by Lenny Reisner, Steven Davis, and Linc Miara


The Earliest Poles in America

From the early 1800's to the beginning of World War II, approximately 5 million Polish immigrants came to the United States. The Poles fled their country for various reasons. Some emigrants left to escape conscription, others left to seek better opportunities in America, and some fled from religious persecution.

Polish immigrants have been emigrating to the US since they arrived with the Vikings, and Christopher Columbus but significant immigration did not occur until the 1800's. However, the first appearances of Poles in America occurred in 1608. These Poles were hired by the London Company to bring their industrial skills to Jamestown. The Poles created glass house shops, and pitch and potash burners. These products became the first exports of Jamestown. As a result of their success more Poles were invited to Jamestown. They were always cooperative and willing workers. In 1619 more Poles landed at Jamestown with the intent to manufacture pitch, tar and resin for ships. They also helped start the timber industry that was necessary for ship building. The first Legislative Assembly denied the Jamestown Poles the right to vote. As a result the Poles went to strike, refusing to work unless they had the right to vote. On July 21, 1619 the Legislative Assembly granted Poles the right to vote. Thus, the Poles were the first group that fought successfully for civil rights.

Polish immigration to America increased in 1776, the year of the American Revolution. The Poles that ventured to America in 1776 were traveling to fight. They supported the idea of self government. Count Kazimiere Pulaski, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko both were generals during the Revolutionary War.

The First Polish Wave of Immigration


The first wave of Polish immigrants, largely made up of intellectuals and poorer nobles, came between 1800 and 1860. This group fled their country mainly because of political insurrections. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service have estimated that fewer than 2,000 Poles immigrated during this wave. In 1880, more than six million of the world's 7.7 million Jews lived in eastern Europe. Only three percent lived in the Untied States. However, after a series of large-scale migrations by 1920, close to twenty-three percent of the world's Jews were calling America home.

The revolution of 1905 created a new wave of anti-Semitism in Poland that reached its crescendo in 1912. An anti-Semitic wing of the National Democratic Party began to gain strength in the early 1900's when many intellectuals and representatives of organized labor left the party. To retain their strength, the party began to rely on anti-Semitic slogans aimed at Jews, whose numbers were growing enormously in the cities. The time was fostered by radical nationalistic groups. Students would picket Jewish stores, threatening Poles who dared to enter. Shame was also placed upon those citizens who sought the services of Jewish lawyers, dentists and doctors. One technique that was frequently used was to photograph Poles entering Jewish residences and print the pictures. The picture, with a derogatory comment, would be placed on pamphlets that were distributed among the townspeople. Less costly but just as painful and derogatory were such incidents of Poles throwing stones at Jewish men, women and even young children. Killing Jews was contagious in an atmosphere of hate that enveloped Poland. Not only were the Polish radicals placing the blame for their problems on the Jews, but they were also gaining free media.

My great-grandmother's story is just one of the thousands that relates to the immigration of Polish Jews to America. Although she did not relay the information concerning anti-Semitism, the resentment and hatred raged against Jews remained in Poland even after it gained its independence after World War I. Anti-Jewish attitudes, feelings and activities constituted a strong link between diverse elements of the Polish nation. Jews were divided in their response. Large numbers continued to find shelter in their religion while others looked to past traditions.

The Second Wave of Polish Immigration

The massive immigration started when a group of farmers fled the country for better economic opportunity. Many of them lost their land and weren't able to feed their families. Poles believed that if you owned land it showed stability, without it you were in ruin. This belief combined with the conditions in Poland caused the largest Polish immigration to the United States. They opened the flood gates for a mass exodus of immigration. In this period approximately 2.5 million Poles landed on Ellis Island. This group can be further broken down into two distinct groups: the more intelligent German Poles, and the lower class Russian and Austrian Poles. The German Poles fled from religious persecution by the Germans.

These Poles were called "za chlebem" or "for bread" immigrants. They came to America for the sole purpose of making money. Once this was accomplished, they would return to Poland and prosper. Other Poles risked everything to travel to America. They sold all their property in hope of starting a new life. When these Poles entered America they wrote letters back to their relatives about their life here. Soon their relatives came to America to join their relatives. Some Polish people came because America was portrayed to be the land of opportunity, others came because they were encouraged by exaggerated stories of abundant job opportunity.

