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A Family Corresponds: Polish Immigrants in the Early 20th century

Many immigrants to the United States wrote letters back home. At the time they were written, the missives shaped the expectations of those who would soon make the same journey; today, they gave historians invaluable first-hand testimony of the immigrants’ own experiences. These seventeen letters involved the children of a retired Polish farmer named Raczkowski. Adam Raczkowski went to the United States in 1904 with the financial assistance of his sister Helena Brylska [later Dabrowskis] and his brother Franciszek, who had both previously immigrated. He settled with his brother in Wilmington, Delaware, and obtained factory work. The letters included here cover the years 1904 to 1912 and were written between both Adam and Helena and their sister Teofila, who remained in Poland.

Note: The Raczkowski family includes the following members:

Raczkowski, a retired farmer

Wawrzonkowa, his second wife

Franciszek, his son

Adam, his son

Helena, his daughter

Teofila, his daughter

Wilmington, Del., June 25 [1904]

DEAR SISTER: . . . . I am already with my brother, thanks to God and to God’s Mother. As to work, I don’t hope to work sooner than autumn, because brother also has no work since Christmas and cannot get work, because all factories are stopped and there is no work until they elect the president in autumn. Then perhaps we shall get work. And at present brother has no pleasure in life either, because there are five of them and I make the sixth, and all this means spending money. And you know that when I left you, I had neither clothes nor shirts; so when I came to them, sister-in-law and brother gave me at once clothes of theirs and we all three went to the city and bought clothes, one suit for working days and another for holidays, and everything in the way of clothes. So you can understand that when we bought everything it cost them about 80 roubles. The watch and the suit for church cost alone 60 roubles. I have nothing more to write, only I bid you goodbye, dear sister and brother-in-law. When I get work I won’t forget you. Remain with God. Both Raczkowskis with their children send also their bows. I beg you, answer the soonest possible.


* * *

September 23, 1904

DEAR SISTER: . . . .I received your letter and I thank you heartily for answering me. As to what you write, sister, that I may greet Brylska [i.e., his sister Helena] for you, well, I wrote her three letters and she wrote me one and sent us her photograph when she got married. As soon as I came to America, I saluted her politely. But brother and sister-in-law related to me how she remembered [forgot] her children and how she began to behave as soon as she came to America. And she complained to us that sister-in-law was not good to her! She behaved so that if it had been I, I should not have kept her [in the house] 24 hours. As it was, they were patient and kept her, and brother tried to find work for her. And about her writing letters to Wawrzonkowa [their stepmother] and sending money to her, well, I shall bow to her [to Brylska] more profoundly [I will despise her for it still more] because if Wawrzonkowa were lying under a hedge and if I were passing by, I would kick her, but would not give my hand to her

[assist her]. . . .


* * *

February 13 [1905]

DEAR SISTER: . . . . And now I inform you that I have very good work. I have been working for 3 months. I have very good and easy work. I earn $8.00 a week. Brother has work also, And as to Brylska, I don’t know how she is getting on, and I don’t think about her at all. Inform me what is going on in our country, who has come to America, and who got married, and what is the talk in our country about revolution and war, because I have paid for a newspaper for a whole year and the paper comes to me twice a week, so they write that in our country there is misery. They say that in Warsaw and Petersburg there is a terrible revolution and many people have perished already. As to the money, I cannot help you now, sister. You will excuse me yourself, I did not work for five months . . .


* * *

June 27, 1906

DEAR SISTER: . . . . As to the work, I am working in the same factory, and brother also is working in the same factory, where he was working formerly. And as to our country, brother says he will not return, because there is nothing to return for . . . He has no property there, and it is better for him in America, because in our country he could not even earn enough for a loaf of bread. And I also do not know whether I shall return or not. If I can return then perhaps I shall return some day or other, and if not I don’t mind, because I do ten times better in America than in our country. I do better today than brother, because I am alone. As to Borkowianka [a woman friend], I don’t know whether she came to America or not, because I sent her neither a ship ticket nor money. So I beg you, sister, be so kind and learn from the Borkowskis whether she thinks of coming or not, because if she does not come then I will marry in the autumn or during carnival. . . .

