Roughly 20 million people of Polish origin live outside of Poland, with the biggest numbers in the US, Canada, the UK, Brazil, France and Germany. This large and widely dispersed Polish diaspora is often referred to as “Polonia,” the country’s Latin name. Reasons for the migration have been both voluntary or involuntary, including economic emigration, but more often forced expulsions, border shifts or political exile.
Austria’s “Polonia” is 65,000-people strong, the 8th largest minority group in the country.
So why do many Poles prefer Austria to all the countries available to them in the EU and overseas? It’s certainly not because of the language. Today, most Poles learn English as their second language, not German.
There have been several waves of Polish immigration to Austria in the second half of the 20th century. In the ’70s and ’80s, about two million Polish citizens escaping the terrors of Communism chose Austria for its political stability and democratic values. The second wave came in the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Many of these were blue-collar workers in search of jobs (often off the books) as well as intellectuals looking for a broader academic and professional stage. However, the biggest exodus took place after Poland’s accession to the European Union and opening of the EU’s labor market. By 2007, about two million mostly young Poles, had taken up jobs abroad, many of them in Austria.
We spoke to a representative group of 480 Polish immigrants in Austria about their choices: Analyzing the answers, we discovered the most popular reasons for settling in Österreich.
Close to Home
Average salaries and benefits are significantly higher in Austria than in Poland. Strict employment laws protect the workforce from unfair labor practices that reduce occupational stress. The 13th and 14th salaries and long parental leaves also make Austria an exceptionally attractive country to work in.
Geographical proximity also plays a major role when choosing Austria. For natives of the former Galicia region of western Poland, Vienna is only a short trip away, which makes it perfect for workweek commuters who visit their families regularly. Part-time employment and four-day work schedules allow for long weekends in Poland.
Paweł (27) works as a bricklayer and commutes almost every Friday to his hometown near the Polish-Slovak border. “One day a friend gave me a call, inviting me to come and work with him on a building site in Vienna,” he relates. “So far, it’s been five years, and I am still enjoying it!” Work conditions are fair, he adds, along with a high level of social security in case of injury. Wages are also significantly better, and the 400-km drive is short enough for him to visit his family over a weekend. Paweł’s wife and 1-year-old daughter still live in Poland with his in-laws, although they may consider moving to Vienna in the future.
Monika (30) from Bielsko-Biała followed her dad, an engineer, to Vienna right after high school. Initially, she worked as a hotel chambermaid. But then she got her dream job as a cook. “Austrian cuisine is fairly close to Polish cooking: just add some bigos or pierogi and it feels like home!” she says. These similarities have historical roots. The Habsburg monarchy acquired Polish lands during the First and Third Partition of Poland in 1772 and 1795. Over 2.65 million people lived under Austrian rule for 123 years, and a vibrant Polish community formed in Vienna.
So, influences were shared – even the famed Wiener Schnitzel, some say, is based on a Polish kotlet schabowy. And while Poles are often thought to be great vodka drinkers, “actually we consume more beer or wine than vodka,” Monika says. “My dad loves a nice glass of Austrian wine with dinner.” For many Poles, it feels “safer” to move to a place where a relative or “a friend of a friend” already lives and so many things are familiar. And, like Monika, they can visit their families only a few hours away.
Love is Love
Love is also an important and frequently overlooked factor in migration. Roughly one-third of Polish nationals here are married to an Austrian. According to the Erasmus project, over a million children across the continent have been born in bi-national families since the inception of the project – many of them in Austria.
Joanna (38) is an educator from Katowice and a mother of two. She had come for one academic semester as an Erasmus student and had never intended to stay in Austria – until a “handsome and charming man from Upper Austria convinced me to stay indefinitely. I fell in love with him and with Vienna – culture, education, job opportunities, nature and more!”
Szymon (31), a marketing manager, and his male partner decided to move abroad for personal security. With the increase of anti- LGBTQIA+ policies and riots in Polish cities, they did not feel safe. According to Szymon, Vienna does not have as vibrant a gay scene as Berlin or Amsterdam, but it is more inclusive and respectful than Warsaw or Kraków.
Diversity is a tricky topic with Polish immigrants in Austria. Some politically right-wing Poles complain about the multicultural environment, but many appreciate Austria’s inclusiveness.
Julia (28), a student of economics, was raised in a Roman-Catholic family with strict traditional values. In Vienna, she met and married a Tunisian Muslim and appreciates Austria’s diversity and openness to all religions. “Vienna is the perfect neutral ground for my husband and me, where we can be together and practice our respective religions without being discriminated against or having to justify our choices.” She reports that none of her Austrian neighbors care that she celebrates both Christmas and Ramadan.
