Polish culture can be found throughout the world. For many, it is an integral part of their family history, and it’s natural to wonder about Polish immigrant history and its influence on your current life.

We also find that many wish to explore their roots and claim their ancestral birthrights. After all, such a heritage covers more than just a shared history or even language: it can include the right to an EU passport and the ability to live, work and travel throughout the European Union.

In this guide, we want to give you an insight into Polish immigrants, the size of the Polish Diaspora, where many of the world’s largest Polish communities can be found, and if descendents of those initial Poles can claim Polish citizenship today.

Historical Overview of Polish Emigration

The history of Polish immigrants is often tied to the history of Poland itself. Historically, many key periods of migration can be tied to times of economic hardship, with Poles moving from areas of chronic unemployment or, as in the case of the second half of the 20th century, making the most of more open borders and opportunities.

One of the earliest large movements of Polish emigration occurred in the early 1800s, between 1831 and 1870. Dubbed “The Great Emigration”, this saw many Poles leave Poland to avoid imperial repression after failed uprisings. Many were independent activities, nobles and other social elites. This mostly saw immigration into other countries in Europe, such as France, Belgium and Switzerland, with around 30,000 estimated Polish immigrants starting new lives abroad.

Later, around 1864, following the emancipation of peasants, more lower and working class people were able to emigrate This continued to the point that, by World War 1, it’s estimated around 3.5 million people had emigrated, mostly consisting of later peasant and lower class immigrants.

However, in many countries, immigration began in many different ways, and often occurred in different periods of time.

Polish Immigrants in America

In America – a prime example of Polish diaspora and home to one of the world’s largest communities – the history of Polish immigrants is well documented.

However, it should be noted that Poles have been recorded in America at the same time as other European colonists and as early as 1608. Indeed, Polish generals, such as Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, played significant roles in the American War of Independence. Not only are they remembered to this day, their place in history signifies the early influence Poles had on the founding and development of America as a country.

After this, however, immigration primarily occurred in three big waves:

  • Between 1870 and 1914: during this period, the number of Polish immigrants rose from approximately 50,000 to over 2 million. Many came for work and new opportunities, often working in steel mills and other industrial trades.
  • After the Second World War: A combination of economic hardship and poor farming conditions following World War II led to a second significant wave of Polish immigration. Alongside this, many refugees from the war stayed in other countries.
  • After 1989: Following a regime change and the end of the Polish People’s Republic and the Soviet Union, many Poles were able to travel abroad for new work opportunities. It is estimated that around 1.3 million left Poland in the 1980s, primarily in the latter years and mostly to Germany and the US.

According to recent statistics, there are around 9-10 million Polish Americans alive in the US, representing different generations of Polish descendants. Of these, around 600,000 speak Polish, too!

Polish Immigrants in Canada

While Polish people have been recorded in Canada as early as 1752, most Polish immigrants arrived after the 19th century, in a number of significant, overlapping waves:

  • 1858-1901: Arriving from the Kashub region of Poland, many of these first migrants settled in Wilno and Berlin, both in Ontario. They arrived in order to escape German and Prussian oppression.
  • 1921-1931: After World War I, around 130,000 Poles emigrated. Primarily consisting of farmers, many of these Poles traveled to Canada, often from Austrian-occupied territories. While some settled in big cities, working as skilled craftsmen, many continued their farming traditions and settled across Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
  • 1945-1956: Following World War II, Polish immigrants coming to Canada represented a mix of former soldiers, inmates of the Nazi regime, or other political refugees fleeing communist Poland. Around half of these settled in Ontario, which was developing its own Polish neighborhood culture by this point.
  • 1957-1979: In these years, Poles continued to arrive, looking for away from communism at home.
  • 1981-1993: Due to economic troubles in Poland, more workers began moving to Canada, amongst other countries, to find better jobs.

Today, there are over a million Polish Canadians, with the biggest populations equally distributed amongst the likes of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Alberta.

Polish Immigrants in the UK

In the UK, Polish immigration can be accounted in three key periods:

1831-1863: Following failed uprisings in both 1831 and 1863, many of Poland’s elite fled to neighboring countries, including the UK.

1939-1955: During World War II, some quarter of a million Poles arrived in the UK, representing demobilized Polish soldiers and pilots, as well as their partners. Because of this, these Poles continued to hold a strong sense of their national identity. It’s often referred to as the second Great Emigration due to its scale In 1947, the UK’s Polish Resettlement Act helped them stay in the country, and they were later joined by more Poles leaving their home country to avoid communism.

2004-2014: After Poland’s ascension to the European Union, Poles were free to enter the UK. Estimates suggest around half a million Polish people were in the country by 2014. Due to the nature of the EU, it is hard to estimate, as only a small number claimed a British nationality over their initial Polish heritage.

These days, around 700,000 Poles reside across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is lower than its peak of over a million in 2017, but this may also reflect the naturalized nature of subsequent generations.

Polish Immigrants in the EU

When it comes to Polish descendents across the European Union, their history is often tied to similar events, most notably the first and second world wars. The most recent change occurred in 2004, with an estimated 2 million moving abroad following Poland’s official entry into the European Union.

