Rosalia’s Story Part 15: Northeast Minneapolis–a place to live


Continued from October 27, 2016

Rosa felt as though she’d aged 20 years. “I look like it, too,” she said to herself as she caught her reflection in a train station window.

But first things first. She needed to find Holy Cross Parish in northeast Minneapolis. “You’ll find that everyone there speaks Polish, including the priest,” a friend in Chicago had told her.

Stanislaw led her to the streetcar that would take her into into northeast Minneapolis. The ride wasn’t long enough for Rosa to sort out everything she’d been through since she left her small Polish village a little over a year ago. Was it really only a year ago that she was beheading chickens in the back yard and rolling dough on the wobbly wooden kitchen table? That world now seemed impossibly far away.

And here is where I lose so much first-hand knowledge of my grandmother’s story. I imagine her holding tightly to her carry-all and the old purse she’d found and getting off the street car that, from what I could find, ran down University Avenue in Minneapolis. If it did indeed go that far, its tracks would have gone past Holy Cross Church. She would have spoken with Father Ambrose Kryjewski. Was it he who directed her to any one of the number of duplexes in the area whose owners rented rooms? 

The neighborhood was settled primarily by immigrants from eastern Europe.  Corner grocers spoke Czech and Polish and carried foods Rosa would have been familiar with.

She also needed to find a job. Did she sew for the church? Probably; the priests’  cassocks would have needed mending, and altar cloths would need repair as a result of burns from candles held by careless altar boys.

So let’s say that Holy Cross finds her a room to rent and a job. It wouldn’t have paid much, but it would have been a start.

A few months later the Northeast Neighborhood House began operations. It was one of four settlement houses in the city. It offered classes in sewing, cooking, carpentry, and dancing. Within the first three years the NENH helped over 7,000 women find work. It’s easy for me to imagine that Rosa would have taken advantage of it, especially as her sewing skills were excellent. (The photo is of Rosa in the wedding dress she made for herself in 1916.) I doubt that she taught sewing there, but she probably made connections with women who eventually became her clients. And while she still spoke almost no English, neither did most of the N.E. residents at that time. Eastern European dialects were dominant.IMG_0505



Rosalia’s Story Part 14:The Letter

Continued from October 25, 2016


Rosa stirred from her half-sleep on the train as it pulled into Minneapolis’ Milwaukee Road Depot. Tired, confused…but she’d long ago grown used to such feelings. She gathered what few belongings she had—a Polish newspaper, a worn leather purse she’d found in the trash at the Chicago train station, and her carryall. She found the ladies’ room and washed up, as best she could.

She sat on a bench and pawed through her carryall for the note a priest in Chicago had given her, important information she needed if she were to find a place to stay.

Her heart began to pound with the growing sense of panic; where was it? She could not possibly have lost it. milwaukeedepot1901hclib

The small corner of a piece of paper distracted her frantic search. It poked out of a tiny slit in her carryall, a slit she’d not noticed in the over-stuffed bag. Carefully and with great curiosity, she pulled it out.

“My dear Rosalia,” it read.

It was a letter from her mother who must have hidden it in the carryall her mother had brought up from the barn almost a year ago.

Rosa ignored the commotion of people rushing for their trains. She was deaf to the beggars who approached her for change. The only thing she heard was her mother’s voice in the year-old letter.

“I do not know when you will find this. Perhaps you never will. Perhaps I will never see you again. You will be so far away that I am afraid for you. I was so angry when you left. How would you live? How could you be safe? You know no one in America. But I understand. War in Poland isn’t far away. There is so little future for you here. Be safe, my daughter.”

Passersby stared at the young woman who sobbed as she bent over a letter.

“Can I help?” asked a young man in heavily accented English.

Rosa looked up but said nothing.

“Bad news?”

“No,” she answered; “just very old news.”

He squeezed her hand as she got up and gathered her things.

“I am Stanislaw Koziol,” he said.

Rosa slowly looked up. “Rosalia…I mean Rosa Lukaska. Can you tell me how to get to the trolley?”

Rosalia’s Story Part 13: Chicago


Continued from October 23, 2016

Hot, sweaty, tired, scared…Rosa wandered through the busy Chicago streets in search of the restaurant Jan had told her about. The map she’d been given at the train station was no help; she couldn’t decipher the English alphabet. She found no one who spoke Polish. Person after person shrugged and quickly went about their day. Tears once more welled up in her eyes. She reached for her shawl to wipe them away; there must have been something about the bright red roses woven onto the black background that made a gray-haired woman stop, turn to Rosa, and place her hands gently on the young woman’s shoulders and ask in a much-missed language, “Are you lost?”

And this is where I lose much of my grandmother’s story, at least in terms of what my own mother told me about her. Here’s what I imagine:

I know she took the train from New York to Chicago where she worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant and learned to make roux (a French sauce made from melted butter and flour, cooked in a shallow frying pan until golden brown. Serve it with fresh green beans; it’s great!)

