While there are substantial bodies of research dealing with both the contemporary and pre-1950 migration of Poles, there is surprisingly little work on migration of Poles during the socialist era. Depicted as completely shut off from the ‘West’ and immobile, Polish migration during socialism is often reduced simply to political emigration, while in contrast post-1989 moves are understood primarily in economic terms. Here we aim to bridge this gap and integrate historical migration research with contemporary findings through exploring experiences of migration in Poland from the 1940s to 2005. Using a pilot sample of oral histories as a means of integrating socialist with post-socialist experience, we also consider the place of migration in people’s life experiences. Far from migration being absent under socialism, in many ways it was engrained within the system: forced resettlement, free education, strongly promoted industrialization, state work and holidays moved people between rural and urban areas and across regional and national boundaries. We show how while travel and trade restrictions under socialism undoubtedly limited movement, Poland was far from being separate from the rest of the world, and show how experiences during this period could often pave the way for migration after 1989.

BT: Did you always want to travel?

Tomek: Yeah. I still want to. I hope some day … my first plan … cos I couldn’t move during the communist regime, I couldn’t travel. I didn’t even have my passport, they took it away.

BT: Could you travel within the communist bloc without a passport?

Tomek: If you belonged to the Communist Party, yes. But they knew about my father, so I didn’t have my passport … If you wanted to have a passport, you had to pay for it. If you were lucky, if you were a member of the Communist Party, if you had some connection, you would get it very easily … When we were travelling to Slovakia or Czech [as part of his school ice hockey team], we got a special coach, who was a member of the special service, special police. And she was ‘looking after’ me and some other people, and that was funny. Even there, I didn’t get my passport physically. They had my passport, but I didn’t have it in my pocket … When you got back, you had to send it back to the department. You couldn’t hold your passport in the house, no way … [but when the regime collapsed] I got my first passport. And finally they gave me German ID as well. When I was twenty, twenty-one, I got a Czechoslovakian passport, because I applied because of my grandma. I get my German and I get my Polish. Twenty years I didn’t have anything, and now I’ve got three! … I behaved like a child. I hadn’t had any toys for such a long time, so now I want to have everything.

Magda: I’ve got quite a lot of cousins, and now a baby’s been born, my cousin’s, and it’s the first baby in the family who’s actually Polish completely, because we have [babies who are] half-Polish/half-Portuguese; we have half-Polish/half-German; half-Polish/half-British …

Our interview with Tomek took place as he prepared food in the back kitchen of the delicatessen he runs with his wife in the East End of London. In contrast Magda made her comments in a sunny, modern flat in Kazimierz, the revamped ‘Jewish’ quarter of Krakow, towards the end of our life-history interview with her.1 Her story, which began in the days of Solidarity in 1981,2 covered her periods abroad in the United States and Britain as well as the reasons for her return and her hopes for the future. Taking the interviews together, Tomek’s memories appear to encapsulate the ‘bad old days’ of socialism, while Magda’s epitomize the explosion of Poles travelling abroad, which increasingly captured the attention of social science and migration studies research following the collapse of socialism in 1989 and its accession to the European Union in 2004.3 As historians, however, we were interested in looking at continuities as much as change, and in fact Poland has long been recognized as a place of emigration.4 Consequently, there is a strong body of historical literature about pre-1940s emigration, particularly, though not exclusively, in relation to Germany and the US.5 However, the assumption tends to be that the socialist period saw little in the way of migration, except for political émigrés and ‘repatriations’. Partly, as Krystyna Iglicka has observed, this has resulted from a lack of data, but it may also be seen as the product of ideological positions.6 Socialist states had a vested interest in undercounting emigration; and western academics also played a role. Mirroring contemporary geopolitics, the academic world from the 1950s developed ‘Sovietology’, a new and separate discipline to study the socialist regimes of east and central Europe. As Alison Stenning and Kathrin Hörschelmann have argued, during socialism this contributed to the construction of ‘the Eastern Bloc’ as ‘the west’s other – largely homogenous, monolithic, totalitarian and pan-Slavonic’.7 Along with underplaying the differences within this vast and diverse part of the world, it also obscured everyday connections with the west.8

This paper is a tentative attempt to explore the connections between historical and contemporary waves of migration.9 We have two theoretical aims. The first is to strengthen the ties between historical research and contemporary migration research; the second to engage with current debates on post-socialism. Historians have increasingly worked towards drawing the fields of history and migration studies closer together. In part this has been through stressing the importance of seeing migration as an integral part of Europe’s history rather than as an aberration.10 Some of this work has involved moving away from privileging international over internal movements when conceptualizing migration, and instead adopting the basic definition of migration used by migration sociologists – ‘a permanent or semi-permanent change of residence’ – which avoids distinctions based on distance, magnitude or motive.11 And as Klaus Bade has observed, in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people did not have to move in order to change nations: borders moved over people just as people moved over borders.12 In addition, rapid industrialization caused millions of people throughout Europe to move to urban areas from the countryside, which had massive impacts on geography, social structure and culture. These movements meant that even for those who stayed behind, the world became more transnational. As Enda Delaney has observed for Ireland:

Migrants home on holidays, friends and relatives living in Britain, and returnees acted as conduits of trustworthy information percolating back and forth across the Irish Sea. Far from being displaced from a rural idyll and transferred to the faceless environment of urban Britain … [t]he social landscape of this generation was truly transnational.13

The approach of seeing migration as integral to the European experience, considering rural/urban, internal or seasonal migrations alongside international movements and linking historical and contemporary phenomena, feeds into our second theoretical context, that of post-socialism. In part this article is an attempt to respond to Stenning and Hörschelmann’s challenge to researchers to explore more fully and rethink both socialism and post-socialism. Their belief is that such work may open a space for alternative interpretations of socialist experience and interrogating the binary east-west conceptualization of Cold War Europe. They suggest that one route towards this might be through questioning the disjuncture between socialist and post-socialist experiences.14 While we acknowledge the very real difficulties and everyday restrictions experienced under socialism, and the very rapid changes experienced after 1989, it is crucial not to ignore the connections people had with other places, both internal and international. In this spirit, we argue that reintegrating the history of post-socialist nations with wider European history necessitates exploring the continuities within people’s lives and between places: looking for the ties across time and places and not simply the walls which separate.

