If you are a Polish American, or are close with people that are, you might want to learn more about the heritage of Polonia amerykańska. After all, not all people have had the chance to learn their family’s history. Zapraszamy (we invite you) to keep on reading!
The history of immigrants coming to the U.S. from other countries of the world often has common timelines. World War II, being one of the major reasons for leaving Europe in the 20th century, has led millions of people to flee their home countries and most of them chose to start a new life in America. Around 9 million U.S. citizens identify as Polish Americans those with total or partial Polish heritage. It is estimated that the top 5 cities with the most Polish Americans are New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Los Angeles. In Chicago, believe it or not, Polish is the third most spoken language of the city.
The history of Polish immigrants is not always exact, as people coming from Europe during different times, where a country known as Poland didn’t exist (as it happened time and time again), were often marked as German, Russian, or other. Coming to the U.S. some people would not even want to state truthfully the country they came from. Also, a lot of people of other nationalities, for the same reason, would identify themselves as Polish.
Still, it is believed that the first Poles came to America as individuals, belonging to other groups (as craftsmen, for example), as early as in the beginning of the 17th century. During the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Poles represented a great number of the massive wave of immigration, due to emerging job opportunities, but also World War I and World War II, which left Poland greatly affected. Polish Jews fled the country to save their lives in times prior to or sometimes even during the Nazi occupation. And during the communist time, emigration waves continued, only to decrease a bit when Poland joined the European Union and living conditions in the country improved highly.
Today, you can easily meet two to three generations of Polish Americans that are completely assimilated - with U.S. citizenship, loose ties with family back home, and sometimes even, unfortunately, not even remembering their native language. Yet as Polish culture prides itself on keeping the family together, such cases are rare and chances are that if you meet a Pole - he or she will be able to teach you a great deal about their culture.
It is said that, contrary to other immigrants, Polish Americans did not plan on staying in the U.S. forever. The idea for most was to just get back on their feet economically before returning from home. Yet, as life is full of surprises - many of them fell in love with the American way of living, or simply fell in love with other people and created a life for themselves on the other side of the Ocean.
All About Polish American Culture
A Polish surname would be the first thing that can give away a Polish American. Kowalski, Kamiński, Wiśniewski or other ending with -ski, are often obvious for Polish people. As Polish surnames tend to be a bit more difficult to spell for non-English speakers, some Polish surnames have gone through a transformation, so as to become simpler and more memorable. The female suffix -ska is rarely used anymore, to avoid confusing others.
The same thing happened to some of the Polish words. Due to assimilation, some words have changed the way they sound, as it usually happens when a language is influenced by other languages. So, for example - a word like busha (for granny), rarely used in Poland, maybe more often used in the U.S. There is even a special dialect, called Silesian Polish, spoken in Texas!
As the Polish are mainly Catholics, so are most Polish Americans, which is why they observe Catholic holidays, like Christmas, Easter, and those important for the community.
And when talking about the community in the U.S. you will easily find Polish deli, restaurants, shops, schools, churches, museums, as well as festivals and other things that bind people together. Polish newspapers, international Polish TV channels, and others have in this day and age become highly available.
There is even a Polish American heritage month, celebrated every October from 1981, as thanks to all the Poles who contributed to the prosperity of the U.S.A. like Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski, who fought in the American Revolutionary War.
Polish American polka music is also important to note, as there are numerous festivals dedicated to this genre of fast-paced sound, originating from the middle of the 19th Century.
Famous Polish Americans
Depending on the industry you are interested in, you will surely find somebody you know and like that is Polish American, or has close ties with Polish culture.
To name a few (and maybe some you didn’t even know were of Polish origins), here is a brief list:
Nicolas Cage, film industry
Scarlett Johansson, film industry
Paul Newman, film industry
John S. Fizikowski, architect
Tamara de Lempicka, artist
Czesław Miłosz, author
Nathan Blecharczyk, co-founder of Airbnb
… and many, many more!
Do you identify as a Polish American? How is Polish culture celebrated in your family? Let us know - and don’t forget to show off with a Polish American item or two from our shop!