Beyond the Big Water. Part 2: The journey and its destinations.

The most intensive emigration was in the period from 1870 to 1914. There are the historic documents from 1884, calculating that the average number of the emigrants arriving to Hamburg from Galicia each week was 200-300 people. About 85% of the emigrants traveled to the United States of America. There was also a large number of Jews leaving for Palestine and the Middle East, and other large emigrants’ destinations were Canada,  Brazil and Argentina (especially from Eastern Galicia).  For the peasants who only knew the world of their village  and the closest town,  this journey into the unknown , would take them several weeks.

Emigration to the USA in the period of 1870-1914 is estimated to have been between 1 and 1,2 million people; to Canada 107 000 in the period 1897-1911; to Brazil 60 000 in the period 1876-1914; to Argentina at least 30 000 in the period of 1892-1914.

The costs of emigration were always fully covered by the emigrants themselves. Sometimes there could be a little help of some Austrian diplomatic units located in destination countries, but there was no legislation regulating such cases. During the ‘Brazilian fever’ and in Canada, the emigrants were promised that they could obtain land, so the emigration there was mainly to settle permanently. The emigrants going to the United States, usually planned to work for a few years, save some money and come back to their home country. Sometimes they came back, sometimes not. But the future was always uncertain for emigrants, and they asked themselves many questions.  What does life there look like? Will the people be kind people? Is there a church? Will there be work? Will I ever come back home ?  The reasons for leaving their homes might have been different, but the questions concerning their new home were the same.

The main emigration ports were in Hamburg and Bremen, but there was also a large number of the emigrants from Galicia registered in Antwerp, Genoa, Trieste, and Amsterdam. There were plenty of transatlantic shipping enterprises, the most popular were: Lloyd from Bremen, Hamburg America Line (HAPAG), which had its Galician office in Trzebinia. Holland America Line from Rotterdam, Red Star Line from Antwerp which had its representative in Oświęcim, in the travel office of Zofia Biesiadecka. Austrian Americana was from Triest, which had a branch in Kraków; the office of Goldlust and co. Anchor line, Donaldson line and Allan line from Glasgow and Liverpool. There was also White Star Line from Liverpool and Southampton, famous for the Titanic disaster.

The foreign companies which wanted to operate in Austria and sell ship passes had to have special license. Such a document was only valid for one town, without the rights to open other branches. Only Austro-Americana from Triest could open their agencies in the whole country without limits.

Although it was not allowed to sell the tickets without license, in Galicia, the citizens were allowed to choose any company they wanted. If someone decided to travel with an unlicensed company, he had to purchase the ship ticket at the destination port, outside the Austrian borders.

Here are some descriptions from the emigrants’ diaries:

“For Christmas I came home in Ćwików, I obtained the passport in the district office, I was examined by the doctor and, saying nothing to my family about my plans, I left to Kraków to buy the ship card to America. After I exchanged my money in Kraków I had 120 $ left. I decided not to go to my sister, who lived in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, but to Chicago as the biggest industry center in America.

For the ship card in 3rd class on the German boat and for the train tickets to Bremen and in America to Chicago I paid together 60$. The other 60$ I sewn in the lining of my vest for my first necessary expenses in America or for the journey back in case of failure.

The preparations to leave Kraków lasted about a week.  The next day I sat in the waiting room at the train station and I waited for my train. I was tired and my eyes were closing all the time. Someone stole my umbrella. Finally the train  leaving to the German border arrived. The crowd was unbelievable but I came to Mysłowice. I have met and joined there a large group of the emigrants to America. German officials, after the document controls gave us separate room which was separated and locked. But the waiting time was not so long, the direct train to Bremen arrived soon. In this train I have met some people, especially those who have already been to America earlier. I wanted to know how it looks like. Those who were coming back to America were easy to recognize because they had better clothes and a decent luggage.

I was looking through the windows of the train but we were traveling in winter and at nights, so there was not much to see. On the second day, about 10 a.m. we arrived to Bremen. At the railway station our luggage was taken to some car truck and we were taken by the Polish speaking agent to our hospice of the ship company. They took our passports and served us dinner. I took a look around in the house interior and in  the yard with a high fence of brick and one gate, which was closed. On the second day of my stay there, I started to be bored, so I have found some companion speaking German and we asked the host to let us go to the city. He allowed us without protest, just warned us to come back for lunch on time, because later there will not be any more food for us. I liked the town, clean streets, people wearing decent clothes, they were not staring or just standing on the streets, but each of them walking in some direction with purpose. I visited the museum which was opposite the train station. I have seen there a big colonial collection; fish bones and some sea creatures and other examples of water plants and animals.

