Rosalia’s Story Part 2 — Thoughts of Emigration

…Rosalia looked forward to escaping the drudgery of the farm. More important, she recognized the weekly market as an opportunity to collect orders for the dresses she sewed for wealthy Krakow ladies. She needed that income to help raise the money for passage from Bielany to Hamburg and from there to New York City.

Continued from September 28, 2016

“Rosalia!” Her mother’s voice jolted her out of her reverie. She worked her way down creaking wooden steps into the kitchen, stopping on the bottom step. A pungent onion-y odor told Rosalia that Mama as always had been awake since well before dawn, preparing ingredients for the week’s pierogi. Dark circles under wrinkled eyes, graying hair pulled back into a severe bun…this would be Rosalia’s memory of her mother for years to come, this and images of the dark rye bread that was rising in the cracked blue and white bowl, almost ready for its second kneading. Piles of potatoes and mounds of shredded cabbage spoke to the monotony of the week’s dinners.

Katarzyna, Rosalia’s older sister, was already at the table. The girl’s hand shook as she poured a cup of weak tea—the hand that had been promised in marriage to Janusz, a farmer who leased the six acres on the next plot of land. Katarzyna had agreed to the arranged marriage only a few days previously, a marriage to a wrinkled, toothless old man who’d already buried two wives. Land-owning gentry depended on the labor of commoners, and commoners like Rosalia’s family had little to depend on other than what food they could grow on leased land. Unless they joined the convent, unmarried women had even less. Rosalia had already watched four of her sisters and two of her friends marry men they barely knew, local farmers whose wives had died in childbirth. It was typical for a girl in Poland at the turn of the 20th century to choose food and shelter in exchange for her labor—knowing that the choice would mean sharing nights on a lumpy mattress with a man old enough to be her grandfather.

The threadbare gray coat that hung on the peg near the back door swallowed Rosalia’s tiny frame. It was the same coat that her older sisters had outgrown  but Rosalia’s skill with a needle and thread had kept it serviceable if not overly warm. She knotted a red wool babushka under her chin, grabbed the basket of eggs, and headed for the village.

Market day in the tiny village of Bielany meant a two-kilometer walk. But even in bad weather Rosalia looked forward to escaping the drudgery of the farm. More iunknownmportant, she recognized the weekly market as an opportunity to collect orders for the dresses she sewed for wealthy Krakow ladies. She needed that income to help raise the money for passage from Bielany to Hamburg and from there to New York City. She knew how much she needed to get from Bielany to Hamburg by train and then to Ellis Island via steerage. Thanks to the egg money and her sewing skills—honed over the years as an apprentice seamstress at her village church—her goal was now in sight. But there were still questions. How much would she need for food in the United States? For a place to stay in Hamburg before the ship left the pier? For train fare to her cousin’s Chicago apartment? And the scarier question…would she need bribe money?

Stubbornly, she put out of her mind stories she had heard in the village about people who had been denied passage to the new world because of insufficient funds or, even more frightening, by failing medical screenings for diphtheria, trachoma, mental instability.

Rosalia’s daydreams kept her going as she walked, her mind full of all she’d heard of America–a land of milk and honey, a land where the streets were paved in gold. And even in her small village, where news was usually delayed,  she’d heard whispered talk of a growing political unrest. America’s streets were becoming more and more appealing.

She trudged over roads of packed mud rutted by decades of horse carts, past rows where unharvested shriveled cabbages and rotted  potatoes from last autumn’s harvest told of farmers who had tried to grow food in overworked soil. An old man, dressed in a worn black suit, tipped his ragged cap to her as he walked next to his swaybacked horse. The meager load of hay it pulled did not appear as if it would feed an animal for very long. “This will be a bad winter,” Rosalia thought to herself. But first she had to solve more immediate problems…like a sponsor. The letter she’d been waiting for from her cousin in Chicago was long overdue and without it, there could be no passage to America.

To be continued

Rosalia’s Story

Who was this woman? She must have been strong-willed, probably stubborn. What were the conditions in Poland that convinced her to make that long, formidable journey from her tiny, land-locked village to the teeming streets of New York City?

