Iwona's Sources - Emigrants' Letters, Part I

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Emigrants' Letters, Part I

Letters were the sole link between separatd families. They were eagerly awaited on both sides. A letter from America was not only an important event but also a harbinger of prosperity, the enduring hope for a better future. At that time, correspondence from America took about two months to arrive in Poland; but what was significant was not so much the long period of waiting as the regularity of letter exchange. The lack of a reply was the worst variant, analyzed for many possibilities:

Dear parents, I do not know whether you are angry with me, for you have not written any letters to me, I have sent you several letters and have received no reply from you ...

Dearest parents, I beg you to answer this letter, because if you do not write back, then I, too, will not write to you.  

For hundreds of thousands of homesick families, contacts by correspondence compensated for great nostalgia, maintained family ties, and-very important in the majority of cases-finalized plans regarding immigration of subsequent members of the families, and assured subsequent material assistance. This movement of family transmissions from America, which one would expect to be undisturbed, began to encounter a significant blockade: inspection in post offices by the partitioning powers.
Czarist officials were the first to come up with the idea of censuring letters from America. They read them scrupulously and confiscated all those that contained any information whatsoever about plans for bringing the rest of the family members to America, such as instructions on how to cross the Prussian border, get ship tickets, contact agents, and so on. This aggressive practice on the part of the partitioning powers arose from simple economic calculation; the increasingly intensive outflow of a cheap work force threatened the economy. The vast majority of senders and addressees were completely unaware of what was causing the sad, and sometimes lasting and tragic separation.

The fate of the undelivered letters remained the secret of the foreign aggressors up to the end of the second decade of the 20th century, when Poland regained its independence, and as a result the guarded institutions of the foreign powers, along with their archives, came under the jurisdiction of our fellow country men. The records thus acquired came to archives, and there, over the course of time, they were assiduously compiled and preserved.

Before the outbreak of World War II, two fat chests with iron fittings were delivered to the Warsaw archive. They had been found in the cellars under the headquarters of the former Office of the Warsaw Superintendent of Police.

The first person who took an interest in the secret contents of these chests was Professor Wit old Kula. It was a fascinating discovery: thousands of confiscated letters of emigrants from North America and Brazil during the period November 1890 to May 1891 (the so-called "Brazilian fever" period), addressed to localities in the counties of Rypin, Golub, Lipno, Nieszawa, Sierpc, and Aleksandr6w Kujawski-practically the whole northern part of Plock gubernia, which bordered on Prussia.

Professor Kula immediately reacted to the historical and scholarly value of this collection, and willingly committed himself to compiling them in his underground workshop (this was during the period of the German occupation). The collection consisted of over 8,000 individual pieces and there was no local place for group research, yet the mission demanded a large conspiracy -so Professor Kula came up with the idea of getting his students to do the work. He would pass out files of letters to them along with a research form, and they would take the letters with them to their homes.

Unfortunately, the professor's project was not fully realized. The chests with the letters burned up in August 1944 as a result of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. But about 800 letters survived of those that had been dispersed among the students' homes.

The final stage of the research work did not occur until the 1960s, when Professor Kula published all the letters along with a synthetic compilation of them.

Reading Professor Kula's Listy emigrant6w z Brazilii i Stan6w Zjednoczonych [Emigrants' Letters from Brazil and the United States], as well as other letters from emigrants from other areas, of which I have translated many, one is struck by the amazing degree of similarity.

The letters' senders were most often simple peasants who had previously had no contact with communication by letter. Many of them were illiterate and were forced to seek assistance from others.

The letters were written phonetically, with many linguistic errors, sloppy handwriting, local dialect terms, no punctuation marks or indentation-all of which makes both reading and understanding them more difficult. Despite the poor level of writing in the letters, however, their form of expression surprises us with its expression of universal respect for religious values, work, and material goods. The letters were written as if by one soul, with the same thought order, the same hierarchy of values.

They usually begin with the words "Niech. bedzie pochwalony Jezus Christus" [May Jesus Christ be praised!]. The next sentences ask about health and prosperity, and then typical questions about family and material matters are raised ... But even those were composed according to a pattern. Family relations between emigrants and those who remained in the old country were cyclic and dealt with worries about material existence, descriptions of the situation of those near and dear to them, assurances of assistance, and plans for the future.

