. Moreover, the journey to America itself had become less arduous, with shipping lines such as the North German Line and the Hamburg American Line now booking passage from point to point, combining overland as well as transatlantic passage and thereby simplifying border crossings. Numbers of Galician or Austrian Poles total approximately 800,000, and of Russian Polesthe last large immigration contingent another 800,000. It has also been estimated that 30 percent of Galician and Russian Poles arriving between 1906 and 1914 returned to their homelands.

The influx of such large numbers of one ethnic group was sure to cause friction with the "established" Americans, and during the last half of the nineteenth century history witnesses intolerance toward many of the immigrants from divergent parts of Europe. That the Poles were strongly Catholic contributed to such friction, and thus Polonia or the Polish Americans formed even tighter links with each other, relying on ethnic cohesiveness not only for moral support, but financial, as well. Polish fraternal, national, and religious organizations such as the Polish National Alliance, the Polish Union, the Polish American Congress, and the Polish Roman Catholic Union have been instrumental in not only maintaining a Polish identity for immigrants, but also in obtaining insurance and home loans to set the new arrivals on their own feet in their new country. Such friction abated as Poles assimilated in their host country, to be supplanted by new waves of immigrants from other countries. Polish Americans have, however, continued to maintain a strong ethnic identity into the late twentieth century.

With the end of World War I and the re-establishment of an independent Polish state, it was believed that there would be a huge exodus of Polish immigrants returning to their homeland. Such an exodus did not materialize, though immigration over the next generation greatly dropped off. U.S. immigration quotas imposed in the 1920s had much to do with this, as did the Great Depression. But political oppression in Europe between the wars, displaced persons brought on by World War II, and the flight of dissidents from the communist regime did account for a further half million immigrants many of them refugeesfrom Poland between 1918 and the late 1980s and the fall of communism.

The fourth wave of Polish immigration is now underway. This is comprised mostly of younger people who grew up under communism. Though not significant in numbers because of immigration quotas, this newest wave of post-Cold War immigrants, whether they be the short-term workers, wakacjusze, or long-term residents, continue to add new blood to Polish Americans, ensuring that the ethnic community continues to have foreign-born Poles among its contingent. Estimates from the 1970 census placed the number of either foreign born Poles or native born with at least one Polish parent at near three million. Over eight million claimed Polish ancestry in their background in the 1980 census and 9.5 million did so in the 1990 census, 90 percent of whom were concentrated in urban areas. A large part of such identity and cohesiveness was the result of outside conditions. It has been noted that initial friction between Polish immigrants and "established" Americans played some part in this inward looking stance. Additionally, such commonly held beliefs as folk culture and Catholicism provided further incentives for communalism. Newly arrived Poles generally had their closest contacts outside Polish Americans with their former European neighbors: Czechs, Germans, and Lithuanians. Over the years there has been a degree of friction specifically between the Polish American community and Jews and African Americans. However, during the years of partition, Polish Americans kept alive the belief in a free Poland. Such cohesiveness was further heightened in the Polish American community during the Cold War, when Poland was a satellite of the Soviet Union. But since the fall of the Soviet empire and with free elections in Poland, this outer threat to the homeland is no longer a factor in keeping Polish Americans together. The subsequent increase in immigration of the fourth wave of younger Poles escaping difficult transition times at home has added new numbers to immigrants in the United States, but it is yet to be seen what their effect will be on Polish Americans. As yet, these recent immigrants have played no part in the power structurenot being members of the fraternal organizations. What their effect in the future will be is unclear.

Acculturation and Assimilation

In a society so homogenized by the effects of mass media, such ethnic enclaves as the amorphous reaches of Polish Americans is clearly affected. Despite the recent emphasis on multiculturalism and a resurgent interest in ethnic roots, Polish Americans like other ethnic groups become assimilated more and more rapidly. Using language as a

"W e wanted to be Americans so quickly that we were embarrassed if our parents couldn't speak English. My father was reading a Polish paper. And somebody was supposed to come to the house. I remember sticking it under something. We were that ashamed of being foreign."

Louise Nagy in 1913, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).

measure, it can be seen how quickly such absorption occurs. In a 1960 survey of children of Polish ethnic leaders, 20 percent reported that they spoke Polish regularly. By 1990, however, the U.S. census reported that only 750,000 Polish Americans spoke Polish in the home.

As part of the European emigration, Polish immigrants have had an easier time racially than many other non-European groups in assimilating or blending into the American scene. But this is only a surface assimilation. Culturally, the Polish contingent has held tightly to its folk and national roots, making Polonia more than simply a name. It has been at times a country within a country, Poland in the New World. By and large, Poles have competed well and succeeded in their new homeland; they have thrived and built homes and raised families, and in that respect have participated in and added to the American dream. Yet this process of assimilation has been far from smooth as witnessed by one fact: the Polish joke. Such jokes have at their core a negative representation of the Poles as backward and uneducated simpletons. It is perhaps this stereotype that is hardest for Polish Americans to combat, and is a legacy of the second wave of immigrants, the largest contingent between 1860 and 1914 made up of mostly people from Galicia and Russia. Though recent studies have shown Polish Americans to have high income levels as compared to British, German, Italian, and Irish immigrant groups, the same studies demonstrate that they come in last in terms of occupation and education. For many generations, Polish Americans in general did not value higher education, though such a stance has changed radically in the late twentieth century. The professions are now heavily represented with Polish Americans as well as the blue collar world. Yet the Polish joke persists and Polish Americans have been actively fighting it in the past two decades with not only educational programs but also law suits when necessary. The days of Polish Americans anglicizing their names seem to be over; along with other ethnic groups Polish Americans now talk of ethnic pride.


It had been noted that clans and kinship communities were extremely important in the early formation of Slavic tribes. This early form of communalism has been translated into today's world by the plethora of Polish American fraternal organizations. By the same token, other traditions out of the Polish rural and agrarian past still hold today.

Gospodarz may well be one of the prettiest sounding words in the Polish languageto a Pole. It means a landowner, and it is the land that has always been important in Poland. Ownership of land was one of the things that brought the huge influx of Poles to the United States, but less than ten percent achieved that dream, and these were mainly the German Poles who came first when there was still a frontier to carve out. The remaining Poles were stuck in the urban areas as wage-earners, though many of these managed to save the money to buy a small plot of land in the suburbs. Contrasted to this is the Górale, or mountaineer. To the lowlanders of Greater Poland, the stateless peoples of the southern Carpathians represented free human spirit, unbridled by convention and laws. Both of these impulses runs through the Polish peoples and informs their customs.

An agrarian people, many Poles have traditions and beliefs that revolve around the calendar year, the time for sowing and for reaping. And inextricably linked to this rhythm is that of the Catholic church whose saints' days mark the cycle of the year. A strong belief in good versus evil resulted in a corresponding belief in the devil: witches who could make milk cows go dry; the power of the evil eye, which both humans and animals could wield; the belief that if bees build a hive in one's house, the house will catch on fire; and the tradition that while goats are lucky animals, wolves, crows and pigeons all bring bad luck.


Polish proverbs display the undercurrents of the Polish nature, its belief in simple pragmatism and honesty, and a cynical distrust of human nature: When misfortune knocks at the door, friends are asleep; the mistakes of the doctor are covered by the earth; the rich man has only two holes in his nose, the same as the poor man; listen much and speak little; he whose coach is drawn by hope has poverty for a coachman; if God wills, even a cock will lay an egg; he who lends to a friend makes an enemy; no fish without bones; no woman without a temper; where there is fire, a wind will soon be blowing.


The diet of Polish Americans has also changed over the years. One marked change from Poland is the increased consumption of meat. Polish sausages, especially the kielbasa garlic-flavored pork sausagehave become all but synonymous with Polish cuisine. Other staples include cabbage in the form of sauerkraut or cabbage rolls, dark bread, potatoes, beets, barley, and oatmeal. Of course this traditional diet has been added to by usual American fare, but especially at festivities and celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, Polish Americans still serve their traditional food. Polish Americans have, in addition to the sausage, also contributed staples to American cuisine, including the breakfast roll, bialys, the babka coffeecake, and potato pancakes.


Traditional clothing is worn less and less by Polish Americans, but such celebrations as Pulaski Day on October 11 of each year witness upwards of 100,000 Polish Americans parading between 26th Street and 52nd Street in New York, many of them wearing traditional dress. For women this means a combination blouse and petticoat covered by a full, brightly colored or embroidered skirt, an apron, and a jacket or bodice, also gaily decorated. Headdress ranges from a simple kerchief to more elaborate affairs made of feathers, flowers, beads, and ribbons decorating stiffened linen. Men also wear headdresses, though usually not as ornate as the women'sfelt or straw hats or caps. Trousers are often white with red stripes, tucked into the boots or worn with mountaineering moccasins typical to the Carpathians. Vests or jackets cover white embroidered shirts, and the favorite colors replicate the flag: red and white.


In addition to Pulaski Day, which President Harry Truman decreed an official remembrance day in 1946, Polish American celebrations consist mainly of the prominent liturgical holidays such as Christmas and Easter. The traditional Christmas Eve dinner, called wigilia, begins when the first star of the evening appears. The dinner, which is served upon a white tablecloth under which some straw has been placed, consists of 12 meatless coursesone for each of the apostles. There is also one empty chair kept at the table for a stranger who might chance by. This vigil supper begins with the breaking of a wafer, the oplatek, and the exchange of good wishes; it moves on to such traditional fare as apple pancakes, fish, pierogi or a type of filled dumpling, potato salad, sauerkraut and nut or poppy seed torte for dessert. To insure good luck in the coming year one must taste all courses, and there must also be an even number of people at the table to ensure good health. The singing of carols follows the supper. In Poland, between Christmas Eve and the Epiphany (January 6, or "Three Kings") "caroling with the manger" takes place in which carolers bearing a manger visit neighbors and are rewarded with money or treats. In Poland, the Christmas season comes to a close with Candelmas day on February 2, when the candles are taken to church to be blessed. It is believed that these blessed candles will protect the home from sickness or bad fortune.

