Defining the Polish American Identity

Polish immigrants to America were slow to develop a sense of themselves as Polish Americans. The first communities of Poles who came to this country were made up of exiles who had been forced to leave their homeland for political reasons and whose main focus was the reunification of the Polish state. Such communities were generally small and short-lived: in 1834, there were reportedly 33 Poles living in Philadelphia, and no permanent settlement developed. They were followed by a mass migration of rural people who looked upon their experience in this country as a temporary situation which would end as soon as they had saved enough money to return home and buy farmland. Indeed, an estimated 3 out of 10 Polish immigrants arriving between 1906 and 1914 returned to Poland. A 1918 study by educator John Dewey described the Poles as a largely unassimilated group, more knowledgeable about affairs in their homeland than in the United States. But given the opportunity to return when Poland regained independence in 1918, no mass exodus ensued. Rather, many Polish immigrants and their children continued to assimilate into the labor market in this country and to participate in the Polonia which had grown up here.


"Poland Past and Present," an address given by Ignacy Jan Paderewski at a benefit concert in Chicago, 1916. Paderewski's speech began with the famous line, "I have to speak about a country which is not yours, in a language which is not mine." He told of the accomplishments of the Polish people in the arts, science, literature and statesmanship, described the attacks which threatened the life of the country, and asked the American people to lend their support. (Leon J. Kolankiewicz Collection)

Polish Americans of later generations continue to be involved in events of Poland. According to a 1970 press release issued by the Polish American Congress, Eastern Pennsylvania District, workers in the Polish seaport cities of Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot walked off their jobs in protest to enforced governmental increases in prices of food, fuel and clothing. Several divisions of the Russian Army were positioned at the border of Poland, leading Polish citizens to fear a Soviet attack similar to events in Poznan in 1956.

In response to the Soviet policies, members of Philadelphia's Polonia gathered in Independence Square in a mass protest rally on December 27, 1970.

(Stefan Sokolowski Collection)


Back to Preserving Polonia in America