Over ninety-five percent of the immigrants in the second wave passed through Ellis Island, others passed through Castle Garden. Not many wealthy citizens emigrated from Poland. For the most part, emigrants paid very little money for a spot in the steerage compartments or cargo ships. One passenger described her voyage in steerage like this:

"We were put on board, jammed in so tight that I couldn't turn round, there were so many of us, you see, and the stench was terrible. And when we got to Ellis Island, they put the gangplank down, and there was a man at the foot, and he was shouting, at the top of his voice, Put your luggage her, drop your luggage here. Men this way. Women and children this way. Dad looked at us and said, We'll meet you back here at this mound of luggage and hope we find it again and see you later."




Arrival and Assimilation in America

When the ships arrived in New York, inspectors would board the ships and inspect the first and second class citizens. If they passed they would be allowed to enter America without going through Ellis Island. The bulk of the passengers were shipped away from the mainland on barges to the island. Officers would come on board and make sure that the boat was not filled with diseases, then let the passengers go ashore. Doctors would quickly inspect everyone; anyone who they felt had a disorder would receive a chalk letter describing the disease. Patients with a chalk letter were directed to specialized doctors. The specialized doctors would thoroughly inspect the patient to make sure they actually had the disease. Amazingly, only about 2 percent of all the immigrants were sent home.

( Castle Garden, left, and Ellis Island, right )

After the immigrants passed through Ellis Island, they were in a strange land with very few possessions. The majority Polish immigrants were Roman Catholics. They tended to stick together in large groups of Polish settlers. Few traveled South, and even less ventured west. For the most part the Poles clustered in tight groups in the cities. They continued with their religion, setting up huge churches that were greatly attended. The church was the center of the community where a Pole could discuss social problems, religious beliefs, etc. The Poles felt strongly about their churches. They kept the services in Polish, celebrated Polish holidays and kept Polish saints alive. The Polish culture needed to have Polish churches. Without their own churches the Poles believed they would lose their identity.

In the Polish household, the family's main purpose was to put food on the table and keep everyone clothed. Everyone in the household worked from sunrise to eight, including children and mothers. Poles without special skills were forced to work in the unsanitary and unsafe industrial factories. For the first time in history, Polish mothers were the heads of the household. These mothers were responsible for raising children, and keeping the house clean. Many mothers also supported the family by taking in boarders, and doing laundry.

Polish families did little about education, a luxury at the time, which helped account for their reputation. Very few Poles went to college, or received high paying jobs. They did the dirty work, the menial tasks in the city, but many immigrants were thrilled to be working for in Poland they had been unemployed for years. They were tremendous at saving money. Between 1900 and 1914, Polish Americans sent anaverage of 4 million dollars a year back to Poland.

Poles gradually assimilated into the American society. They made enormous contributions to the performing arts world with such musicians as Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest piano players in the world. Some other famous Poles are Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, and Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize Winner for his writings. Like all other ethnic groups that immigrated to the United States, the Poles were stereotyped. When Poles entered America they were seen as filthy, drunks, and rowdy. In 1948 they were stereotyped in the film "A Streetcar Named Desire." Other instances of stereotyping occurred in TV, books, and in 1980 when during a presidential campaign Ronald Regan told a Polish joke. Edward Piszek, a Pole, wasn't going to let his people be classified constantly by Polish stereotypes. In 1973 he set out on a five-hundred thousand dollar campaign with literature and signs portraying Polish achievements and contributions to America. The Polish people lived through the stereotypes with their head raised. They knew that many contributions were made by Poles to the American society.

The second and third generations of Poles were born into America in the late 1900's. These Poles grew to be Americans. They still had their Polish heritage within them but soon they rejected the old Polish style of life. They needed to move out and become part of American society. The Polish people were assimilated into American society with the birth of these new Poles. Even though these Poles may have rejected the old Polish culture, they indirectly began a new Polish culture. With their Polish heritage in their blood forever there was no way to escape their past. Soon enough these Poles were respectful and proud of their ancient heritage.

Ronald Regan, during a campaign speech: "Did you know that the Polish Army bought 10,000 septic tanks? Once they learn how to use 'em they are going to invade Russia."