Why My Ancestors Left?

For Poland, the 19th century was an age of partitions. In 1795, Poland disappeared from the map of the world for 123 years, but finally  reappeared, as an independent country, in 1918, after the end of WW I. Thus, for Poles, the 1800s is a century of captivity and stagnation, but for the world, that time was a period of  extraordinary growth, industrialization, demographic expansion and great migrations. Poles migrated too, and not necessarily because they hated the yoke imposed by the invaders (although severe military conscription ‘especially into a tsarist army’  was a very important reason). They migrated because they were touched by the same processes as the rest of the Western world: development, industrialization and massive increases in population.

Painting by Teodor Axentowicz - "Pogrzeb huculski" (Huculs Funeral) - Galicia. Source: wikipedia.org
Painting by Teodor Axentowicz – “Pogrzeb huculski” (Huculs Funeral) – Galicia. Source: wikipedia.org

One can say that the population grew exceptionally fast in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1795, around 12 million people lived there, and nearly 35 million on the eve of the First World War (1914). In the first half of this period, the fastest growth of the population took place in the Prussian partition (about 100% in 50 years) but in the second half of the century the roles were reversed, the Kingdom of Poland population increased by 162%, whereas in the Prussian partition it amounted to only  62%. Anyway, both results are impressive. It did not happen because  more children were born, but because fewer children died. Medicine still left much to be desired, but progress was substantial and unquestionable, and the average life expectancy lengthened, especially at the end of the period mentioned. Within forty years, the life expectancy almost doubled , and before World War I the average life expectancy in Greater Poland (Poznań region) had reached almost 60 years!

We shouldn’t forget that everybody did not experience this progress to the same extent. In Warsaw proletarian families, almost one in two children died young, while in non-proletarian families, less than one out of every four children died. As usual, standards of living were very different, depending on the social class. Aristocrats and capitalists were better nourished, while peasants and workers were still on the edge of physical existence.

There were also huge differences between the partitions. In 1914, the average yearly income per capita in the Prussian partition amounted to $113, while in the Kingdom of Poland it was $63, in Galicia, $38, and  in the vicinity of Vilnius , $21. It should be noted  that in Galicia, the Ukrainians underestimated the statistics (much poorer), while in the Prussian partition, Germans overestimated the statistics (Poles were poorer there).

It helps to know what one could purchase for his money.  For example, in Ternopil, Eastern Galicia, at around 1900, a kilogram of beef would cost the equivalent of .78 cents. This price differed depending on the partition, and also within different areas of the same partition. Metropolitan areas were more expensive, and in the province, it was a little less expensive.  Residents of the Prussian partition lived at a much higher standard of living than their compatriots from Galicia or the Russian partition.

Now, imagine that you are the head of a peasant family. Your father has two brothers, because your grandparents had many children, and most of them survived to adulthood. Also, your parents had many children. It is true that three of them died, but there are still five siblings living, including, (unfortunately), four boys. The land has been divided, and there is not much left for you. And you already have five children. Praise God, all healthy. A child in the village is an extra pair of hands to work, but only if there’s enough land to work . If not, the same child becomes no more than an additional mouth to feed, and this may not be easy to do. In normal times your land is sufficient, whereas you would have enough food not to die, but not enough to live.

What happens when a crop fails, a drought comes or a flood destroys your supplies?

Now, imagine you’ve heard that somewhere, far away, there is a better life. If you send one or two of your five children, you’ll give them, and yourself,  a chance to avoid famine, or even starvation. If they are successful, they may even be able to contribute to the modest family budget back in Poland, but if not, at least you will have fewer mouths to feed.

Many times, one would consider moving the whole family… Why not move to a better world with the whole family? Life could possibly be better there. You could sell the land, because it doesn’t provide enough food to  feed the whole family, and the money from the sale would give everyone a chance for a better start. Certainly, this proposal is worth consideration.  Millions of people faced such a dilemma in the nineteenth century. A dilemma, because many arguments appealed against migration. Split the family.  Sell the patrimony of the ancestors. Send the children to wander.  It was indeed a hard decision, all the more so because of the fear of the unknown. A very reasonable fear, because not everyone coped well with a change of this magnitude. But still, many decided to take this leap of faith..