Our aim is not only to place recent international Polish migration in broader historical context, but also to place the experience of migration within the context of an individual’s life. Put simply, one way in which pre-socialism, socialism and post-socialism might be integrated is through exploring the experiences of individuals whose lives span these eras. There is now increasing recognition of the role of oral testimony and life histories in recording and understanding migration, and how it can reveal the effects of (non)return, estrangement and belonging on migrants.15 Oral history is a useful means for historians not only to capture the individual contexts surrounding decisions to migrate, but also to explore how migration can be embedded within many aspects of someone’s life. It can also reveal the impact of migration over time and across generations.16 Consequently it allows us to move beyond using ‘blunt instruments’ such as wage differentials to explain patterns of migration. As David Feldman observes in a different context, macro-level conventional economic explanations are ‘unable to tell us why some people responded to opportunities and others did not, or why particular groups of migrants ended up in particular places’.17

In the rest of the article we explore the different ways in which migration, both internal and international, were embedded in many aspects of the creation of and everyday life within socialist Poland. In the final section of the paper we look closely at the linked life stories of three generations of the same family to see how migration, in various forms and very different contexts, has affected their lives since the 1940s.


While the socialist period in Poland was characterized by restrictions on international travel it is vital not to equate this with complete stasis. In this section we explore migrations made under socialism, which themselves had continuities with the pre-socialist era. The chaos and mass internal displacement during and following the second world war, in combination with the new regime’s desire for a planned economy, led to large-scale state-generated migration in the immediate post-war years. In addition, the industrialization of Poland, which had been advancing for several decades, was central to the new economy, which accelerated rural-urban migration.18 As Stenning observes, these factors ‘came together to create a country with very high levels of social and spatial mobility’.19

The end of the second world war for Poland involved both the moving of borders and also the mass movement of populations across borders as part of the post-war settlements. In the east the Curzon line was accepted as Poland’s eastern border, with the Oder-Neisse (Odra-Nysa) line marking the border with Germany in the west. This effectively transposed Poland’s borders significantly west: it lost territory in the east, but gained it on the German border. Overall Poland’s territory was one third smaller than in 1939 and its population had also shrunk by about a third. However the eastern territory gained from Germany included the industrially developed areas of Silesia (Śląsk) as well as the agriculturally rich areas along the Oder, so economically the new Poland was potentially richer.

Along with these border changes came mass movements of populations: the different treaties resulted in the movement of between six to seven million people, mainly to Germany, USSR and Israel in the five years following the end of the war.20 These movements were concentrated both geographically and ethnically, so that as well as certain areas clearly being more affected than others, certain populations were more targeted, because of the Polish state’s ambition to create an ethnically homogenous nation.

Some of the chaos of this period is reflected in Czarek’s explanation of how his family came to live in Hrubieszów in Eastern Poland:

Czarek: My dad was born in the East, which later became part of the Soviet Union.

M: Was your family relocated when the borders were moved?

C: No. The way it was: they fled. My father’s parents lived in the east and the reason was, the Ukrainian action. When the Ukrainians invaded us. His parents fled together with my father and one of the children died there at that time, it was a small child, and the parents fled to the part which was controlled by the Germans, on the other side of the Bug river. It was in 1943, the ‘Wołyń slaughter’ … They went first all the way to the Western border, close to Zielona Góra, but over there the climate wasn’t good for my grandfather, apparently. So they came back … I don’t know, it was by chance, I think. They returned in the 1950s. During the repatriation in 1945, everybody from Wołyń was relocated to the west [that is, Poland rather than the Ukraine].21

Numerically the most significant migration was the organized movement of 2.3 million Germans from Poland, which was augmented by an unknown number of ethnic Germans informally fleeing to Germany.22 Millions of Polish settlers then moved into the annexed areas, which were described as the ‘reclaimed’ or ‘recovered’ territories by the new communist regime, harking back to the early medieval Piast dynasty of Polish kings in order to depict the new territories as an ‘integral part of historical Poland’.23 Many of these settlers were from the Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania where about 1.5 million Poles left after the post-war political settlement.24 In addition, Poles living in other parts of Europe moved to these territories. Krystyna, whom we interviewed in Peckham, south London, where she now lives with her family, was brought up in a town in Dolny Śląsk, which became Polish in 1945.25 Her family, which had been living in France, took part in the Polish government’s programme of post-war repatriation of 600,000 Poles, primarily from France and Belgium, but also Croatia and Serbia:

Krystyna: My father at the age of 15 came back from France, he had been born there. So, you know, I am mixed-blood.

M: Was he French?

K: Yes.

M: So why did he come to Poland?

K: I can only blame my grandma for this, no one else! They came to settle on the reclaimed land. Because my grandma married a Polish man later on. This was her second husband. Because my father wasn’t from Polish blood but from a Frenchman’s blood. But there was the reclaimed land and they came here.

