Do you know what the second most populous Polish city is? Chicago!* I’ve always known there are tons of Polish people living abroad but never realized how huge the actual communities are. According to estimated data there are 21 million Poles and people of Polish descent everywhere in the world. Compared to 38 million living in Poland it really is an impressive number. Poland is a very strange country in that it has the highest number of emigrants in Europe and one of the lowest numbers of immigrants. As if nobody wanted to live there… Is it really so?
Poles have a long history of emigration. It seems there have always been good reasons to leave home and try one’s luck somewhere else. Most Polish emigrants were constrained to go abroad one way or the other. The first major wave of emigration came in the wake of the unsuccessful independence uprisings of the 19th century, and was followed soon thereafter (in the 20th century) by Poland’s first economic emigrants. After World War II, more Poles chose fled in masses – this time seeking political asylum in response to the imposition of a new communist regime at home. Nowadays emigration for economic gain is a big issue in Poland. After we joined the EU in 2004 hundreds of thousands of people went west to work and earn, especially to the UK and Ireland as these were the first countries to allow our citizens to work legally. Also, being that English is spoken there which is the first foreign language taught at Polish schools.
I was an economic emigrant myself if only temporarily. I went to Edinburgh two years in a row to work in a souvenir store during the summer season and watch the gradual ‘polonisation’ of this beautiful Scottish city. I shared flats with many Poles, heard their stories and observed fates of friends, some of whom decided to stay there permanently, with great interest. I could see how in the first year there were mainly men on their own, some students and young couples and the next year already almost every other group of people I passed on the street spoke Polish, many had children, whole families with them. I saw people looking for jobs for a month, running out of money and going home with nothing; I met young Polish architects working in a prestigious London company. Emigration has many faces, and every person has a story.
Let us get back to my initial question: Is Poland really such a terrible place that nobody wants to live there? I must say that I don’t think the issue is that Poland being so bad. On the contrary, many Poles are proud of their homeland especially when they’re abroad. The innumerable crowds at airports, train stations and bus terminals before Christmas headed towards the homeland are proof that we’re in fact quite attached to our customs. What makes us still go abroad in masses is, I think, this very special mixture of the long emigratory tradition, quest for adventure, wanderlust, longing for better economic conditions and constant dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation in Poland. Even if it isn’t that bad at a given moment, we just love the state of being dissatisfied and complaining. Some even find our unique mentality so appealing that they stay in Poland – among them our most famous German immigrant (or as he calls himself ‘Gastarbeiter’) Steffen Möller. You can watch him talk about Poland with great humor and affection (unfortunately only in German):
*Warsaw: population of 1,7 million, population of Polish Diaspora in Chicago: 1,5 million.