>It was in fall of 1989 when I asked my father where his father came from originally. Being as na’ve as I was back then, I thought it was an easy to answer question. Sometimes I wonder how things would have developed if he had he given me some names, shown me some old family pictures, and told me a little bit about his father’s side of the family. Would I have been satisfied and stopped asking questions? Would I ever have researched the paternal side of my family as obsessionally as I did for many years, had his answer to my question not have been a plain and simple “I don’t know”?
I couldn’t understand then how it was possible that my father knew nothing about his father’s heritage. Had they never talked about it in the family? “The adults talked about these things amongst themselves when we were kids”, my father said, “but not with us”. He didn’t recall his father ever talking about his family or home country when he was around, and, like many of us, he never thought to ask about it while he still had the chance.
After many years of genealogy research I know now that many descendants of immigrants to the United States have asked their parents the question I asked my father and have received the same answer he gave me: “I don’t know”. It may differ from family to family, but I think it wasn’t unusual for the first generation of immigrants not to talk about their family and life in the ‘old country’ and for their children not to know where their parents came from.
Why? One reason could be that the majority of Polish immigrants to America at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century were peasants or descendants of peasants from the overpopulated south who had lived in rural poverty and for whom emigration was the only opportunity to escape a future of hunger and deprivation. While starting a new life in America may have been an adventure for some of our ancestors, I imagine it was hard for many of them to leave their home village and kin behind, their parents and grandparents that had raised them, knowing they would most likely never see them again. And life in America was hard for most of our immigrants ancestors. They struggled to survive and had to work very hard to make enough money to meet the basic needs of their families. Due to often low education levels and unfamiliarity of the language, the jobs available to them were usually low-paid, dirty, hard-labor, and often dangerous ones, e.g. in coal mining, construction, steel factories, slaughter houses, and so on.
During the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s many of them lost their jobs and were forced to use up all their savings, if they had any, to survive. The conditions my father, born first generation American, was brought up in during the years of the Great Depression in Chicago are unimaginable to us who, for the most part, never had to worry about where the next meal would come from, if we could afford to see a doctor and get the health care we needed when we are sick, if we had decent clothes to go to school in, and if there was enough money to pay the rent on time. After having experienced poverty and his father’s struggles to support his wife and ten children by working as a roofer in Chicago, his father’s death at the age of 50 years from falling off a scaffold to the pavement below while working on a building, it is only understandable that my father put all of his energy into creating a better life for himself and his children than he had it when he grew up.
Both generations, the immigrant generation as well as the first generation born in the United States, were too busy coping with the present and striving for a better life, getting ahead economically and socially, to worry about the past. It is us, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the first immigrants, who are asking the questions now and are rediscovering our ancestors’ culture and roots in a country that is ‘foreign’ to us, whose language we don’t speak, but to which we nevertheless feel deeply connected.
Ute H. Wyatt,