Work in a 19th century factory. Source: histmag.org.
Work in a 19th century factory. Source: histmag.org.

Where was the promised land? Usually, just in the city. Not a very distant one, but necessarily one that dynamically developed, with working factories and mines, where trade flourished, and many profitable opportunities presented themselves. Łódź, Warsaw, Silesia, these are the main directions of migrations. Łódź or Sosnowiec were the cities grown from pioneers. Its inhabitants were composed mainly from the rural population. They abandoned fields and farms and started a new life. Contrary to popular belief, proletarians were not just oppressed ‘slaves’. They were peasants who tasted a new and better standard of living, and often it was not enough for them. They saw many new opportunities in front of them. Some of them, the brave or more desperate ones, realized, that the trip to Warsaw or Łódź was not enough for them. They decided to look for a better future somewhere else. Sometimes they would go deep into Germany, sometimes to England or France. And often they chose to cross the ocean, to the USA, Canada, Latin America and Australia. Such a decision was a decision for life.

A ticket to New York City wasn’t cheap, so those who traveled there, didn’t expect that they would ever return to their homeland. And very few of them actually returned, even for a holiday. Only nowadays, after more than 100 years, descendants of emigrants come to visit the land of their forefathers…

Bogusz Pawiński
PolishOrigins Team


  1. Bogusz Pawinski accurately described my grandparents’ immigration during the 1870’s. Both grandfathers had to agree to conscription if/when called. Prussia called but they did not answer. Once here, the families cooperated to find work, care for each other. My maternal grandmother bore 10 children. Five died before age 7. None were born in a hospital. Grandfather died at 41 leaving 5 young daughters. Catholic faith was their foundation of hope/courage. Education in English/Polish was difficult due to poor teaching practices. Death came early to parents as well. Undiagnosed gall bladder, appendicitis led. Chief medicine was beer and whisky. Today, we survive and prosper.

  2. My GrandParents came at the turn of the Century My GrandFathers Brother was already here in Waltham Mass working in the Mills for what ever reason (unknown to me ) they ended up in Maine and made their life here never went back even though their first born was left behind! We now have and extended Family in Lodz Poland on this side of the pond most of my cousins became teachers or engineers I choose a different path! In Poland remarkably its pretty much the same! of the whole American Family only one Uncle, my Mother my daughter who studied in Krakow and did an internship at Auschwitz (which we all are proud of ) have been back ! My GrandParents journey was nothing short of unbelievable ! Only as I myself got older did I realize the hows and whys as to their coming to America! I wish I would have taken the time to have known them better!

  3. My Great Grandfather is said to have been exiled by the Germans in 1884, and was a landowner of as many as 7 estates around Maly Medromierz, Kujawsko-Pomorskie. The family says that the Germans killed his first three sons. My grandfather was the fourth son and was supposedly buried in Poland before the family moved to the USA and arrived in New York on 25 April 1884. Why would the German be afraid of the my Great Grandfather and his sons? My Great Great Grandfather died at the age of 72 in 1885 and is listed as a farm owner in Pelphin Catholic Diocesan Archives, by Polish Researcher Lukasz Bielecki, Poznan, Poland

  4. This is a very good article that accurately depicts the drive to immigrate for so many Poles as was the case in my ancestors. I find it interesting that in both of my Galician grandparents families there were 7-8 children and the majority of them went westward. Some to Germany, but most to Canada (Winnipeg was a popular destination for eastern Poles and Ukranians), America (the industrial cities of the NE and Chicago in particular) and Australia.

    A few of the questions that I have are: What was it that allowed the families to get so big during this period? My late 19th century ancestors parents usually had only a few children.

    Communication by mail must have been pretty good (or maybe it wasn’t) but somehow the word spread about the far lands and where their relatives went. My grandfather left home when he was 16-17ish. That’s pretty young. I wonder if he traveled by himself, or if, like the picture there was a group from a village that would undertake the journey as a group. Did the migrants have to pay a guide? Where did they get the money? Did they pack a trunk or leave with the shirt on their back? Perhaps Mr. Pawinski can delve into these topics.

