Poland: People and Culture

The chapter on the people of Poland and their culture (way of life) serves as the main focus in the review of this modern world nation. To this point, we have covered the physical landscapes and historical geography of Poland. Here, the emphasis is on what people are doing and why, as well as the country’s spatial (geographical) significance. Aspects of Poland’s demography (population) and culture, as they relate to both the country itself and the European realm, are the focus of this chapter.


Demography is the social science devoted to the statistical study of the human population. It provides data that geographers and other social scientists use to better understand a group of people and how they live. The geographic (spatial) study of population, then, is often called geodemography. Many geographers regard it as the single most important aspect of any country’s geographic condition. Everything geographers study, after all, ultimately relates back to humans and their well-­being.

Poland’s population in mid-2007 was estimated to be about 38,500,000, slightly more than the state of California and approximately 5 million more than all of Canada. The population density is about 315 people per square mile (82 per square kilometer). This is almost twice as dense as the rest of Europe, four times denser than the U.S. population, and a whopping 40 times denser than sparsely populated Canada.

An analysis of Poland’s current population trends helps us better understand some of the dynamics underlying the country’s ongoing cultural transition. For example, the change from a traditional agricultural society to a modern industrial economy is well documented demographically. Fertility rates (the number of children to which a woman will give birth during her fertile years) have dropped sharply during the past century. In a traditional folk culture, children are considered necessary capital for the family. Youngsters enable the family to survive economically by helping with a variety of chores. The role of females in such societies is mainly limited to housework and child bearing. Few women have much formal education beyond high school but expertise in herbal medicine has been passed down to them. Although rural families have much lower fertility rates than in the past, they still have more children than do their urban counterparts.

In modern popular (largely urban) culture, which has a market economy, raising children can be one of the families’ highest expenses. Not only are youngsters a financial burden, they also represent an obstacle to their parents’ careers, particularly those of the mothers. The emancipation of Polish women, which began with the industrial revolution and urban growth, has drastically lowered fertility rates. Their emancipation was further supported by the Communist-led state. Internal migration from the countryside to cities has also contributed to this demographic transition.

Census data from Poland reveal that the fertility rate has dropped continuously for the past half-­century and currently (as of 2006), is stabilized at approximately 1.27. This figure spotlights a trend that presents Poland with a serious problem. To maintain a constant population, the fertility rate must be 2.1 (the .1 is explained by the fact that some people never have children). At 1.27, Poles are not reproducing their numbers.

In addition, the country has experienced extensive emigration (out-­migration) during recent decades. These two conditions have combined to cause Poland’s population to decline slightly during recent years. It is doubtful that conditions will change, at least not anytime soon. Today, many Poles choose to live in other parts of Europe, or elsewhere, to achieve greater socioeconomic success. Additionally, fewer Poles marry, and those who do, marry at an older age. Historically, women married quite young and began a family soon thereafter. Today, the average age of a Polish female during her first pregnancy is the late twenties.

Amazingly, despite falling well below the replacement level, Poland still has one of Europe’s highest fertility rates—­just behind that of Albania. Poland’s depopulation not only reflects cultural changes occurring within the country, it also matches general trends taking place across the continent. The modern age presents a paradox: People enjoy greater affluence and comforts, yet there are fewer people being born to enjoy the benefits of such progress. Long-­term projections for Poland’s population growth are grim. Currently the eighth largest country in Europe (including Russia and Ukraine) with more than 38 million residents, Poland is not expected to experience any population growth in the foreseeable future. Moreover, as its urban population increases from the present 61 percent (among the lowest in Europe), fertility rates should decline still further.

Despite the long-­term projection of population decline, an interesting short-­term rebound in the Polish birthrate occurred in 2007 and may continue for several more years. It was hardly a sudden event, but it still left the country’s hospitals overwhelmed with the birth of new babies. In some cases, because of capacity limitations, hospitals had to turn away patients who were about to give birth. This is not to say that Poland is experiencing a demographic revival. Instead, it serves more as a painful reminder of the country’s difficult history. Millions of Poles perished in World War II, a majority of them males.