I did not expect to be spellbound by vacated farms and weedy fields as our tour guide told us about the history of tenant farmers in Poland during the late 1890s. Phrases like “potato famine” and “mind-numbing drudgery” brought to mind my mother’s stories of her mother, a woman who spent her first 20 years in an impoverished farming village 30 miles southwest of Krakow.

Our two hour drive from Krakow south to Zakopane on what is now Poland’s southern border went quickly. We were headed south toward the Tatra Mountains. My grandmother’s emigration took her north to Hamburg and from there to the North Sea. But I was so far from my own home in Minneapolis that the direction didn’t matter. The subdued voices of my 15 travel companions lulled me into a half-awake reverie in which I began to  imagine the life of a grandmother who died before I was born.

Who was this woman? She must have been strong-willed, probably stubborn. What were the conditions in Poland that convinced her to make that long, formidable journey from her tiny, land-locked village to the teeming streets of New York City? 

Every question led to more. When I looked over my notes, I found I had the beginnings an understanding of who she was and of  what impelled her to leave the security of her home for an uncertain future.

It is easy for me, the daughter of a great story teller, to put myself in my grandmother’s place as I thumb through photographs I took on that trip. My mother’s stories (some of which she no doubt embellished for dramatic effect) come back to me. They guide me as I reconstruct Rosalia’s  journey for myself. I’ve used what I could find out from history and I imagine what is  missing. As I enter my seventh decade, I find I have an emotional need to recreate Rosalia’s life and journey as I search for a glimpse into her peasant’s life in Poland prior to WWI. 

This, then, is the story—part fact, part conjecture—of Rosalia Lukasz Koziol. 

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Rosalia awoke to the constant, cold drip of rain from the thatched roof of the attic she shared with the two of her six sisters who still remained at home. Another cold, rainy winter day. Another day of shivering in the icy drafts that pushed their way between badly fitted logs that made up the walls of the three-room cottage. Another day of dressing in the same thick socks, heavy skirt, worn boots. How could anyone ever be warm enough? Kraków winters on a leased farm in a small peasant farmhouse were not pleasant and the single wood stove in the kitchen below did little to warm the bare wood attic that served as a bedroom.

She stumbled through frozen mud to the ice-rimmed privy, then on to the henhouse. Tug on the cracked wooden door, hope a fox hadn’t got there first. Hold your breath against the reek of ammonia. Grab a stick to fend off hens that would resent even a small hand shoved beneath feathery bodies. Collect the eggs. Sort them for size–the smaller few for the family, the larger ones for sale at the local market later in the day. Select a hen for the evening meal. Break its neck, pluck its feathers, carry the bloody body to the kitchen for her mother to finish preparing it.

It was the same life she’d always lived. It was the same life her sisters had lived, and their mother before them. It was a dreary life for a 19-year-old in 1912. Not much to look forward to. Even a suitable marriage was unlikely; authorities were recruiting young men into service.

Dreams of escape to America had filled Rosalia’s imagination since she’d finished school at the end of eighth grade. Further education would be of no use to peasant farmers whether they were boys or girls and she’d known for years that there could be no future for her in Poland. Colorful flyers published by shipping lines like Cunard and Hapaq convinced Rosalia that America was an exciting place where no one went hungry, no one was cold.

It was another week before she found the privacy she needed to search for the Hapaq Steamship Company’s well-worn Hamburg Amerika Linie flyer she had hidden  under her mattress. A picture of a black-prowed ship with its two orange smoke stacks promised steerage for $30. Another 60 cents a day would pay for her meals. The massive ships could hold from 1,500 to 2,000 immigrants. Passengers richer than Rosalia were offered inclusive packages from the old country to the new, but Rosalia knew she could never save enough for that kind of elegant transport, nor did she imagine that a time would come when she would wish she could.

She had been saving her egg sale money since she was 17. She counted it again; not much longer and she’d have enough money to emigrate.

(To be continued)

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