Although in part this government policy was motivated by its over-arching aim of making Poland ethnically homogenous, we can see how at a micro-level at least such ambitions could be undermined, promoting the return of ‘mixed’ families. With such a family background it is perhaps not surprising that in Krystyna’s story, there was a certain taken-for-grantedness of the notion of resettling entire communities as a consequence of moving country borders:

Krystyna: These were the western territories. I’m sure you’ve learned about it. People would move in there from different regions of Poland: to Wrocław, Wałbrzych, Dolny Śląsk. These were all people from the outside. So these were not the people who had always lived there … It used to be German, but with all this, divisions and so on, people would come there from the whole of Poland because it was a working people’s region. Factories and this.

In addition to mass movements which occurred because boundaries had been redrawn, political decisions by the newly established communist regime also resulted in redistribution of population. One insight into early state-generated migration in socialist Poland was provided by Tadeusz who spoke about the wholesale forced migration experienced by his village:

Tadeusz: The village used to be in the middle of a deep forest … After the war such villages became havens for partisans or armed resistance groups which were opposing the communist authorities. In 1948 the Central Committee of Polish Workers’ Party … designed a plan to resettle people from such regions … My village came to an area where there was just empty land, land which used to belong to a landowner … and they had to start building on an empty field!

Alongside the mass population shifts of the post-war period, upheavals in the Polish economy occurred as a result of the Soviet-dominated six-year economic plan (1949-55). Anxious that Poland rapidly industrialize in order to support its own reconstruction and rearmament, the Soviet Union promoted a highly centralized and over-ambitious plan which focused on rapid industrialization, demonstrating a ‘preference for new, costly plants in undeveloped regions of the country, rather than for increasing production in old factories or developing the existing industrial centres’.26 So, for example, the biggest steelworks in Poland were developed in Nowa Huta, far from the coalfields of Silesia.27 One consequence was very rapid urbanization, fed by high levels of migration from country to town. If in 1946 just over thirty-two per cent of Poland’s population lived in urban areas, by 1970 this had jumped to fifty-two per cent, with a seven per cent increase in the years 1950-55 alone.28

One such urban area was the town of Ostrowiec, in south-central Poland, which developed around a number of linked steelworks and attracted people from all over the region. Andrzej came originally from a small town fifteen kilometres from the city, and his life and the effect of the steelworks on it were typical of many of the post-war generation:

Andrzej: Of course, my father worked in the steel works before. It was the biggest company in the region. He was a steel worker. At that time, the steel works were developing. They built flats. In the first year [of high school] I would commute there, so it was an hour’s waste of time, so my parents accepted a flat and we started living in Ostrowiec.

With an emphasis on the experience of being uprooted and the emotional dimension of relocating, Andrzej commented on the significance of micro-migration from a small town to a bigger one:

Andrzej: I had been in the Ostrowiec environment for a year and a half already. So I had acclimatized there already. And I was more handsome, slimmer then! I had an outgoing personality, so I already had friends there … [But] for my mum it was some kind of a tragedy. Getting disconnected from her environment, in which she had already lived for over forty or fifty years. For my sister it was less so, she was already in primary school, so for her it was probably a progression but she had also lost her kindergarten contacts. My father already had more colleagues in the city because even some of those who commuted with him had set up families in Ostrowiec or got flats which were the magnet attracting everybody from the region.

Here Andrzej reveals something of the intensely personal nature of even small migrations, how they might differently affect individuals within the same family who were at different stages in their lifecycles. As Feldman rightly points out for the mass relocation of Britain’s working class populations as a result of suburban local authority housing schemes, such relatively small moves can have deep personal consequences. He cites one resident from the time who declared: ‘We have been torn up by the roots and rudely transplanted to foreign soil’.29 This points to the need to acknowledge the emotional impact of migration, not only understood in an international context, but also within states and even regions.30

Within socialist Poland the impact of relatively small moves could be exacerbated by the material difficulties associated with an economy of shortages. Except for a short period under the martial law (December 1981 to July 1983), in contrast for example with the USSR, movement within Poland itself was not restricted by state intervention. However, shortages of private cars, and indeed fuel, and the need to rely on overstretched and inadequate public transport limited people’s movements and meant that trips had to be carefully planned and were generally limited to essential journeys or ones organized through work or other official channels.

Alongside industrialization, another significant feature of socialist Poland was the rapid expansion of free education, especially for those from poorer and rural backgrounds who had their first chance to go to high school and university. Gosia, who lived nearly all her life in Kraków, has family living in the deeply rural Podhale region near the Slovakian border. Her parents, like many of their generation, left the area in order to further their education.

Gosia: They certainly wouldn’t have wanted to stay there. They both studied and they both got jobs after they graduated. They were good students and at that time things were different, so both of them did quite well, both my mum and dad received good job offers. Where they came from they wouldn’t have got this kind of work, it wasn’t available there … It was a completely different life.

And while this form of migration – in both geographical and social, classed, terms – was common, particularly from the 1950s to the 1970s, their new professional lives in the city did not signal a complete break with their rural pasts. In fact new urban existences – especially for those with young children – were intimately bound up with their family homes. Housing shortages and a need for child care, alongside deeper emotional ties, led to the emergence of ‘transregional’ lifestyles. For Gosia who lived with her grandmother, and only saw her parents at weekends when they came back from Kraków, her rural family was central to her early upbringing, and was vividly remembered in stories of driving tractors and playing with her cousin in the snow. Despite the logistical difficulties involved in travelling between Kraków and Chyżne, to Gosia’s parents the move from countryside to city indicated social progress. And yet it was only possible because of the ongoing links between rural and urban areas and across generations. This reveals a paradox inherent in the Polish socialist state: premised on industrialization and urbanization, it was in fact often supported by largely invisible and unacknowledged rural and family ties.