While Poles and their descendents can be found throughout, the largest concentrations can be found in Germany, with 5 million, and France, with 1 million.

Polish Immigrants in Australia

When it comes to Australia, most Polish immigrants either arrived as convicts from the United Kingdom during the early 19th century, or later on as subsequent settlers and pioneers.

However, between 1947 and 1954, the number of native-born Polish people rose from under 7,000 to over 50,000. Today, Australia is home to an estimated 200,000 Polish Australians, alongside 2,800 descendents in neighboring New Zealand.

Polish Immigrants in South America

Many Polish immigrants also moved to South America. Many arrived in the latter half of the 19th century, primarily farms. By 1914, around 150,000 Polish immigrants arrived in Brazil alone, with around 120,000 emigrating to Argentina. 

These Poles formed strong communities. Currently, there are an estimated 3 million Polish Brazilians, alongside 1 million Polish Argentinians. Smaller Polish populations can also be found in Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Polish Diaspora: Past and Present

Collectively, the term Polish Diaspora refers to both Polish immigrants and their descendents. In other words, it pertains to all people with Polish ancestry that are currently living outside of Poland. Rough estimates suggest that over 20 million people of Polish ancestry can be found all over the world.

Some of the largest populations of Polish descendents can be found in North America. As of 2010, around 10 million Polish Americans live in the US, making up around 3% of the nation, with New York and Chicago both hosting some of the largest numbers. In fact, in such Polish American communities, while newer generations may not speak Polish, Polish culture has nonetheless become an integral part of daily life.

Lastly, it’s important to note that we do not have the exact numbers for such descendents living outside of Poland. This is because, outside of recent immigrants, such data is not tracked. As immigrants settle down with families, these newer generations are born in new countries without officially recognizing their Polish identity.

Defining Polish Ancestry

Alongside understanding the history of Polish immigrants, it’s also important to understand Poland’s own views. The country has passed a number of laws defining the criteria for qualification.

The most important of these is the Polish citizenship act of 1920, which is one of the first laws defining who qualifies as a Polish citizen. This act specifically stated that legitimate children inherited the citizenship of their father, while illegitimate children only acquired the citizenship of their mother, amongst other conditions. The criteria outlined in this law marks some of the first legislation regarding who qualifies as a citizen. 

Poles living within the borders at the time counted as Polish if the father had Polish citizenship and, Most importantly, when it comes to Polish citizenship law today, their descendents are still recognized as Polish, so long as citizenship was not renounced.

Other laws occurred in 1951 and 1962. The former revoked the citizenship of Poles living beyond the Curzon. The latter, however, covered the rights of Polish children born out of wedlock and naturalization processes for certain individuals within the country.

The most important law since then is the Polish citizenship act of 2009, which clarified the criteria for foreigners applying for citizenship. In particular, alongside the de facto status of those of Polish descent, it also stated that such people do not need to renounce their original nationality.

Connection to Polish Roots

Many Polish-Americans and other descendents often express a desire to explore and reconnect with their Polish roots. They wish to learn about their inherited culture and family background.

Claiming a Polish citizenship is a key part of getting in touch with one’s Polish roots. It’s important to note a recognized citizenship in Poland does not negate any existing identities, at least not from the perspective of Poland and its government. It’s possible to have both an American and Polish citizenship, for example, and many Poles in similar positions often hold dual nationality.

The Process of Polish Citizenship by Descent

In order to claim Polish citizenship by descent, you must be able to prove your ancestry to at least one Polish ancestor – as mentioned earlier, someone who meets the specific criteria laid out in the Polish citizenship act of 1920 – that legally resided in the country at some point after 1920. It’s also important that they did not lose or renounce their Polish citizenship.

In other words, if you have a Polish grandparent or even great grandparent, you could claim your Polish citizenship. By law, Poland considers Poles with such ancestry as de facto Polish, so the process is not about claiming citizenship, but about proving you meet the  existing rights.

To do this, applicants need to collect all relevant documents proving their lineage. This includes birth certificates of your original ancestor, and any subsequent certificates where their details may have changed. For example, if they married and changed their name, or moved to another country, you will need the relevant documents. This also applies to any descendants between you and them.

Do you need to speak Polish?

Legally, you do not need to speak Polish when claiming citizenship by descent. However, the Polish language can prove important in a few other areas.

  • When corresponding with government bodies in Poland, Polish is the official language and will often therefore be required.
  • When proving your Polish ancestry, alongside communication with officials, it’s important to note that many documents, such as civil records, will be in Polish.
  • Any documents you submit must also be in either the English or Polish language. If they are in another language, such as that of your native country, then official translations can be used.

In these cases, having legal experts within Poland who can help you with these tasks will prove to be a great relief.

Conclusion

To summarize, the history of Poland, its people and their waves of emigration mean that there are over 20 million people around the world with Polish ancestry. For those that meet the specific criteria, primarily having a direct Polish ancestor who lived in Poland after 1920, this is more than just ancestry. It’s a birth right that can be officially recognized and inherited, so long as you prepare your application properly, with full documentation.

Are you by any chance of Polish origin? Find out if you are eligible for EU citizenship by taking the test below:

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