Iwona's Sources - The Journey to America

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Journey to America

They all departed in fear of the Unknown: fear of losing their way, of being stopped at the border, of arrest, of the hordes of swindlers, of the voyage by ship, and of the fate that awaited them on a new continent. Nonetheless, their great hope for a better, more decent life was stronger than all their fears and anxieties. They set out with no possessions other than their health and their family.

During the years 1840-1920, more than four million citizens departed from Poland. There was an all-encompassing determination: the emigrants were fleeing poverty in their native land, which furthermore was a land enslaved by foreign partitioners. They felt they were slaves in their own land. They lived in wretched conditions, often more than a dozen to a single hut, abused by their employers, with little chance of bettering their lot. But there were other motivations as well: escaping military service, curiosity about the world, or, finally, the ordinary desire for personal freedom.

The motivations of emigrants can also be differentiated on a geopolitical map. In each of the individual partitions, Prussian, Russian, and Galician, a different kind of repression prevailed against the native inhabitants. In Prussia, they were tormented by the policy of Germanization. In fact, in that partition, things went so far as a school revolution. The police jailed thousands of rebellious Poles. But the more people they jailed, the higher the flame of vengeance rose. The weary ones who dreamed of a normal life became emigrants.

Also worth mentioning are two other Prussian issues. The earliest wave of emigration from Prussian Poland was the result of natural disasters and years of famine during the period 1844-1847. The second factor was the result of an 1848 Prussian decree that ordered men ages 17-25 to present certificates to military authorities attesting that they would not dodge military service. Because of this, many young men left illegally.

Those who left overpopulated Galicia were fleeing high taxes and starvation wages. Some 50 thousand people died each year from starvation. Harsh reality prevailed: the averaged Galician farm was no larger than five Austrian mórgs, and workers were paid pitiful wages. If you had a horse, you were a rich man.

In the Kingdom of Poland, on the other hand, unemployment was rampant. People from the Russian partition ran off to Prussia to find seasonal labor there. Often they took the place of Prussian emigrants who had already settled in America. Empress Catherine poured oil on the fire when she issued a ukase liquidating the Uniate Church in 1873. Religious repression became a rape for these communities, and at the same time an essential cause of emigration. Desperate Greek Catholic believers had two choices: to conduct their church services in the woods at night, or to travel a long way to the nearest church. Many of them traveled on foot to Kraków.

One can give many numbers and statistics regarding the scope of emigration, but what is most interesting here is the human factor—how each of these individuals experienced the parting and the voyage across the ocean.

Emigrants were more or less informed about the obstacles and difficulties of the trip to America. News came to them in letters.

The first obstacle to overcome was collecting the necessary sum of money: for the trip to the railroad station, then for train tickets, ship tickets, other expenses on the road, and a minimum to help them get off to a start in their new country. The total cost of the trip could range from 150 to over 200 marks or rubles, depending on where the trip began.

How difficult it was to save the necessary funds is illustrated by the situation of a typical married couple living in a Prussian village with several children in the 1840s. Both husband and wife, employed in physical labor at the nearby manorial farmstead, could not hope to attain a combined income of more than 40 dollars annually (the equivalent of about 120 marks later). At the most, they could save perhaps 10 dollars a year.

At first, several families would contribute to buy a single ticket to America, in the hope that the one chosen to go would quickly find work and repay the loan, thus providing financial assistance to those departing subsequently.

As of the years 1888-1889, a ticket from Bremen to New York cost 150-200 rubles, or 120-200 Austrian crowns, and about the same amount in German marks. A trip from Poznań to Chicago cost 30 dollars in American money, by the rate of exchange at the time. The firm Red Star offered a competitive price: 21 dollars for a trip from the Prussian partition to many American ports. The Polish emigrant often had a tragic view of the price of ship tickets, for he was sure that they wanted to cheat him. Although the prices were fixed, he felt he would not waste the money and would be very cautious and frugal with it.

The first to go were strong, healthy men, who went as a sort of advance guard, to get familiar with the new land and estimate the chances of bringing the family on over as soon as possible. Those who were particularly resolute and determined sold off their lands, houses, or share of inheritance from their parents. I noted interesting cases in which the same land was sold to two different purchasers. By the time the truth came out, the cunning farmer was already beyond the reach of the local jurisdiction.

The departure from home was a very solemn day for the family, and sometimes an event for the whole neighborhood. Best wishes were accompanied by tears of joy mixed with fear. Usually the wives, children, and grandparents remained on the farm. Over the course of the next year, the whole family would follow in the steps of their fathers, brothers, or cousins. Those who remained in Poland were usually the old folks, or those who had been assigned the role of guardians of the family nest.

Emigrants usually got ready for the trip very carefully. They planned their departure to fit the work schedule on the farm and in the field. They worked out plans beforehand with their relatives or neighbors for a trip together. They chose those who were hardworking, healthy, and upright. For the trip they collected spare underwear, warm clothes, long boots, a blanket, tobacco, liquor for bribes, pierzyny [quilts, typically of goose down], photos of family and patron saints, simple work tools, seeds, pots, castiron pans, everything needed for pickling, and smoked or pickled food products. The more informed they were regarding material needs in the new land, the more things they assembled. Instructions came in letters from America. Among other things, they were advised to bring woolen belts to wear on the lower abdomen during the voyage, so that in case of dysentery (bloody diarrhea) they could maintain a consistently warm temperature in the belly area, which alleviated the unpleasant effects of this illness.

