- Historic Sites
The Face of Poland in America
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
Most of today’s ten to twelve million Polish-Americans are descended from this faceless, unnumbered peasant mass who crossed the Atlantic bringing with it only a capacity for back-breaking labor, a talent for endurance, and a determination to rise in the world. Enticed by agents for shipping lines and labor-hungry industries in the United States, Polish peasants began to come here in the late 1870’s, first in a slow, steady stream bound for the.anthracite coal fields of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, then in a torrent in the 1880’s, shipload after shipload, raw material for the blast furnaces, the forges, the mines, mills, railroads, quarries, and coalpits which transformed America’s landscape after the Civil War. Few of them came with the idea of staying; they came to make money and return home. But in spite of the frustrations and unhappiness they found here, the opportunities of America eventually caught up with most of them, making a return to some landowner’s Polish acres virtually unthinkable. The man came first, alone, then sent for his wife, or for a girl from his village who might want to marry him. Few of them knew enough of their various dialects to write a letter, but each community soon found its pisennik —professional scribe—for whom the alphabet was not a mystery.
And this is what they wrote: “If you complain so much about your miseries, sell everything and come to America with the children, because it isn’t the work here that’s so bad, but the loneliness.… I’m always a stranger among strangers here.… When I went on the ship, the water was coming through the chimneys [ventilators] and I thought we would drown, but we didn’t.… There were 1,800 of us on the ship, and four young children died, but eight more were born and so it evened out.… We are lonely here.… Here you hear only noise, thousands of people going here and there, and the factory whistles. Yes they have birds and (lowers, but they arc far away, in a garden, and who has the time to go and see them for nothing? Who will pay for that?… When people tell you that in America the gold lies in the streets, don’t you believe it! Here everybody has to work.… This is no golden land, but it is a new land, here you break your back for 12 hours a day, and back home they’re thinking that they’ll be filling their aprons with gold the minute they’ve come.… So they come, knowing nothing, like the blind.… In America, you will spill more sweat in one day than in a week back home.… But I will not go back if someone was to give me the master’s estate. Once you have tasted America, there is no way to go back to those old miseries.”
And this they wrote: “I have work, I’m not hungry, only I have not yet laughed since I came to America.… Here they pick out their workmen like cattle at the market, but you can make a life for yourself. … Who can’t make a life for himself in this country, will never do it anywhere else; I would like to marry Zoska, because the girls in America are lazy and let themselves go, so send me Zoska.… Dear Cousin, I’m happy that old Mrs. Kalinowska is bringing me a pretty girl, but maybe she can bring two? Because, you see, there’s two of us bachelors here and we’d both like to marry. …”
The girls and the women began to arrive and immediately altered the nature of the peasant immigration, because where these earthy Polish women put down their bundles there were soon Polish children, and that meant roots and work for yet another generation. The women, too, wrote: “Dear Mother, don’t be angry with me because I married without you knowing about it, because you forbid me to get married in America.… But there is no joy in the old country, and he loves me and will always love me, so bless us both. … Dear Mother and Father, don’t long for me, because I thank you with all my heart for sending me to America, and I have faith in God that I may yet see you before Death divides us forever.… I am really happy because I am healthy, and so are my children, and that I can help them get ahead and that I can still do everything that I must. …”
Willing to do the heaviest, the dirtiest, and the poorest-paid work, the Polish peasants won the bitterness and resentment of English-speaking workmen (the Irish and the Welsh and the Cornish who had themselves replaced native-born Americans); beaten by jealous workers, clubbed by corrupt constables, exorbitantly fined by justices of the peace, harassed and imprisoned by petty officials, they had no one to turn to for help or advice. Most of them had emigrated from villages where there had been too few jobs and too many men; placed in the anthracite and bituminous coal fields or hired at the dockside for the heaviest labor in the mills and forges, they had neither the time, the means, nor the knowledge to find work elsewhere. The newspapers abused them, complaining of “the mixed populations with which we are afflicted.” In stores they were cuffed and laughed at when they came to make their trivial purchases in their broken and insufficient English. Their wages were not always paid; the miserable lodgings available to them were so outrageously priced that as many as fourteen of them sometimes shared a single room. Cheated of their wages and denied the rights of civilized human beings, they were often driven to caves for shelter, or found themselves in shacks in which they, in Poland, would have refused to house cattle.