Then & Now | Polish Heritage Month

(Black and white photograph of the 28th annual One World Day, Polish Cultural Garden. 1973. WRHS collections.)

John J. Grabowski, Ph.D.
Krieger Mueller Associate Professor of Applied History  CWRU
Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, Western Reserve Historical Society
Editor, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History


The immigration of Poles to the Cleveland area began in the late 1860s and early 1870s with the growth of a Polish community working in the quarries of Berea.   At the same time some Poles began to settle in Cleveland.  It is difficult to determine the exact number of “Polish” immigrants at this time given that Poland did not exist as a nation, having been divided between Germany, Russia, and Austria in the late 18th century.

Nevertheless, the industrial growth of the city began to draw increasing number of Poles, most, initially, from the German section of Poland where the imposition of German language and culture, along with the lure of jobs in the United States, served as an impetus to leave.  What held the community together during this period of a lost nation, was the Roman Catholic religion as it provided a surrogate to a formal state.   A Polish Catholic parish was established in Berea in 1872.  In 1873, St. Stanislaus, the first Polish parish was established in Cleveland.  It originally met in St. Mary’s on the Flats, then moved to hold services in St. Joseph’s German Catholic Church on Woodland Avenue.  Finally, in 1881 it built its first church on the southeast side, near the Cleveland Rolling Mills where many Poles worked.  In 1891, the current St. Stanislaus building was completed.

This area, named Warszawa by the Poles became the center of the community in Cleveland.  As more Poles came to the city to take jobs in its burgeoning late nineteenth and early twentieth century industries, they created other neighborhoods:  Kantowa surrounding St. John Cantius Church in Tremont,  Josephatowa around St. Josephat’s church (now an art gallery) on E. 33rd Street,  Poznan, surrounding St. Casimir’s Church on Sowinski avenue, and St. Hedwig (now closed) in Lakewood’s Bird Town district.   There were other churches and neighborhoods, but they like the ones noted above served communities whose livelihood depended upon employment in nearby industries.

World War I interrupted Polish immigration to the United States and to Cleveland and, indeed, some Poles from the US (including some from Cleveland) served in a French-led Polish Volunteer Army in the hope that an allied victory would result in an independent Polish state.   Victory did create a new Polish state and while some Cleveland Poles returned – either permanently or as visitors — others still sought the promise of jobs and money in the United States and by 1920 Cleveland had the seventh largest population of Polish ancestry in the United States with an estimated 50,000 people (Chicago with 400,000 was home to the largest Polish community in the US).

The dream of coming to America was, however, short lived, as two highly discriminatory laws, the Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924 put severe limits on immigration from the eastern hemisphere with country-based quotas that were biased in favor of northern and western Europe and against people from central, southern and eastern Europe.  These Acts would remain largely in effect until 1965.  Thus, the population of first-generation Poles in cities like Cleveland declined while a second, American-born generation grew – sometimes with a strong affinity for their heritage and at other times moving toward a more American lifestyle.

At the end of the catastrophe of World War II, numbers of homeless Poles came to the United States as displaced persons and this, in Cleveland and other cities, helped somewhat replenish the population.  However, the postwar world also saw an increase in suburbanization (which had started in the 1920s before being stopped by the Depression).  Poles had initially left the old, industrial neighborhood of Warszawa for Garfield Heights in the 1920s– now after World War II Poles from around the city moved to Parma, Cuyahoga Heights, Independence, Brecksville and other automotive suburbs that developed at that time.  That movement, along with deindustrialization depleted old neighborhoods.  With population loss some churches closed while those that continued to operate attracted parishioners who had moved to the suburbs but still supported the churches their ancestors had built.   Other businesses that had served the old neighborhood sometimes moved along with those who left or simply closed, having lost customers not only to the suburbs but to modern supermarkets and malls.

Today, the major Polish neighborhood, Warszawa, exists as a rebranded Slavic Village – a much larger area than the original neighborhood which now encompasses several older Polish neighborhoods, such as Krakowa near the Cuyahoga Heights border, and Jackowo near Kingsbury Run and several former Czech neighborhoods.

Despite the name change the area remains a reminder of the earliest Polish immigrants to Cleveland who worked in the nearby mills.   Old Warszawa still supports two Polish parishes, St. Stanislaus and Immaculate Heart of Mary, and, importantly, the Polish American Cultural Center located in the former home of the Union of Poles at E. 65th and Lansing.   The Center attracts many of the newest Poles coming to the city – often bringing job skills that fit well with the contemporary needs of northeastern Ohio.  Indeed, the Center owes a great deal to another immigrant, Gene Bak, a postwar émigré who built a new life in Cleveland and has continuously worked to preserve the rich culture of Poland.  And what better place to do so that in the first and oldest area of Polish settlement in the city.

One of the best places to explore the history of Polish immigration to Cleveland is at the Research Library of the Western Reserve Historical Society, where dozens of collections focus on organizations and individuals active in Cleveland Polonia.  Of these, none is more important than the records of the Kniola Travel Bureau.   Operated by Michael Kniola, a Polish immigrant who arrived in the city in 1880, his business arranged steamship passage for numerous immigrants to the city and region and also handled money orders sent back home by workers in Cleveland.  The thousands of names on the receipts and other documents in this collection provide an extraordinary resource for genealogists and historians studying this major immigration movement.