The Great Polish Peasant Migration Revealed in the PWAA Insurance Applications

by Jade Newman

As this is my first time writing for Newberry’s Genealogy blog I’d like to take a few lines to introduce myself. I am a student of the University of Illinois at Chicago and have spent the semester working as the Newberry’s Polish language intern. In my time here I have been indexing the insurance applications of the Polish Women’s Alliance of America (PWAA).  I will be graduating in the spring of 2012 with a B.A. in English and a minor in Polish.

During my study of  the P.W.A.A. records, I have noticed that a large number of Polish immigrants originally hailed from Galicia. This is unsurprising due to the fact it was during the late 19th century that the largest flow of emigrants out of Poland began. This great migration lasted until the beginning of World War I.

The great migration concerned mostly members of the peasant class and, to a lesser extent, Jewish-Poles. In considering this information it is of interest to define “peasant” in the context of Poland during the partitions. In this period, dated from 1772-1918, there were five distinctive classes of citizens: Nobles, clergy, burghers, peasants and Jews. A Polish peasant (chłop) is a fieldworker who is historically landless. Poles who had themselves been serfs and even their descendants were still viewed as “peasants” after serfdom’s abolition in 1864. In her work The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasant National Identity in Austrian Poland Keely Stauter-Halsted nicely paraphrases the historian Jan Słomka: “To be a chłop in nineteenth-century Poland was to share certain elements of a subculture, including attitudes and customary practices inherited from serfdom.”

A cultural nod to the migration can be seen in the epic poem “Mr. Balcer in Brazil” (Polish: “Pan Balcer w Brazylii”) by Maria Konopnicka. A verse of the work, written in 1910, translates as follows:

A chłopy trwały setny, nic tej duszy
Nie popuszczając głosu ni lamentu.
chłop, jak się zawziąl,to prędzej ukruszy
Skałki, niż jego. Ma twardość djamentu.

 Or:

“The peasants endured
not giving voice to this soul nor to this lament.
A peasant, if he makes up his mind, will sooner crush stone
than it crushes him. He has the hardness of a diamond.”

The Konopnicka verse signifies the wide-reaching cultural and literary impact of the great migration. The broader peasant consciousness is  exemplified by  the strength of a single brave Pole with the fortitude to seek new opportunity in a foreign land.

Why should a genealogist today  consider the great peasant migration as being of such consequence?

A majority of the applications in the early P.W.A.A. records I’ve been studying list the applicant’s date of birth from 1870-1900,with the applications themselves being filed from 1915-1930 approximately. These ranges designate that many of the applicants were likely part of the historic move.

To demonstrate the trend of migration I’ll use an example. In groups #154-160 there is a great concentration of applicants who have listed their birth place as Galicia.  Given that earlier groups #47-52 have only a handful of applicants who have listed Galicia as their birth place, there are two logical conclusions. The first is that over time the P.W.A.A. encountered more Poles who had emigrated from Galicia and the second is that Poles who had originally lived in Galicia resettled near other Galician- born Poles. Based on my study of the records, I find strong support for this second conclusion is based on the fact that some groups of applications are predominantly Galician-born, while others, even in the same city, have very few applicants from Galicia.  .

These records  provide a broad context for understanding these women who are so much more than a given name and birthplace,  even to those of us who are not their descendants.

Comments

Very interesting details, and a fresh approach to history!
I could watch Schindler's List and still be happy after redanig this.

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