It took a number of years after the war for population trends to stabilize, but a huge dent was created by the loss of so many men. Even today, Poland has about 2 million more females than males. This provides a clue to the jump in births in 2007: Each generation of post-1950s baby boomers temporarily increases birth rates when it reaches childbearing age. On the other hand, descendents of the World War II (early 1940s) war generation are fewer in number, less apt to marry, and more likely to live in cities.

Low birth rates have created a condition in which deaths exceed births in number. Nonetheless, Poland’s population in general is becoming older because residents live much longer than before. The combined life expectancy at birth is approximately 75 years. Females outlive males by about eight years (males, 71; females, 79.5). This difference can be explained by both biological and lifestyle factors. More than 13 percent of Poles are above the age of 65, and only about 16 percent are below the age of 15—hardly enough for significant replacement. An aging population creates a burden on the state’s pension system and presents an additional need for services for the elderly.

Ethnic Groups

Ethnicity is a difficult term to define. Part of the problem stems from the fact that such concepts as ethnicity, nationality, and citizenship are used in different ways by different cultures. For example, to Americans, nationality identifies one’s citizenship. In Eastern Europe’s post-­Communist-era countries, however, nationality often identifies one’s belonging to a common ancestry. In the United States common ancestry is considered ethnicity but not nationality (for example, people might be of German ancestry—­hence, ethnicity—­but consider themselves Americans, which is their national identity). Such differences in terminology, although confusing, are important to grasp, especially when traveling through multiethnic eastern European countries. Fortunately for students of Poland’s cultural characteristics, this country’s ethnic structure is rather simple compared to that of other countries in the region.

In terms of a sense of common ancestral belonging, a vast majority of the country’s people identify themselves today as Poles. In fact, about 97 percent consider themselves to be ethnic Poles, thereby making the country ethnically quite uniform.

The remaining 3 percent of the population is made up of several groups that traditionally resided in the borderland regions and in large urban centers. Belarus and Ukrainian minorities are found in eastern and southeastern Poland. A German ethnic minority resides in areas adjacent to Poland’s western boundaries. Following so many geopolitical changes during recent centuries, one would imagine a more heterogeneous ethnic picture. Several factors, including some already mentioned, have contributed to the country’ ethnic homogeneity. First, Poles have managed to integrate many nonethnic Poles—­
Roman Catholics such as Catholic Ukrainians or Slovaks—­into their ethnicity. To understand this, one must comprehend the meaning of ethnicity in Europe up to the nineteenth century. Overall, cultural affiliation had little meaning in determining the ethnic group to which a person belonged. Reli
gious orientation instead served that role, especially if people shared identical, or very similar, languages. Slavs, for example, have utilized this practice quite well. The best example is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, Roman Catholic Slavs became Croats, Eastern Orthodox Slavs became Serbs, and Muslim Slavs became Bosniaks, even though none were original members of any of those groups.

The nineteenth century experienced the growth of political nationalism as well as the first officially conducted censuses. These two factors, when combined, meant that being a major-­ ity group in a country had serious political implications and consequences. For Poles, in particular, it could be a matter of life and death considering the absence of independent Polish nation-state for more than a century. They successfully rallied around the Roman Catholic Church and religion to preserve their identity and began to integrate other minority Roman Catholic Slav-­speaking groups.

Second, historical evidence clearly proves that the confrontations in Europe changed many national boundaries. Poland serves as the textbook example of geopolitical changes. One common result of political turmoil is the migration of ethnic groups, sometimes voluntary although more often involuntary. In the aftermath of World War II, Germany shrank in size. Millions of ethnic Germans were left to reside in other countries, where they faced difficulties. Many returned to Germany voluntarily to avoid persecution and Communist rule, but thousands were also encouraged to leave Germany. Poland’s experience was perhaps the most drastic. By the time Poland’s boundaries were finally consolidated, millions of ethnic Germans had left following the retreat of German armies, or were expelled afterward. Millions of ethnic Poles, who suddenly fell under the Soviet Union’s rule, resettled in formerly German-
dominated cities of western and northern Poland.

