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.
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..
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…