Given the changes of this period it was perhaps inevitable that for many of this generation spatial mobility was inextricably bound up with social mobility, and was consequently not without feelings of dislocation and loss. One individual spoke of the anti-rural prejudice he faced, having left his very poor rural family home for the first time, to become a student in Krakow in the 1960s:

Jan: The students from Krakow would stick together and treated the ones from rural backgrounds as inferior to them, as people from a lower civilization … They wouldn’t invite me to their parties or other social activities. And I felt different, I felt that I was lacking something, that there was a big cultural distance between me and them … I was brought up in a different way. I behaved, spoke, dressed up differently. I knew nothing about the theatre and the cinema, I never travelled – and they did. I saw the world differently to them – say, I’d be interested in whether in a given year there would be good harvest in the fields – the kind of thing those guys probably never thought of … I wasn’t ashamed of my background, I wasn’t one of those people who would say they were from a regional town rather than the village they actually came from – and there were many people like that, who would have been ashamed of their peasant origin and tried to hide it. But I knew I had to catch up somehow, to address my deficiencies … So I worked hard to become knowledgeable, and to overcome my shyness. I was always well prepared and made the point of participating in discussions, to show that I had something to say, that I wasn’t worse than others, despite being a peasants’ child.

Here we see how Jan benefited from the socialist ideal of education with its challenge to old hierarchies and yet at the same time had to live with the tensions and discomforts that this produced. The deeply felt experience of being out of place was for many reinforced by the general assumption that an urban origin was more desirable – hence the desire to represent oneself as from a provincial town rather than the countryside. Crucially, Jan also provides us with an insight into how this wave of urban migration was understood by ‘natives’ of Krakow:

Jan: I sat down in a shop to get some food – there are no shops like this nowadays; the kind of places where you could get simple meals, beer and vodka … Many workers would spend time in those shops, and so they were there, workers from the construction site next door, and I sat down next to a group of them. When they noticed me, they started saying: ‘It’s incredible how many of these village people come to Krakow, soon there will be no place left for us. They’ll take over the city, they’ll take away our jobs. There will be nothing left for us and for our children. The village will take over everything’.

Not only does this destabilize images of socialist Poland as a homogenous state but it opens up some of the profound feelings of unsettlement produced in an era of rapid socio-economic change. As with much contemporary populist rhetoric about immigrants, here there was no interest in who the individual migrant actually was and what he did (in this case, a history student presenting no direct threat to construction workers’ jobs): the rural migrant becomes a threat just by being ‘not from here’.

So far we have shown how migration was embedded in the creation and functioning of the socialist state, through the redrawing of boundaries and the profound structural changes to Poland’s economy. We have also seen how this was also often intimately tied with social mobility and was an emotionally charged experience for individuals, even when the actual distances involved were sometimes quite small. We move on now to consider how Poles interacted with their socialist neighbours. For while contact with non-Warsaw Pact countries may have been restricted (although, as we shall see, not completely so), trade, social and cultural contact within the Soviet bloc was not only possible, but often promoted. State-sponsored holidays and seasonal work programmes allowed participants to earn extra money and see something of life in other socialist nations. Andrzej went as a part of a group of workers from his home town to harvest fruit and vegetables in East Germany:

Andrzej: It was, indeed, a labour camp, in the worst possible way. When I think about it, it was something terrible … it was a camp of ‘international friendship’ and work, but we had to get our allocated amount of work done, in a bean field, on tomatoes, I have bad memories from that time … Wooden beds, fenced off, like a concentration camp … There were some parties, camp-fires with beer, sausages, these terrible German ones. The cadres had it great, because the cadres had better money and houses to stay in, and we were just workers, from different countries. The Russians had it best, of course. They had practically everything, easy conditions, a field which we never found, so they probably didn’t have to do anything. They were spoilt by the Germans. They used to live in a school. And the Germans were afraid of them, terribly. And we got on well with the Bulgarians. Not with the Czechs, the Czechs were also, somehow, pro-Soviet, and the Bulgarians were open, especially the Bulgarian females, these were such hot girls …

Clearly intended to foster solidarity between socialist nations, as this account reveals, they could equally create resentment, not only between different countries (especially towards the Soviet Union), but also between party officials and workers. While Andrzej’s account has a certain hyperbole about it – deploying internationally resonant images such as ‘concentration camp’ – it serves to move his story out of a purely socialist context and locate his experience within broader European experience and memory. It gives a glimpse of how socialist Poland continued to be connected to its geographic and historic neighbours, and how this was mediated in face-to-face encounters. Several interviewees, as is illustrated here in Beata and Edyta’s conversation about travelling with the primary school choir, had a sense of the hierarchy of socialist countries, and hence a sense of where Poland sat within that.

Beata: We would go to East Germany, or we would go to … cos the choir was in Ukraine and then … East Germany. The shops were full. You could buy nice trainers there.

Edyta: Trainers. I bought trainers as well in East Germany.

B: And I think Hungary wasn’t going too bad, because if the weather was nice, then …

E: Bulgaria was good.

B: Bulgaria was good. Ukraine bad, Russia bad.

E: Czechoslovakia all right … it was a bit common.

Those going on work-sponsored holidays would take advantage of the different consumer goods available in other socialist countries, as Wojtek remembered.

