A History of Polish Immigration to New York

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Polish immigrants waiting to board.
Polish immigrants waiting to board.

Since the times of those earliest Polish settlers— romantics, adventurers and men simply seeking a better economic life—there 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.


First Wave: Intellects And Political Dissidents

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.

Second Wave: Laborers

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 States—New York, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis—where 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

This 1948 photograph was taken shortly after this Polish woman and her three children arrived in New York City; they settled in Rensselaer, Indiana. 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 Poles—the 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.

Third Wave: Wartime Refugees

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 refugees—from Poland between 1918 and the late 1980s and the fall of communism.

Fourth Wave

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 structure—not being members of the fraternal organizations. What their effect in the future will be is unclear.