* * * January 28, 1907

DEAR SISTER: . . . . As to work, I work, but very little, because the factory where we worked with brother was burned on Saturday, January 19, at 7 o’clock in the evening, and brother’s carpenter’s tools were all burned. He lost $50.00. And now I inform you about my old Miss Borkowska, whom nobody wants. I don’t care anything about her—such an old maid! I wrote to her only in jest, because I have in America girls enough and much better than she and even to them I don’t pay compliments. I care as much for her as for an old torn shoe. Today I don’t need the favor of anybody except God. May God continue to give me such health as he gives me up to the present day. I don’t want the favors of anybody except God. As to Teofil, I don’t know what he means, and why he will take to himself such a shepherd’s bitch. There is no place in America for her, because in America they don’t keep sheep. Does he want to keep sheep, and to breed rams, and to become a shepherd? The stupid, where is his reason, since in America there are girls enough.

As to money, I won’t send you any now, because we have expenses ourselves, but I will send you for the holiday some more roubles; you may expect it. . . .

* * *

[June?] 3, 1907

DEAR SISTER: . . . . As to the work, brother is working steadily and since the factory was burned I have had no work for a month and for another month I have had no work. During the two years I worked steadily in the same factory I had money, and now I earn hardly enough to live. I am working in the same factory as brother. I do carpenter’s work and earn $2.00 a day. The work is good and well paid, but only if you work steadily, May God let me work this year during the summer in that factory and earn at least enough to live. Then by winter I shall have steady work.

This letter which I received from you, grieved me and brother terribly. Dear sister and brother-in-law, you write to us to hold our hands out to you [help you]. It is true that a misfortune befell you, that a misery form God happened to you, and you have not a piece of bread to put in your mouth at times, but with us also it is not easy. Before we earn that cent in the sweat of our brow and get it into our hands, see here, an expense is waiting for it. I don’t need to explain everything to you, because you know yourself what expenses are. But in such misfortune we will not refuse you, and not send you any money, but we will not send it now. We will send it to you on June 15, because we cannot do it sooner. I will not write to you how much until a second letter. . . .

Inform me, how are the crops in our country, and what success, and who got married among the young people and whether my companions came back from the army or not. I leave you with respect and beg for a speedy answer.


* * *

January 24, 1907 [1908]

DEAR SISTER: . . . . I will tell you about myself, how I am doing in America. I have not yet experienced poverty in America; on the contrary, I am my brother’s support. But I am tired of walking about unmarried. Although I could give my wife enough to live, still I fear lest poverty should look me in the eyes. Were it not for the money I have put in my brother’s house, which he bought, I could do nothing during a year and live with my wife like a lord. But now I postpone it for a longer time. . . .


* * *

May God allow us to live till Easter and after Easter I will write to you what girl I shall marry and I will send you a photograph as soon as I leave the altar. My girl is a cousin of my sister-in-law, her mother and my sister-in-law are born sisters. They are persuading me to marry her, but I still doubt whether it will be so.


* * *

March 2, 1908

DEAR SISTER: . . . . As to Toefil I do not know where he is, because he was with me before Christmas and was out of work then, and he intended to go to the mines. So I don’t know whether he went or not, because in mines it is this way: One goes there and finds money, another, death. He wanted to go to the mines, so probably he went, because he has not written to me. As to work, I haven’t worked for four weeks. There is no work. Brother still works but is not going well, because almost all factories are closed. Times are so good in America that people are going begging. As to sister, I don’t know anything about her, because she does not write to me, and I do not write to her either.

You advise me to marry Ksiezakowna. Besides Ksiezakowna I have others [here] even more stately and I do not bestir myself very much about them. As to Imnielsczanka [daughter of Imnielski], send her to me, and I will marry her and send you the money for the ship ticket back. Now is not a very good time to marry, because work is bad and bad times are coming now.


* * *

February 25, 1910

DEAR SISTER: . . . . I received your letter on Christmas, but I did not answer you at once, because I intended to marry, and therefore I waited with the letter, even too long. Excuse me, dear sister and brother-in-law; don’t be angry with me. At last I now inform you, that I am married. My wedding was on January 24. I have a wife from the government of Plock, from Sierpc, beyond Mlawa. And now we send you this letter and the wedding photograph. I am in this photograph and my wife. After Easter brother will send you also his own with his family. He will send you none now because his wife is not able to go to the photographer. I describe my wedding in another letter. At present I will mention only this, that this wedding cost me $180. The wedding dress alone cost me $30.00 and about the rings and other things I shall not write you. I took her as rich as she walked [having nothing]. I paid $85.00 back for her ship ticket. In another letter I will tell you everything that is going on in America, and everything in general. I have nothing more to write, only I send you my greetings, I embrace you and kiss you innumerable times, and my wife also salutes sister and brother-in-law, embraces and kisses sister and brother-in-law, and remains with respect, Zofia Raczkowska.