Wojtek: To Czechoslovakia I used to go often … one would go partly as a tourist, but would also look to financially … sell something, bring something. Because over there, there was more merchandise … In Poland, many things were missing, so I would bring shoes for children or something … when I went to Czechoslovakia [I sold] jeans … In Poland there were jeans and it paid off to buy them in Poland, and sell them for three, four times as much. When we went to a kitchen, the cooks would take everything from us. Jeans, jackets, I tell you, one just had to invest. I invested, let’s say, a hundred dollars but I’d bring back three hundred … Also, one had to smuggle it a little bit because one couldn’t just bring everything back then. In a bag, under the seat …

As his story suggests, these movements and trades weren’t necessarily easy: he had to hide the goods he took across the border, and had to bribe the guards to get them through. Informants’ stories both revealed the difficulties of movement and told how they were circumvented; they showed the problems of obtaining goods, but also how people managed to get them. And to place the interviewees’ experiences in a broader context, we might reflect just how international were Andrzej’s, Beata’s and Wojtek’s travel experiences by comparison with the opportunities of, for example, British working-class people to meet people from other nations and to travel abroad in this period.31

Over time some types of international movements outside Warsaw pact countries became easier, at least for some categories of citizen. As Wojtek put it, ‘when one was a normal citizen, lived normally, one didn’t feel the constraints on a daily basis. Rather not. I didn’t feel it’. ‘Normal’ in this context meaning someone who did not have a criminal record and did not challenge the status quo. So after the years 1951-55, which saw the tightest controls on foreign travel as a result of heavy Soviet control, the general thaw in 1956 led in particular to the easing of exit visas and passports to Poles with claims to German identity. This trend became particularly pronounced from the 1970s, following a new agreement between Poland and Germany in 1971. But although it was intended, by the German state at least, to be restricted to Polish citizens with ties to both the German state and the German nation, by the 1970s ‘the prevalence of ethnic Poles among the migrants became obvious’, and many Poles were using it as a means of escape to the West.32

Alongside the changing process of emigration for those who did not intend to return was a parallel one, by which individuals – or sometimes even whole families – were granted passports in order to work abroad for defined periods of time. This meant that stories of foreign travel during the socialist era were not unusual in our interviews, and indeed showed how migration practices stretched across generations. So for example, Gosia’s family history demonstrated that although circumstances had changed significantly for them in rural Podhale since 1989, migration was perhaps one of the areas in which there were continuities:

Gosia: [My cousins] had a sister and the sister lives in the States. And one of the cousins was in England, for quite a long time, where he was working to earn money to finance the construction of his house.

M: And when you were growing up, were members of your family going abroad?

G: My father and his brother went to the States. During the time when it was really difficult, my father managed to go, the uncle as well. Earlier, in the 1930s, someone else from my grandfather’s family went there as well … Someone stayed there, someone returned … my grandmother’s father went to America.

These experiences resonate strongly with Mary Chamberlain’s remarks in relation to Barbados on how ‘family ties cross continents, oceans and borders and have done so for generations’.33 They also shows how emigration can become ‘deeply engrained into the repertoire of people’s behaviours, and values associated with migration become part of the community’s values’.34 Given the large and established expatriate populations of Poles across the world, it is not surprising that (globally) extended families maintained contact despite the difficulties imposed by the socialist regime. It would commonly include sending parcels of scarce foods and prestige clothing, and had a significant impact – both material and imaginary – on those back in Poland. Gosia went on to recall how her image of America was shaped by her father’s period of stay there in the 1980s.

Gosia: When someone was coming back from America, he would always wear jeans and white trainers. When my father went there and started sending us the first parcels, it was something completely different from here … he sent us a picture with a car, and even though it was an old car, it seemed so great, the shape and so on. Altogether, the image of America at that time was as a country of ‘milk and honey’.

Children weren’t always left behind when parents went away to work. Magda, as a very young child, accompanied her parents on their trips to Sweden where they undertook seasonal labour, and has lasting memories and souvenirs of ‘abroad’:

Magda: My parents used to work in Sweden during summer for a couple of months … working fields, picking strawberries, driving tractors … They went a couple of times [alone], we went together once when I was two years old, so that was my first journey abroad. And then we went again when I was a bit older. I remember we went through East Germany … I remember the ferry trip and the shops, they had so many nice things in Germany and my parents bought me a pencil case which was really cool when no one had anything like this in Kraków.

Iglicka suggests that such seasonal labour migration became more common from the 1970s, but accepts that this is impossible to verify owing to the lack of data.35 Not counted by the state, it remains an area neglected by research. Oral histories offer one way of opening up this field of experience in socialist Poland.


In this final section, using a cluster of three life histories from one family in Kraków we move on to explore different kinds of migration across time and how they were embodied and became embedded within a family’s history.36 Here we also show how oral history as a methodology opens up different means of researching and understanding migration. ‘Thick’ accounts produced in the telling of life stories reveal past migrations and expose themes and emotions which span generations.

