Muzeum Izba Polska
  • Recruitment and Arrival of Seasonal Workers

    In the years 1893 – 1912, Polish seasonal workers were coming to Denmark, mostly from Galicia, which was then the north-western part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to a lesser extent from Prussia and Russia (from partitioned Poland under Prussian and Russian rule). A lower number of seasonal workers coming from Russia was a result of restrictions on the freedom of movement imposed by its authorities, including on seasonal migration.

    • Recruitment and Arrival of Seasonal Workers
    • Recruitment and Arrival of Seasonal Workers
    • Recruitment and Arrival of Seasonal Workers

    Galicia, from which most of the seasonal workers came, was one of the poorest parts of Austria-Hungary. The recruited workers were mainly the poorest villagers, who could not afford a ticket to America, where most of their more affluent neighbours were migrating to. The villages of Galicia were highly overpopulated, and as such presented a good opportunity for recruiting cheap labour. The first group of Polish seasonal workers came to Lolland in 1893. These were probably people who did not find work in Germany. Their arrival was linked to the fact that local labour was in short supply and that seasonal workers from Sweden failed to turn up.

    The recruitment of seasonal workers was handled by intermediaries – supervisors – known by the German term of ”Aufseher”. They recruited seasonal workers for farm estates on which sugar beetroots were grown. Until 1908, when regulations on the work of seasonal workers were introduced, the contract with the Aufseher was concluded by the owner of the estate. The Aufseher would recruit the workers, bring them to Denmark, supervise their work, organise meals, sell food and pay their wages. The Aufsehers, mostly Germans, were involved in recruitment in the Austro-Hungarian Empire without permission from local Ministry of Labour. Since they did not have contacts in rural Galicia, they had to use the services of innkeepers, teachers and even Roman Catholic priests as intermediaries, paying them a small commission.

    Once recruited, the labourers would travel to an assembly point in Myślenice near Cracow, and then by train to Oświęcim, at the time one of the key railway junctions of Austria-Hungary. From there, the seasonal workers travelled by train to Rostock, then boarded a ship to sail from Warnemünde to Gedser. The port of Gedser was the place from which Polish female workers travelled to their respective estates of destination. The women travelled with wooden chests, made by village carpenters. In them, they transported documents, prayer books, paintings of saints, portable household altars, ceremonial dresses, wool scarves commonly used as coats when it was cold and wet, clothing and sometimes bed linen. In bundles of white linen cloth, they would transport bread, bacon and cheese – their main food during the journey, which took two to four days.

  • The Daily Life of Villagers in Galicia at the End of the 19th Century and Beginning of the 20th Century

    At the end of the 19th century, the houses of Galician villagers were much different from those in Denmark. The poorest lived in cottages of no more than 40 sq metres in size. The walls were made of barely hewed logs that formed the framework of the building, plastered with a mixture of clay and chopped straw and painted with whiting indoors and on the outside.

    The Daily Life of Villagers in Galicia at the End of the 19th Century and Beginning of the 20th Century

    Sometimes the external walls were painted blue with a touch of ultramarine. The roof was covered with hand chipped pine planks or thatched with rye straw. The building consisted of a residential part with a stove, a food storage part next to it and a part for animals, usually a cow or a few sheep. In some houses there was no separate part for animals, so in wintertime cows and sheep were kept in the residential part. Windows in such buildings were very small due to the high cost of glass and the need to prevent heat loss. The building was heated by a huge clay stove, on which the elders and children would sleep. Older children slept in the barn, if the family could afford one. The houses had no chimney, which meant that smoke from the fireplace slowly rose to the ceiling and then to the attic through an opening in the ceiling. One does not need to add that the houses were dark and smelled of manure and smoke. Floors were threshing floors made of clay. Richer peasants lived in larger houses divided into living quarters and a part for livestock.