Things were packed in wooden trunks padlocked or nailed shut. These trunks also served as stools for seating on the ship. Later on, however, the rules didn’t allow for the use of padlocks or nails, because of customs controls.

The Prussian border was the next obstacle on the way, and not always in regard to formal considerations. Along the whole eastern border of Prussia, there were hordes of swindlers of every kind: fake guides, agents offering phony ship tickets or money exchange “at a bargain rate, con artists collecting payment for half-free lodgings for the night, the usual thieves, and even bandits. In general, the black market and corruption flourished in the areas near the border. Almost everyone took bribes, from the wójt who issued departure certificates to the soldier who guarded the border. Most often the bribes were in money, but nobody turned down vodka or tobacco.

The paths of emigrants from Galicia and Russia came together in Prussian border points in Mysłowice, Oświęcim, Ostrów Wielkopolski, Iłów, Prostki. The trip across Germany lasted two or three days.

The railroad trip took them first to Berlin, where they had to transfer to another train. The first contact with a foreign country was worrisome; the emigrants’ lack of knowledge of a foreign language caused them stress. But they had to exchange money, buy the next ticket, and find a place to stay for the night. Still, the hardest times lay before them.

The seaports during the times of peak emigration were swarming with thousands of emigrants stuck at the docks for two or even three weeks. In Bremen and Hamburg, ships sailed twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. The emigrants were forced to wait for the ship on the spot. They crowded railway sidings, barracks, eating establishments, or churches; or they just wandered around the town, worried about their fate, lost in a foreign place, and left to their own resources. Provisions cost 2½ marks a day, payment for a bed was 1 mark. When there were no beds to be had, people slept under the open sky.

The ports full of foreigners were also heaven on earth for crooks, who took advantage of the naïve emigrants at every opportunity.

Reporters also came to the ports and published their stories in national and regional newspapers. In one of these articles, the author wrote: “All remember their homeland with tears in their eyes, in view of the fact that they were leaving, not bliss, but poverty…(Kurier Polski, 1890, no. 168).

The voyage itself filled the emigrants with terror but also attracted them with its exoticism. The last stage of the trip was the most exciting and most terrifying at the same time. Fear of the Great Water must have been a significant psychic barrier. None of the emigrants had ever traveled across the ocean by ship before. The most severe voyages were experienced by the early emigrants, those who traveled on sailing ships during the 1870s. The length of the sea voyage made the situation even worse; the first sailing ships took as long as 15 weeks. They carried 200-500 passengers. The passenger sailing ships were unstable, and had primitive decks and cabins devoid of all comforts. There were deaths, drownings, and even suicides on almost every voyage.

In the 1880s, a new era began—that of steamships. The number of passengers rose to as many as 2,000, and the length of the trip was shortened to 9-11 days. The largest ships, for instance, the Imperator or America, had a displacement of 50 thousand tons. Shipowners were compelled to build their ships according to the requirements of American immigration officials. Among other things, they had to guarantee a minimum amount of space per passenger, appropriate sanitary conditions, and three meals a day. These requirements were strengthened in 1883; there had to be a doctor on every ship (in view of the more and more frequent deaths).

The German ships had the worst reputation, as well as the English. Of the ports, the one in Liverpool supposedly had the worst reputation.

Poles, who were the poorest, traveled on the cheaper German ships, on which they bought the cheapest spots, on the tweendecks. Many of them had particularly bad experiences during their voyages, and the statutory social requirements repeatedly deviated from the norm. Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Polish Nobel Prize winner, described his impressions of a voyage thus:

In general this is a large, dark room, where the light of day penetrates, not through glass-covered openings in the deck, but through the usual small windows in the sides of the ship. There are no cabins; beds are pushed all the way to the wall, and the corner designated for women is set off only by a separate rail. In stormy seas, the waves strike the windows with a boom, filling the hall with a gloomy, greenish light. The smell of cooking and of people combines with the sharp odor of the sea, tar, and the wet ship ropes. All in all, it is stifling, humid, and dark there … It is in rooms such as these that the emigrants travel. If you were to ask them from where, the answer would be "from under the Prussians,"? "from under the Austrians,"? "from under the Muscovites."? Despair, fear, and longing for their homeland are their lot.

The end of the voyage did not mean the end of worries and problems; adapting to life on American soil was not the easiest thing to do. But horizons of a better future seemed more and more close and real, and the painful separation from their native land found an outlet in maintaining contacts by letters with their relatives in the old country and preserving their national traditions on American soil—as attested by the number of Polish confraternities, clubs, and organizations that remain active to this day in almost all the states of the U.S.

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

[with translation assistance from William F. Hoffman]

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Last Updated on January 15, 2012