The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is celebrated by much feasting. Poles traditionally fried pą1451czki (fruit-filled doughnuts) in order to use the sugar and fat in the house before the long fast of Lent. In the United States, especially in Polish communities, the day before Ash Wednesday has become popularized as Pączki Day; Poles and non-Poles alike wait in line at Polish bakeries for this pastry. Easter is an especially important holiday for Polish Americans. Originally an agrarian people, the Poles focussed on Easter as the time of rebirth and regeneration not only religiously, but for their fields as well. It marked the beginning of a farmer's year. Consequently, it is still celebrated with feasts which include meats and traditional cakes, butter molded into the shape of a lamb, and elaborately decorated eggs (pisanki ), and a good deal of drinking and dancing.


There are no documented health problems specific to Polish Americans. Initially skeptical of modern medicine and more likely to try traditional home cures, Polish Americans soon were converted to the more modern practices. The creation of fraternal and insurance societies such as the Polish National Alliance in 1880, the Polish Roman Catholic Union in 1873, and the Polish Women's Alliance in 1898, helped to bring life insurance to a larger segment of Polonia. As with the majority of Americans, Polish Americans acquire health insurance at their own expense, or as part of a benefits package at their place of employment.


Polish is a West Slavic language, part of the Lekhite subgroup, and is similar to Czech and Slovak. Modern Polish, written in the Roman alphabet, stems from the sixteenth century. It is still taught in Sunday schools and parochial schools for children. It is also taught in dozens of American universities and colleges. The first written examples of Polish are a list of names in a 1136 Papal Bull. Manuscripts in Polish exist from the fourteenth century. Its vocabulary is in part borrowed from Latin, German, Czech, Ukrainian, Belarusan, and English. Dialects include Great Polish, Pomeranian, Silesian and Mazovian. Spelling is phonetic with every letter pronounced. Consonants in particular have different pronunciation than in English. "Ch," for example is pronounced like "h" in horse; "j" is pronounced like "y" at the beginning of a word; "cz" is pronounced "ch" as in chair; "sz" is pronounced like "sh" as in shoe; "rz" and "z" are pronounced alike as the English "j" in jar; and "w" is pronounced like the English "v" in victory. Various diacriticals are also used in Polish: "ż," "ź," "ń," "ć," "ś," "ą," "ę," and "ł."


Typical Polish greetings and other expressions include: Dzien dobry ("gyen dobry")Good morning; Dobry wieczor ("dobry viechoor")Good evening; Dowidzenia ("dovidzenyah")Good-bye; Dozobaczenia ("dozobahchainya")Till we meet again; Dziekuje ("gyen-kuyeh")Thank you; Przepraszam ("psheprasham")I beg your pardon; Nie ("nyeh")No; Tak ("tahk")Yes.

Family and Community Dynamics

Typically, the Polish family structure is strongly nuclear and patriarchal. However, as with other ethnic groups coming to America, Poles too have adapted to the American way of life, which means a stronger role for the woman in the family and in the working world, with a subsequent loosening of the strong family tie. Initially, single or married men were likely to immigrate alone, living in crowded quarters or rooming houses, saving their money and sending large amounts back to Poland. That immigration trend changed over the years, to be replaced by family units immigrating together. In the 1990s, however, the immigration pattern has come full circle, with many single men and women coming to the United States in search of work.

Until recently, Polish Americans have tended to marry within the community of Poles, but this too has changed over the years. A strong ethnic identity is maintained now not so much through shared traditions or folk culture, but through national pride. As with many European immigrant groups, male children were looked upon as the breadwinners and females as future wives and mothers. This held true through the second wave of immigrants, but with the third wave and with second and third generation families, women in general took a more important role in extra-familial life.

As with many other immigrant groups, the Poles maintain traditions most closely in those ceremonies for which the community holds great value: weddings, christenings and funerals. Weddings are no longer the hugely staged events of Polish heritage, but they are often long and heavy-drinking affairs, involving several of the customary seven steps: inquiry and proposal; betrothal; maiden evening and the symbolic unbraiding of the virgin's hair; baking the wedding cake; marriage ceremony; putting to bed; and removal to the groom's house. Traditional dances such as the krakowiak, oberek, mazur, and the zbo'jnicki will be enjoyed at such occasions, as well as the polka, a popular dance among Polish Americans. (The polka, however, is not a Polish creation.) Also to be enjoyed at such gatherings are the national drink, vodka, and such traditional fare as roast pork, sausages, barszcs or beet soup, cabbage rolls and poppy seed cakes.

Christenings generally take place within two weeks of the birth on a Sunday or holiday; and for the devoutly Catholic Poles, it is a vital ceremony. Godparents are chosen who present the baby with gifts, more commonly money now than the traditional linens or caps of rural Poland. The christening feast, once a multi-day affair, has been toned down in modern times, but still involves the panoply of holiday foods. The ceremony itself may include a purification rite for the mother as well as baby, a tradition that goes back to the pre-Christian past.

Funerals also retain some of the old traditions. The word death in Polish (śmierċ) is a feminine noun, and is thought of as a tall woman draped in white. Once again, Catholic rites take over for the dead. Often the dead are accompanied in their coffins by strong shoes for the arduous journey ahead or by money as an entrance fee to heaven. The funeral itself is followed by a feast or stypa which may also include music and dancing.


Education has also taken on more importance. Where a primary education was deemed sufficient for males in the early years of the twentieth century much of it done in Catholic schoolsthe value of a university education for children of both sexes now mirrors the trend for American society as a whole. A 1972 study from U.S. Census statistics showed that almost 90 percent of Polish Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 had graduated from high school, as compared to only 45 percent of those over age 35. Additionally, a full quarter of the younger generation, those between the ages 25 and 34, had completed at least a four-year university education. In general, it appears that the higher socio-economic class of the Polish American, the more rapid is the transition from Polish identity to that of the dominant culture. Such rapid change has resulted in generational conflict, as it has throughout American society as a whole in the twentieth century.


Poland is a largely Catholic nation, a religion that survived even under the anti-clerical reign of the communists. It is a deeply ingrained part of the Polish life, and thus immigrants to the United States brought the religion with them, Initially, Polish American parishes were established from simple meetings of the local religious in stores or hotels. These meetings soon became societies, taking on the name of a saint, and later developed into the parish itself, with priests arriving from various areas of Poland. The members of the parish were responsible for everything: financial support of their clergy as well as construction of a church and any other buildings needed by the priest. Polish American Catholics were responsible for the creation of seven religious orders, including the Resurrectionists and the Felicians who in turn created schools and seminaries and brought nuns from Poland to help with orphanages and other social services.

Quickly the new arrivals turned their religious institution into both a parish and an okolica, a local area or neighborhood. There was rapid growth in the number of such ethnic parishes: from 17 in 1870 to 512 only 40 years later. The number peaked in 1935 at 800 and has tapered off since, with 760 in 1960. In the 1970s the level of church attendance was beginning to drop off sharply in the Polish American community, and the use of English in the mass was becoming commonplace. However, the newest contingent of Polish refugees has slowed this trend, raising attendance once again, and helping to restore masses in the Polish language at many churches.

All was not smooth for the Polish American Catholics. A largely Protestant nation in the nineteenth century, America proved somewhat intolerant of Catholics, a fact that only served to separate immigrant Poles from the mainstream even more. Also, within the church, there was dissension. Footing all the bills for the parish, still Polish American Catholics had little representation in the hierarchy. Such disputes ultimately led to the establishment of the Polish National Church in 1904. The founding bishop, Reverend Francis Hodur, built the institution to 34 churches and over 28,000 communicants in a dozen years' time.

Employment and Economic Traditions

As has been noted, the Polish immigrants were largely agrarian except for those intellectuals who fled political persecution, By and large they came the United States hoping to find a plot of land, but instead found the frontier closed and were forced instead into urban areas of the Midwest and Middle Atlantic states where they worked in steel mills, coal mines, meatpacking plants, oil refineries and the garment industry. The pay was low for such work: the average annual income for Polish immigrants in 1910 was only $325. The working day was long, as it was all across America at the time, averaging a ten-hour day. But still Polish Americans managed to save their money and by 1910 it is estimated that these immigrants had been able to send $40 million back to their relatives and loved ones in Russian and Austrian Poland. The amount was so large in fact, that a federal commission was set up to investigate the damages to the U.S. economy that such an outflow of funds might create.

Families pulled together in Polonia, with education coming second to the need for young boys to contribute to the annual income. The need for such economies began to decline after World War I, however, and by 1920 only ten percent of Polish Americans families derived income from the labor of children, and two-thirds were supported by the head of family. Over the years of the twentieth century except for the years of the Great Depressionthe economic situation of Polish Americans has steadily improved, with education taking on increasing importance, creating a parallel rise in Polish Americans in the white collar labor market. By 1970 only four percent were laborers; 23 percent were craftsmen.

Polish Americans have also been important in the formation of labor unions, not only swelling the membership, but also providing leaders such as David Dubinsky of the CIO and, as has been noted, Joseph Yablonski of the United Mine Workers.

Politics and Government

Though heavily concentrated in nine industrial states, Polish Americans did not, until the 1930s, begin to flex their political muscle. Language barriers played a part in this, but more important was the fact that earlier immigrants were too concerned with family and community issues to pay attention to the national political scene. Even in Chicago, where Polish Americans made up 12 percent of the population, they did not elect one of their own to the U.S. Congress until 1920. The first Polish American congressional representative was elected from Milwaukee in 1918.