  5. I have heard the story that my great grandfather took his four sons and oldest daughter to America in early 1900 to avoid conscription of his sons into the Russian army. He had two daughters but the youngest one was not allowed to go because she was so young and, according to the story, there was a Russian law that no child under 6 years of age could leave the country. Therefore my great grandmother remained in Poland with her. Theye were suppose to come later but by the time it was possible to leave my great grandfather died in America and there was no money for the trip. The daughter, Genowefa, eventually married, had four daughters and I finally made contact with tchem many years later in 2001. After two visits to Poland and when it was time to retire, my wife and I decided to move to Poland so I could continue my research and get to know those four daughters and their descendents. We have been living in Poland now for over 7 years and have met many cousins.

  6. Bogusz did a great job of capturing how our families lived at the time, and the kind of issues they had to deal with constantly.

    Between 1885 and 1890, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck ordered the mass expulsions of ethnic Poles from the German partition. Also, citing the November Uprising of 1830?31, Bismarck also introduced measures to limit freedoms of press and political representation that Poles enjoyed within the Empire. Almost immediately (1888-1891), all my living Bejenka family members immigrated to America from the German partition. Besides the poverty and hunger that Bogusz described so well, I suspect that Bismarck’s policies also contributed to them leaving.

  7. @Rolfe Jaremus, Indeed it looks like a paradox. Do you know the economic theories of Malthus or Ricardo? I’m convinced that they are wrong. But these theories are the result of observations of emerging industrial society, and represent a great insight into the spirit of that era. They belived that peasants would never improve theirs standard of living, and worker’s wages would never rise above the subsistence level. Although the world was rapidly developing. Why? Because, even when the overall increase in wealth will result in increase in wages, workers and peasants simply would have more children. In other words, the economic growth would be very quickly discounted by the increase in population.
    Malthus and Ricardo simply described what they saw. The world has developed. It could feed more people and save more people from premature death. But in some places it could temporarily even cause deterioration. As I wrote in the paper, medicine was able to save more children, but supply of farmland was still the same.

    I cannot precisely answer to your questions about travel details, because there were a lot of different situations. Some traveled alone, others in the group, some “with the shirt on their back”, others took some of their possesions. In my wife’s family there’s a story about great-grandfather’s brother, who went overseas with just a silver ruble in his pocket. I don’t know how true is this story, but certainly emigration was a dramatic decision.

  8. At the age of 20, my grandfather was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army and served three years. After returning, he married and hoped to start at family. When the Austrians returned in 1909 to force him into active duty again, he fled to America. Siblings of his wife had already come to America for economic reasons, so he and his 16 year old wife joined them in the weaving mills of Newmarket, NH.

    What makes their story unusual was that my grandparents after WWI returned to Poland. They brought with them their 4 American-born children. One of those children was my father.

    I have placed on Polish Origins my father’s memoirs, “Polish By Heart” which recounts their between-the-wars years, and eventual return of the children to the country of their birth.

  9. I’m a second generation American. Both my grandfathers came over to make some money and to eventually return. One grandfather saw how differently workers were paid. They put “cold cash” in his hands and then and there his mind was made up. The other grandfather was warned not to come back because political turmoil was going on. Shortly after the Balkan wars broke out. Both men brought their women folk over as soon as possible.

  10. My grandfather came to the United States in 1904 to escape the Russian army. After being “drafted” (conscripted) into the army and being sent to Persia; he and another secured false documents, escaped the army (went AWOL), worked their way to Bremen, Germany and boarded a ship for Ellis Island. Arriving in the U.S., he first worked in a shoe factory near Boston, Mass, then went to Pennsylvania to work in the coal mines. He met his future wife, who was from Poland, although a different area, married, raised a family and as they say the rest is history. He continued to profess his dislike for the Russians his entire life and never forgave them for what occurred in Poland.