We met with Zofia, after taking the tram out from the centre of Kraków to the post-war estate where she lives. Our first impression of her cosy and welcoming flat was of continuity and stability. This apartment had been her childhood home; it was where she had brought up her own family, and it is where she now cares for her grandchildren on a daily basis. Her two adult daughters – Ola and Lena – live in the Kraków area, and they all see each other regularly. And yet as Zofia told her stories, the importance of (international) migration to her family was continually reinforced. Despite her strong feeling of belonging in the area, both her parents in fact had come from very different parts of the country, with their arrival in Kraków being the product of the upheavals of the 1940s:

Zofia: I was born in Cieszyn because my father was in the military and he was moved from place to place … then I lived in Gliwice until the age of five, and since the age of six I’ve been living in Kraków. Both my parents were in the non-communist army during the war. They had terrible wartime experiences. My father was a partisan soldier, my mum was taken to the Pawiak prison and then sent to a labour camp in Germany … Now, how did my father end up in Belarussia, because his roots were here, in Gliwice? His father was a pre-war socialist … And he had to run away because there were bad times for socialists and he ended up somewhere outside Pińsk, where he met a woman – by the way, a simple one – my father’s mum. She sheltered him and he was able to hide there and after some time children were born, they got married and so on.

M: So the grandma was from Belarussia?

Z: Yes … grandma used to look after us here. She was with us for two, three years here. My mum, after coming back from Germany, anchored in Kłodzko – this is where she met my father …

Following an argument with the local communist party, her father resigned from the military, left the party and moved the family to Kraków. The mixed backgrounds and experiences of her parents had a profound effect on Zofia on a number of levels: both her parents hated the communist regime, and found their careers hampered as a result. Significantly, her mother found herself very out of place in the new working-class estate where they were allocated a flat.

Zofia: We did actually get on with these neighbours … but this ‘otherness’ we could feel through our mum. Because my mum was a lady. She was very cultured, very well kept, despite all the worries and the lack of money, she always had to look beautiful. And she was cultured. But here, there were so many people from villages … There were people who would keep chickens in their flats, they would keep coal in their bath tubs … Plebs!

Although Zofia herself felt that she ‘belonged’, and never in fact had any desire to leave Kraków, this did not mean her own life was unmarked by migration. From the 1970s both she, and more particularly her husband Roman, migrated to Sweden on a seasonal basis to work in a friend’s construction business:

Zofia: When Ola was little, we visited Paweł in Sweden, three times for three months. When I was pregnant, later when Ola was a year old, and later when she was two and a half. I don’t know until today why they let us out of the country. The whole family, with a little child, we got a visa! We looked suspicious, weren’t we acting as some collaborators? It might have looked like that … Roman used to go there to work for years. Thanks to this we somehow managed to live over the years. Every year he’d go there for two, three months, he’d take unpaid leave here … he would bring back as much money as after a year of working here.

Both daughters remembered how this formed a major part of family life, causing regular absences but also giving them a quality of life and opportunities which otherwise would have been out of their reach. Lena remembered the extended holidays they were able to take as a family, while Ola recalled visits to the foreign-currency shops:

Ola: He always took us to Pewex … there were all these Barbie dolls, and real chocolate, because there was no real chocolate in our shops. And all the Johnnie Walker … Lego blocks … I remember the smell of the shops, it was kind of going abroad, but in one shop.37

Family separation and seasonal migration occurred because Zofia had made an active decision not to remain in Sweden, owing to the strong links she felt with her family:

I loved my mum and my sister with limitless love … I couldn’t imagine life at a distance from my mum and sister because we are very attached to each other since childhood … It wasn’t about the money. Only the family … And besides I’m the kind of person, I’m not cut out for emigration, absolutely not!

Her complicated relationship with migration has been carried forward into her children. Between them, they like to characterize the older sister Ola as happily settled in Kraków, while Lena is seen as a misfit who is only happy when away. Lena, now in her late twenties, spent several seasons in the UK, on a strawberry farm in Northamptonshire, working her way up to become one of its higher level supervisors. As she explained she liked travelling, ‘unlike my sister I don’t think that Kraków is the most beautiful city in the whole world, cos it’s not. I love to see other cultures and places, and I have to travel’. Yet the reality is more complex. She herself only moved to Britain after the death of her fiancé, and then returned following the break-up of another relationship. And while her strawberry-picking was almost the emblematic post-1989 labour migrant experience in Britain, it also carried with it strong resonances of Andrzej’s fruit picking work under socialism: ‘on the farm … there are a lot of people from Bulgaria, from Romania, from Russia, so we didn’t have almost any contact with English people’.

Despite Lena’s comments about Ola’s being content to live in Kraków, her sister had her own experiences of travel and notions of ‘abroad’. In part this was due to her early love of languages. Our interview took place in English, as Ola explicitly wanted to use the chance to exercise her proficiency, and it began with her stressing how she had enjoyed Russian at school. She also remembered how her grandparents used to speak German, and went on to tell us how she decided to become a Latin teacher. And as a young student she went to London one summer with a group of friends, to try and find work. Her memories entwined the exoticism of ‘away’ with the importance of ‘home’ networks and relationships:

I felt so independent then, I wanted to stay there for ever. I was so grown up! … All my friends, five of my friends, Polish girls, found jobs in restaurants, or some kitchens … I really liked it that there were so many nations … completely strange in Poland.

Since that time Ola has not lived abroad, preferring to travel only for holidays within Europe and organizing the building of a new house in the countryside outside Kraków. In contrast Lena plans to travel again in the future, ‘cos really I can’t be in one place … I wouldn’t be happy’. Even this brief look at the lives of Ola, Lena and Zofia suggests the multiple ways in which migration has been a central part of the family’s story, despite their outward appearance as a settled Kraków family. Themes such as seasonal migration, learning languages and complicated relationships between ‘outsiderness’ and belonging have run through the family within the different contexts of forced and internal migrations, heavily controlled travel under socialism and the expanding opportunities of migration after 1989.