"Here you have to be healthy to work."
It was easier to bear illness in the family home than in a foreign environment, where emigrants were on their own. Separation from their roots intensified their loneliness and fear of sickness. It happened at times that medical help brought financial ruin.
A brother wrote to his sister, "Don't be angry at me, dear sister, for not answering your letter, but my wife was ill from childbirth and was very weak and that was a great expense for me. She was in bed for ten weeks and it cost me around 100 dollars, and here you're constantly writing me about a ship ticket for your daughter."

A husband wrote his wife: "I wasted 130 rubles on doctors and on very expensive medicine. My sickness was due to heavy work and I swelled up like a log."
Sending Ship Tickets

Sending ship tickets, tickets to the Promised Land, took place according to the family hierarchy: fathers thought first about their wives and children, bachelors about their fiancees, brothers, sisters, and parents. Tickets for more distant relatives and neighbors were also a form of gratitude for help in the old country. Inasmuch as tickets did not always make it back to Poland, foresighted emigrants availed themselves of the services of agents at the ports or railway stations. They instructed relatives where they were to go to pick up the tickets.

Thank you, dear sister, for your reply, and I tell you that I cannot send you tickets now, because I sent a ticket to Antek, and father wants to send tickets to aunt Jadwiga and her girl, and I will send them later to you, dear sister, because it's too hard to do it all at once.

Dear wife, you will get the ticket from the agent in Berlin, but hide well the red card with the address which I sent you in the letter. Don't let yourself be taken by the swindlers who lurk at the stations. Go straight to the agent's office.

The subject of winter was almost cast in iron as a feature in letters. "What kind of winter did you have? Was it a good one or a bad one?" Winter determined the welfare of families on both sides of the ocean. A long, harsh winter filled peasants with fear of hunger, that the supplies they'd stored and their frugality would not be enough for them to make it through. For emigrants, it meant poorer chances of finding work. Even in large industrial plants and mines there were work stoppages during the winter months. For that reason, in letters they often advised against arranging to set out before March.

This winter I had a job, but it was a poor job, I only earned a dollar a day, and whenever there was rain or snow nothing was going on, so I couldn't even earn enough to live on.

In winter there are many fellows out of work, and you can get so far in debt during the winter that you can hardly pay it off until summer.

And now there's nothing to do in winter, I myself have done nothing since New Year's, only half the people are doing anything ... The factories only run half the time, and even underground they're doing very poorly.

Description of the Trip

There was a description of the trip and numerous pointers on how to prepare for the road, how to cross the border illegally, who to bribe, and how to talk to strangers. They warned about dangers. The detail of the stories and of all kinds of instructions is striking.

Now I will describe for you how to prepare for the journey. Take along with you whatever things you have; naturally it doesn't pay to take along just any old thing, as there are plenty of odds and ends in America. Antosia can take her best dresses with her, but she shouldn't take those that go halfway down to the knees, because in the first place, it looks Kujavian, and in the second place, American children will throw rocks at her. As for uncle, he should try to get short boots ... and lower his pants.1 It would be good if you could take as much ground-grain bread with you as possible, and the drops that are called Ofmaristrofen  2 for you will surely be ill while on the water.

As for what my trip was like ... I had to walk three versts in snow up to my waist and carry Stas, and I was half dead. I had to pay 8 rubles to get through the border, and then pay a Prussian ... I was cold and afraid.

1 Iwona explains that peasants used to wear long boots pulled up over their pants' legs, and that sometimes made a bad impression on Americans. So this doesn't mean uncle should go around with his pants down! It means he should wear shorter boots and let his pants' legs down to cover the tops.

2 This is presumably a Polonized form of the German name Hoffmannstropfen, Hoffmann's Drops, a preparation invented by a German physician named Friedrich Hoffmann. Wikipedia says it was a mixture of three parts ethanol and one part diethyl ether used medicinally, for instance, to help with nausea.

