Geographic Origins

The Republic of Poland is situated in central Europe. It is bordered by Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Baltic Sea.

History of Immigration and Settlement

It is difficult to give accurate figures on the number of Polish-born arrivals in South Australia in the nineteenth century. In the late eighteenth century, Poland was divided into three and annexed by Austria, Prussia and Russia. Citizenship records listed Poles as Austrian, Prussian or Russian. Poland reappeared on the map as an independent state in 1918 as a result of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War.

The first Polish people to settle in South Australia came out with German immigrants in 1838 and 1839. They were farmers. Poles who settled in other Australian colonies were more likely to be from the professional classes, from military ranks and from areas of Poland occupied by Russia. South Australian Poles were from the western provinces of Poznan and Silesia, annexed by Prussia. At least one family came out with Pastor Kavel’s group of German Lutherans in 1838. Others came with Captain Hahn, and so among Hahndorf’s early German settlers were families with Polish names. Often they had been neighbours in their former villages and shared similar customs. These Poles were absorbed into the larger German communities.

The first group of people clearly identified as Polish arrived in South Australia in 1844. They numbered about 30, in nine families. They were from the village of Dabrowka Wielka in the Poznan region. They settled among the Germans of the Barossa Valley, especially near Tanunda. Other small groups followed, encouraged by the correspondence of the earlier arrivals.

More Poles began leaving their country following the 1848 revolutions in the Prussian-annexed areas. They settled mostly in the Sevenhill area, near Clare, about 120 kilometres north of Adelaide. Others settled in small family groups in other mid-north towns such as Penwortham, Blyth, Mintaro, Terowie, Dawson and Peterborough. Most Poles arrived between 1853 and 1858.

By this time, the German and Irish Catholics of the Sevenhill, Clare and other mid-north towns were ministered to by Austrian Jesuit priests, the first of whom, Father Aloysius Kranewitter, arrived in 1851. The presence of Catholic priests in Sevenhill encouraged Catholic Polish immigrants to settle there. They took up farming land in the Hill River Valley, at Sevenhill East, which was later renamed Polish Hill River. A large group of about 100, in 25 families, arrived in 1855 and 1856, travelling on the ‘Peter Goddefron’ and ‘August’ shipping vessels.

 By the 1860s more than 30 properties in Polish Hill River were occupied by Polish families. By the early 1880s this had increased to 65 families, about 400 people.

In 1870 a Polish Jesuit priest, Father Leo Rogalski, arrived to work among South Australia’s Polish Catholics. In 1871 the Church of Saint Stanislaus Kostka and a schoolroom were opened. The school opened with about 50 pupils, with some 150 students passing through the school. Both Polish and English were taught there. The church was at the centre of the lives of the settlers in the Polish Hill River area. They maintained their faith, their language and traditions. But they also made strong links with the many Irish Catholics of the Clare region, and did business with the Scottish and English farmers and traders. Some Poles took on leading roles in the local district council.

The population of Polish Hill River began to diminish during the 1880s. Drought and lack of new land meant that many families headed elsewhere, especially further north, where better farming machinery made farming in northern areas possible. Some settlers moved to mining regions.

The church was rarely used after Father Rogalski’s death in 1906 and closed in 1950. The school closed in 1925. Descendants of these early Polish settlers with surnames such as Modistach, Nykiel, Rucioch, Malycha, Pawelski and Drula remain in South Australia. The Polish Pioneer Descendants Group, together with post-second world war Polish immigrants, have restored the church and converted the school into a museum.

The Polish-born community in South Australia between 1918 and 1947 was very small. The 1933 census indicated that only 84 Polish-born people were resident in South Australia. There were 82 Polish South Australians in 1947.

A large number of Polish immigrants came after the Second World War. During the war Polish people had suffered occupation and oppression. In 1939 two-thirds of Poland had been occupied by Germany and one-third by Russia. 2.5 million soldiers and civilians were deported to concentration camps and forced labour camps in Germany; nearly 2 million endured the same fate in Russia.

When the war ended in 1945, some of these people were among Europeans in Displaced Persons camps dotted throughout Germany. The new threat of communist Russia prevented them from returning to their homeland. After a lengthy selection process by International Refugee Organisation officials and Australian immigration officers, many Poles were accepted as immigrants for Australia.