In this article we have tentatively explored the historical continuities of migration between pre-socialist, socialist and post-socialist Poland. Our preliminary work suggests that far from migration being absent under socialism, in many ways it was engrained within the system: forced resettlement, free education, strongly promoted industrialization, state work and holidays moved people between rural and urban areas and across regional and national boundaries. Hence, in the life stories we collected, movement was engrained in the very fabric of life under socialism. These moves saw Polish people coming into contact with different places and opportunities, while also often needing to maintain links with ‘home’. This problematizes the idea of Poland as a homogenous country, and supports research challenging conceptions of the monolithic nature of socialism and socialist experiences. Similarly while travel and trade restrictions under socialism undoubtedly limited movement, Poland was far from being separated from the rest of the world. In challenging the conceptualization of ‘east’ and ‘west’ as polar opposites, we move some way towards revealing links between socialist and capitalist nations during the Cold War, and between socialism and post-socialism. So, for example, the life histories showed that people’s ability to travel both in Poland and beyond its borders might in fact have been greater than that of their counterparts in the ‘West’ at the time. Stories also revealed how people were able to travel outside the Eastern Bloc in various different ways for work. Our approach also revealed the way in which, contrary to the implication of much research, individuals do not necessarily privilege international over internal moves: rural/urban moves may for one person have far more lasting effects – material as well as intimate – than migration abroad for another.38

Using even a small cluster of life histories allows us to explore the continuities in migration across generations and also to tease out the differences. This reinforces the importance of locating migration in its particular historical moment as much as in an individual’s life experience. The lives of Zofia, her parents, and her children not only demonstrate that the different generations did experience migration, but also reveal the multiple ways in which those migrations were generated, enacted and narrated. Oral histories show how central migration can be, even for an apparently sedentary family, and significantly for researchers, they also show how migration is part of an ongoing story, that stretches not just backwards, but also into the future. While our findings are based on a small sample, they suggest the importance of continuing to collect life histories as a means of recording not only migrations but also the ongoing importance of both socialism and post-socialism in the lives of Poles.

The authors thank Birkbeck, University of London, and the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Newcastle University, for financial support for the fieldwork for this project. The fieldwork was intended as a pilot project for a larger piece of research on migration in socialist and post-socialist Poland, and consisted of sixteen life-history interviews: six were with participants currently living in London or Newcastle; and ten with participants living in Kraków (southern Poland) or Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski (central Poland). We interviewed ten women and six men, with a spread in ages from their early twenties to their mid-sixties. Interviews were conducted in either Polish or English, as the participant preferred, and all those in Polish were translated by Martyna Śliwa.