And I ask you for a speedy answer, when you receive the photograph.


* * *

November 28 [1912]

DEAR SISTER: You write to us and ask us to send you a ship ticket for your boy. We advise you to let him wait until spring, because it is not certain how work will be in the spring for now they have elected a democrat president and when a democrat is president everybody expects misery to come. Let him wait until March, because only from March on this president will begin to govern, and we shall see how work goes when he governs, whether well or ill. Now work is bad. Brother worked for 9 years in the same factory, and this year he has not worked since spring, because work is stopping. We neither advise you nor dissuade. Sister intends to send him a ship ticket.. . . .


* * *

Union City, Conn. April 8 [1904]

DEAR SISTER: I am working in the same place where I was working, and I live nearer the factory, so my address will be different. I have sent you money, 20 roubles, and I have no word whether you received it or not. I don’t know what it means. I have sent a ship ticket for brother [Adam] and I don’t know either what it means that I have no word. Has he left already or not? What does it mean that you don’t answer me? Since Christmas I have no word from you. What does it mean? Are you angry with me? I don’t know what is going on, whether you got angry, or you don’t wish to write to me, or perhaps the address is bad? I beg you, dear sister, inform me about my children, because I think about them very much and I long for them more than in the beginning, because here in America there are rumors that there is war in our country. We know from the papers; papers come every day and we know about everything. Answer me, dear sister and brother-in-law, about your health and success, tell me about everything, whether good or bad, because brother now is far from me, he went to his wife’s family. The ticket in one direction costs $7.00 and the second [brother], if he left for America, I shall not see him either, because he had a ship ticket bought to them. Perhaps I shall go to them in about half a year. . . .


* * *

[No date]

DEAR SISTER: You ask me to send you money. I answer, that now I can send none, because the factories are going bankrupt: it means they are stopping work. So I fear that if I send money home and the factories stop, I shall remain without work and without money. I shall see later on; perhaps I shall send you some when work gets better. I work in the same factory. And now I salute you, dear brother, and I request you not to send your photograph. I know you well, and why should you spend money? Buy yourself rather something else. And now you write me that you receive few letters from me; but I write letters to you very often. And now, I beg you, dear sister and brother-in-law, send my children to school, and let their eyes be rubbed [as after sleep, so they may see clearly].


* * *

April 19 [1907?]

DEAR SISTER: . . . . You write, dear sister, that Joziek is ill with his eyes. It would be terribly painful for me if you should not send him, dear sister. And [their step] father would be terribly angry and terribly grieved, if they all may not come. He says, “I strive and strive and wish that they may come to us. Although I am not their own father I care for them as for my own [children], and God will not punish me as [he would do] if I did not wish to have anything to do with them.” So I beg you very much, sister dear, send him, because I have heard and shall have to hear from my man, “Why should you not have them all with you? Later on any of them could say to himself that through his stepfather he became an orphan and does not see his mother.”So send him. If he is so terribly ill they will send him back from Illowo, but I do not think that they will send him back. They are on ship ticket and he goes to his mother, so I do not think that it will be so. Only send him, dear sister, and they will surely let him through. I beg you, Mr. Wisniewski, very much, don’t be anxious and afraid that you will have many difficulties. And at the frontier if you strike a bargain with a smuggler he can get ten persons through the frontier. And I will reward you for this. If he does not come it will be a terrible sorrow and trial for us, and a large expense, because they will not give us the money for this ship ticket back; and I shall ever bear a grief in my heart, that I endeavored to have this child and have it not. Remember, dear sister, send him to me, I beg you for the love [of God?]. And now you wrote that you will send me a shawl, but don’t make any trouble about it for yourself and for the [man] who comes. May only all my children come; I don’t wish anything more. As you grieve about your children, so I grieve about mine. And I beg you once more, send me all the children, because the ship tickets are sent for all of them in order that they may all come. We salute you all and we wish you every good. Both of us beg for all the children. We will reward you for it. Mr. Wisniewski, if they ask you during the journey about anything, say only this, that you bring children to their parents. That is all; you don’t need any other explanations. And now again, if God leads you happily through the water perhaps they will require somebody, mother or father, to come and meet you in New York; then they will ask, “Is it your father or mother?” Let them [the children] say, “It is our mother or father.”And say Mr. Wisniewski is my brother. Then all will be well, only don’t give any other explanation than such as we request you to give. And now, dear sister, you write that perhaps they will send him back from Illowo. Well, then nothing can be done. It would be the will of God; he would be an orphan until his death and would never more see his mother. O my God, what a sorrow for me! But perhaps God will grant him to be let through. Prepare them all [for the journey], dear sister, I hope that he will get through. Your well-wishing and loving.