Among Polish immigrants were Polish ex-servicemen who had escaped to Britain and France in 1939 and served with the British army in Africa and the Royal Air Force in Britain. Nearly 300 members of the Polish Brigade were among the first arrivals in 1947. The brigade had fought side by side with Australian soldiers defending Tobruk in 1941. By 1956, 7,500 Poles had arrived in South Australia, about 70,000 in Australia as a whole. Migration officers first accepted only the healthy and strong single men and women. By the early 1950s families were accepted too.

Many of these Polish people began their new lives at Woodside Migrant Hostel. They were employed under two-year government contracts in quarries, hospitals, food processing and textile factories, on railways, and in forestry work, with some working as staff at the various migrant hostels. Those who had some knowledge of English were able to find work in the larger department stores or offices. The two-year government contracts were very trying for many Poles with professional qualifications.

Polish immigrants began building homes and establishing new lives for themselves and their children. They established many organisations during the 1950s. Sports clubs, choirs, theatre and dance groups, discussion groups and libraries were designed to meet the emotional and intellectual needs of the Polish communities. Many Poles went on to make a significant contribution to South Australian society, especially in academia, the professions and in the arts.

In 1961 there were 6,939 Polish South Australians. By 1966 there were 7,253.

Political events in Poland in the early 1980s prompted people to emigrate. The grass-roots Solidarity trade union movement was born in August 1980. It had widespread support for its demands for a more democratic Poland. The Polish government declared martial law in December 1981. Most refugees took the opportunity to flee in 1980, when travel restrictions were eased. After the declaration of martial law, many Solidarity activists were pressured to leave by the government. A few thousand Polish Solidarity refugees made it to South Australia, boosting the Polish-born proportion of the South Australian population to 0.6 per cent in 1986. The 1980s immigrants differed from earlier Polish immigrants. They were relatively young, of urban background, and many had tertiary degrees.

Since this time living conditions in Poland have improved and Polish migration to South Australia has slowed significantly.

Community Activities

Zwiazek Polakow, the Association of Poles, was the first Polish South Australian organisation. It was established in 1949 to assist Polish immigrants to resettle and to promote Polish culture. Zwiazek Polakow restored the Polish church at Sevenhill, built accommodation for visitors at the site and established the Polish Hill River Museum.

In 1993 there were over 20 Polish South Australian organisations. They included Dom Polski, Polish Hall; Dom Kopernika, Copernicus Hall; Tatry Folklore Ensemble; the Polish Educational Society; the Polish Theatre Society; and the Polish Radio Committee.

The Dom Polski Centre is on Angas Street. It is an important locale in Polish South Australian cultural and social life. A number of Polish South Australian groups meet at the centre. Numerous exhibitions, performances and concerts have been staged at the centre. Dom Polski’s Vistula restaurant serves traditional Polish food. The Vistula is the main river in Poland.

Dom Kopernika is on Grand Junction Road, Athol Park. It caters for the considerable number of the Polish community who live in the northern suburbs. Dom Kopernika runs a Polish language school, and also has a restaurant.

Tatry Folklore Ensemble practises at the Dom Polski Centre. Tatry is the name of a Polish mountain range. Tatry Folklore Ensemble’s members range from children and adolescents to older people. Its dance groups and choirs have given performances throughout South Australia and in the interstate capitals. Tatry is one of the oldest ensembles in Australia. It was founded by Michal Mordvinow in 1958.

The Polish Educational Society runs a number of Polish language schools around metropolitan Adelaide. It organises camps for school children during the summer holidays. It also holds celebrations for May 3, Constitution Day, which commemorates the constitution of 1791. Other Polish national days include November 1, the beginning of Polish independence in 1918.

The Polish Theatre Society was established in Adelaide in 1953. Over the years it has given performances of Polish plays, poetry, and Polish translations of well-known English language playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw.

The Polish Radio Committee was established in 1976. It broadcasts programs on Polish current affairs and news about Polish Australian cultural life.

Most Polish South Australians are Roman Catholics. For further information see Appendix 1, Religious Belief and Practice: Christianity. Polish language Masses are celebrated by the Resurrection Fathers in Ottoway and by the Society of Christ in Woodville West, Unley, Croydon Park, Royal Park and Salisbury. Important days on the church calendar include Easter, Christmas and Patron Saints’ days.

