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)

*****

Author: Judy Westergard

Retired English teacher, self-taught painter, inveterate reader and still lovin' my Kindle!

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