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Curious City

The Making Of Polish Chicago

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If you tell people you answer questions about Chicago, the region and its people, you’ll inevitably get a boatload of questions about one of the largest and most influential ethnic groups in the area: the Polish.

Curious City should have seen these questions coming, given how Polish this city is: Chicago has 52 churches with Polish mass, Polish TV and radio stations, Polish diners and nightclubs, a respected Polish history museum, and a Polish yacht club. There are thriving businesses that import Polish clothing, glassware, and Polish electric potato graters. Chicago’s Poles even helped create a state holiday honoring a notable Polish immigrant and Revolutionary War hero.

We’ve taken on several of questions over the years and meted out answers one-by-one. Here, though, we devote a half-hour mini-documentary to a two-part question posed by Todd Leiter-Weintraub: Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. Is that true? I've always found this intriguing. What is it that brought them to our town?

There’s a lot packed into Todd’s question: the history of the Polish community, the immigrant experience in Chicago, and demographics. Here’s a roadmap of what you’ll hear in our documentary, alongside additional reporting we hope you’ll check out!

Constitution Day in Chicago

Thousands marched along Chicago's State Street on May 7, 2016, to celebrate the ties between Chicago, Poland and Polish-Americans. (Steven Jackson/WBEZ)

We open our documentary with scenes from Chicago’s annual Constitution Day Parade, an event where Chicago’s Poles and Polish-American make their presence — and their pride — known. On the Saturday closest to May 3, thousands of community members dress in red and white (Poland’s national colors) and watch members of Polish schools and churches, small businesses, social clubs, and dancers march along State Street.

Polish migration to Chicago

Next, we head back to the 19th century to hear how Poles were drawn to Chicago’s promise of steady work in several booming industries. The documentary follows the chain of migration through the post-WWII period, the political upheaval of the 1980s, and the changing immigrant experience of the present day.

Our reporting includes:

  • Details on the 1860-1924 Za Chlebem “For Bread” migration

  • Chicago as a destination for displaced persons from 1948 through the 1950s

  • The story of Polish-American poet John Guzlowski and his family

  • A video interview with Janusz Majewski, who sought political asylum after his involvement with the Solidarity movement of the 1980s.

  • A video interview with Monika Galuszka, now the Polish coordinator for Chicago’s Board of Elections. Galuszka tells of her arrival in Chicago in the post-Soviet era.

Demographics

We finish our mini-documentary by addressing the prevalent belief that Chicago has more people of Polish descent than any city other than Warsaw. Getting to the bottom of this one took us all over — from Chicago to New York to London (not to mention Warsaw). In the end, the answer is a little bit ego-bruising. But hey, sometimes the truth hurts!

  • We have additional reporting, charts and supporting data on:
  • The population of Poles and Polish-Americans in Chicago vs. New York City

  • Which European city gives Chicago a run for its money  

  • What happens if you count Poles and Polish-Americans within the Chicago city limits or if you count within the metro region

And ... there’s more

Casimir Pulaski, courtesy of National Park Service. Colorization by Logan Jaffe

If you haven’t had your fill of Polish-related investigations by the time our mini-documentary is done, check out this feature we reported about Casimir Pulaski Day. The state holiday honors a Polish hero of the American Revolutionary War and illustrates the cultural influence and political power of Chicago’s Poles.  

As always, remember: If you have questions about Chicago, the region and its people (not just Poles) ask us!

Correction: An earlier audio version of this story misstated the likely proportion of Poland's population that was killed during World War II. While there are several conflicting studies, our figure was high and out of the range of credible estimates on the matter. That most accurate range is between 14 and 20 percent of the population.

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