The third historical factor that affected Poland’s ethnic homogeneity was World War II itself. During this tragic conflict, the country’s Jewish population was decimated by concentration camp executions. The horrors of the Holocaust basically erased the once-prosperous Jewish community. Jews had been well established for six centuries, especially in what are today eastern Poland and western Ukraine. Besides its Jewish population, this region was one of the more ethnically diverse overall. Assimilation into Polish ethnic stock, however, left few such groups in significant numbers, or with a true sense of ethnic identity. These remaining groups included minor Slavic speaking—­but not Polish—­groups, and people of Mongol ancestry known as Lipka Tatars. The latter group settled in the woodlands of northeastern Poland during its union with Lithuania.

Finally, unlike its western neighbors, Poland experienced little immigration during the twentieth century. The totalitarian Communist regime, in fact, pressured many Poles, for a variety of reasons, to leave the country while discouraging immigration. All of these factors combined to make Poland an ethnically uniform country with only a minute presence of ethnic minorities. The new age that has begun with full participation in European political and economic integration may, perhaps, modify the current conditions. With increased economic growth, the demand for laborers will grow. As this occurs, along with a declining birthrate and an aging population, as has happened throughout much of Europe, Poland will have to turn to immigrants to fill jobs.


Few European ethnic groups practice more than one religion. Religion has been a tremendous unifying tool but it also has been a rather destructive element. On numerous occasions, religion has led to conflict in places where religions and languages differ among major ethnic groups. Fortunately, contemporary Poland does not share the same cultural burdens of regions such as the former Yugoslavia, which has many everlasting ethnic issues. In Poland, the Roman Catholic religion is dominant and widely practiced. In fact, it may be the most Roman Catholic country in all of Europe (excluding Vatican City, which is itself a country), if such a term can be used properly to describe the role of religion in everyday life. Poles are known for vigorously preserving their Roman Catholic heritage, much more so than the citizens of Italy or Spain, countries that are widely recognized for their staunch faith. Not even the half century of Communist rule, known as the enemy of institutionalized religions, managed to make major dents in Poles’ deep regard for Roman Catholicism. Conversely, Italy, Spain, and most other European Catholic countries have experienced a decline in church membership and attendance, particularly among the young. Churches remain almost empty, and religious institutions are rapidly losing their influence. This is not the case in Poland, however, where most people actively practice their faith.

The historical role of the Roman Catholic clergy serving as the nucleus of political organization in rural Poland was explained in the previous chapter. Particularly in the Polish countryside, priests retained a very high status among parishioners, and their leadership was highly respected. This relationship continues to the present day. Between 1945 and 1990, people rallied behind the Church in its response to Soviet-imposed Communism. John Paul II, a Pole, led the entire Roman Catholic Church for more than two decades and was one of the most influential Popes of the twentieth century.

Why do Poles cling to their faith, while residents of other overwhelmingly Roman Catholic countries become increasingly secular? The answer lies in the fact that although the majority of Poles now live in urban centers, their outlook is still strongly rural. Heavily agricultural, Poland still lags far behind Italy, Spain, Ireland, and other Catholic countries in terms of economic development. The rapid process of industrialization in the West, on the other hand, has transformed the rural countryside into urban landscapes. Consequently, growth in personal wealth and improvements in formal education contributed to the secularization of Western Europe. Where once the Church was the social nucleus in tight rural communities, where everyone relied on collective support and interaction, its role in Western Europe today is perceived by many to be marginal. The transition from a traditional to a modern lifestyle has led to a decrease in the active practice of religion throughout the region. This appears to be a global trend and is not limited to Roman Catholic Europe.

It will be interesting to see whether Poland eventually follows a similar cultural pattern. In urban areas, a change to a more secular society is already noticeable. Younger Poles, although they acknowledge traditions, tend to be less religious than their parents. Unlike their rural counterparts, many practice fast-paced lifestyles, only participate in major religious festivities such as Christmas and Easter, and refrain from active daily practice. In a city, one blends easily into the crowd of thousands. People frequently change their socioeconomic status and places of residence. They work in the service sector, or industry, and they rely only on their own skills to excel professionally. Their decisions are based on individual needs, rather than those of the social group (including members of a church).