Polish Catholic South Australians take baskets of specially prepared Easter foods to their church for the priest to bless on the day before Easter Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection. Swiecone, blessed food, includes hard-boiled painted or patterned eggs, ham, sausage and a lamb made from sugar or coconut. The lamb symbolises Christ, the Lamb of God. After Mass on Easter Sunday, Polish South Australian families gather for a feast.

Christmas is traditionally celebrated on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Families begin their festive meal after they have seen the first star in the sky. This reminds them of the star that shone over the stable at Bethlehem, Christ’s birthplace. The meal begins with the Holy Host, consecrated bread that is shared among the family. Family members kiss and embrace each other and ask each other’s forgiveness for wrongs. Traditionally Christmas supper consists of 12 dishes to remind the diners of Christ’s 12 disciples. The meal often includes: borshch, a beetroot soup spiced with dried mushroom and fried onion; herrings; and other fish, which are either marinated, cooked with spices, fried, jellied or smoked and served with potatoes and vegetables; kluski z makiem, fine noodles with sweetened poppy seed; dried or stewed fruit; and piernik, a type of ginger or honey cake.

Many Polish Catholics are named after saints. Their Patron Saint’s Day or Name Day is traditionally considered far more important than their birthdays. A person who has been named after a Saint is given presents and flowers on that saint’s Feast Day. On their Patron Saint’s Day individuals reflect upon their saint’s virtues and strengthen their resolve to live like them.

Polish South Australians have held the Dozynki Polish Festival in October for a number of years. A Dozynki is a harvest festival held in October at the end of the northern hemisphere’s autumn. 

September 1 is a solemn anniversary for Polish people and everyone who suffered during the Second World War. On this day in 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Despite an agreement of August 25, 1939, the British Government did not intervene until two days later, when Britain and France declared war on Germany.

On September 1, 1993, Polish South Australians unveiled a memorial plaque in the Migration Museum’s ‘Reasons to Remember’ gallery to commemorate the horrific events that unfolded after September 1, 1939.

Organisations and Media

  • Federation of Polish Organisations in South Australia Inc.
  • Committee of Polish Organisations in South Australia
  • Dom Polski Society Ltd. and Polish Arts Club
  • Polish Cultural Club SFK
  • Polish Community of Saint Marys
  • Kolo Polski Saint Marys
  • Polish Society Dom Kopernika Inc
  • Polish Association - Mt Gambier Branch
  • PSC, formerly Adelaide Polonia Sports Club
  • Link with Seniors Committee (Polish)
  • Polish Link with Seniors
  • Adelaide, Ottoway, Polonia and Westbourne Park branches
  • Polish Women’s Association in South Australia
  • Polish Australian Women’s League Inc.
  • Polish Youth Association in Australia Inc.
  • Polish Ex-Servicemen’s Association Branch Australia Inc.
  • Polish Ex-Servicemen’s Association Sub-branches 2 and 14
  • Polish Home Army Ex-Servicemen Association Dom Polski Centre
  • Association of Nazi War Victims in Australia Inc.
  • Millennium Club of South Australia Inc.
  • Polish Seventh-Day Adventist Church
  • Polish Olympic Committee in South Australia
  • 5EBI-FM Radio Programs


The 1981 census recorded 6,786 Polish-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 7,937. 15,016 people stated that they were of Polish descent.

According to the 1991 census there were 8,358 Polish-born South Australians. 12,107 people said that their mothers were born in Poland, and 13,998 that their fathers were.

According to the 1996 census there were 8,071 Polish-born South Australians, which represented 12.4 per cent of the national total. There is a sizeable second generation numbering 5930. 

The 2001 census recorded 6,911 Polish-born South Australians, while 16,997 people said that they were of Polish descent.

The 2006 census recorded 6,235 Polish-born South Australians, while 18,027 people said that they were of Polish descent.

The 2011 census recorded 5,550 Polish-born South Australians, while 17,981 people said that they were of Polish descent.

The 2016 census recorded 4,957 Polish-born South Australians, while 18,709 people said that they were of Polish descent.

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