1 The way in which Kazimierz has become remarketed as a ‘Jewish’ district for tourists, despite its tiny Jewish population, is beyond the scope of the present study but would bear future attention.
2 Solidarity was a trade-union federation formed in September 1980 in the Gdańsk shipyards and was originally led by Lech Wałęsa. It rapidly became the vanguard of a broader anti-government movement in the early 1980s and prompted the Polish government to introduce a period of martial law from 13 December 1981 to 22 July 1983.
 3 The current best overview of contemporary Polish migration can be found in Anna Kicinger and Agnieszka Weinar, State of the Art of the Migration Research in Poland, Warsaw, 2007. For the British case see Kathy Burrell, Polish Migration to the UK in the ‘New’ European Union after 2004, Aldershot, 2004; John Eade, Stephen Drinkwater, and Michal Garapich, Class and Ethnicity: Polish Migrants in London, CRONEM, University of Surrey, 2007; Louise Ryan, Rosemary Sales, Mary Tilki, and Bernadetta Siara, ‘Recent Polish Migrants in London: Social Networks, Transience and Settlement’, ESRC end of award report, 2007.
 4 Poland in the nineteenth century is generally taken to refer to the area which was a political and territorial entity prior to its partition between Austria, Prussia and Russia in 1795.
 5 See for example, Eva Morawska, For Bread with Butter, Cambridge, 1985; Mark Wyman, Round Trip to America: the Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930, Ithaca and London, 1993; Leo Lucassen, ‘Poles and Turks in the German Ruhr area: Similarities and Differences’, in Paths of Integration: Migrants in western Europe, 1880-2004, ed. Leo Lucassen, David Feldman and Jochen Oltmer, Amsterdam, 2006; Dorota Praszalowicz, ‘Polish Berlin: Differences and Similarities with Poles in the Ruhr area, 1860-1920’, in Paths of Integration, ed. Lucassen and others; Irish and Polish Migration in Comparative Perspective, ed. John Belchem and Klaus Tenfelde, Essen, 2003; Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, New York, 1918.
 6 Krystyna Iglicka, Poland’s Post-war Dynamic of Migration, Aldershot, 2001; and ‘Mechanisms of Migration from Poland before and during the Transition Period’, Ethnic and Migration Studies 26, 2000.
 7 Alison Stenning and Kathrin Horschelmann, ‘History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist world: Or, do we still need post-socialism?’, Antipode, 2008.
 8 See also Michael Burawoy, ‘The End of Sovietology and the Renaissance of Modernization Theory’, Contemporary Sociology 21, 1992.
 9 The conclusions we draw from our work are necessarily tentative, based as they are on sixteen life history interviews.
10 See for example Klaus Bade, Migration in European History, Oxford, 2003; Leo Lucassen, ‘Migration and World History: Reaching a New Frontier’, International Review of Social History 52, 2007; Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen, ‘Migration, Migration History, History: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives’, in Migration, Migration History, History, eds. Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen, Berne, 1997; David Feldman, ‘Global Movements, Internal Migration and the Importance of Institutions’, International Review of Social History 52, 2007, pp. 105-9; Morawska, For Bread with Butter. See also Mary Chamberlain, Myths, Migrants, Memories’ (review), History Workshop Journal 67: 1, spring, 2009, p. 244.
11 ‘Migration, Migration History, History’, ed. Lucassen and Lucassen, p. 32.
12 Quoted in L. Lucassen, D. Feldman and J. Oltmer, ‘Immigrant Integration in Western Europe, Then and Now’, in Paths of Integration, ed. Lucassen and others, p. 15.
13 Enda Delaney, The Irish in Post-war Britain, Oxford, 2007, p. 24.
14 Stenning and Horschelmann, ‘History, Geography and Difference’.
15 For an introduction seen Kathy Burrell and Panikos Panayi, ‘Immigration, History and Memory in Britain’, in Histories and Memories: Migrants and their History in Britain, eds. Burrell and Panayi, London and New York, 2006.
16 Becky Taylor, ‘Hearing Difference, Writing Difference’ (review article), Contemporary British History, 2010, forthcoming. See for example Joanna Herbert, Negotiating Boundaries in the City: Migration, Ethnicity and Gender in Britain, Aldershot, 2008; Angela McCarthy, Personal Narratives of Irish and Scottish Migration, 1921–65: “For Spirit and Adventure” ’, Manchester, 2007.
17 Feldman, ‘Global Movements’, p. 105.
18 Bronisław Górz and Włodzimierz Kurek, ‘The Population of the Polish Countryside: Demography and Living Conditions’, GeoJournal 50, 2000, pp. 101-4.
19 Alison Stenning, ‘Post-socialism and the Changing Geographies of the Everyday in Poland’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 2005.
20 More generally see Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944–1948, eds. Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak, Oxford, 2001; and on the movement of ethnic Germans see Coming Home to Germany? The Integration of Ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe in the Federal Republic, eds. David Rock and Stefan Wolff, Oxford, 2002.
21 The Wolyn (or Volhynia) slaughter took place in 1943-4, peaking in July-August 1943, and involved an attempt by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army to remove all non-Ukrainians, largely Poles, from a future Ukrainian state. Numbers are heavily contested, but estimates suggest 60,000 deaths in the Volhynian vovoidship alone. Generally on the history of the Ukraine in this period see Karel C. Berkhoff, Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule, Cambridge, 2004.
22 Iglicka, Poland’s Post-war Dynamic of Migration, p. 16. It is estimated that around six million ethnic Germans may have left Poland in this period.
23 Martin Åberg and Mikael Sandberg, Social Capital and Democratisation: Roots of Trust in Post-Communist Poland and Ukraine, Aldershot, 2003, p. 79.
24 Roy Francis Leslie, The History of Poland since 1863, Cambridge, 1983, p. 288.
25 More generally on this see Andrzej Maryański, ‘Ludność’, in Geografia gospodarcza, ed. Irena Ferla, Warszawa, 1995.
26 Leslie, History of Poland, p. 311; See also Geoffrey North, ‘Poland’s Population and Changing Economy’, Geography Journal 124, 1958; Norman Pounds, ‘The Industrial Geography of Modern Poland’, Economic Geography 36; Andrzej Karpinski, Zagadnienia socjalistycznej industrializacj i Polski, Warsaw, 1958, p. 123.
27 On Nowa Huta specifically see Stenning, ‘Post-socialism’. The decision to locate Nowa Huta just outside Krakow was also politically motivated, as the aim was to create a counterpoint to the anti-communist/ conservative/intelligentsia-dominated/bourgeois/‘old families’ environment of Krakow through a social engineering exercise of bringing ‘rural masses’ to the area.
28 Leslie, History of Poland, p. 446. An early discussion of this phenomenon can be found in Michał Pohoski, ‘Interrelation between Social Mobility and Individuals and—Groups in the Process of Economic Growth in Poland’, Polish Sociological Bulletin 2, 1964.
29 Feldman, ‘Global Movements’, p. 105.
30 See also Rogaly and Taylor, Moving Histories, chap. 5.
31 For the gradual emergence of foreign holidays for the working classes in Britain see Susan Barton, Working-class Organisations and Popular Tourism, 1840-1970, Manchester, 2005. An interesting comparison between Soviet and Western attitudes to tourism can be found in Auva Kostiainen, ‘The Soviet Tourist Industry as seen by the Western Tourists of the late Soviet period’, in Construction of a Tourist Industry in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, ed. Laurent Tissot, Neuchatel, 2003.
32 Iglicka, Poland’s Post-war Dynamic of Migration, p. 23.
33 Mary Chamberlain, ‘Gender and the Narratives of Migration’, History Workshop Journal 43, spring, p. 1997, p. 88.
34 Quoted and discussed in Delaney, The Irish in Post-war Britain, p. 19.
35 Iglicka, Poland’s Post-war Dynamic of Migration, p. 27.
36 On this point more generally see Kathy Burrell, Moving Lives: Narratives of Nation and Migration among Europeans in Post-war Britain, Aldershot, 2006; Keith H. Halfacree and Paul J. Boyle, ‘The Challenge facing Migration Research: the Case for a Biographical Approach’, Progress in Human Geography 17: 3, 1993, p. 339.
37 Pewex was a contraction of Przedsiębiorstwo Eksportu Wewnętrznego (Internal Export Company), and was a state-run chain of shops which sold foreign goods and goods produced in Poland solely for export. Items in the shop were paid for in US dollars or in coupons issued by the Polish National Bank which had their value expressed in US dollars.
38 Rogaly and Taylor, Moving Histories.