In the social environment of an agricultural village, however, where residents know one another well, it is much more difficult to avoid the pressure of following collective, or group, behavioral practices. Not participating in collective activities would mean that one received little help from others, because he or she chose to segregate him- or herself. Dependence on others was the key to survival in remote Polish villages. As Poland fully embraces capitalism and becomes a postindustrial state, major changes in church attendance and the practice of religion almost certainly will occur.


A majority of European languages are of the Indo-European linguistic family. They branch into several main subfamilies: Germanic, Romanic, and Slavic. As described in the previous chapter, Slavic languages—­to which Polish belongs—­spread across central, southern, and eastern portions of the continent. They are mutually understandable and share a number of identical words. Native speakers of other Slavic languages have little difficulty reading Polish. The major differences occur in certain aspects of grammar, meanings for the same words, and several letters in the alphabet. Regional differences in word pronunciation also exist, as do the number of words that have been adopted from other languages. Words of German origin, for example, are more likely to appear in western and south-­western areas than in eastern Poland.

Unlike Russians, whose alphabet is Cyrillic, or Serbs, who utilize both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabet, Poles write exclusively in the Latin one. During the 45-year period of Communist domination, knowledge of Russian was emphasized and many Poles are still familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet. Following the political changes of the early 1990s and the fall of the Soviet Union, Poland entered a period of gradual linguistic transition. Younger generations now prefer to study English as their foreign language, followed by German, and Russian has lost its former importance.

Contemporary Culture

Today, Poland is transforming itself from a traditional, agriculture-dominated, rural folk culture to a contemporary, outward-­looking, modern-­day postindustrial society. With this cultural transition, many changes are occurring in the Poles’ way of life.

Leisure Activities

Everyday life in Poland increasingly resembles that of other Europeans. When it is time to work, people work hard. When it is time for leisure activities, they know how to enjoy them-selves. Such nations as the United States are almost suspicious of the idea of an entitlement to leisure. Many Americans have only a week or two of paid vacation per year, and even that time often goes unused. Poles, on the other hand, follow the European concept of “work to live” instead of “live to work.”

The Polish concept of leisure includes daily meetings with friends for coffee and conversations. Each town has numerous cafes, especially in the downtown area that often includes a city square and park. Visiting the countryside is a common weekend activity. Owning a small house or cottage as well as a primary urban residence has long been a tradition and a symbol of status in this part of Europe. Relaxing on the shores of the Baltic Sea, canoeing through lakes of Mazuria, or hiking and skiing the slopes of the Tatras are other popular forms of leisure. The main vacation period is during the summer and, for those who can afford it, Mediterranean beaches are a favored destination. Because of growing affluence, both the ability and desire to travel internationally have boomed during recent decades. Affordable travel packages offer a variety of options, especially to destinations throughout Europe. In the past, a middle-­
class individual or a college student could hardly afford to fly to Spain or Italy for a weekend. Deregulation of European airspace has resulted in a radical increase in lowcost carriers and flights across the continent. Major Polish cities now offer direct connections to large urban centers throughout the rest of Europe.


Geographers recognize food and diet and as one of the most important aspects of culture. People’s dining practices and food choices do not simply evolve because of the basic need for survival; they symbolize a variety of traits that help define one’s culture. Diet is influenced by economic, religious, social, and many other traditions and customs. In the Polish cultural system, dietary habits represent the north-­central European way of life. Hearty meals and baked goods are the centerpiece of Polish cuisine. They are simple solutions designed to provide peasants with enough energy to work in the field from dawn until dusk.

As noted in the previous chapter, Polish history is the story of agricultural people who mainly resided in small settlements. Their diet was limited to only what they, themselves, were able to produce. Available foodstuffs included meats, grain-based products, and a variety of hardy root crops. Once they become established, dietary traditions are very slow to change. (This is the basis for regional cuisines, such as “Southern cooking” or “Southwestern barbecue.”) For this reason, Poland’s present-day dietary patterns reflect the country’s history rather well: Stews that range from cabbage rolls to beet stew (called borscht in the West) and sausages (which are part of many recipes) are prime examples. (Duck blood soup, another Polish specialty, was sworn to the author by a third generation Polish-American to be a delicacy.)