Arts, Education & Culture
While it might not be the primary reason to move here, Austrian culture does make the country attractive. World-renowned performers and events are around every corner. From the opera houses, the great German-language theaters, huge museums and amazing architecture to the glorious balls and festivals – the list seems to go on forever!
Anna (48) is a make-up artist at the Volksoper Wien and adores both her work and the city, which she says is the perfect place for music lovers: “Many of my friends go to musical performances, evenings at Rathausplatz in summer and listen to the TV transmission of the New Year’s Concert.”
There are 22 universities in Austria, 9 of them in Vienna, so higher education definitely attracts many Poles. Martyna (27), holds a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Wroclaw. She moved to Vienna to live in the city of Freud, learn German and continue with a post-grad program. Not able to find work in her field, she got a temporary job as a cleaning lady. It created some comical situations.
“For example, once a father tried to motivate his daughter to study harder, so he pointed my direction and asked if she really wanted to end up like me, with no education and no proper job?” Martyna replied calmly, that she was a PhD student in psychology. “You should have seen his face turning red with shame!” Many Poles find it amusing how Austrians cherish their academic titles. Could it be that Austrians have replaced the old imperial hierarchies with these?
Austrian companies also profit from skilled and well-educated professionals from Poland. Bartek (26), a back-end software developer, was contacted by an Austrian headhunter shortly after his graduation from the University of Warsaw. “The company offered me an IT job and support in relocating to Vienna. The initial compensation was not that exciting (it was comparable to IT salaries in Poland), but I decided to use this opportunity to gain international experience and learn a new language.”
For many Polish parents in Vienna, it is important that their children grow up bilingually. Thanks to the Polish Saturday School in Kalksburg (23rd district), children keep up with the Polish curriculum, which makes it easier to return to Poland after their time in Austria.
A Very Social System
For many, the social welfare system contributes to the choice to stay: A low crime rate, inexpensive medical coverage and attractive infrastructure for families with children all help make life work for families.
Renata (53) is a nurse, who cares for an elderly couple in their own home. Over the years her patients became her friends and almost family. Renata says: “I appreciate the social security system here. I do not need any private medical insurance to visit a doctor, and my grandchildren attend kindergarten free-of-charge.” Thousands of Poles (especially women) also actively contribute to the Austrian social system by working in kindergartens, hospitals, homes for elderly and in NGOs such as Caritas.
Marek (61), owns a little pizzeria in the 9th district. He came to Austria for university studies almost 40 years ago and applied for permanent residency. He feels safe in Vienna. “There are certainly some robberies and pickpockets, sure! No society is perfect. But all in all, I do not feel the need to put three locks on my apartment door and look over my shoulder when I walk the streets.” Marek does not have children, so it gives him comfort to know that one day, when he retires and needs help, he will be respectfully taken care of as a senior citizen.
Oh, So Green
In 2020, Mercer named Vienna the world’s “most livable city” for the 10th time in a row. Poles appreciate the quality of life, clean water, green spaces and inexpensive public transport (many mentioned Wiener Linien and the annual tickets for only €365).
Magdalena (64), a former primary-school teacher, escaped Communism in 1979. It was a one-way ticket out from under the regime and she has never regretted this decision. And even now, she keeps close contact with her family and friends in Poland and visits them regularly. She is alarmed by the high levels of air, noise and light pollution in the Polish urban centers. “Vienna is very green and clean, and the tap water is perfect,” she says. “Austrians seem to be as allergic to noise pollution as I am.”
Poland boasts some amazing natural areas, but the country is huge, whereas Austria is far smaller, with a great variety of landscapes in close proximity: Some of the highest mountains of the Alps are fairly close to the largest cities and to the extensive plains of Burgenland and the Neusiedler See – a paradise for Alpine skiing, cycling and mountainbiking.
Dorota (43) is an accountant and a passionate skier and hiker. She appreciates Austria’s landscapes, nature and sports.“I live in Vienna but need only an hour or two to escape the city buzz over the weekend. The Wienerwald forests are amazing for what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku– relaxing and bathing in the forest atmosphere.”
The many waves of immigrants from all backgrounds form the diverse and colorful people of “Polonia” in Austria. Aristocrats and paupers, intellectuals and manual workers, political opponents and people attracted by high wages have had multiple reasons for coming and staying and seem to be well integrated into Austrian society.
They all are proud to call Austria their home.