Increasingly, however, Polish Americans have begun playing a more active role in domestic politics and have tended to vote in large numbers for the Democrats. Al Smith, a Democrat and Roman Catholic who was opposed to Prohibition, was one of the first beneficiaries of the Polish American block vote. Though he lost the election, Smith received an overwhelming majority of the Polish American vote. The Great Depression mobilized Polish Americans even more politically, organizing the Polish American Democratic Organization and supporting the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. By 1944 this organization could throw large numbers of Polish American votes Roosevelt's way and were correspondingly compensated by federal patronage. Prominent Polish American members of congress have been Representatives Dan Rostenkowski and Roman Pucinski, both Democrats from Illinois, and Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland. Maine's Senator Edmund Muskie was also of Polish American heritage.


Internationally Polish Americans have been more active politically than domestically. The Polish National Alliance, founded in 1880, wasin addition to being a mutual aid societya fervent proponent of a free Poland. Such a goal manifested itself in very pragmatic terms: during World War I, Polish Americans not only sent their young to fight, but also the $250 million they subscribed in liberty bonds. Polish Americans also lobbied Washington with the objective of a free Poland in mind. The Polish American Congress (PAC) was created in 1944 to help secure independence for Poland, opposing the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, which established Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. During this same time, Polish American socialists formed the Pro-Soviet Polish American Council, but its power waned in the early years of the Cold War. PAC, however, fought on into the 1980s, supporting Solidarity, the union movement in Poland largely responsible for the downfall of the communist government. Gifts of food, clothing and lobbying in Washington were all part of the PAC campaign for an independent Poland and the organization has been very active in the establishment of a free market system in Poland since the fall of the communist government.

Individual and Group Contributions

Polish Americans comprised only 2.5 percent of the U.S. population according to the 1990 census, but they have influenced the nation's sciences and popular culture in greater proportion.


Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), a pioneer of cultural anthropology, emphasized the concept of culture in meeting humankind's basic needs; he taught at Yale late in his life, after writing such important books as Argonauts of the Western Pacific and The Sexual Life of Savages in Northwestern Melanesia. Linguist Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), born in Warsaw, came to the United States in 1918; his work in linguistics focussed on the power of the different value and meaning of words in different languages in an effort to reduce misunderstanding; he founded the Institute of General Semantics in 1938 in Chicago, and his research and books including Manhood and Humanity and Science and Sanity have been incorporated in modern psychology and philosophy curricula as well as linguistics.


Oleg Cassini, Polish Italian, also made a name in fashion. Ruth Handler (1917 ), co-founder of Mattel toy company and creator of the Barbie doll, was born to Polish immigrant parents in Colorado. William Filene (1830-1901) was born in Posen and founded Boston's Filene department store. Iowa's largest department store, Younker's, was founded by three Polish immigrant brothersSamuel, Marcus, and Lipma Younkerin 1850. The food industry in America has also had prominent Polish Americans among its ranks. Mrs. Paul's Fish is the creation of Polish American Edward J. Piszek (1917 ). Leo Gerstenzang (1923 ) was a Polish immigrant from Warsaw who invented the Q-Tip cotton swab.


Hollywood has had its fair share of Polish-born men and women who have helped to shape that industry, including Harry and Jack Warner of Warner Bros. Entertainers and actors such as Sophie Tucker and Pola Negri also managed to hide their ethnic roots by changing their names. The pianist and performer Liberace (1919-1987), half-Polish and half-Italian, was born Władzie Valentino Liberace. More recently, the Polish-born Hollywood and international cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski has made outstanding contributions.


Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991), the Polish-born novelist, came to the United States after World War II; his Painted Bird relates the experiences of a small boy in Nazi-occupied Poland and is one of the most stirring and troubling novels to come out of that time. The poet Czesław Miłosz (1911 ), naturalized in 1970, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Born in Lithuania of Polish parents, Miłosz studied law and served in the diplomatic corps as well as establishing a name for himself as a poet before immigrating in 1960; some of his best known works are The Captive Mind, The Issa Valley, and The Usurpers. The cartoonist Jules Feiffer (1929 ), known for his offbeat and biting wit, was born to Polish immigrant parents in the United States.


Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), is just one of the musical luminaries to carry on the Ignacy Paderewski tradition; born in London of Polish and Irish parents; Stokowski, a renowned conductor, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1915; he was best known as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years, and for popularizing classical music in America; his appearance in the 1940 Disney film, Fantasia, is an example of such popularizing efforts. The jazz drummer Gene Krupa (1909-1973), the measure for drummers long after, was also of Polish heritage; Krupa was born in Chicago and played with Benny Goodman's orchestra before forming his own band in 1943; he revolutionized the role of the drummer in a jazz band.


In addition to above-mentioned members of congress, two other recent Polish Americans have made their names in Washington. Leon Jaworski (1905-1982) was the prosecutor in the 1973 Watergate investigation of then President Richard Nixon; and Zbigniew Brzezinski, born in Warsaw in 1928 and naturalized in 1958, was an important advisor to President Carter from 1977 to 1980 on the National Security Council.


The biochemist Casimir Funk (1884-1967) was, in 1912, the first to discover and use the term vitamin; his so-called vitamin hypothesis postulated that certain diseases such as scurvy and pellagra resulted from lack of crucial substance in the body; Funk also went on to do research in sex hormones and cancer; he lived in the United States from 1939 until his death. Dr. Stanley Dudrick developed the important new method of vein feeding termed IHV intravenous hyperalimentation.


Many notable Polish Americans have made their names household words in baseball. Included among these are the pitcher Stan Coveleski (1888-1984) whose 17-year career from 1912-1928 earned him a place in the Hall of Fame in 1969; Stan Musial (1920 ), right field, another member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, who played for St. Louis from 1941 to 1963; Carl Yastrzemski (1939 ), left fielder for the Boston Red Sox, was voted to the Hall of Fame in 1989; and Al Simmons (1902-1956), born Aloysius Harry Szymanski, who played center field for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1924-1944. In football there have been numerous outstanding Polish American players and coaches, Chicago's Mike Ditka (1939 ) a stand-out among these, playing as a tight end for the Bears from 1961 to 1972 and later coaching the team to a Super Bowl championship in 1985; a Hall of Fame player, Ditka has most recently worked as a television sports commentator.


Korczak Ziolkowski (1909-1982), an assistant to Gutzon Borglum in the monumental Mount Rushmore project in South Dakota, continued that monumental style with a 500-foot by 640-foot statue of Chief Crazy Horse still being blasted out of solid rock in the Black Hills by his family.



Dziennik Zwiazkowy/Polish Daily News.

Published in Polish, it covers national and international news with a special emphasis on matters effecting the Polish American community.

Contact: Wojciech Bialasiewicz, Editor.

Address: 5711 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60646-6215.

Telephone: (773) 763-3343.

Fax: (773) 763-3825.

E-mail: [email protected]

Gazeta Polska.

Polish-language newspaper.

Address: 5242 West Diversey Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60639.

Telephone: (312) 685-1281.

Fax: (312) 283-1675.


Polish-language newspaper.

Contact: Andrzej Dobrowolski, Editor.

Address: 140 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11222.

Glos Polek/Polish Women's Voice.

Biweekly publication of the Polish Women's Alliance of America.

Contact: Mary Mirecki-Piergies, Editor.

Address: 205 South Northwest Highway, Park Ridge, Illinois 60068.

Fax: (708) 692-2675.

Gwiazda Polarna ( Northern Star ).

Published weekly in Polish, it provides national and international news for the Polish American community as well as information about Polish activities and organizations domestically.

Contact: Malgorzata Terentiew-Cwiklinski, Editor.

Address: 2619 Post Road, Stevens Point, Wisconsin 54481.

Telephone: (715) 345-0744.

Fax: (715) 345-1913.

Narod Polski.

Publication of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America.

Contact: Kathryn G. Rosypal, Editor.

Address: 984 Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60622-4101.

Telephone: (773) 278-3210 or (800) 772-8632.

Fax: (778) 278-4595.

Online: http://www.prcua.org/narod.htm.

New Horizon: Polish American Review.

Contains items of interest to the Polish community.

Contact: B. Wierzbianski, Editor.

Address: 333 West 38th Street, New York, New York 10018-2914.

Telephone: (212) 354-0490.

Nowy Dziennik/Polish Daily News.

Polish-language newspaper.

Contact: Boleslaw Wierzbianski, Editor.

Address: 333 West 38th Street, New York, New York 10018-2914.

Telephone: (212) 594-2266.

Fax: (212) 594-2383

E-mail: [email protected] or [email protected].


A Polish American educational and cultural bimonthly.

Contact: Krystyna Kusielewicz, Editor.

Address: c/o Marta Korwin Rhodes, 7300 Connecticut Avenue, Bethesda, Maryland 20815-4930.

Telephone: (202) 554-4267.

Polish American Journal.

Official organ of the Polish Union of the United States. Published monthly, it covers national, international, and regional news of interest to Polish Americans.

Contact: Mark Kohan, Editor.

Address: 1275 Harlem Road, Buffalo, New York 14206-1960.

Telephone: (716) 893-5771.

Fax: (716) 893-5783.

Polish American Studies.

A journal of the Polish American Historical Association devoted to Polish American history and culture.

Contact: James S. Pula, Editor.

Address: 984 Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60622.

Polish American World.

Published weekly, it reports on activities and events in the Polish American community and on life in Poland.

Contact: Thomas Poskropski, Editor.

Address: 3100 Grand Boulevard, Baldwin, New York 11510.

Telephone: (516) 223-6514.

Polish Digest.

Covers history of Poland, news from Poland, and Polish culture.

Contact: Leszek Zielinski, Editor.

Address: c/o Horyzonty, 1924 North Seventh Street, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 53081-2724.

Telephone: (715) 341-6959.

Fax: (715) 346-7516.

