From Poland to America – A Family History

map of poland

Family History Essay

Although I think of myself as a full-blooded all-American college student, the reality is that I am the descendent of immigrants.  At one point my ancestors made a leap of faith to come to America and start a new life for their families. A major influence in the immigration to America both today and hundreds of years ago is the opportunity for jobs and money.  (“www.shufsd.org“) A Mexican immigrant to America today is not so different than an Irish immigrant who came on a boat in 1900.  In this essay, I will focus on the migration of ancestors on my mother’s side from Poland to America as well as detail the often-unaddressed fact that the European states were, at one point in history, formed by immigrants.

According to Zbigniew Celka, the first people to civilize the region that is now called Poland were a tribe of people known as the West Slavs.  During the 6th century, the Slavic peoples began to split into three distinct groups: South Slavs, East Slavs and West Slavs, and dispersed from their homeland between the Vistula and Oder Rivers.  The West Slavs expanded into mostly abandoned land forming a region that is roughly the dimensions of modern day Poland.  The many tribes that inhabited the land were eventually united by a tribe called the Western Polans sometime during the 10th century and formed the state that would one day be modern day Poland.  (Celka 4-5)  This source from Celka is a very detailed research paper done by a student so I can be sure that the information is accurate because of the wealth of sources that the author has cited.  When thinking of European states such as Poland, many people assume that the native people have been there for an indefinite amount of time.  They fail to realize that there was a process that brought the Polish people to Poland hundreds of years ago.  Just as the Slavic peoples expanded into new land, my ancestors traveled to a new land because of a combination of push and pull factors.

Although my family does not have exact records that detail when my great grandparents came to America, my mother is relatively certain that they made the voyage between 1910 and 1913.  Since my mother’s mother died when she was at a young age, my mother could only tell me about her father’s ancestors from Poland.  In analyzing the history of Polish migration to the United States, there are three distinct waves of immigrants with each group leaving for different reasons.  My ancestors would have fallen into the first wave, which took place from the late 19th century up to the start of WWI.

During this first wave of migration, Poland was not a sovereign state.  By the end of the 18th century, the weakened Poland had been split up into partitions between Russia, Prussia and Austria.  (Jones)  I find it amazing that even though my ancestors did not technically have their own state, they held their Polish identity close to heart.  Because of the partitions, Poland was not stable economically or politically and many people were struggling to survive.  My grandfather’s parents were called “za chlebem” immigrants, which literally translates to “for bread.”  (Urban-Klaehn)  My ancestors were pushed from Poland because of political instability as well as mass poverty and famine.  They knew that somewhere, they could find a better life.

In order to protect themselves and their land from invasion the West Slavs allied themselves with other tribes, mainly the Polanie.  Eventually the West Slavs and the land that they inhabited were known as Polania which eventually transformed into what is known as modern day Poland.  While Poland was being formed, the South Slavs also were creating a kingdom which they called Little Poland.  Under the rule of Casmir I the kingdoms joined and succeeded in fighting off invaders and creating a strong state.  Fast forward to the 18th century, Poland had fallen into political and economic turmoil. Poland was split into three partitions by Austria Prussia and Russia.  When my ancestors immigrated to America, Poland was not an independent state.

For my grandfather’s parents, Mary and Joseph, America was the place to start a new chapter in the family history.  For them as well as millions of other immigrants of the time, America was a land of “streets paved with gold.” (“www.shufsd.org“)While European economies became stagnant, the American economy was booming and looking for large quantities of cheap labor.  According to my mother, Mary and faced hard times economically in Poland.  It was not the place that they wanted to raise a family; they needed economic security.  They chose to travel to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania because of the steel mill industry that was established there as well as availability of plentiful and cheap housing. Joseph easily found and unskilled job in the steel mill and Mary was able to find work in a cigar factory.  The jobs were dangerous and low paying by our standards, but they were a blessing to my ancestors.  The money allowed Joseph and Mary to raise a family and give opportunities to their children that they would have never dreamed of in Poland.

The story of my family is not a unique case.  According to Jagoda Urban-Klaehn, there are millions of Polish people living in the United States today.  In fact, there are 855,526 Polish people just in the city of Pennsylvania. (Urban-Klaehn)  In my research for this essay, I have learned that although I consider myself American, I am also the product of a chain of events that began across the Atlantic Ocean.  There are literally millions of people who have the same exact history that I do.  Now, it is my turn to make the choice.  Will I stay here in America or migrate to a new place and extend my family even further across the world?  The possibilities for my future and the future of the family lie in my hands and only time can tell what will happen.

-Burns 2018