Poland as we know it today did not exist back in 1908. It had been partitioned into 3 sections, The Russian partition (annexed and ruled by Russia), the Prussian partition (annexed and ruled by Germany), and the Galician partition (annexed and ruled by Austria). My maternal grandmother, Zofia MIZERA, was technically born and raised in Austria (Galician partition of Poland) but she spoke, read, and wrote only in Polish. The Austrian government was fairly tolerant and willing to let the Poles in their area continue to practice their (predominantly) Catholic religion as well as their language and culture. But that doesn't mean that the people of Galicia were not motivated to emigrate. Their motivating force was hunger. A very basic need for survival.
My grandmother grew up in house #107 in the village of Wojnicz in western Galicia. I can’t tell you the population in 1908 specifically but I can tell you that at roughly the turn of the century (1890-1900) there were 294 houses in Wojnicz and it had a population of 1683. Of those, 777 were males and 906 were females. Those practicing Catholicism numbered 1483 and there were 200 Jews. So you get the picture that this was a small agricultural village not a big industrial area.
This photo of Zofia was taken in 1915 after she immigrated to the U.S. It is the earliest photo I have of her.
Zofia turned 14 half way through the year of 1908. She had 3 sisters (one older, 2 younger) and 2 brothers living with her and her parents on the family farm. I’m guessing that she had no idea that in 5 short years she would say goodbye to her family and travel across the Atlantic to make a new life for herself in America, never to return to Poland again. It’s just not the kind of thing an innocent peasant farm girl in rural Poland would be dreaming of now is it? Then again, maybe it was.
Times were tough and people were going hungry. There were too many people for the available land resources in some areas, not enough to bring the crops in in others. Communication was poor. But people got many letters (and monetary support) from others, family and friends, who had already immigrated to other countries. In fact, much of the support for villages and churches in Galicia came directly from Poles who had emigrated to the U.S.
On the floor of the sejm [congress] the peasant representative, Jan Stapinski, likewise stressed the important bearing emigrant earnings, especially from the United States, had upon a multitude of the social and economic problems of Galicia and pointed out how intimately these conditions were related. It was his opinion that in a great number of Galician communities the people lived more from money and other help from the United States than from whatever they might have earned in Galicia.The Polish Emigration Association (Polskie Towarzystwo Emigracyjne) was established in Lwow in 1908 and later moved it headquarters to Krakow (Krakow was about 44 miles direct by train from my grandparents farm). This organization was set in place to implement the 1904 law which among other things discouraged emigration in favor of relocating able workers to other areas within Poland where they were needed. However, it was also able to assist those who desired to go abroad to work. Given how much support the country was receiving from those who had emigrated to the U.S. it may seem incongruous to discourage emigration but so many people were leaving the country that it was becoming a real concern.
The socialist representative, Ignacy Daszynski, reminded the body that despite the opposition of the ruling gentry, peasant emigration had developed to a point where it represented a powerful economic factor in the life of the country. It “enabled the peasant of western Galicia to buy out the manorial holdings of the middle gentry and, more than that, sends to this country about 50,000,000 crowns each year”.
Another spokesman for the peasants in the sejm, Wiktor Skolyszewski, concurred with that view. In his judgment, the peasant agriculture of Galicia at that time (1907) was sustained almost exclusively by money coming from abroad. [Murdzek]
The P.T.E. organized a network of employment agencies and information centers. It included a steamship ticket service to operate in areas in which the emigrant was most subject to the extortionate practices of private agents, and an emigrant shelter in Krakow. It also published a bi-monthly periodical Polski Przeglad Emigracyjny and a popular illustrated weekly called Praca. [Murdzek]So from this we understand that many folks had friends and family already in the U.S. who were writing about life here and sending money home to Poland. Additionally, there were printed materials circulating that discussed emigration. Obtaining a steamship ticket and instructional materials on how go about the process of emigration were available at local area P.T.E. centers.
Maybe Zofia had heard conversations about all this back in 1908. Maybe she was dreaming about going to America. I'll never know for sure. But one thing for certain is that back in 1908 she would have been living in poverty conditions and likely would have been exposed to the idea of immigrating to America.
I don't have a photos of my great grandparents to share with you. But I did find this really lovely video of old photos from the village of Wojnicz. Judging from the clothing worn by the people in the photos (some of them could be my family members!), the time period must have been close to 1908. How fortuitous is that!?! I can't read the Polish so I can't tell you what the pictures are of. But they show the village in the old days. (6 minutes in length) Enjoy!
In my next post I will give you a snapshot of my maternal grandfather's life in the Russian partition of Poland in 1908.
Murdzek, Benjamin P. Emigration in Polish Social-Political Thought 1870-1914. Boulder (Distrubted by Columbia University Press, NY): Eastern European Quarterly, 1977.
Filipa Sulimierskiego, Bronislawa Chlebowskiego, Wladyslawa Walewskiego, editors. Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich. Geographical Dictionary of Poland, Warsaw, Poland.1880. http://www.dir.icm.edu.pl/dirop/index.php/Slownik_geograficzny/Tom_I/. (2008)