Polish Fest News.

Contact: Ray Trzesniewski, Jr., Editor.

Address: Polish Festivals, Inc., 7128 West Rawson Avenue, Franklin, Wisconsin 53132.

Telephone: (414) 529-2140.

Polish Heritage.

A quarterly review of the American Council for Polish Culture.

Contact: Wallace M. West, Editor.

Address: 6507 107th Terrace, Pinellas Park, Florida 34666-2432.

Telephone: (813) 541-7875.

Polish Heritage Society Biuletyn.

Monthly newsletter of the Polish Heritage Society; encourages the preservation and understanding of Polish and Polish American culture and history.

Contact: Pat McBride, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 1844, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49501-1844.

Telephone: (616) 456-5353.

Fax: (616) 456-8929.

Polish Review.

Scholarly journal of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America devoted to the study of Polish history and culture.

Contact: Joseph W. Wieczerzak, Editor.

Address: 208 East 30th Street, New York, New York 10016.

Telephone: (212) 686-4164.

Fax: (212) 545-1130.

Swiat Polski/Polish World.

Published weekly in Polish.

Contact: Ewa Matuszewski, Editor.

Address: 11903 Joseph Campau Street, Hamtramck, Michigan 48212.

Telephone: (313) 365-1990.

Fax: (313) 365-0850.

E-mail: [email protected].


Published by the Polish National Alliance of North America, contains fraternal, cultural, sports, and general news in Polish and English.

Contact: Wojciech A. Wierzewski, Editor.

Address: 6100 North Cicero Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60646-4385.

Telephone: (773) 286-0500.

Fax: (773) 286-0842.

E-mail: [email protected].



Polish American Programming.

Contact: Tom Wotjkowski.

Address: 100 North Street, Pittsfield, Massachusetts 01201.

Telephone: (413) 442-1553.


"Polka Party."

Contact: Dan Kielbasa.

Address: 6 Genessee Lane, Amsterdam, New York 12010.

Telephone: (518) 843-2500.


"Polish Sunshine Hour."

Contact: Halina Gramza.

Address: 5475 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60630.

Telephone: (312) 631-0700.



"Polevision," a daily two-hour show airs between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. with programs in both Polish and English.

Contact: Robert Lewandowski.

Address: Board of Trade Building, 141 West Jackson Boulevard, Chicago, Illinois 60604.

Telephone: (312) 663-0260.

Organizations and Associations

American Council for Polish Culture (ACPC).

National federation of groups devoted to fostering and preserving Polish ethnic heritage in the United States.

Contact: Dr. Kaya Mirecka-Ploss, Executive Director.

Address: 2025 O Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Telephone: (202) 785-2320.

American Institute of Polish Culture (AIPC).

Furthers knowledge of and appreciation for the history, science, art, and culture of Poland.

Contact: Blanka A. Rosenstiel, President.

Address: 1440 79th Street Causeway, Suite 117, Miami, Florida 33141.

Telephone: (305) 864-2349.

Fax: (305) 865-5150.

Polish American Congress (PAC).

Umbrella organization for local and national Polish organizations in the United States with more than three million combined members. Promotes improved quality of life for Polish Americans and people in Poland.

Contact: Eugene Rosypal, Executive Director.

Address: 5711 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60646-6215.

Telephone: (773) 763-9944.

Fax: (773) 763-7114.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.polamcon.org.

Polish American Historical Association (PAHA).

Concerned with Polish Americana and the history of Poles in the United States.

Address: 984 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60622.

Telephone: (773) 384-3352.

Fax: (773) 384-3799.

Polish Falcons of America.

Founded in 1887, the Polish Falcons have a membership of 31,000 in 143 groups or "nests." Established as a fraternal benefit insurance society for people of Polish or Slavic descent, the Falcons also took on a strong nationalist sentiment, demanding a free Poland. The society promotes athletic and educational events and provides a scholarship fund for those majoring in physical education. The Falcons also publish a bi-monthly publication in Polish, Sokol Polski.

Contact: Wallace Zielinski, President.

Address: 615 Iron City Drive, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15205.

Telephone: (412) 922-2244.

Fax: (412) 922-5029.

Online: http://www.polishfalcons.org.

Polish Genealogical Society of America (PGSA).

Promotes Polish genealogical study and establishes communication among researchers.

Contact: Stanley R. Schmidt, President.

Address: 984 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60622.

E-mail: [email protected]. Online: http://www.pgsa.org.

Polish National Alliance of the United States (PNA).

Founded in 1880, the PNA has a membership of 286,000 made up of nearly 1,000 regional groups. Originally founded as a fraternal life insurance society, PNA continues this original role while also sponsoring education and cultural affairs. It maintains a library of 14,000 volumes.

Contact: Edward Moskal, President.

Address: 6100 North Cicero, Chicago, Illinois 60646-4385.

Telephone: (773) 286-0500 or (800) 621-3723.

Fax: (773) 286-0842.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.pna-znp.org/index.html.

Polish Roman Catholic Union of America.

Founded in 1873, the Roman Catholic Union has a membership of 90,000 in 529 groups. Founded as a fraternal benefit life insurance society, the union sponsors sports and youth activities, and conducts language school as well as dance and children's programs. It also has a library of 25,000 volumes.

Contact: Josephine Szarowicz, Secretary General.

Address: 984 Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago Illinois 60622.

Telephone: (773) 278-3210.

Fax: (773) 278-4595.

Polish Surname Network (PSN).

Collects and disseminates genealogical information on surnames of Polish heritage. Provides fee-based research, research analysis, and translation services.

Contact: Mary S. Hartig, Executive Officer.

Address: 158 South Walter Avenue, Newbury Park, California 91320.

Polish Union of the United States.

Founded in 1890, the Polish Union has a membership of 12,000 in 100 groups. This fraternal benefit life insurance society bestows the Copernicus Award to a student excelling in astronomy. Publishes the monthly Polish American Journal.

Contact: Wallace S. Piotrowski, President.

Address: 4191 North Buffalo Street, Orchard Park, New York 14127-0684.

Telephone: (716) 667-9782.

Polish Women's Alliance of America.

Founded in 1898, the Polish Women's Alliance has a membership of 65,000 in 775 groups or chapters. It is a fraternal benefit life insurance society administered by women and maintains a library of 7,500 volumes on Polish and American culture and history.

Contact: Delphine Lytell, Pres.

Address: 205 South Northwest Highway, Park Ridge, Illinois 60068.

Telephone: (708) 384-1200.

Fax: (847) 384-1222.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.pwaa.org.

Museums and Research Centers

Many public libraries, including the Los Angeles Public Library, New York Public Library/Donnell Library Center, Boston Public Library, Denver Public Library, Miami/Dade Public Library, and the Detroit Public Library, have extensive Polish language collections to serve the Polish American communities.

American Institute for Polish Culture.

Founded in 1972 to promote the appreciation for history, culture, science and art of Poland, the American Institute for Polish Culture sponsors exhibits, lectures, and research and maintains a 1,200-volume library and publishes books on history and biography.

Contact: Blank A. Rosenstiel, President.

Address: 1440 79th Street, Causeway, Suite 403, Miami, Florida 33141.

Telephone: (305) 864-2349.

Center for Polish Studies and Culture.

Founded in 1970 at St. Mary's College, the Center for Polish Studies promotes research in the teaching of Polish and arranges educational exchanges. It also maintains a library, art gallery, and a museum of artifacts from Polish Americans.

Contact: Janusz Wrobel.

Address: St. Mary's College, Orchard Lake, Michigan 48034.

Telephone: (810) 682-1885.

Kosciuszko Foundation.

Founded in 1925, the Kosciuszko Foundation is named after the Polish nobleman who fought in the American revolution. The foundation is a clearing-house for information on Polish and American cultural affairs. Also known as the American Center for Polish Culture, the foundation has a reference library and arranges educational exchanges as well as administers scholarships and stipends.

Contact: Joseph E. Gore, President.

Address: 15 East 65th Street, New York, New York 10021.

Telephone: (212) 734-2130.

Polish Museum of America.

Founded in 1937, the Polish Museum preserves artifacts of the Polish American experience and mounts displays of costumes, religious artifacts and Polish art. It also maintains a 25,000-volume library for researchers and the Polish American Historical Association which is concerned with the history of Poles in America.

Contact: Dr. Christoph Kamyszew, Director and Curator.

Address: 984 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60622.

Sources for Additional Study

Bukowczyk, John. And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish-Americans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Fox, Paul. The Poles in America. New York: Arno Press, 1970.

Lopata, Helena Znaniecka. Polish Americans: Status Competition in an Ethnic Community, second edition. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transactions Publishers, 1974; reprinted, 1994.

Morawska, Ewa. The Maintenance of Ethnicity: A Case Study of the Polish American Community in Greater Boston. San Francisco: R&E Associates 1977.

Renkiewicz, Frank. The Poles in America, 1608-1972: A Chronology and Fact Book. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1973.

Wytrwal, Joseph. America's Polish Heritage: A Social History of the Poles in America. Detroit, Michigan: Endurance Press, 1961.

Zieleniewicz, Andrzej. Poland, translated, revised, and edited by Robert Strybel, Leonard Chrobot, Robert Geryk, Joseph Swastek, and Walter Ziemba. Orchard Lake, Michigan: Center for Polish Studies and Culture, 1971.

Polish Americans

views updated May 17 2018

Polish Americans

ETHNONYMS: Polacy (plural), Polak (masculine singular)/Polka (feminine singular), Polanders, Poles, Polonia


Identification and Location. Polish Americans are ethnic Poles who or whose ancestors migrated to the United States. Of the 9,366,106 persons who reported Polish ancestry in the 1990 U.S. Census, 37 percent lived in the Northeast, an equal percentage lived in the Midwest; 15 percent lived in the South, and 11 percent lived in the West.