Chicago had a rich settlement of emigres from Poland. In fact, many descendants of those brave people can still be found in Chicago, where traditions, like those in Northeast Minneapolis, are kept alive; changed a bit, but still celebrated.

I believe she met Stanislasz Koziol there. My mother told me there was no attraction, at least on Rosalia’s part, but he became the man she eventually married later in Minneapolis. But whether they acquaintance went anywhere beyond a polite nod and a handshake in Chicago I’ll never know.

So, imagine her in 1913 Chicago, a hectic, crowded city, trying to find her way among horse-drawn carts and, in the wealthier parts of town, Model T  Fords. And people…so many people. She looks for the restaurant where her cousin Jan (pronounced
“yawn”) had said she could find a job. 

Leave her there for a year, long enough to repay Jan for his loan. It becomes obvious that making sauces and washing dishes isn’t going to earn her a decent living.  So once more, put her on a train, this time for Minneapolis.

How did she find her way from Minneapolis’ Milwaukee Road Depot to Northeast Minneapolis? If she was anything like her daughter (my mother), by this time Rosa must have made friends within the heavily populated Polish communities in Chicago and Minneapolis. She would have learned of the heavy concentration of Poles in Northeast Minneapolis. I do know that she joined Holy Cross Parish, somehow acquired a sewing machine, and….

To be continued.

Rosalia’s Story Part 12: Release from Ellis Island

Continued from October 20, 2016

Excitement, combined with the cries of children and the snores of old ladies, made sleep difficult. Rosalia awoke before dawn and stared at her surroundings.

“What are you doing? That’s mine!” she shouted at a woman who was rifling through Rosalia’s carry-all. The look in the woman’s eyes let Rosalia know that this was no case of mis-identification. Life was obviously very different from that in the small village she’d left, a village where she could trust everyone.

A hurried breakfast led to even more processing. Prove that your papers are in order. Show the letter from a relative as your proof that you would be employable. Prove that you were not a contract laborer—and ask for a translation of what that meant. But mostly, prove that you aren’t dangerous. (“Stay calm. Carry no knives. Let them look in your eyes” was the advice that circulated from passenger to nervous passenger.)

*Interpreters led groups through the main doorway and directed them up a steep stairway to the Registry Room. Rosalia, like the others did not realize it but they were already taking their first test: A doctor stood at the top of the stairs watching for signs of lameness, heavy breathing that might indicate a heart condition or “bewildered gazes” that might be a sign of a mental condition. 

The doctor held a piece of chalk that he used to mark each immigrant’s sleeve or lapel with a mysterious code: B indicated possible back problems; Pg, pregnancy; Sc, a scalp infection; and so on. If an immigrant was marked, he or she continued with the process and then wa
s directed to rooms set aside for further examination.

Sometimes whole groups would be made to bathe with disinfectant solutions before being cleared—not too surprising, considering how many were unable to bathe during the crossing. Again the line moved on. The next group of doctors were the dreaded “eye men.” They were looking for symptoms of trachoma, an eye disease that caused blindness and even death. A diagnosis meant certain deportation.

Sick children age 12 or older were sent back to Europe alone and were released in the port from which they had come. Children younger than 12 had to be accompanied by a parent. There were many tearful scenes as families with a sick child decided who would go and who would stay. 

This questioning process was designed to verify the 31 items of information contained on the manifest. Since each “primary line” inspector had only about two minutes in which to decide whether each immigrant was “clearly and beyond a doubt entitled to land,” most of the immigrants received curt nods of approval and were ­allowed to pass. In total, about 20 percent of those arriving at Ellis Island were detained for medical treatment or a legal hearing; the rest were free to go after only a few hours. Only two percent of the immigrants seeking refuge in America would fail to be admitted.

Once more they huddled in another long line that led to Ellis’ Great Hall, and more questions:

“Country of origin?”

“City of destination?”

“How much money do you have?”

With a shaking hand, Rosalia showed the $25 it had taken her two years to save…above and beyond what she’d needed for passage.

“How do you spell your name?”

Unlike the passenger in the line next to her who answered “I don’t know; you decide”, Rosalia proudly spelled her name to the Polish interpreter. But her last name was misspelled and for the rest of her relatively short life, Rosalia—now Rosa—was forced to fight with three different spellings of her maiden name.


A last she heard the long-awaited words: “You’re free to go!”

Rosalia’s Story Part 11: Controlled Chaos

Rosalia was relieved to learn that processing at Ellis took less than a day. But part of the processing included information about what would happen next.  Even though these short “tutorials” were intended to be helpful she, like so many others, felt a stab of panic in her belly when she heard the words “government”and “police.” The idea that policemen could be helpful was unthinkable. She had seen—and heard—too much back in “the old country.” To her way of thinking, a uniform meant peril. She watched in horror as officials separated families…a procedure police always did back home: they separated men from women and children.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, where am I?” she asked herself. As long alone trailed with at last one family member, one could converse, plan. But Rosalia had no one, and Joasia was nowhere in sight.

At last an official appeared who spoke Polish. He reassured her that the separation was only for one last medical check-up. “They’ll look at your back, they’ll listen to your lungs.”