    At the end of the 19th century, a ”culinary revolution” took place in Galicia, with potatoes and cabbage becoming essential foodstuffs, with various groats and peas losing on importance. Those who could afford it ate potatoes three times a day. For breakfast potatoes were served with bacon, on Wednesdays and Saturdays with butter. In wintertime people ate sour rye soup with potatoes. For work in the field people would take lunches composed of bread with butter or bacon. For dinner they ate cabbage with potatoes and milk. Potatoes were sometimes replaced with groats or peas. During field work, people ate an additional meal before dinner, consisting of a large slice of bread with bacon, butter or curd. The final meal of the day included potatoes with sour milk, buttermilk or wodzianka, i.e. water boiled with onions. Meals were eaten with wooden spoons from a single clay bowl placed in the centre of the bench. The whole family would sit around the bench on small wooden stools. They would drink milk or onion soup with pepper from separate bowls. Meat, usually pork, was served very rarely, only during religious holidays. Rabbits were served every second Sunday in more affluent households. For wintertime, the houses were stocked with lamb and pork meat in the form of a fatty addition to meals – the meat was minced together with bacon and cured. The poorer villagers would kill one pig between three or four of them. A villager in Galicia – a wageworker – would usually save all the bread received for lunch and the afternoon snack to take as much of it home as possible. The poor could not afford to bake their own bread. In poor families bread was a treat for children. The basic food for the poor consisted of plain potatoes served three times a day. The poorest, known as “komornicy”, could only afford to butter their potatoes from time to time with fat they bought in a village store. One should add that the poorest never had enough to eat and often endured hunger.

    In the middle of the 19th century, the clothing of women in Galicia consisted of the products of Czech textile mills. Women would dress in skirts and cotton shirts made of the cheapest textiles, and cover their heads with scarves. For field work, they would wear aprons made of thick linen canvas. Undergarments were made of raw linen canvas and were also worn as summer clothes. They were later replaced with cotton shirts. Regardless of their affluence, in the summer women would walk barefoot, in the winter they would wear leather shoes. In the poorest families there were not enough shoes for the whole family so people would take turns to leave the house. Sunday’s best clothes of Polish seasonal workers from Galicia, admired by the Maribo locals in the late 19th and early 20th century, consisted of fine linen shirts with white embroidery on the collar, and colourful skirts. A better quality cotton blouse with embroidered collar and cuffs was worn over the shirt. A wool or linen apron with colourful patterns, worn on top of the skirt, topped the attire. A velvet corset, often decorated with colourful embroidery or sequins, was worn over the blouse. The head was covered with a white or colour scarf, the arms with a thick wool scarf and the feet were dressed in black Hungarian-style top boots or clogs with wooden soles and leather upper. Rich women from villages used to wear three strings of real red coral. This very expensive addition was the dream of every woman in the village. This was what the Polish seasonal workers would spend their hard-earned money on after returning home from Denmark. The men would wear underwear of raw canvas, thick woollen pants, sleeved vests, with embroidered woollen homespun coats worn on top. The Museum has one such coat in its collection. Just like the women, the peasants would walk barefoot in the summer and wear boots in the winter, while the poor would wear clogs.

  • Work in the Field

    Seasonal workers would come to Denmark on the 30th of April and stay until the 4th of December. They were needed by the developing sugar industry in Denmark. First sugar beet plantations in Denmark date back to 1870. Rising sugar production resulted in expanding sugar beet plantations. As most of the work on plantations in late 19th century involved manual labour, the plantation owners had to hire more and more workers.