Demography. Preliminary estimates of the 2000 U.S. Census estimated 9,050,122 individuals of Polish ancestry in the United States, or 3.3 percent of the total population.

Official statistics for the period 1820-1880 reported 16,656 immigrants from Poland. Until the 1880s Polish immigrants were few and consisted largely of political exiles. There were some exceptions, such as the group of peasants that settled Panna Maria, Texas, in 1854. However, the migration from 1880 to 1914 was a massive economically motivated movement of almost two million persons. This wave culminated in 1912-1913, when 174,365 Poles immigrated, with men outnumbering women two to one. Because of the two world wars and restrictions on population movements by the U.S. and Polish governments, Polish immigration to the United States was numerically at a low level from 1914 to 1988.

Between 1885 and 1972 there were 669,392 nonimmigrant temporary visitors, another 297,590 individuals came to and later left the United States, and 1,780,151 immigrants stayed. Officially, from 1971 to 1997, there were 257,771 immigrants from Poland. In addition, there are those who overstay their visas (the wakacjusze) and become undocumented residents.

Linguistic Affiliation. Polish Americans speak English, a West Germanic language, and Polish, a West Slavic language. Both languages are part of the Indo-European language family, which is part of the Nostratic superfamily. Competency and usage range from bilingualism to monolingualism in one of the languages with knowledge of a few words in the other. In the 1990 U.S. Census 723,000 individuals reported that they spoke Polish at home.

History and Cultural Relations

Poles have been migrating to North America since 1608. Upon arrival, they participated in mainstream American life. Polish American officers and soldiers served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, enlisted on both sides in the Civil War, and fought in both world wars, the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War.

The earliest arrivals were political exiles or adventurers. By the late 1800s and until World War I the majority of Polish immigrants were peasants with little or no formal education who were employed primarily as unskilled laborers. After World War II an increasing number of immigrants were relatively well educated and had urban rather than rural backgrounds. From 1974 to 1984 the typical immigrant was married, twenty-nine to thirty-nine years old, and came from a large city. Ninety percent of these persons were high school or vocational school graduates, and almost a third had a college education.

As a result of its size and settlement patterns in contiguous neighborhoods in cities, Polish American society was oriented inwardly and relatively resistant to assimilation until the 1920s. However, as a significant and increasing proportion of the Polish American population was born in the United States, in the third, fourth, or a later generation some became assimilated into the general population while others maintained their ethnic identity. At the beginning of the twenty-first century Polish Americans participated fully in American society, and some, such as Gloria Swanson, Charles Bronson (Buchinski), and Loretta Swit, gained popularity and fame.


According to estimates based on the 2000 U.S. Census, the states with the largest numbers of Polish Americans are New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Recently, California and Florida gained significant numbers of Polish Americans. The cities with the largest concentrations are Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.

Before World War II Polish American communities were centered on their churches. Poles lived in households that in addition to the owner's family often included one or more boarders. By the turn of the millennium these localized concentrations of Polish Americans were shrinking. At the beginning of the twenty-first century individuals whose ancestors immigrated several generations ago are increasingly assimilating into the larger society. They are dispersing by relocating to the suburbs and no longer settle in ethnic neighborhoods when they move from one city to another. New arrivals from Poland are not sufficiently numerous to maintain large ethnic neighborhoods and, because of their higher levels of education and greater socioeconomic opportunities, are not interested in doing so.


Subsistence. Most Polish Americans buy their everyday food in local supermarkets, restaurants, and fast-food outlets. In the ethnic neighborhoods some stores carry specialty foods and items that reflect Polish tastes and traditions. Restaurants featuring Polish American ethnic foods seem to be more successful in areas where the family's everyday fare no longer consists of Polish dishes. People sometimes indulge in nostalgia by ordering "the foods mother used to make."

What is considered Polish American cuisine was peasant fare in Poland, albeit dishes served on special occasions. As the economic status of Polish immigrants improved, people ate these foods with increasing frequency. Now that many Polish Americans have switched to the foods common in American society, dishes such as czarnina (duck's blood soup),kiełbasa (Polish sausage), kiszka (buckwheat sausage), kluski (noodles),gołçbki (stuffed cabbage rolls), and pierogi (Polish ravioli) are again served only on special occasions.

Commercial Activities. Initially, Polish American commercial activities centered on serving the immigrant community. Grocery stores carried the day-to-day items to which people were accustomed, drugstores stocked herbs used in folk remedies, and neighborhood bars served as centers for socialization with other Poles. Some establishments sold tickets for relatives to come to the United States, and others facilitated the sending of money "back home."

Some businesses still target the needs and preferences of the ethnic community, but the majority of Polish American enterprises are part of the general economy. They range from small businesses such as janitorial and home cleaning services to large enterprises such as Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Industrial Arts. The first record of Polish American industrial activities dates back to 1608, when a glass furnace was constructed and workshops were established for the manufacture of pitch, soap ash, and tar. More recently Polish Americans have made contributions to technology through the work of individuals such as Zbyslaw M. Roehr, inventor of the disposable hypodermic needle, and Tadeusz Sendzimir, holder of more than fifty patents on processes pertaining to the annealing, galvanizing, and continuous rolling of steel that are used by more than a hundred steel works worldwide.

Division of Labor. By 1990, 34 percent of Polish Americans were engaged in administrative support, sales, and technical occupations; 30 percent worked in managerial and professional occupations; 12 percent were fabricators, laborers, and operators; 11 percent worked in services; 11 percent worked in crafts, precision production, and repairs; and 1 percent engaged in farming, fishing, and forestry.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is traced bilaterally with a patrilineal bias. The basic kin unit is the nuclear family consisting of a married couple and its unmarried children. Ties beyond this unit are recognized but have become increasingly inactive as members have dispersed spatially by moving to new locations. Kindreds assemble for formal occasions, especially weddings and funerals.

Kinship Terminology. Polish Americans use Eskimo kinship terminology. They recognize kinship through both genders and use the same kin terms for both the father's and the mother's relatives but differentiate between genders and generations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Most Polish American marriages are similar to those in the general American society. Ethnic endogamy is decreasing, but there is pressure to marry other Roman Catholics. More traditional individuals expect to get married, for the marriage to last for life, and that there will be children.

Domestic Unit. Newlyweds establish an independent household or may reside with the bride's parents. As a result of this pattern, Polish American wives have more power in their homes than was and is common in Poland.

The typical household consists of a married couple and their unmarried children. If the spouses' parents are still alive, they usually maintain their own households or, with increasing frequency, move into a retirement facility rather than into the children's home.

Inheritance. The pattern of inheritance is similar to that of the larger society and follows its laws. If the deceased was a first-generation immigrant with no survivors in the United States, his or her property may be deeded to relatives in Poland.

Socialization. The mother is seen as the nurturing supportive parent, and the father is thought of as a stern disciplinarian who may use physical punishment. Polish Americans operate 553 elementary schools, 71 high schools, 8 colleges, and 4 seminaries to further their education and socialize the next generation. However, a 1971 survey of Polish American parochial schools found that only 20 percent taught Polish history or culture. Polish Saturday schools and catechism classes have increased in popularity because they serve the needs of newer immigrants.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Approximately ten thousand Polish American organizations unite people with different interests. Memberships may be based on athletic, fraternal, religious, social, or other criteria. Many of these groups are affiliated with national associations that have a total membership of more than 800,000. Polish Americans are served by a number of periodicals that include two major Polish-language daily newspapers, twenty weekly and biweekly publications, and about thirty-five quarterlies with differing levels of scholarship and artistic orientation.

Political Organization. In 1619, after being denied the right to vote for the first legislative assembly in the James-town colony, Polish Americans organized the first strike for civil liberties on American soil. Given their numbers and length of residence, Polish Americans have not been especially successful in achieving high political office. Politicians have included Senator Edmund S. Muskie, the Democratic Party's nominee for vice president in 1968 and a contender for the presidency four years later; Doctor John Gronouski, a U. S. postmaster general and U. S. ambassador to Poland; and Mary Ann Krupsak, the first woman to be elected lieutenant governor of New York.

When Poland was not a free and united country (between 1795 and 1918 and from 1939 to 1989), Polish émigrés saw themselves as freedom fighters who were continuing the struggle from abroad. Among other activities, Polish Americans have attempted to influence the U.S. government's policies toward Poland. They also actively interact with Polish society. In 1995 there were more Polish citizens in Chicago than in Warsaw and many feel that these voters abroad were decisive in electing Aleksander Kwasniewski president.

Social Control. There is internal competition and division in Polish American society. One conflictthough it has been less prevalent since 1989is between the Polish American left and people with other political orientations, especially those who have experienced communism firsthand. A second cleavage is between recent immigrants and those whose ancestors arrived before World War II, who have different perspectives on ethnic identity and Polish culture. To a degree these conflicts are based on the differences in education and employment of the different cohorts of immigrants. Another division is based on the religious schism between adherents of the Polish National Catholic Church and those who have remained Roman Catholic.

These conflicts are manifested in the formation of parallel organizations and in competition for offices in the existing organizations. Often conflict situations result in avoidance and refusal to acknowledge the existence of those who have different opinions.

Conflict. Conflict with non-Poles is specific to the locality and is a function of the ages of those involved. In the past there were fights between young boys of different ethnic groups. Perhaps the most common and visible interethnic conflicts among adults have involved ethnic succession in residential neighborhoods and the resulting tensions. Occasionally these conflicts involve demonstrations covered by the news media.

Some conflicts are continuations of relationships in Europe. One example is the relationship between Catholic Poles and Polish Jews. This conflict is visible primarily in publications in which Polish Americans are accused of anti-Semitism and attempt to refute the charge. And when Poland was fighting for its independence after World War I, 24,000 to 30,000 men were recruited in the United States to help Poland fight. During World War II there were 722 volunteers for a similar unit.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Partly because of the atheistic propaganda of the Polish government between 1945 and 1989, recent immigrants are more agnostic than were pre-World War I immigrants. Two belief systems coexist: the formal Roman Catholic cosmology and doctrine and modified folk beliefs.

