Post-World War II Poland provides a unique setting to study mobility and success
Researchers have long speculated that people uprooted by violence or natural disasters are more likely to invest in education because it is a “mobile” asset they can take with them if forced to move again. Higher educational levels generally lead to better incomes and greater opportunities, creating a virtuous circle of prosperity that gets passed down generation after generation.
An understanding of what actually makes a migrant successful in his or her new surroundings is increasingly crucial, as more than 65 million people, forced from their homelands, are today being accepted and rejected by other countries based on a wide range of beliefs and biases.
The theory of forced migrants’ strongly favoring education has been notoriously difficult to prove because there are many factors that can impact the fate of people expelled from their homes. Were they poor farmers forced to flee with their crops in the ground? Or wealthy businesspeople with overseas bank accounts and suitcases filled with cash? Were the places they landed hostile or welcoming? When forced migrants settle in their new homes, they typically differ from locals in ethnicity, religion or cultural background — confounding factors that are hard to disentangle from the effects of forced displacement itself.
A group of academics from both sides of the Atlantic have gained insight by exploring a unique moment in history: the traumatic years after World War II when millions of people in Poland were forced to relocate, leaving behind their homes in the Eastern Borderlands (“Kresy”), which became part of the Soviet Union. Poles from Kresy were forced to relocate to the new Polish borders, which incorporated the Western Territories that had previously belonged to Germany.
The authors of the paper are University of Warwick’s Sascha O. Becker, Paris School of Economics’ Irena Grosfeld, UNSW Sydney’s Pauline Grosjean, UCLA Anderson’s Nico Voigtländer and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, also of the Paris School of Economics.
By 1950, 2.1 million Poles had been forced to move from the Kresy region, with most resettling in the west where the departing Germans had left behind abundant land, housing and other key infrastructure. Kresy families were allowed to bring up to two tons of luggage.