    • Work in the Field
    • Work in the Field
    • Work in the Field
    • Work in the Field

    The farm labourers coming to Denmark looked after the entire sugar beet lifecycle, from sowing until harvesting. The first activity was the manual sowing of beets then, once the plants germinated, the plants had to be weeded regularly. The tool for weeding was triangular or rectangular hoes with a short handle. Weeding was repeated six times between May and July, while earthing up four times. The work was extremely arduous, as the short handles of the hoes meant that one had to stoop all the time. In Galicia at the time people used hoes with long handles which was much easier on the back. The sugar beets were harvested in October. This meant that every plant had to be dug up from the ground using a special tool with two forks. The forks were attached to a short handle, so the worker had to stoop all the time. Initially, a narrow spade was also used to dig up the beets but its use was aborted as it was not too handy. Once the beets were unearthed, the leaves were chopped off and the beets thrown into baskets and later loaded on to carts to take them to a sugar mill. Apart from working in sugar beet fields, the workers would also milk cows, work in potato fields, dig ditches and do other farm work. The work, considered a man’s job in Denmark, was also performed by Polish female seasonal workers. Work in Denmark was particularly difficult due to differences in weather conditions. All work carried out by Polish seasonal workers was valued according to a pricelist, used to calculate the wages. Work started at 6AM and finished at 6.30PM with a 30 minute break for breakfast and an hours’ break for lunch.

  • Polish Law

    In the first years of the work of Polish seasonal workers, there were many cases of abuse from supervisors – the Aufseher. Until 1908, contracts were signed by the supervisor with the estate owner. They determined the number of workers and the work they would carry out during their stay in Denmark. The supervisor’s job was to recruit, secure travel documents, transport the workers to Denmark, provide accommodation and food and finally to supervise their work.

    The working conditions and wages were usually agreed by means of an oral contract between the supervisor and individual workers. The absence of written contracts led to many instances of abuse by supervisors. They included paying lower wages than initially agreed, deducting the cost of food from the wages and selling additional food products at inflated prices. The housing conditions were bad – the seasonal workers lived in unheated, overcrowded rooms, often unfit for purpose, and slept on bunk beds. The supervisors would frequently charge an additional fee for accommodation, deducted from the wages. This abuse on the part of supervisors – the Aufseher – was opposed by the workers. A rising frequency of disputes between the supervisors and workers led to strike actions, protests and demonstrations. The sugar beet farmers were concerned by the situation, since strike actions caused tangible losses. Their concerns were addressed by the Danish Parliament which started legislative work to regulate the status of seasonal workers in Denmark. The “polaklov” (Polish low), an act of parliament regulating the employment of seasonal workers was passed in 1908. The act imposed specific requirements on plantation owners to protect the rights of seasonal workers. It was the first regulation of this kind in Europe. A key change was to curb the lawlessness of the supervisors with the introduction of a requirement for contracts to be signed between the farmer and the seasonal worker. The contract was concluded in two language versions: Polish and Danish. The workers had to have employee logbooks which detailed the type, time and place of the activities performed. The law imposed on the employer an obligation to have a detailed valuation for field work activities for each year. The employer was also responsible for ensuring healthcare for the workers, insuring them and providing adequate accommodation. The living quarters had to have space for meal preparation and proper cooking equipment. The standard of the rooms had to meet sanitary and fire regulations and was to be inspected by relevant institutions. The workers’ weekly food allowance consisted of 12kg of potatoes, as well as one litre of milk and half a kilo of bread a day. A minimum wage of 15 kroner per month was introduced. The employment contract stipulated that the wages of men amounted to 1.5 krone a day, while the wages of women stood at 1.15 krone a day in spring with the wage increased by 10 per cent during field work. The contract also regulated the remuneration for nurturing and harvesting work on sugar beet plantations. Every type of activity was precisely valued. The printed law was available in Polish at the Danish Consulate in Lwow in Galicia.

    The number of seasonal workers coming to Denmark was estimated in advance every year. Sugar beet farmers filed applications with the Danish Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, and demand for seasonal workers was estimated on the basis of all the applications. Denmark also signed an agreement with the Labour Ministry of Austria-Hungary, laying down the rules and annual limits for the recruitment of seasonal workers to Denmark. This effectively put an end to the illegal and unregulated recruitment by the supervisors. The recruitment was taken over by Heads of Counties (lowest level of local administration) under supervision of Labour Office officials. 10.320 seasonal workers from Poland came to Denmark in 1911. 4.609 of them went to Lolland, which amounted to 27 per cent of all farm workers on the island.