Among the most common practices are the lighting of a candle blessed by priests that is used to ward off sickness and general misfortune (the gromnica) and the blessing of the Easter basket. The way the table is set, the way people are seated, and the kinds of foods and dishes served at Christmas and Easter have religious significance.

Religious Practitioners. The overwhelming majority of Polish Americans have always been Roman Catholic. When Poles started arriving in large numbers, the Catholic Church in the United States was dominated by German and Irish cardinals and bishops. The Polish immigrants wanted to practice the kind of Catholicism they were used to in their country of origin, and this created conflict. Ultimately, some Polish priests were appointed to higher office, and the nine hundred Polish American congregations gained a measure of control over their property and practices.

An offshoot of the conflict with the Catholic Church in the United Sates was the creation of the Polish National Catholic Church in 1904. By the end of the twentieth century it had over a hundred parishes with three hundred thousand members. This church gained members in Poland, where the communist government tried to use it to reduce the effectiveness and power of the Roman Catholic Church.

Polish American social and organizational life remains strongly influenced by the church. There are religious fraternal organizations, insurance companies, and women's organizations. Polish American nuns have direct control of large organizations and raise capital for projects those groups initiate and control. This practice increased the power of Polish American women before and after World War I.

Ceremonies. Polish American culture incorporates elements of the Polish culture of Poland and the "Anglo" culture of the United States. The Dyngus Day party traditionally held on the Monday after Easter evokes the Polish custom of entertaining neighbors on that day, while in Buffalo, New York it is an event to which people buy tickets to enjoy the food and festivities. Two other examples are Kolȩdy Night and Dozynki. Kolȩdy Night is based on the custom in Poland of caroling from door to door during the Christmas season. In Buffalo, Polish and American carols are sung in both languages and there is polka music and other activities whose juxtaposition is unique to the United States. Even though in many communities few of the participants are farmers, the harvest festival, Dozynki, is still observed. These events are occasions for Polish Americans to bond and express ethnicity and for other people to experience their culture vicariously. The same ends are served by Polish Days and other festivities, such as Pulaski Day, named after famous Polish Americans.

There are numerous events sponsored by organizations and intended for their members. Usually these celebrations commemorate events and anniversaries significant to a specific organization. Some events are organized by a group and are open to all Polish Americans living in the vicinity. Usually these events have religious significance, such as Christmas, Easter, and New Year's celebrations, or they may be holidays observed in Poland. Regardless of the organization under whose auspices an event is held, its overt significance, or the activities associated with it, such events provide in-group bonding and serve to distinguish members of the Polish American community from the general population.

Arts. The polka is the best known type of Polish American music, and there have been popular musical entertainers such as Bobby Vinton. Others, such as Edward Sobolewski, the founder of the Minneapolis Symphony orchestra, and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who became its conductor a century later, have contributed to classical music in the United States.

Polish Americans have had a number of important literary figures, including Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, and Jerzy Kosinski, who won the National Book Award in 1969 and was the first foreign-born and -educated person elected president of the American Center of PEN.

Important figures in the visual arts include Richard Anuszkiewitcz, op-art painter; Yan Khur, founder of Ero-Art; and Janusz Korczak-Ziolkowski, sculptor of the monument to Chief Crazy Horse in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Medicine. Until World War II many immigrants and members of the first generation born in the United States continued to rely on the folk medicine of the "old country." They used herbs applied externally as poultices and salves or ingested in foods and as teas. There often was a magico-religious element in these treatments. For example, plants collected before sunset on Saint John's Eve (June 23) were believed to have special potency. Educated immigrants and most Polish Americans who were born in the United States rely primarily on Western scientific medicine. Occasionally people may drink a tea made from chamomile or wormwood as a home remedy. In the 1990s there was a revival of interest in herbs as a result of the popularity of alternative medicine among the general public.

Death and Afterlife. Catholic peasants considered death in old age part of the normal life cycle and a transition to a better situation. When a member is dying, the family summons a priest to hear confession or administer the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Relatives gather at the bedside to bid farewell and place the gromnica (a candle blessed on February 2) in the dying person's hand to ease the agony of dying and protect the person from Satan. An all-night wake is observed. Sometimes relatives scatter Polish soil over graves so that the immigrants would not be buried in foreign ground. As a sign of respect for the dead, the stypa (the ritual funeral meal) is observed. The mourning period usually is a year.

For other cultures in The United States of America, see List of Cultures in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


Bukowcyk, John J., editor (1996). Polish Americans and Their History: Community, Culture, and Politics. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Bukowczyk, John J. (1987). And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish Americans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Erdmans, Mary Patrice (2000). "Polonia in the New Century: We Will Not Fade Away," Polish American Studies LVII(l): 5-24.

Kuniczak, W. S. (2000). My Name is Million: An Illustrated History of the Poles in America. New York: Hippocrene Books.

Lopata, Helena Znaniecka (1994). Polish Americans, 2nd revised ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Pula, James S. (1995). Polish Americans: An Ethnic Community. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Silverman, Deborah Anders (2000). Polish American Folklore. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Strybel, Robert, and Maria Strybel (1993). Polish Heritage Cookery. New York: Hippocrene Books.

Wiegand, Bruce, and John F. Kozlowicz (1998). "Polonia Divided: Conflict and De-Industrialization in Taptown," The Polish Review XLIII(3): 315-335.

Internet Sources

Polish American Congress. http://www.polamcon.org


Polish Americans

views updated Jun 08 2018


POLISH AMERICANS. By the mid-1700s Poland, once one of the largest and among the most powerful states in Europe, had succumbed to its own decentralized political structure and its neighbors' ambitions. By century's end, Prussia, Russia, and Austria had conquered and partitioned the country, thrusting each partition onto its own separate path from semifeudal agrarianism to modernized, commercial agriculture.

Early Immigration

Polish society was neither static nor self-contained. In 1608, a few itinerant Polish artisans became America's

first Polish settlers when they joined the Jamestown colony. Recruited to produce soap, tar, and pitch, they left their mark on Virginia political history by resisting a 1619 attempt by the House of Burgesses to disenfranchise them. Protestant "Polanders" also had settled in colonial New Amsterdam and in Pennsylvania. The American Revolution also benefited from a few talented Polish nobles of democratic sympathies, like General Casimir Pulaski ("Father of the American Cavalry"), who was slain at the Battle of Savannah (1779), and General Thaddeus Ko[UNK]ciuszko, a military engineer whose fortifications contributed decisively to the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga (1777). Kos[UNK]ciuszko also wrote the first U.S. army artillery manual. Ko[UNK]ciuszko's will, eventually superseded, bequeathed his American estate to free and educate African American slaves. Although numerically insignificant, these early Polish arrivals established later Polish immigrants' claims to authenticity as Americans.

Polish settlement in the United States became numerically noteworthy only after the 1830s, when scattered veterans of a succession of failed Polish insurrections against foreign rule fled to the United States during Europe's "Springtime of Nations." Even then, this "Great Emigration" only numbered a thousand or so individuals who dispersed widely and assimilated easily, although it did establish the first Polish American periodicals, literary societies, and the political groups that laid the groundwork for a Polish nationalist movement in the United States. Nationalist aspirations knit Poles together at home and abroad, but concurrently raised divisive issues. Although the majority of their inhabitants were Roman Catholics and ethnic Poles, the Polish partitions contained sizeable ethnic minoritiesJews, Ukrainians, and Germans. Polish nationalists debated whether Polish identity would be pluralistic, civic, and secular, or based on ethnicity and religion.

Years of Mass Migration

With the gradual capitalist transformation and "modernization" of the Polish countryside after the 1850s, Polish

immigration to the United States (and elsewhere) increased. Author and Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905) remarked that Poles came "in search of bread and freedom," but the majority probably came more for economic reasons. The Polish mass migration "for bread" (za chlebem ) brought about 2.5 million ethnic Poles (including regional subgroups like the Kashubes and the Górale, or Tatra highlanders) to the United States from the 1850 to 1920. (This figure includes 434,000 "German Poles" from the German-held Polish partition, who came primarily from 1850 to 1900; 800,000 "Austrian Poles" from the Austrian-held Polish partition, who arrived between 1880 and 1920; and 805,000 "Russian Poles" from the Russian-held Polish partition, who immigrated from 1890 to 1920). Up to 30 percent of the Austrian and Russian Poles did not remain in the United States, returning to their land of origin. Although the immigrants included Poles of all classes, most had rural, typically peasant, backgrounds, were young, disproportionately male, and unmarried. Immigrant Poles entered many occupations including farming (a mere 10 percent), shopkeeping, the professions, skilled labor, and the arts; but fully 80 percent took semiskilled and unskilled jobs in mass production and heavy industrycoal mining, oil refining, steelmaking, meatpacking, and textiles, electrical goods, and auto manufacture.

