All Over the Place: Ellis Island in Reverse
Issue 13: Gdynia's Emigration Museum
A trip to Statue of Liberty National Monument includes a visit to the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, where 12 million immigrants entered the United States from 1892 to 1954. Immigration has always been a core part of American identity, reflected in our motto “E pluribus unum” - “Out of many, one.”
But in order for people to move to one place, they have to leave another, and that is what the Emigration Museum in Gdynia focuses on. It’s housed in a former maritime building in the port city of Gdynia on the Baltic Sea, where many people left Poland for greener pastures. Poland is notable in that not only have ordinary Poles moved abroad, but at times its intelligentsia and even its government have packed up and left. (It’s worth noting that the word “intelligentsia” is one of a few words in English derived from a Polish word, in this case “intelligencja.”)
In the late 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned three times by neighboring Prussia, Russia, and Austria, completely wiping it off the map in 1795. In the 19th century, veterans of Poland’s many failed independence uprisings often found themselves exiled, and many Polish intellectuals also moved abroad where they could muster support for the Polish cause. Virtuoso composer Frédéric Chopin (born Fryderyk Chopin) spent most of his adult life in Paris, and Poland’s three national poets (Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński) did most of their writing abroad as well.
But the exhibits explain that things were not good for common folks, either. Living standards varied wildly depending on which occupying power ruled your region. The worst conditions were found in Galicia, which was ruled by Austria and is today a part of Poland and Ukraine. Galicia is where part of my family is from, and while we don’t know exactly why they moved to the United States, the exhibits gave a huge number of reasons why any normal person would want to live somewhere else.
In Galicia, 80% of peasants didn’t have enough farmland to feed themselves, with 50,000 residents starving to death every year and occasional reports of cannibalism. Less than 10% of farmers lived in brick houses. There was one doctor for every 18,000 residents.
Poles that moved to America began to send information back that some thought was too good to be true. In the words of what one immigrant heard:
Everyone, even children, wore shoes, had suits and ate meat every day. Me and my dad found the last one hard to believe as he himself ate meat at most three times a year.
The museum’s largest exhibit followed the fictional Sikora family in a journey that mirrored my own family history, as they took a train from Galicia to Germany, took a steamer across the Atlantic to New York City, and then made their way to Chicago where they settled. There is something very cool about seeing your own family’s history reflected in a museum exhibit.
Those that immigrated learned that America had its own challenges, but few had any thoughts of returning. In the words of one Pole in upstate New York writing to his wife back in Poland:
And when you write asking me to come to Poland, I can tell you honestly now that I won’t set foot in Poland again. And when you write again that you want a photograph of me, I wouldn’t take it even if they gave it to me for free. And if you don’t come now, to tell you the truth, neither you nor father will hear from me again.
I wonder what she wrote back.
Perhaps the most dramatic case of emigration was in World War II, when Poland was wiped off the map again and its government moved to London as the Polish government-in-exile, where it directed the activities of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) in its fight against Nazis and Soviets. Despite a loss of recognition by most countries after the war, it continued to exist until 1990, when it transferred its authority to Lech Wałęsa, the first non-Communist president of Poland since World War II.
“‘I Had Crossed the Line’: Philadelphia, Where Harriet Tubman Found Freedom” https://news.maryland.gov/dnr/2022/05/01/i-had-crossed-the-line-philadelphia-where-harriet-tubman-found-freedom/