Belonging in America
An elusive dream

Losing Polish

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Bayonne’s once-strong Polish-American culture is waning, as more Poles pursue expanding opportunities at home, or emigrate within the European Union

Younger Poles in America seem less inclined to speak Polish, or to pass the language on to their children, says a disappointed Kamilla Domanski, the principal of a Polish cultural school in Bayonne.

“I think the young generation’s thoughts and minds are different,” Domanski said tearfully, noting a decline in local interest in Polish culture, and in the numbers of children registering at her Polish Supplementary School of Wladyslaw Reymont, where she also teaches.

“That could be because they were born here,” she added. “As a part of the first generation that came here, I was attending school and finished college in Poland. So, my connection is stronger than a second or third generation born in America.”

Domanski recalls the days when New Jersey’s Polish community was much more active, and supported multiple robust Polish organizations. A recent analysis counted 4,519 people of Polish birth or descent in Bayonne, population 70,000, making it the sixth largest Polish community in New Jersey, according to ZipAtlas, a compilation of demographic data.

Domanski, a former Polish national league basketball player who immigrated to the United States 2000 and who has lived in Bayonne for more than 20 years, urged Poles to continue the traditions and culture that made the Polish community strong.

Today, though, as many as 80 percent of Polish emigrants head for other European countries, instead of moving to the United States. Great Britain, Germany and Ireland are now top destinations – with the United States a much weaker draw than it once was. Polish immigration to the United States fell from about 475,000 people in 2010 to 374,000 in 2022, according to U.S. Census data. And since 2015 emigration from Poland in general has tapered off, influenced by higher salaries and improving opportunities at home.

Celebrating Poland Constitution Day in Bayonne, with an annual flag-raising ceremony.

Aging and leaving

The effect in Bayonne is a notable graying of both the Polish and Polish-American population.  The leaders of the Polish organizations are aging, and Domanski notices both fewer Poles coming to America and less engagement within the Polish cultural clubs.

About 576,000 people of Polish descent live in New Jersey, comprising some 7 percent of the state’s population. And about 2.2% of New Jerseyans, or just over 46,000 people, were born in Poland.

The effects are already tangible in many Polish-American communities, including in Brooklyn, New York’s once heavily Polish Greenpoint neighborhood, where many Polish stores have closed.

Poles have lived in Bayonne for more than a century, comprising a large share of the workforce at Standard Oil and Tidewater oil refineries in the early 1900s.

Promoting Polish culture in Bayonne

Bayonne has the Polish American Home, a cultural leader to the other Polish organizations in the city, which include the Polish supplementary school, the New Polish Community Circle, the Pulaski Day Parade and the JP II Roman Catholic Parish.

Polish American Home President Robert Marek Wykowski said that, despite the efforts of the organizations to draw in younger Poles, membership is decreasing. That saddens him.

“When I look at their membership in each organization, everybody is growing old, Wykowski said. “We are not getting any young blood. I don’t see somebody from the young generations who will take over and continue the traditions.”

And Bayonne sees a steady exodus, of Poles and others, due to the high cost of living, especially rent and food prices, Wykowski said.

The cost of living in Bayonne is 19.1% higher than the national average, and the area prices were up 1.6% from a year ago, according to salary.com.

Heart of Europe Polish deli still sells a range of fresh-cut meats and cold cuts. Photo by Amanda Stellwag

Wykowski said he too plans to leave Bayonne, but not for Poland as many other Polish people have. Rather, he plans to emigrate to the Philippines to marry his fiancée, and to realize his dream of building a business there.

Competing commitments

“Polish people are hard workers,” said Martha Wozniak, the owner of Bayonne’s Sawa Deli. She too notices the decreasing number of Poles in the town, and the dwindling community involvement in Polish-American cultural activities.

“Over 17 years, I can tell you many Polish people left Bayonne,” Wozniak said. “We still have a big community, but it’s not the same as before. A lot of people have retired and are going back to Poland to live there, because it is easier to live there with American retirement money.”

Even though prices are rising, the city does not seem to be improving, she said – only becoming  dirtier and more crowded.

Like many Poles in Bayonne, Wozniak said she has been managing her work and family life while also trying to keep up with Polish traditions.

Wozniak’s children attend American school on weekdays, and Polish school on Saturdays. But last year there was a conflict: her son’s soccer games also fell on Saturdays, making it difficult for him to balance his extracurricular activities with Polish school attendance.

Many other Polish families deal with similar situations: busy with their own lives, they cannot always make time to participate in Polish events that the town’s organizations arrange, Wozniak said.

That doesn’t mean there there’s no hope for Bayone’s Polish community: many members of the Polish organizations are still active, and relationships among Poles remain strong.

“I have a lot of Polish customers, and even when they are standing in line, they talk to each other because they know each other,” Wozniak said. “I love Bayonne, because when you go for a walk, you are always going to meet somebody. When you go to Shoprite, you are going to see two or three Polish people.”

With the costs of living in Bayonne increasing and those who currently lead the Polish community aging and leaving the city, many Poles place the responsibility of carrying forth the community’s Polish legacy to the younger generations.

“Maybe we could try something more for the kids to participate in, because when the kids come, then the parents come,” Wozniak said. “It is hard. They’d rather go somewhere else. So, I really don’t know how to change that. I wish I could do something.”

About Post Author

About the Author

Amanda Stellwag

Professor: Mary D'Ambrosio
Class: International Reporting

Takeaway:
I learned about the challenges facing the Polish community in Bayonne, N.J. I explored the way decline in engagement with Polish traditions among younger generations has created a complex scenario, to balance strong community relationships with the urgent need for cultural continuity. And I've seen how generational communication gaps cause tensions, and how difficult they are to overcome.