Community Building

Rural Panna Maria, Texas, generally is recognized as the first Polish settlement (1854) of the era of the peasant mass migration, but most Poles settled in northeastern and midwestern towns and cities. (Chicago had the second largest Polish population of any city; only Warsaw boasted greater numbers of Poles.) Polish immigrants concentrated in the industrial belt that extended from Boston to Philadelphia and westward across New York and Pennsylvania, through Pittsburgh, northern Ohio, and northern Indiana, to Chicago and Milwaukee. Social dislocations they experienced were amply documented in William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (19181920), the classic work of the "Chicago school" of sociology. Nevertheless, the Polish immigrant community"Polonia" (Latin for Poland), as these enclaves individually and collectively were knownbecame vital centers of immigrant social life, with immigrant small businesses, press, theater, and a network of athletic, cultural, political, and fraternal benevolent associations. The heart of Polonia, however, was its Polish Roman Catholic parishes, (peaking at over 800 in the 1930s). With many established by the Polish Resurrectionist order, these parishes (with their parochial schools and teaching nuns like the Felicians) provided cradle-to-grave social services, encapsulated immigrant spiritual and aesthetic life (best merged, perhaps, in images of Our Lady of C[UNK]stochowa, Poland's "Black Madonna") and (with the largest numbering over 40,000 parishioners) gave rise to Polonia's first great leaders, priests like Chicago's Rev. Wincenty Barzy[UNK]ski, C.R.

Religious and Political Affairs

During the years of mass migration, Polonia's main rival fraternal organizations, the secularist Polish National Alliance (1880) and the religionist Polish Roman Catholic Union (1873), argued and then compromised on Polish American ethnic identity: Polish and Roman Catholic. The linkage of Roman Catholicism and Polishness (Polsko[UNK][UNK] ) increasingly influenced nationalist politics in Poland into the twentieth century. Insurrectionary veteran Rev. Joseph D[UNK]browski established a Polish Roman Catholic seminary in Detroit in 1883 to provide a patriotic ethnic clergy, while other Poles, led by Rev. Wenceslaus Kruszka, argued for representation and equality within the heavily Irish church hierarchy, succeeding modestly with the consecration of Paul Rhode as the first Polish American Roman Catholic bishop (1908). Immigrant religious participation was not without contention. Between the 1890s and 1920s, immigrant lay-trusteeism and Polish nationalism produced the most important schism yet to rock American Roman Catholicism, climaxing in the 1904 founding of the Polish National Catholic Church by Scranton, Pennsylvania, priest Francis Hodur. Following World War I, the Polish nationalist movement also achieved its central goal, as pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski and others won the support of the administration of President Woodrow Wilson for the reestablishment of a united, sovereign, independent Poland. Poland came into being again in 1918, with its existence confirmed by the Treaty of Versailles (1919).

Involved in the Progressive Era's labor movement and radical politics (a Polish anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, assassinated President William McKinley in 1901), Polish workers played a key role in the 1930s and 1940s in the rise of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and other mass production unions associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In the heroic 19351937 period, Poles and other Slavs were fully a quarter of the membership. Polish Americans overwhelmingly supported President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic Party in the 1930s, a loyalty shaken by the Yalta Agreement (1945) which, after World War II, stripped Poland of territory, left it a Soviet satellite, and gave rise to fifty years of Polish American anticommunism championed by Polonia's new umbrella political body, the Polish American Congress (1944).

PostWorld War II Migration

After World War II, new waves of immigrants from Poland reshaped the Polish presence in the United States. Between 1945 and 1956, over 190,000 political exiles and displaced persons came to the United States. From 1965 to 1990, about 178,000 entered after the liberalization of Polish migration policies (1956), political crackdowns in Poland (1968), and passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. During the same period roughly 957,000 nonimmigrant temporary visitors came, many of whom stayed and obtained work. Between 1983 and 1990, about 35,000 entered; these were political refugees from

the Solidarity (Solidarno[UNK][UNK] ) movement, the Polish trade union movement and democratization campaign. Census figures for 2000 estimate the Polish American population (persons either from Poland or identifying Polish as a principal ancestry) at about 9 million, or about 3.3 percent of the national total. The states with the largest Polish American population are New York (958,893), Illinois (946,241), and Michigan (900,335). Other states with sizeable Polish American populations include Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Wisconsin, California, and Florida. The large Polish American presence in California and Florida resulted from late-twentieth-century secondary migrations.

Contemporary Polish America

As an ethnic group, Polish Americans experienced mixed fortunes in America after World War II. With a high rate of home ownership, older urban Polonias tended to remain in place despite changing urban racial composition. Nonetheless suburban out-migration, intermarriage, language loss, assimilation, and upward mobility have undercut ethnic group numbers and identification. Polish Americans have moved into managerial, professional, and technical occupations, while the mass marketing of such traditional Polish food items like p[UNK]czki (doughnuts) and pierogi (filled dumplings) symbolized their cultural "arrival." The white ethnic revival of the late 1960s heightened ethnic consciousness for some Polish Americans who also felt considerable ethnic pride when Karol Cardinal Wojty[UNK]a became the first Polish pope, John Paul II (1978), and Solidarity leader Lech W[UNK][UNK]sa led a non-violent revolution for democracy in Poland in the early 1980s. Polish Americans who have attained national recognition in contemporary American culture include television actress Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H ), athletic figures like basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and baseball star Stan "The Man" Musial, homemaking doyenne Martha Stewart (neé Kostyra), and émigré Nobel laureate Czes[UNK]aw Mi[UNK]osz.

Despite such successes, Polish Americans continue to score low in "social status" rankings owing to persistent anti-Polish stereotyping, particularly in the media, which has inspired antidefamation campaigns. Contemporary Polish American politics also have focused on cultural survival issues, Polish membership in NATO (achieved in 1999), relations with post-socialist Poland, and improvement in Polish-Jewish relations, historically a difficult issue. In postwar national politics, Polish American visibility peaked when Maine Senator Edmund Muskie (Marciszewski) won the Democratic Party vice presidential nomination (1968) and Zbigniew Brzezinski was named as President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser (1976); but "realigned" Polish American voters increasingly voted for Republican candidates after 1968. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, the most prominent Polish-American political figure was Senator Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.).

Besides the older fraternal associations, the principal Polish American organizations today include the Polish American Congress, the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America and the Kos´ciuszko Foundation (both in New York City), the Polish Museum of America (Chicago), the Polish American Historical Association, the American Council for Polish Culture, the Polish American Journal (Buffalo, N.Y.), the Polish Genealogical Society of America, and St. Mary's College of Ave Maria University (Orchard Lake, Michigan). Contemporary Polish American writers include Anthony Bukoski, Stuart Dybek, Gary Gildner, Leslie Pietrzyk, and Suzanne Strempek Shea.


Bukowczyk, John J. And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish Americans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Bukowczyk, John J., ed. Polish Americans and Their History: Community, Culture, and Politics. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.

Davies, Norman. God's Playground: A History of Poland. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Greene, Victor. "Poles." In Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan Thernstrom. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Gladsky, Thomas S. Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves: Ethnicity in American Literature. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Pula, James S. Polish Americans: An Ethnic Community. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Silverman, Deborah Anders. Polish-American Folklore. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

John J. Bukowczyk

See also American Federation of LaborCongress of Industrial Organizations ; Immigration Act of 1965 ; United Automobile Works of America ; Yalta Conference .

Polish Americans

views updated May 23 2018

Polish Americans

For more information on Polish history and culture, seeVol. 3: Poles.


Polish settlers helped establish the Jamestown colony in Virginia in the early 1600s. Polish adventurers and radicals came across the sea to help the American colonists win the Revolutionary War (1775–83), including heroes Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746–1817), who later returned to the United States to serve as liaison between President Thomas Jefferson and leaders of the French Revolution and Count Kazimierz Pulaski (1747-1779), sometimes called the "father of the American cavalry," who was killed in the battle of Savannah, Georgia. Since then, millions of people from Poland have immigrated to the United States.

When Poland was partitioned in the 1770s between Russia, Austria, and Prussia, members of the Polish upper class chose to escape the new oppressive governments. Many came to America. So many came, in fact, that Polish America became known as the "Fourth Province" of Poland, the other three being those areas controlled by Russia, Austria, and Prussia, respectively. (Another term for the Polish community outside of Poland is "Polonia.") A few groups of peasant farmers also came to America, looking for better economic opportunities. They set up Polish farming communities in places like Panna Maria, Texas, the first permanent Polish community in America, founded in 1854.

Polish immigration from the 1770s to about 1870 is sometimes referred to as the "first wave," but more often, the first wave is considered to have begun in 1870 when Polish serfs were given their freedom. The United States also began encouraging immigration to help rebuild the country after the devastation of the American Civil War (1861–65). Up to 2 million Poles immigrated to the United States between 1870 and 1914, when the beginning of World War I brought immigration to a halt.

Most Polish immigrants in this first large wave of immigration, also called the "old emigration," were single young men looking for the chance to work at wage-earning jobs, save up their money, and return to Poland. Some 30% actually did return to Poland, but the rest stayed in the United States. As uneducated (though generally literate) peasant farmers, they were unskilled and unprepared for the industrialized world of America. They took whatever jobs they could find, working in mines, mills, factories, slaughterhouses, refineries, and foundries. Once established in their new home, many sent for their families or returned to Poland to marry, then brought their wives back to the United States with them. Women and children went to work then to support the family.

The second wave, or "new emigration," of Polish Americans came to the United States under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which allowed Europeans who had been displaced by the destruction of World War II to enter the United States as immigrants. These second-wave Polish Americans tended to be well-educated intellectuals, the writers, artists, and scholars who had been targeted by the Nazis for elimination. A number of them were Jewish (see Vol. 2: Jewish Americans ). The new emigration added depth to the already established Polish American community.

In the 1960s and 1970s, "Polack" jokes became popular in the United States, portraying Polish and Polish American people as stupid, crude, and lazy. The Polish American community fought back with a campaign showing the great achievements of Polish writers and scholars, etc., but the discrimination continued. Even Ronald Reagan, while running for president in 1980, told "Polack" jokes to a group of reporters. When the Solidarity movement took off in Poland, however, Americans were drawn into sympathy with the revolutionary Poles, and "Polack" jokes died out. First-generation Polish Americans were allowed to vote in the 1990 Polish presidential elections and they helped bring Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement, into office.