The potato, brought from the Americas to Europe in the sixteenth century, is also a dietary staple in this corner of the continent. Easy to grow, nutritious, and capable of producing a high yield, the potato became one of the favorite foods of the masses. Compared to Mediterranean nations, in particular, Poles eat substantially more potatoes, which can be baked, used for dumplings or pies, or cooked in any of hundreds of different ways. Of course, one of the best-­known uses of the potato is in the process of distillation into vodka. No one is certain about the origins of vodka, but Poles claim it as their own creation. Traditionally a popular beverage, especially during cold winter months, vodka is regarded as a popular aperitif or drink for toasting during holidays, weddings, or any other ceremonies that include large groups.

Except for vodka, one can hardly find food or drinks that are considered of exclusive Polish-­origin. This fact lends strong support to the idea that Poland is a transitional country. Each ingredient in the Polish diet can be found to have originated in someone else’s cuisine which eventually made its way to Poland. Almost all Slavs, for example, consume beet soup. Poles usually begin each dinner with a soup course, which is an old Turkish and Middle Eastern tradition. The practice of spirits distillation spread to Europe from Asia Minor in medieval times. Even when Martha Stewart, a Polish-­American domestic diva, prepares “traditional” pastry recipes from her ancestral homeland, those baked goods are not necessarily of Polish origin.

Popular, globally linked culture has also made an impact on food and drink consumption in Poland, particularly in Warsaw, Cracow, and other cities frequented by tourists. When visiting Poland today, one can choose from menus that range from beet stew to French or Italian dishes. Beer, among alcoholic beverages, and Coca-­Cola products, among soft drinks, are favored by younger generations.

Well-­Being o f t he Polish People

The well-­being of a particular population may be measured by a variety of standards. Such standards depend on those established by each culture. Not all people, as cultures or societies, want or need the same things to be successful or satisfied; it depends on the cultural environment in which a population lives. Poles share cultural values with most other Europeans. They want such things as access to formal education, well-paying jobs, high literacy rates, better health care and longer lives, and an adequate amount of time for leisure activities.

In the years following the fall of Communism, Poland experienced a sharp decline in its quality of life, as did other post-­Communist countries in the formerly Communist region. The dramatic political transition to a liberal democracy has affected many Poles in a rather negative way. An expression used to describe the difference between Communism and capitalism may have had some merit with regard to Poland: In Communism, as it goes, people are equally poor; while in capitalism, they are unequally rich (this expression originated—­of course—­in the West). Yet it is true that a vast majority of Poles lived through several decades during which the state provided many basic services, from health care to education. The gap between rich and poor was minimal, and even the richest lived modest lifestyles. After Poland embraced the capitalist system, the gap suddenly widened—­greatly for many people. Those who were unable to adjust their lifestyle accordingly suffered. This was especially true of both the elderly who lived on fixed pensions and the residents of rural villages.

Almost two decades later, the people of Poland have put those difficult years largely behind them. For most Poles, life is getting better. Whenever a society passes through turbulent times, it takes a long time to recuperate. Improvements are often particularly slow to reach those at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Improvements in the education system reduced the percentage of those who never finished their formal education by more than 15 percent. Today, nearly all Poles (99.8 percent) over the age of 15 are literate, able to read and write. During recent decades, approximately 15 percent of the population has been college-educated. For any country, such a gain would be a sign of progress. A nation’s economic success in an increasingly postindustrial global economy is closely tied to the level of education attained by its citizens.

Poles seem to be following the assertion by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Theodore Schultz that human capital represents a country’s most important investment for the long-­term future. In the short term, Poland still must battle an unemployment rate that is almost three times higher than that of the United States. Additionally, as a result of poor employment opportunities, many highly educated Poles emigrate to earn much higher wages elsewhere. The result is a “brain drain,” a loss of talent that the country can ill afford. Several million Poles currently reside in Western Europe, mainly in the British Isles and Germany. According to the Human Development Index (HDI), the United Nations’ measurement of well-­being, Poland ranks among the top 41 countries in the world (thirty-seventh among the 177 countries ranked in 2006). This position, although admirable, leaves ample room for improvement.