Dear brother, I will describe myadventures and my whole trip for you. We left home on Thursday with the coach rented from Kobelice, and we crossed the border at Michalowo, but the Russians broke us up, three ran off to Prussia and five to Poland. But a Russian caught mother. So we crossed back on the second night and found ourselves in Przybyslaw. The Russians took mother to the border, then on to Bronislaw, Radziej6w, and Wit6w. In Wit6w she was released. She had two rubles on her and a Russian took them away and they were lost.

As for my trip on the sea, you wouldn't even want to watch. I sailed for 15 days. The 9th day was the feast day of the Blessed Mother back home, and we almost drowned, the water poured in the smokestacks. I thought for sure I would never see the world again.

The First Contact with the Promised Land

The first contact with the Promised Land was a collision of different worlds on various planes. A foreign language and environment, an unknown system of work and insurance, dependence on the state of the market and physical condition-these were the most important thresholds to conquest on the path to stability and prosperity.
In time, American localities changed into ethnic enclaves, which helped emigrants assimilate more quickly to their new environment. Adaptation to the American labor market was tougher. At home, work was subject to the discipline of the seasons and the cycles of vegetation. But here they had to adapt to work on a factory conveyor belt, keeping track of the movements of machines and orders of their foremen. Strikes were unknown to them, and they were surprised by the multiracial society and the different cultural customs.
Confrontation with this new world was often the subject of letters:

The city of New York is very rich, there are no wooden houses here. Every house looks like the most beautiful palace, illuminated with electricity ... if we entered it, we would determine just what this wealth is like.

We have no king here, but a republic, the previous residents were savages and now, too, bands roam about and we are afraid they will attack us.

I don't know how these people regard America, but I think they regard it as the land of gold. It's not a land of gold but a new land overgrown with brushwood ... and here people slave 12 hours a day like the Jews under Pharoah. People think that here they will gather up gold in their aprons and they rush around blindly. There are those who send money back to the old country, but they themselves live like animals. Grandmother Izabella's pigs are let out of the sty early, when it's still dark, so that they hurry to gather up crumbs at the Jew's bakery ....

I am not thinking about bringing you over, my dear wife, because I plan to return in fall; in America the work is backbreaking, you sweat more here in a day than in a week back home.

Here they pick workers the way we pick cattle at the market ... to be healthy and strong. But the truth is that if you're young, healthy, strong, hard working-and you have to be able to understand English-then you can earn 100 rubles a month.

In Chicago the fashion is that a bachelor must even buy a bride her wedding dress, and everything needed, but the woman has only one worry, getting to the wedding.
You don't need to try to get a registry certificate, here a girl gets married without certificates or papers.

The Question of Money
The question of money and material goods runs through all the letters. Emigrants constantly sent financial help back to their families in the old country. At first, these were banknotes, one- or two-dollar bills enclosed in letters, then later wire transfers averaging more than a hundred dollars. Packages with clothing, spices, and stationery were universal.

Both sides felt obligated to refer to their current financial situation, both profits and losses. In addition, emigrant fathers felt responsible for the state of the farms they'd left behind to their children or grandparents, so the correspondence included instructions or even outright orders on what to do. If no relatives remained in the old country, then emigrants turned to their neighbors for help.

On the basis of these letters, you can reconstruct the contemporary currency rates, the price of tickets, average earnings, and the value of good and services, livestock, and property.

A son wrote to his parents: "I can also report that I have already paid off the debts, that is, I paid back 55 dollars. My living expenses during the whole time cost less than 68 dollars, I spent 19 dollars and 15 cents on myself, and I earned a total of 170 dollars and 50 cents."

Here are more examples:

Buy yourselves a cow for summer, but don't keep the pig so long - only sell before winter, so that leek will not chisel you, take it to market and first watch how others are doing business there.

Now I will tell you, my dear parents, what land and farms are like in America ... you can buy yourself a nice piece of land right away. Woods, meadows, pastures. For a total of 12 'li dollars an acre. Here in Hof's Pulaski Park is the best situation, the soil is fertile like I've never seen in Europe.


Although peasants are not effusive by nature, and their expressions of feelings had little of finesse about them, in these letters there are many statements about nostalgia, sadness, or small joys, expressed in a simple and obvious manner. For example, giving information about the death of a family member was like a communique, but assurances of remembrance and love, despite their terse form, were very moving.

