Saturday, August 6, 2016


The assumption, in the case of most immigrants, is that they make their incredible journey to a new homeland with the intention of never again leaving. It is, after all, a hazardous enterprise to have crossed an ocean in search of a suitable place to call home, especially in previous centuries.

When Annie Gramlewicz's parents came to the United States in the 1890s, they knew exactly what it was like to take the cheapest passage possible for the long journey from Europe. One could presume that was a trip people seldom wished to repeat.

Annie and her siblings, having been born in New York City, knew nothing of the sacrifices their parents made to come to America. But they also knew nothing of what Mecislaus and Josefa remembered of the homeland they had left behind.

Apparently, the call of those memories overcame the lure of any opportunities the Gramlewicz elders might have enjoyed in their new life in New York. There was a reason why I couldn't find any trace of the Gramlewicz family in census records after 1910and why their one daughter Annie had had to find a home with a relative by the time of the 1915 state census: the family had decided to return to Poland.

Until I received confirmation from my Polish cousin, whom I met online years ago, that the Gramlewicz family had returned to Poland, I didn't really know what had happened. Only when passenger lists started showing up in online databases was I able to piece together the story. Even then, the document I'm sharing today was a more recent discovery. Thankfully, it confirms the story, owing in great deal to the handwriting added to the imagewhich never, incidentally, would have shown up if the record was offered only as a transcription.

It was the journey of Annie's older sister Helen in December, 1920, which provided the most complete snapshot of the family's odyssey. Arriving in the port of New York on December 13 of that year, the S. S. Zeeland, sailing from Antwerp, had brought Helen back to the city of her birth.

The passenger list was full of questions that had to be answered, thus providing us, nearly one hundred years later, with a glimpse of Helen's plans, once she disembarked at the end of her voyage. We learn that Helen Gramlewicz reported her age, at that time, as twenty four, and that she was a single woman. She declared her occupation to be bank clerk. In addition to being able to read and write Polish, she could also do so in both German and English. Despite having been born in New York, Helen considered Poland to be the country to which she owed her allegiance, but intended that her future permanent address would be in New York City.

It was at this point on the passenger list that we are provided with the information pertinent to the question of what became of Helen's parents. She listed her last residence address to be in the city of Zerkow, Poland, and specifically indicated that that was where her parents resided at the time.

The second page of the passenger list provided more confirmation of Helen's story. She explained that she had been born in New York City andthis is the important, handwritten note that would have been omitted from any transcriptionthat her family had left New York in November of 1912.

Of course, there were more mundaneyet interestingdetails on the form. We learn that Helen was five feet, three inches tall, with a fair complexion and blue eyes. Everything from the condition of her physical and mental health to her personal opinions about anarchy and polygamy were questioned as part of the routine screening on the second page of that form.

Interestingly, though she had left New York for Poland with her family in 1912, the passenger questionnaire revealed that Helen's purpose in coming to the United States was to never return to Poland, but this time, to "become a citizen of the United States." As to the question, "Length of time alien intends to remain in the United States," Helen declared, "always."

The one thing that proved the most pertinent to my search, though, was the detail of just where Helen planned to proceed, once cleared from questioning at the port of entry. According to the typed entry on the form, her next stop was going to be 1730 Stefan Street, Brooklynhome of her brother in law.

Thankfully, someone had written in yet another note providing me, through that shared image, with the lead for what had happened to Helen's sister Anna. Next to the typed "brother in law" was scrawled the note, "and sister, Anna Jablonski."

Above: Sunset Over the Sea, 1887 oil on panel by American landscape painter, George Inness; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. What a fascinating story . . . and a good reminder to always, always look at the original record. Transcriptions often mangle names or omit tiny details that make all the difference.

    1. Seeing those scribbled notes in the margin can make all the difference, as you well know, Marian!

      For many of our family stories with their twists and unexpected turns, it seems the result only comes into focus as the mosaic of sources is correctly assembled. No single source seems to be the magic bullet to tell the tale. Often, it is just an aside, or an unexpected post script that yields the clue to stitch the story all together.

      I love how things fall together like that...but oh, how much work it sometimes takes in the reconstruction of the reality.

  2. Yeah, but it makes you wonder why her parents went back. Homesick? Death of a relative? :)

    1. Yes, it does make me wonder. And considering the unfortunate timing of that family--returning just in time for the first World War, then staying through the next war and communist regime--I often wonder whether, in retrospect, they might have wished they hadn't returned.


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