  11. My great grandmother and her daughter came over from Poland sometime before late 1800’s. Here is my question. I was told by my mother (who was born in U.S. (1914) that they came over on the last Russian boat leaving Poland. Does anyone know when year that was? Thank you.

  12. Hello, I find this very fascinating. I am third generation American as all of my Great Grandparents immirated from the old countries. Unfortunately we only know why my moms Grandfather came over from Italy. He was drunk and fell asleep on a boat and woke up as a stow away. We know nothing of our Irish sides (both my parents are half Irish) and eveyyone told stories on the Polish side but no one ever said why they came over. Just that Zda Zda came over first and then Babcai (sorry I can’t spell) and that her dad came before her and sent for her. And they grew up in the same town. I do have some old letters that may hold some clues but alas I can’t read Polish.

  13. That painting of a funeral is very moving. Thanks for this article. Since connecting through DNA at 23 and Me, I have been able to trace my family’s roots. Maternal gmother was from Gasawa (and I have connected through the Poznan Project to a 3rd cousin in Poznan, whose parents were raised there) the rest of the family came from the south east, and like many here, my fraternal gfather left to avoid conscription.

    What amazes me is the courage and resourcefulness of the imigrants, these were some tough people. I often wonder how my grandparents made it to Bremen, and looking at that painting, I can only imagine how hard it was, especially being on the run from conscription.

    Unlike most imigrants who never went back to their homeland, my fraternal gfather actually went back to his village, where his two brothers remained. He was an example of an immigrant making good, he ran a successful coal company in Chicago, and in 1932, took my father and uncle back to Europe to visit. This included shipping a big Packard with them on the boat, and having a driver take them from Le Harve to the small village he came from, 40 miles east of Krakow. This was at the height of the depression.

    Like many people with Polska roots who were raised in 50s/60’s era America, my 1st generation parents avoided talking about the past. Polish was not spoken in the house. My grandparents never mentioned the past, what incredible stories they took to their graves.

    Visiting Poland has been on my bucket list for a long time, and hopefully next year I will be performing in Poznan (I am a musician). Can’t wait to see my ancestors final resting places.

  14. My grandfather immigrated to the US from “Poland” in 1909 and my grandmother came to the US from “Poland” in 1912. Both had been born and raised in the Russian partition of Poland. Neither had too many fond words for the Russian rulers who suppressed most aspects of Polish culture and their religion, Roman Catholic. In “Poland”, they attended secret schools at night to learn the Polish language and culture. They were lured to the US by siblings, met, and married in 1918. Each had a sibling who remained in Poland. My grandfather’s brother who stayed in Poland was quite the survivor: survived serving as a conscript for the Russian army in WWI, survived WWII, and survived 18 years in prison in the Soviet Union, 1945-1963. My grandparents spoke Polish at home and my grandmother never truly learned to speak English. I never fully learned their motivation for leaving Poland and coming to the US but I am forever grateful that they made that choice.

  15. So true my grt grandfather came to america in 1880s.my grt grt grandfather was 1and survived but my 3 grt grandparents lost 3 boys in march 1817 to typhoid.because of not enough food so after that the next generations made there way to america.

  16. My family history is a bit different. Both my parents grew up in Poland between the world wars. During World War II my father was a POW in Germany and my mother was deported to Germany to work in a factory. Finding themselves in the western part of Germany at wars end, and with no reason to return to a Soviet dominated communist Poland they decided to move to Canada and a better life.

  17. My grandfather came from Bachow, Ukraine on the San River to the US in 1908. No education from the Russians. My grandmother came from Babice on the San to the US in 1910. From the Austro-Hungarian empire, she was educated. Only about 10 kilometers from my grandfather but they didn’t know each other then. They were supported by relatives in the US. Worked hard and were successful. By the late 1920’s they owned a 4 family home in the Bronx and raised two children, a son and daughter. My mother married my father who was of Ukranian descent. Although born in the US his father was killed in a truck accident when he was two, so she took him back to the Ukraine in 1919 till he was 9 and came back to the states. Big culture shock. My uncle took my grandmother back to Poland in 1972. She said the only difference was that they now had electricity and the San River was a lot smaller than she remembered. Her older sister and younger brother were still alive. They said the Germans came thru in WWII and stole everything. Then the Russians came thru and brutally killed anyone suspected of dealing with the Germans. Thank God they came to America. Their descendants have prospered in the greatest country in the history of mankind- America!