Now, dear parents, I do not know what this means, I have written you three letters and gotten no answer to any of them, this is terribly strange for me, have you have died or do you not want to write to me?

Chicago is pure Polish, you can hear Polish songs in the church, the sermons are different from those at home, it is very cheerful in church so that homesickness is forgotten. And after these two years, whenever I think of you, I am somewhat homesick ... Dear Mother and Father, don't miss me, because I thank you for sending me to America, and have hope in God that He will hear my prayer that I will hold you even till death and you will die in my arms.

A husband described his long trip to the seaport in detail and ended thus:

And now I will describe the homesickness I feel; if! had wings, then I would fly immediately to you, my dear wife.

Misunderstandings, rumors, and slander

Misunderstandings, rumors, and slander are inevitable in human relationships, but long separation intensified the emotional load on the authors of the letters. Typical family misunderstandings most often had to do with separated spouses, grudges over not answering or failure to remember, favoritism towards some and neglect toward others, and reports of rumors about third parties. Strictly speaking, quarrels arose only among family members who stayed in the old country, when the parties at odds exchanged accusations against each other. Poverty was a bargaining chip, and the method of figuring who was in greater need illustrated the dark reality, the primary goal of which was human survival. Thus the frequent incitement against relatives, reports of their vileness, of their alleged wealth, etc.

Wives remaining in the old country with in-laws constituted another basis conducive to conflict.
But even on the American side you run into "well-meaning" relatives or neighbors reporting on the worst practices of a husband or father. News and reports of this type made the blood boil in the veins of their nearest and dearest, and produced confusion and damaging drama in family relationships.

I am finding out what happened that you won't write back to your husband. He sent you money and you still haven't written to him, and he's angry and says that if you won't write to him, then he wants no part of you ...

Wife, maybe you've gone wrong, and if so, I don't want to see you here or in the old country, and I don't want to know you, for what others write to those who are in America about their wives is enough to make my hair stand on end ...

Dear wife, I am very miserable that you have left me, that you have broken the sacrament of marriage. I am very miserable that we have been separated by your parents and that more sensible people are laughing at us ...

And you, dear brother, don't believe the words of sister-in-law, she is prepared to whine like a dog so that you'1l pity her and send her more dollars, but people here see how she's dressed up ... and she doesn't want to work the land, that whole field past the Antczaks' lies fallow, that's how she farms after all your good deeds.

You write to me about liquor, that I carry ten bottles in my pocket and have a concertina under my arm. No doubt it was that Gowlaszczak that told you this. It's true that I drink liquor, and I also have a concertina ... I buy liquor for 25 cents, but only on Saturday, I have no time any other day, because I have to work. And if I got drunk, I'd lose my job.

And now I will tell you about Wiktor, it's going very badly for him in America because he is unfit ... because he's lazy as a dog.

Religion was the basis for Poles' values.

The emigrants' strong faith in the power of God lifted their spirits and sustained their torn hearts. Proof of this are the constant references in letters to the grace of God.

Emigrants joyfully told of Catholic churches, religious ceremonies, contacts with Polish priests. Their fears of losing touch with the Church proved to be unfounded. In America they had even greater freedom of religion than in their Catholic homeland.

Now, dear daughter, set out on the road with God, prepare for Confession, for it is
a terrible road, you have to travel over a couple of thousand miles of water. And do not be afraid of anything, only have the Lord God always in your heart, and the Lord God will lead you to safety.

In the church we sing Polish songs, we are afraid of no one, no one forbids us ....

Poems and proverbs appear in the letters. Thus a young man reacted to his disappointment on parting with his betrothed: "And so I did as the old proverb says: 'The geese were flying, the swans were flying-as one loves, the other will leave.'"3

3 This is in verse form, and as Iwona pointed out, very difficult to translate well. The most we can do is give the literal meaning of the Polish words.

The final sentences contained greetings for family and friends, detailing all their names. This part was sometimes the longest section of the whole letter. It is clear how important it was to name each of them separately. If someone were to be forgotten, that could provoke all sort of negative speculation.

Iwona Dakiniewicz, Łódź, Poland genealogy@pro.onet.pl

[with translation assistance from William F. Hoffman]

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Last Updated on July 5, 2017