Beyond the Big Water. Part 3: The dark side of the emigration: the “Emigration Hyenas”.

The massive emigration was easily and quickly discovered to be an excellent source of income for some resourceful individuals. The Galician poverty, overpopulation and illiteracy proved fertile ground for all  companies recruiting emigrants. The hope for  better life is natural.

The agents were mostly recruiting among people in villages, where was the highest rate of poverty. They promised that in America people will obtain free land and inventory. They promised good jobs and high salaries. The most successful recruitment was at the time of the hungry gap (late winter and early spring) and during the military enlistments. The agents were representing large ship companies from Bremen, Antwerp, Hamburg. Sometimes they had their own people working in certain villages.

They were collaborating with ex-gendarmes and with emigrants, who were giving advice about the route of emigration. They were writing letters, some with real, authentic advice, however sometimes the content of the letters was obviously inspired by the recruiting agents. Some such inspired letters were full of the demagogy and just brutal lies. The agents cared only about their own desire to get rich. They were receiving commissions from the ship companies and sometimes an additional payments from the government of the destination countries (as it was for example in Brazil). Illiterate emigrants, who crossed the ocean often had no idea where the new country was located, and perhaps not even how it was called or how far away it was; they knew nothing of any exchange rate when they went to change their meager amounts of gold for marks or dollars; they had to pay for everything in advance, and if there was anything left over after they had received their tickets and other documents, that also  was taken from them by force.

Ship passage advertisement. Picture source:’t=1852

Such illegal and demagogic actions of agents had been exposed by the local authorities, the stories were published in local newspapers – all of this was in vain.  Polish economist and lawyer Ludwik Caro, in 1911 published a brochure summarizing the emigration problem in Galicia. He wrote: “In 1903 the American, Mr. Brown in the office report stated that in Galicia, Hungary and Polish Kingdom (Russian partition), the taproom owners, the community officials, even some teachers are agitating for emigration and are selling ship tickets. To encourage people, agents in Eastern Galicia were telling stories that Brazil is the Austrian province, under the rule of the archduke Rudolf, who was in fact dead at this time. The authorities were making difficulties on the borders, especially catching those who deserted from the military service. The agents were giving confidential advice to emigrants. If someone wanted to go via one of Italian ports he was advised to pretend to go to Hungary, as the passport was not required there. Later in the Austrian border they should tell that they are going to Rome for a pilgrimage to the Pope or to visit the relative priest or to Triest to visit the brother serving in 4th company of 97th regiment”.

There was a famous process in Wadowice in 1889 concerning the agents working in Oswiecim, but recruiters were continuing their operations after finishing their sentence or paying the fine.  Ludwik Caro described the methods of the Simon Herz company in Oświecim:

“In 1890, so 20 years ago, there was a famous agency in Oświęcim, owned by Jakub Klausner,  Simon Herz and others. Those people have corrupted the local authorities, the guardians, the railway officials, busmen, gendarmes, custom officials, so in one word: everyone participating in the emigration process. The purpose was one: to rob emigrants with impunity. Everyone was directed to Oswiecim’s agency, where was forced to buy ship tickets for an overstated price. The recruits were forced to pay twice, the illiterate were cheated  buying the advertisement leaflets. They cheated during the money exchange etc. If someone was resisting, they were closing him in a cowshed or he was beaten. If it didn’t help gendarmes were sending him back to his village.

Interesting pranks were played by the “director”of the company Abraham Izaak Landerer. To gain some additional 4 or 5 guldens from the peasant’s pocket he was showing him the alarm clock pretending to be the phone to Hamburg. He was “calling” to the port asking if there is a place available on the ship. In a while the clock was alarming – the reply was coming. Later the clock was winded up again – it was the call to the emperor of America to ask if he wishes to accommodate his new subjects. For this call of course there was the significant fee (?) Even the coat must have been left, as no one can enter America in peasant clothes. There was a person running the business on this: Ladwenberg, the member of this partnership, who had the clothes  store.”

hotel herz
Hotel Herz in Oświecim, picture source:

Oświęcim was one of the biggest emigration centers in Galicia. It was the railway crossing and the last big town before the Prussian border. Not only were emigrants travelling to America stopping here, it was also the town on the way for the season workers travelling to Germany for the harvest or to work in the Silesian industry. Just across the border in Mysłowice, there was the first German station with direct connections with Hamburg and Bremen. The Oświęcim inhabitants were used to seeing the crowds of workers, peasants, craftsmen, tradesmen, along with Polish, Ruthenians, Jews, and people from Slovakia. Among them were also some army deserters or others searched by the hue-and-cry letters.

The problem of frauds, crime and swindlers, the ’emigration hyenas’ is described in the excellent book. The Emperor of America. Great escape from Galicia by an Austrian reporter Martin Pollack (as of today, the book is available only in German and in Polish). He is showing  the unknown, dark side of Galician poverty that we often tend to overestimate as the ideal, idyllic land of our ancestors.

PolishOrigins Team

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