By John Gurda
More than two hundred thousand Milwaukeeans trace their family roots to Poland. That is enough to make Milwaukee one of the capital cities of Polish America, a place where Pope John Paul II is revered, the polka is mastered at an early age, and you’re never far from cold beer and good kielbasa. Milwaukee’s Polonia (Polish American community) is larger than those in Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, and in proportional terms, it is on par with the colonies in Chicago and Detroit. Within metropolitan Milwaukee, only residents of German or African ancestry make up a larger percentage of the population.
In its day, Milwaukee’s Polish-American community was among the largest in the United States. The first Polish inhabitant of Milwaukee arrived as early as 1842, and by the turn of the century Polish-Americans formed the second largest ethnic group in the city. Most settled in four-square mile area on the South Side known as “Polonia.” This digital collection draws from the work of studio photographer Roman Kwasniewski to illustrate the history of Milwaukee Polonia from the early 1900s through the 1940s. The archive consists of over 32,000 images.