6f9bf4cdab742b871e0558eaf74c006cThis made sense; of course men were separated for a medical check-up, she thought.

Poked, prodded, and released to a dining room built for 1500 but that this time had to feed 3000, long tables that were set for 60 people were set with white dishes and cloth napkins. Rosalia and Joasia  spotted each other, clasped hands, and found a place to sit among the chaos.

“They’re handing us food!” The girls were astounded; food was not something that people gave you.

“Whatever is this? Joasia said with alarm as she was handed a banana.

“Nie nie,” Rosalia answered as her hand pulled the queer looking fruit from Joasia’s lips.  “Don’t bite into it; I saw someone peeling it. Like this.”

The girls finished dinner and moved to the women’s dorm to spend their last night on Ellis Island.

Rosalia’s Story Part 10: Arrival at Ellis Island


Continued from October 16, 2016

At last, after  a sea voyage that seemed as if it would never end, a deafening hush came over the passengers. Engine sounds had changed. They were at the end of their almost intolerable two weeks at sea. Rosalia and her shipmates could see New York.

“There it is! Over there! Look!” Rosalia, Joasia, and the rest of the steerage passengers crowded four deep along the ship’s railings as the ship moved slowly north through the Narrows leading to Upper New York and into the harbor. The first thing that came into view was the tip of Manhattan, and the first object to be seen was the Status of Liberty. No one spoke a word. Rosalia’s heart pounded. She grabbed Joasia’s arm and shook it.

“We made it, Joasia! There she is! She must be one of the seven wonders of the world!”

“Tak!” agreed a gentleman who overheard her. “She’s like a goddess, no?” And he knelt on the deck and blessed himself.

After the ship docked in Manhattan, while cabin passengers were disembarking, steerage passengers bumped and jostled each other as they poured across the pier to a waiting area. Like everyone else, Rosalia wore a name tag with her manifest number written in large figures. Officials assembled them into groups of 30 according to their manifest numbers. Then it was on to the top decks of barges while their luggage…most of it not much more than bundles tied with twine…was piled on the lower decks.

But what looked like the end of their long journey was only the beginning

As many as 4000 people at a time had to be processed. Overworked translators scurried in kindly but frustrated attempts to attend to everyone’s needs, and everyone’s needs seemed overwhelming.

Worried cries of “where are we going?” and “what’s happening to us?” could be heard among the anxious passengers.

After they were processed, each immigrant was issued a number. “This is how you’ll find the bunk bed that’s been assigned to you,” an official said.

“Bunk bed?” Rosalia said. “You mean we are to sleep here?”images

“Only for a day or two,” was the response. Then it was off to line up in the huge dining hall.

“My entire village could fit in here and there would still be room,” Joasia whispered to Rosalia.

The food they were fed was unfamiliar. “Is this cake?” someone to Rosalia’s left asked when they were given white bread. But after a few bites, the “cake” was declared palatable.

And of course, there was one more round of medical examinations to be passed, the greatest fear of which was trachoma which doctors treated with copper sulfate, even though it destroyed tissues. Trachoma meant a return to the old country.

Rosalia’s Story Part 9: Long Days, Longer Nights

Continued from October 12, 2016

In spite of the frightful conditions in the bowels of the ship, Rosalia and Joasia had faith in their futures. The constant banging and the clanging of the gears and pistons and pulleys made sleep impossible and going up onto the deck on dark, slippery steps was both frightening and dangerous. To pass the time, the girls played cards. Passengers sang, danced, talked, and then talked some more.

“What were the stories you remember from when you were little?” Joasia asked Rosalia.

“Well, they weren’t all stories,” Rosalia answered. “My mother would rap me on the head with her knuckles if I crossed my thumb right over left during prayers. And just as bad was crossing my legs during mass. The Virgin Mary would cry.”

Amid giggling and sighs, the stories went on, triggering all-too-fresh memories of what they were leaving.

“Did your parents believe the stories about the dangers of leaving gloves on a bed, or about the bad luck that would visit the family if people hugged or shook hands on either side of a doorway?”

“Yes! And we always tied a red ribbon to a baby’s stroller or clothes to protect the baby if someone looks at it with an evil eye.”

“Don’t kill a spider; it’ll rain.”

“Don’t give a watch as a gift to a woman.”

“Or gloves!”

It wasn’t long before the girls’ giggles soon drew an audience, and stories about favorite family meals took over.

“Kielbasa! My mother coohead-cheeseked those sausages in sauerkraut and served them with her rye bread.”
“Head cheese!”

“Gołąbki! My job was to boil the cabbage head and then peel the leaves. Hated that part. But I sure ate my fair share after we stuffed those leaves with meat and rice.”

Eventually, though, memories from the life they’d left gave way to rumors about the life they hoped for. Stories circulated endlessly—stories they’d heard of rejections and deportations at Ellis Island. They spent hours rehearsing answers to questions they expected from the inspectors, and even more hours trying to learn a baffling new language. Anyone who spoke even a few words of English found himself to be very popular.