  18. Although my Polish grandparents and my mother and aunts and uncle are long gone, and I wish I had asked more questions when I was young, I do have some stories of why my grandparents left. They were both from Galicia, but met and married in the US in Newark NJ. My grandfather was apprenticed to a tailor at age 14 in Poland, and his brother Jan was apprenticed to a shoemaker. Jan came here first and vouched for my grandfather Stanislaw. The rumor is that they were avoiding the draft for the Czar’s army, also their parents had a small farm that could only be divided so many ways. There were some sisters who stayed in Poland. I have been able to trace my grandfather’s Golba family back to the late 1700s via church records.

    My grandmother’s history is more obscure, I have not been able to find anything on her parents Jan Smarz or Agata Szmidt, although I have a picture of them my grandma Marianna Smarz brought with her and Agata could be me in an old-fashioned costume. My aunt said that she had heard that Agata’s parents were killed in a revolution (In the 1840s?) and she was raised by the local land owner. No idea if the name Szmidt or some vari

  19. oops, hit send before I was done!
    …Variant of that name was hers or her adoptive parents. My grandmother’s family must have had a little money, as she was sent to what my aunt called “a finishing school” and came to Newark NJ as an Au Pair to a wealthy family. Both my grandparents could read and write in Polish and later learned some English. They helped other Polish immigrants who were illiterate read and send letters back to Poland to their families there. My grandparents were married in Newark NJ in 1909.

    I have their beautiful wedding picture. They were married in St. Casimir’s Church in Newark. Several years later they moved out to Whippany NJ where there were a lot of Polish people who worked in the paper mill, and my grandfather worked as a tailor until he died in 1971. They also had a small farm here, like most Polish families.2 cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits etc. I spoke Polish as a pre-school child, but lost most of it when I went to school which I deeply regret. My grandparents had a hard but a good life, and always loved and remembered Poland, not the hardship but the beauty and deep roots.

  20. My grandmother came from Babice on the San to America in 1910. She told her father she wanted to see what America was all about. He said fine, butif you don’t like it come back. Her godfather took her off Ellis Island and she began her adventure in America. Her first job was as a cook for a Jewish family. They were very kind to her, and as Eastern Europeans they shared a common cuisine. She met and married my grandfather who was from Bachow on the San, which at that time was in Ukraine, Russia. She came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and received an education, she was literate. My grandfather came from the Russian sector and was illiterate. But together they worked hard and in time moved from upper Manhattan to buy a 4 family house in Pelham Bay in the Bronx. They sent their son and daughter to Polish classes. They could understand Polish and could speak basic Polish. My sister and I would catch words that we knew and tried to string together what they were saying. I am so proud of the food and customs we learned. I was blessed to have my grandmother for years and learned so much about Poland from her. She went back to Poland in 1972. She said the San was smaller than she remembered and that the only change in the village was that they had electricity. We learned a love of Poland, its history, traditions and culture.

  21. Love these stories ❤️ Thanks for sharing.

    My paternal grandparents were from farming families from the Sanok area. Gpa from Bykowyce and Gma from Posada Olchowska. Gpa got leave from the Austrian Army to marry my Gma in 1897. They had 3 boys and left the 2 older ones with their parents when they came to Pittsburgh in 1905. My Gma’s sister came with them with her oldest son. My grandparents returned to Sanok in 1908 and brought their 2 oldest to Pittsburgh to join the family. They went on to have a total of 9 boys and 2 girls, my dad being #9. They moved to Youngstown, Ohio. My Gpa worked in the steel mills. Both grandparents died before I was born. My daughter and I returned to the Sanok area in 2010 and it was wonderful. I wish I knew more about them,

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