In the 2000 U.S. Census over 8.9 million people were listed as having Polish ancestry. Early immigrants generally settled in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, such as Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minnesota; Omaha, Nebraska; St. Louis, Missouri; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and Buffalo and New York City, New York. Few of the old purely Polish neighborhoods still exist, but many of the cities of early settlement still host larger communities of Polish Americans. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were about 213,447 people of Polish ancestry living in New York City and 210,421 living in Chicago, Illinois. The states with the highest populations of Polish Americans were New York (986,106), Illinois (932,982), Michigan (854,815), Pennsylvania (824,146), and New Jersey (576,465). About 9.3% of the population of Wisconsin was listed as having Polish ancestry. The 2005 American Community Survey estimated a total of about 9.7 million people of Polish ancestry, with 38% living in the Midwest, 33% in the Northeast, 17% in the South and 12% in the West. In the 2000 U.S. Census, Polish ranked as the 10th most popular language other than English that was most frequently spoken at home.

The Polish American community has been in the United States for several generations and traditional Polish ways are being lost by later generations. Polish language proficiency is limited or nonexistent among third- and subsequent-generation Polish Americans. Some first- and second-generation Polish Americans lament that their children speak Spanish or some other language learned in school better than they speak Polish.

Many Polish Americans chose to shorten or otherwise Americanize their names in order to blend in better with the mainstream society when they first arrived. Immigration officials simplified others' names on their entry papers because they either could not understand the actual name or did not care to write it out. In today's climate of multiculturalism and ethnic pride, some young Polish Americans are reclaiming their true Polish names.

Nearly all Polish Americans are either Catholic or Jewish. When Polish Catholics arrived in America, they found the Roman Catholic churches controlled by Irish Catholics who had arrived earlier. The Irish Catholics did not welcome the newcomers and Polish Americans began establishing their own churches whenever and wherever possible. In 1897 a number of Polish Americans decided to separate from the Roman Catholic Church entirely and formed the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) under the leadership of Father Franciszek Hodur. The PNCC is very similar to the Roman Catholic Church with a few very important differences: PNCC priests are allowed to marry and church officials are elected, rather than appointed. The PNCC had over 25,000 members in 2008. There were parishes in 20 states and 3 Canadian provinces.

Polish Americans celebrate the holidays and rites of passage common to their tradition, be it Catholic or Jewish. Many Polish American Catholics continue to hold the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner called Wigilia and sing koledy— Polish Christmas carols. A secular holiday celebrated by all Polish Americans is May 3, commemorating the Polish Constitution of 1791, the first democratic constitution in all of Europe. Some Polish American communities celebrate Pulaski Day (October 11), a holiday established in the United States by presidential proclamation to commemorate the death of General Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish hero in the American Revolution. The state of Illinois has designated the first Monday of March as Pulaski Day, a date which more closely coincides with Pulaski's birthday (March 4).

Polish Americans continue to hold to the traditional Polish values of hard work and tenacity, good manners, and generosity. They are also competitive within their personal community, striving to achieve higher status (usually by means of material goods) than those around them. However, Polish Americans are also very loyal to their community, so the competition is good-natured, even joyful. The people of Poland learned to be wary of change after centuries of upheaval and oppression. Polish Americans carry on that wariness, placing a high value on security, stability, respectability, and order. For this reason, as well as religious convictions, the divorce rate is quite low among Polish Americans as compared to other ethnic groups in the United States.

Polish Americans have contributed a great deal to American culture. Kielbasa (Polish sausage), pierogi, Polish dill pickles, sauerkraut, Polish ham, and babka (an egg-dough cake) are all fairly common items in the American diet. Paczki, a jam-filled donut, has become a traditional food for some Polish Americans to eat on Fat Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday). Vodka, originated by the Polish, not the Russians, is now a favorite liquor in the United States.

Polish American writers, musicians, actors and directors, and even fashion designers (Helena Rubinstein) have all made a serious impact on U.S. society. Writer Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. Other successful Polish American writers include Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jerzy Kosinski, and playwright Janusz Glowacki. The first well-known Polish American film actor was silent-screen star Pola Negri (credited with introducing painted toenails to American women). She was followed by Gloria Swanson, Carole Landis, Loretta Swit, Stephanie Powers, Jerry Orbach, and Charles (Buchinsky) Bronson, among others. Producer/director/screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz is another important figure in American film, as are producer Samuel Goldwyn; producer/director Roman Polanski; the founders of Warner Brothers Studio, Harry, Albert, and Jack Warner; and filmmakers Zbigniew Rybczynski and Agnieszka Holland.

Polka music is probably the best-known contribution Polish Americans have made to American culture. Contrary to popular belief, the polka did not originate in Poland but in Bohemia (a region of the Czech Republic) and it was never more popular in Poland than such dances as the mazurka or the polonaise, which are similar to the polka in rhythm and steps. Polish immigrants to America embraced the polka as a "national anthem" as they began to link Polish verses to the tunes. The Polish-style polka originated in Chicago and generally features an accordion, drums, string bass, and two trumpets. The International Polka Association in Chicago preserves and promotes both the Polish-style polka and the cultural heritage of Polish Americans.

Many individual Polish Americans have also made significant contributions to the world of music, including pianists Liberace and Arthur Rubinstein; orchestral conductors Leopold Stokowski and Arthur Rodzinski; singers Bobby Vinton, Pat (Andrzejewski) Benatar, and Huey Lewis; drummer Gene Krupa; and jazz violinist Michal Urbaniak.

In the world of industry, Joseph "Jock" Yablonski was a strong force in the United Mine Workers union. He ran for president of the union in 1969 but lost. While appealing the decision, he was assassinated, along with his wife and daughter. Martha (Kostyra) Stewart, home economics maven, has become enormously popular in popular culture. Her books and magazine are highly successful and she has made numerous appearances on morning and afternoon talk shows. She also stars in her own television show. Max Factor, Sr., a Polish born businessman, is well-known for the cosmetic company he founded under his own name.

Polish American scientists have made significant contributions in their fields. Albert Abraham Michelson was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1907 for his study on measurements of the speed of light. He was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in the sciences. Stephanie Kwolek discovered the synthetic material known as Kevlar.

Polish Americans are well represented in the U.S. government. Edmund Muskie served as a U.S. senator for a number of years, then ran unsuccessfully for U.S. vice-president, with presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968. He later served as the U.S. Secretary of State during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Another Polish American, Zbigniew Brzezinski, also served in Carter's administration, as National Security Advisor. Other Polish American politicians include U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Frank Murkowski, and former Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski.

A form of baseball was probably introduced to America by Polish settlers in the Jamestown colony in the early 1600s. Baseball remained Polish Americans' favorite sport for many generations. In the 1870s Oscar Bielaski was the first Polish American to play professional baseball. When the National League was formed in 1876, Bielaski joined the Chicago White Stockings (as they were then named). Men's baseball stars since that time include Stan "the Man" Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, and Dave Dombrowski. Sophie Kurys, Loretta (Jasczak) Jester, Connie Wisniewski, and Jenny Romatowski were among the stars of the short-lived women's professional baseball league.

Two Polish Americans have won the Heisman Trophy for college football: Johnny Lujack and Leon Hart. Ron Jaworski, Bill Romanowski, Alex Wojciechowicz, Bill Osmanski, and Ed Danowski are all successful professional football players. Wayne Gretzky is considered by some to be the best hockey player ever to take the ice. Ed Olczyk is another well-respected hockey player. Janet Lynn found great success on the ice as a figure skater.

Polish American culture is celebrated at several Polish American festivals, usually held in the summer. The parades, feasts, and polka music are enjoyed by Polish and non-Polish Americans alike. Few Americans are aware that October is Polish American Heritage Month. Polish American organizations are trying to increase awareness of Polish American heritage among the general American public as well as among younger generations of Polish Americans, many of whom have lost touch with their traditional culture.

The Polish Women's Alliance of America (PWAA) was founded on 22 May 1898 in Chicago as a fraternal benefit society. Stefania Chmielinska, PWAA founder, was a Polish immigrant who worked as a seamstress in Chicago. She and others like her realized that women needed equality and worked to promote this cause. The right of women to pursue higher education, the right to enter many professions, and the right of women to purchase life insurance in their own names were some of the issues taken on by the PWAA. Polish American women worked against prejudices and narrow-mindedness to become leaders in their communities. During World War I and II, during the years of political freedom in Poland between the wars, and for almost 50 years of Communist rule in Poland, the PWAA and other Polish American organizations worked to bring aid and moral support to the Polish nation, its people, and religious institutions. Polish American women today must decide to what extent they want to relinquish their traditional culture in the face of modern American values and habits. Such negotiation of the past and present can be difficult.


Cisek, Janusz. Polish Refugees and the Polish American Immigration and Relief Committee. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

Dolan, Sean. The Polish Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.

Erdmans, Mary Patrice. The Grasinski Girls: the Choices They Had and the Choices They Made. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004.

Gabor, Al. Polish Americans. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.

Jaroszyska-Kirchmann, Anna D. The Exile Mission: the Polish Political Diaspora and Polish Americans, 1939-1956. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004.

Lopata, Helena Znaniecka. "The Polish American Family."Ethnic Families in America: Patterns and Variations, 3rd ed., Charles H. Mindel, Robert W. Habenstein, and Roosevelt Wright, Jr., ed. New York: Elsevier Science Publishing, 1988.

Obidinski, Eugene. "Proclaiming Polish Praises." Polish-American Journal 84, no. 11 (1 November 1995): 3.

Polish Women's Alliance of America. http://www.pwaa.org/index.html (16 April 2008).

Smigielski, John J. "Saving My Roots." Polish-American Journal 84, no. 6 (1 June 1995): 3.

Tarapacki, Tom. "Chasing the American Dream." Polish-American Journal 85, no. 2 (1 February 1996): 7.

—revised by K. Ellicott