On the third day the agent took the whole transport to the train station and after about an hour we were in the port in Bremen-Haven. In the port we did not have to wait anymore, they just took as directly to the ship”

A ship to Canada. Picture source:

And another story, the diary of an organist from Buffalo, New York, son of an organist from Lesser Poland:

“In 1897 a priest, who emigrated to Parana in Brazil wrote to my father if he knows some young organist who could emigrate. This priest sent the money for the journey and for new harmonium, for the machine to bake Christmas wafers and for some books, as I was supposed to be also a teacher. Meanwhile we applied for passport, but I was refused. When the money arrived from Brazil, I started my journey anyway. We planned that I will buy the harmonium in Hamburg and this will be the excuse and reason of my travel without a passport. (…) On the border I had to get off the train for a control. I figured out that if I will be the very last to the control they will have no time to investigate the details. “Shnell” the officer called me, “open the suitcase!”. He looked at my clothes, food, wine. “Haben sie passport”, “Nein, I am going to Hamburg to buy the harmonium” I showed him the instruments catalogs and brochures from Hamburg. He looked at it, but the train should be leaving soon, “Schnell, schnell” they were calling, I was happy and in hurry I closed my suitcase so violently, that the vine bottles broke and flooded my luggage and the platform. The train left without me and I had to wait for 4 hours for another one. When I was waiting, there were some people, probably the custom officers, talking with me friendly and asking about my destination all the time. They tried, in many different languages, to find out if I am not going to emigrate. I told everyone the story about the harmonium and I treat them them with cigars, so finally they gave me a break. In Hamburg I went to the Emigration Company when I found out that my ship to Brazil would leave in one week “

On the ship the emigrants from Galicia were travelling in the 3rd or 4th class cabins, as these were the least expensive. The worst situation was in 4th class,  so called steerage or between-deck.

The conditions of such journey were terrible:

“The ship’s name was “Kronprinz Wilhelm” it was the big, new, steamboat, but the rooms were appalling. Cabins had several dozens of sleeping bunk benches, with almost no space between, it was hard to lie down on my bed. The passages were so narrow that it was difficult to walk there, and seasick passengers were contaminating the beds of their neighbors. During the journey almost everyone was falling sick every few days . The food was prepared in large cauldrons, and who was healthy could go to another cabin and eat, who was sick, ate in his bed. After 8 days of such burdensome travel we arrived in New York. My sickness terminated and all passengers were leaving with curiosity how does it look in this America.”

Doctor Józef Siemiradzki, travelling to Brazil, describes his meeting on the ship deck with the poorest immigrants from Galicia: :Most of them were lying on the deck, everywhere and anyhow it was possible, they placed their sheepskins and jerkins on the floor. Only the children did not care about the dangerous sea and the ship,  they were running with noise and clamor, playing “hide and seek” between the ropes and barrels. At the bow of the ship, there was a group of over a dozen of people, men and women, in their colorful folk clothes from Podole region, bareheaded, which drew my attention. They were staring with the boundless resignation at the foaming billows of the sea, which were hitting the sides of the ship, blending the bright scarves and aprons with the salty rain. In the middle of the group there was a tall and broad-shouldered man, with gray hair falling on his neck. He put his glasses on and with his nasal voice he was reading the Psalter. His companions were repeating after him the pathetic supplication: Hospody pomyluj! [God have mercy!]. I’ve talked with one of them, but he muttered something sullenly. The other approached to me. He was a man who I’ve seen earlier in Lviv. He had broken the ice by saying: This is the master from Lviv! They started to crowd around me, plying me with questions: “How far is Brazil”? , Is the prince Rudolf there? Is it true that people there are black? Do they walk upside-down? Do they sow the coffee grains?”

Galician emigrants. Picture source:

Their future was so uncertain and doubtful. The arrival to the destination country was not the end of the journey. The emigrants were controlled and examined by the doctors. If they obtained  permission, they were held in quarantine for some time and finally they could start their new life. In the United States there was the famous immigration office at the Ellis Island. The similar control points were organized in the ports of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Galveston. The controls were very severe. If someone was suffering for example for trachoma, a popular disease in Galicia, he was not allowed to stay. The officials were asking the emigrants if they already had any job settled in the United States. If the person had, he was not allowed to stay. This was the law and privilege of American workers.

Some of the emigrants had the addresses of some relatives or friends, so they knew where to go at the beginning. Some of them were starting with nothing. There was an obligatory amount of $25 that emigrants had to show in the office, to be allowed to go into the city. The healthy, young people, knowing their job, were usually allowed without any problems, but sick and weak were sent back to their homeland. At the end of many ship manifests are a few pages listing detained aliens. When a woman arrived at Ellis Island alone, she was held there until someone came to get her.

record of detained aliens
Record of detained aliens. Picture shared by Shellie.

Aga Pawlus
PolishOrigins Team

One comment

  1. Aga:

    Very well done – enjoying the adventure voyage you are taking us on. Thank you for your

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