[Helena Brylska’s married name]

* * *

June 6 [1908?]

DEAR SISTER: I write as to a sister and I complain as to a sister about my children from the old country—those three boys. I did not have them with me, and I grieved continuously about them; and today again, on the other hand, my heart is bleeding. They will not listen to their mother. If they would listen, they would do well with me. But no, they wish only to run everywhere about the world, and I am ashamed before people that they are so bad. They arrived, I sent them to school, because it is obligatory to send them; if you don’t do it the teacher comes and takes them by the collar. So they have been going, but the oldest was annoyed with the school: “No, mama, I will go to work.” I say, “Go on to school.” But “No!” and “No!” Without certificates from the school they won’t let them work. I got certificates for the two oldest ones: “Go, if you wish.” They worked for some time, but they got tired of work. One went with a Jew to ramble about corners [trading or amusing himself?], and for some days was not to be seen; the two others are a little better. They were good in the beginning but now they know how to speak English, and their goodness is lost. I have no comfort at all. I complain [to you] as to a sister, perhaps you will relieve me at least with a letter, if you write me some words, dear sister. We remain, well-wishing.


January 10 [1909, 1910, or 1911]

DEAR SISTER: . . . . I received the letter with the wafer and I thank you for thinking of me, dear sister. Now, dear sister and brother-in-law, don’t be angry if I don’t write to you very often, but I didn’t know how to write myself and before I ask somebody to write time passes away, but I try to answer you sometimes at least. You ask me how much my boys and my man earn. My man works in an iron foundry, he earns 9, 10, 12 roubles [dollars] sometimes, and the other boys earn 4 or 5 roubles. My dear, in America it is no better than in our country whoever does well, he does, and whoever does poorly, suffers misery everywhere. I do not suffer misery, thanks to God, but I do not have much pleasure either. Many people in our country think that in America everybody has much pleasure. No, it is just as in our country, and the churches are like ours, and in general everything is alike. We remain, well-wishing.


My children, thank God, are not the worst now.

* * *

April 5 [1911]

As to the children, two of them are very good children. One is working and gives his money [to me], the other is going to school, and learns well, but the third is not at home at all. Stach has been bad, is bad, and will be bad. So long as he was smaller, he remained more at home. I begged him, “Stach, remain at home with your mother.” No, he runs away and loafs about. Well let him run. I had his eyes wiped [had him instructed] as well as I could; he can read, write, and speak English, quite like a gentleman. You say, “Beat.” In America you are not allowed to beat; they can put you into a prison. Give them to eat, and don’t beat — such is the law in America. Nothing can be done, and you advise to beat!

Nothing can be done; if he is not good of himself, he is lost. . . .

I regret that I took the children from our country so soon. In our country perhaps they would have had some misery, and in America they have none, and because of this many become dissolute. In America children have a good life; they don’t go any pastures, but to school, and that is their whole work. . . .


* * *

August 7, 1911

As to my children, I gave Maniek away to a school for 2 years. If he is good, I will take him [then], if he is not good, he will remain there till his twenty-first year. If he does his best and listens to what they tell him to do they will let him go sooner. If he does not listen, they will not let him go until his twenty-first year. I gave him away, dear sister, because he would not go to school and listen. I have always had trouble with him. I had to send him there, and perhaps he will become a [good] man. They teach reading and writing and different kinds of work. When he is older he will not suffer misery. I call on him frequently. He feels well. If he suffered misery there I would not allow this. The oldest is not with me, the second is not with me. I feared this one would run away. He will the sooner learn to be reasonable, and he can become a man . . .


Source: William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918–1920).