    There were cases of seasonal workers staying in Denmark over the winter with their contract renewed in the new year. Still, these were extremely rare instances since the stay of every seasonal worker had to be registered with the police, who in turn were making sure no stays got extended. In 1914, when the First World War broke out, some of the Polish seasonal workers were allowed to stay in Denmark thanks to the efforts of the unions of sugar beet farmers. Many of the women who decided to travel home nevertheless, did not reach their homes and were interned in refugee camps located in what is now Austria and the Czech Republic. In 1915, some of the employers decided to send a mission of Polish priests to the internment camps to bring the Polish seasonal workers to back Denmark. The mission was successful and a group of several thousand returned to Denmark. They received permanent contracts and later settled in Denmark.

  • Celebrations

    The contracts guaranteed days off to Polish seasonal workers both on Danish holidays and Catholic religious holidays. In total, the seasonal workers had 9 days off during the season of work. During church holidays, and in particular during Corpus Christi, Poles organised processions, walking outside the church yard.

    They would then dress in beautiful and colourful folk costumes. The processions were a demonstration of attachment to the Catholic religion and an opportunity to display their ethnic identity. One should note that the Catholic church played a hugely important role in the lives of seasonal workers. The first masses were held by priests, coming from Poland for the field work season, in kaserne buildings where the workers were staying. In 1897, a first Catholic church of Saint Bridget was erected in Maribo as a result of public fund-raising. Later, churches were also built in Naskov and Nykøbing. The Poles manifested their attachment to faith in everyday life – they had paintings of the saints and the Virgin Mary in their houses as well as paintings commemorating their first Holy Communion.

  • Integration of Polish Seasonal Workers with the Danish Society

    Out of the entire period of seasonal migrations between 1893 and 1929, the largest group of Poles who settled in Denmark were female workers during the First World War. One should keep in mind that, due to their social status, a decision to stay in Denmark was a particularly difficult one for them. When part of a group, the seasonal workers supported each other.

    They manifested their ethnic and religious distinctiveness by wearing traditional garments, demonstrating their attachment to the Catholic church and preserving traditional customs, typical of the region they came from. Women dressed in traditional attire were ridiculed by the Danes. For the female seasonal workers, their stay in Denmark was a short episode in their lives. Usually after earning enough they would get married back in Poland. When they chose to stay in Denmark and marry a Dane, they would give up their traditional attire and wear clothes typical for women at the time. As time went by, Polish seasonal workers integrated with the local community of the island of Lolland. Only Polish surnames now point to their and their descendants origins.

  • Polish Expat Organisations and Workers Associations 1893 – 1929

    Originally, Catholic churches were the places where Poles would meet. Trade unions were established in the 1920s, after trade unionists from Poland and the Polish Socialist Party activists promoted the idea.

    The organisations were not political and were more expat organisations. The main point of their work was to maintain the ethnic traditions of Poles in Denmark, former seasonal workers who settled in the country. To this end, the unions organised social, cultural and educational events for the community. The efforts of the trade unions also led to the establishment of Polish schools.



Museum Polish Barrack

Højbygårdvej 34, Tågerup, 4970 Rødby
Phone: 25 77 92 01

CVR 35612831

MobilePay: 69 85 44

Admission DKK 50 -  adults. Children under 12 free.

The Museum is open to visitors throughout Easter 2024 from Maundy Thursday to the 2nd of Easter (28 March to 1 April) - every day from 14.00 to 16.00.

The museum opens as planned for individual visits from 2 July 2024 to and including 29 September and in week 42 every day except Monday from 2.00 pm to 4.00 pm.

It will also be possible to arrange group visits (minimum 10 people) during the months of April, May, June, July, August, September and October outside the normal opening hours. Group visits must be arranged on telephone 25 77 92 01. Inquiries can also be made by email:



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The project is co-financed by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs from Polonia funds.
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