Meet Vienna’s Polish Women

Far from cliché of being cleaning ladies, over 20,000 women start businesses, organize protests and defend minorities – making the city their home abroad.

We moved here for my husband’s work,” said Anita Ziegler mother of two. “I was walking around the city with a child in a stroller and missing involvement. I was so engaged in Poland! And I had nothing here.” She missed the engagement, the solidarity of women she had experienced back home. Then during a walk, she saw a poster for One Billion Rising. She had been a coordinator back in Poland, so even though she didn’t speak German yet, she decided to go.

There, she met Green Party representative Ewa Ernst-Dziedzic, as well as Marta Krawczyk, with whom she founded the Congress of Polish Women in Austria.

“We organized the Congress in three months,” she remembers, with a first meeting in June and the Congress planned for September 9, 2015.

“Everyone was tapping their foreheads telling me I was crazy if I thought I could prepare an event like that over the holidays. But I said, ‘No discussion. This date is not going to change.’ And we did it.”

The Congress was open to all Polish women, be they housewives or businesswomen, no matter the world view. The goal was to expand their educational opportunities and motivate them to get involved. Today, five years on, organizers say it has helped women orientate themselves in a new reality.

“It is a getaway,” says Ziegler, “a helping hand, an older sister, for so many women.” Women came to offer help as well as receive it. Even though no longer a member, Anita still keeps her fingers crossed for all of them. “I am always so happy when I see a woman spread her wings at the Congress, who is now engaged in politics or has her own business.”

(C) Sebastian Kocoń

Ready to Engage

It is always a big step to start a business in a foreign country, and many, understandably, prefer the safety of a steady paycheck. Not so Zofia Regiec, however. Her path began six years ago, predictably enough, when a friend from university called to offer her a cleaning job. “I had a month to make a decision,” she remembers. “I had always thought Vienna was beautiful, so I took a leap of faith and said yes.” Her husband stayed in Poland, while she came here to do reconnaissance.

Everything went so well that, two years later, her husband joined her. Then when his job got shaky, they took yet another leap of faith, and in February 2019, decided to start their own cleaning business, calling it Tomasz Regiec.

“Yes, the business is under my husband’s name, but obviously I am the boss,” laughs Zofia. Its success seems to have come from sheer force of will. It certainly wasn’t because of their language skills. Starting with only conversational English and no German, they persevered, and today their company is thriving. They have two employees and Zofia is expecting her first child in December – while still working at full tilt.

For them, Vienna has worked: “I have never felt treated worse here because I am Polish,” she says. “If anything, it is an advantage. People like Polish cleaners, and we have a really good reputation.” Asked about her future, she definitely sees it here: “I love Vienna. It’s not too big, it’s clean, the public transport is brilliant, and it is so open. Look at me, I came here with nothing, and now I have a company! I don’t need to earn millions; we are happy with what we have. We can go on holiday every year, and there is so much to see.”

The language is still a challenge, though, and she hopes to start speaking more German again. “I feel blocked since taking a course,” she admits. That’s actually something Poles experience quite often: We are chronically unsure of our German, although a 2011 study by Monika Potkanski for the Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF) says something else. According to the study, Poles and Romanians have the best knowledge of German of all immigrant groups, and have the most contact with Austrians. As to jobs, Poles hardly differ from Austrians. They quickly identify with Austria and integrate well.

Sometimes, Poles also help one another integrate. Ewa Podgórska works in an Irish pub and also creates her own jewelry, is a photographer and supports the Food for Thought project, where Syrian refugee women prepare the entire menu for a dinner that is then open to women of all backgrounds. “I just came to take pictures for marketing and stayed because I loved the concept and the atmosphere,” she remembers. The official language of the project is German, no matter how good or bad – so everyone has a chance to practice. The dinner setting invites conversation, helping overcome cultural differences.

Fewer Dishes, More Protests

Meanwhile back home, the distribution of household duties is slowly becoming more equal, at least according to the Centre for Public Opinion Research in Poland. There haven’t been any big shifts – women are still responsible for the majority of the housework – but slowly, men‘s participation is growing and there is a clear trend toward more equality. The time saved on household duties is often used in politics and social activism, a change seen in the women-led protests against the tightening of the abortion law in 2016. The current law, already very strict, allows abortion only in cases of rape, when the woman’s life or health is in jeopardy, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. The government’s plan was to strike this last last exception.

As a result, hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the country on October 3, 2016. Some women refused to do any kind of work, professional or otherwise, to show their impact on the economy and family life. The protesting women prevailed; the law was not changed. It was a kind of political baptism, showing them their voices could be heard.

Since then, Polish women have been ever more vocal. Just recently, on the day of President Andrzej Duda‘s swearing in, left-wing female MPs wore dresses, shirts and pantsuits in the colors of the rainbow. A wordless gesture that spoke volumes. They also stepped in following police brutality during the arrest of an LGBTQ+ activist two days later.

Support also came from Vienna. Zuzanna Dziuban, pro-abortion rights activist, was quick to organize a protest here. “I was in Croatia when all that happened. I was impatiently looking for info about a protest in Vienna. There wasn’t any for two days, so I just organized my own,” she told Metropole. She is used to being active, having been engaged in pro-abortion rights organization Ciocia Basia in Berlin, where she lived before moving to Vienna in 2019.

Polish women have long been the heroes of everyday life. And now more than ever, they are also the superwomen of exceptional times. On top of working, cooking and carrying children on their hips, they are often ready to take action, speaking up for themselves and other marginalized groups. They are women ready for change.

Joanna Erbslöh
Joanna came to Vienna for the weekend 4 years ago, fell in love and stayed. She loves to talk about food, write about food and feed people. She unapologetically refuses to be insulted by Viennese waiters. Tries to juggle her 6-month-old and her blog: Wien Wein Wunderbar. In her free time she loves to roam the vineyards and eat as much Erdäpfelsalat as she can pack in.

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