A synopsis by Marilyn Novak, Arlington Heights, IL – December 2001
History of the Area
In 1815, the Congress of Vienna awarded control of a section of northeastern Poland to Russia. This area was then called the “Congress Kingdom of Poland,” or “Russian Poland.” Plock was one of ten provinces which made up the Congress Kingdom of Poland.
The letters in this book were addressed to residents living in three of the administrative subdivisions of Plock, called “districts.” Rypin and Lipno bordered on Prussia and served as gateways out of Poland. The third district was Golub-Dobrzyn.
In those days, the population had increased. There were many landless and unemployed people in the districts. It also happened that men, when they came of age, were subject to being drafted into the Russian army for periods of 20 to 25 years.
How the Letters Came to be Stored
In the early 1890s, the Russian tsar’s censors were instructed to seize and open letters coming into the area. They removed money, steamship tickets, and leaflets promoting emigration in an effort to halt the clandestine, illegal emigration rush out of the Congress Kingdom, across the border to Bremen or Hamburg, and from those ports, on to the United States or Brazil.
The letters were opened, emptied, stamped “hold”, (“zadierzhat,” or “zad,” in Russian,) sent on to appropriate police stations for action, and eventually stored in a warehouse in Warsaw, awaiting destruction.
The First Compilation of these Letters
In the course of his research work in 1941, a Polish economic historian named Witold Kula found many thousands of these letters in a Warsaw warehouse. He studied about 1000 of them, taking them home and bringing them back to the warehouse. However, Kula managed to save only 367 of them – the majority were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. These 367 letters were later published in a work in Polish.
Writing Home, the Second Compilation
Josephine Wtulich, trained in sociology and anthropology, translated into English and annotated the same 367 letters which appear in this book,. She added the results of her own research in the form of an introduction full of much history, and splendid notes regarding matters which would be of interest to genealogists and historians.
1890 and 1891 were the first years of “Brazil fever,” as well as the years of the first major wave of emigration out of Poland to the US. Steamship and railroad companies, US manufacturers, and the government of Brazil actively recruited the peasants to “go to a better life.”
The letters are enlightening, and heart rending. How did people get across the border between Prussia and Russian Poland so that they could get to the ports from which the ships left? How much did passage cost? How did people pass the time while they waited for the ship to leave? How long did a sea voyage take? Were conditions onboard the ship as terrible as some we have heard about? What was the free land offered in Brazil really like? Was work as plentiful in the US as the recruiters had said? How did the new arrivals describe life in the US or Brazil to their relatives back home?
The answers to these questions can be found in the letters. So can a great sense of sadness, when one reads of men believing that their wives or parents back in Poland do not love them anymore because they do not answer their letters! The book Writing Home: Immigrants in Brazil and the United States 1890-1891 can be obtained through Interlibrary Loan through your local library. A few genealogical libraries (such as that of the Polish Museum of America in Chicago) may have it on shelf. It is available for purchase through popular on-line bookstores, but is over $100 in cost.
Two Good Reasons to Check the Index and/or Read the Book:
1) If you have ancestors who came from this area, their names might be listed, and
2) If you want an enjoyable read, learning a good deal about what our courageous ancestors experienced as they set out to establish new lives in a new land, this book is an excellent choice.
Notes on the Index
a) Polish diacritical marks are not used.
b) In the “Address” column, the words “now” or “today” in front of the name of a province in Poland refers to the political divisions (the province names) as they were in 1986 when this book was written. In 1998, the provinces were re-structured and re-named, so the province names existing today will most likely NOT be the same name
c) The word “parents” can also mean in-law parents, as used in Polish family life.
d) In Poland, “Plock” is the name of a province, a district, and a village. As it is used in the book, however, Plock always refers to the name of the province.