Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Why Did They Return?

In researching the stories of immigrant families, it is customary to assume that, though they faced nearly-insurmountable difficulties in getting themselves to our shores alive and well, most immigrants to North America were here to stay, once they made the journey. Granted, adjustments to life in an entirely different culture must have been challengingbut we assume our ancestors faced those problems with the usual aplomb of survivors.

When I discovered that Anna Gramlewicz' immigrant parents opted to return to Poland, I saw they were definitely going against the flow. To think that, shortly after their return to their homelandwith their American-born children in towthey would be plunged into some of Europe's darkest hours seems an unfortunate twist of fate. To realize that they had brought their children right into the midst of not one war, but two, makes me wish I could have know what they were thinking, once those events began unfolding.

The scenario that played out in my mind for their one child whom I found in Brooklyn after their departure was that Anna had wanted so badly to remain in America that her parents relented and found her a safe place to stay with relativesmy great grandparents, Anton and Mary Laskowski.

How wrong I was in making that assumption! I discovered my error at about the same time as when the Ellis Island Foundation established its website with the searchable passenger lists.

One day, I sat down to the early version of that website and entered the surname Gramlewicz, to see how many people by that name might have been included in those lists. It turned out there were five people, spanning the years from 1907 to 1920. Of course, Anna's sister Helen was the one returning to New York in 1920, as we've already seen. Besides Helen, there were Gramlewiczes named Hedwig, Piotr and Stanislaw—none of which names I recognized as family. In addition to Helen's departure point of Antwerp, Belgium, one ship had arrived from Rotterdam; the rest sailed from Bremen, Germany.

There was one other Gramlewicz in that list, though, that surprised me: Anna, herself, had returned from Poland! She hadn't, after all, stayed behind in New York when her family had left for Poland in November, 1912.

This, of course, makes me wonder all the more: what made her decide to leave family and return, alone, to Brooklyn? My mind flies through all sorts of scenarios. Did she already know she wanted to marry a school sweetheart? Was she returning to an arranged marriage? If so, why didn't any of the other daughters do so, as well? Especially considering Helen's return later in 1920, this would make me wonder whether the same scenario was unfolding itself for Anna's older sister (though I could never find any indication that that became so).

Unlike the wonderful discoveries found scribbled in the margins of Helen's passenger list entry, there was nothing unexpected in Anna's readout. It revealed that she had traveled on the S.S. Friedrich der Grosse, sailing from Bremen on November 22, 1913, and arriving in the port of New York on December 3. The routine questions asked of passengers confirmed that Anna was born in Brooklyn on June 24, 1897, and that her residence address in New York was to be in Greenpoint, Long Island, one of the northernmost neighborhoods in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

What I find most interesting about those details is that Anna returned to Brooklyn almost exactly one year after she had left it. Perhaps her parents cajoled their reluctant teenager into returning home with them to Poland with the idea, "Try it for one year and see if you like it." If so, I suspect Anna knew well before that one year was up what she preferred to do.

There are all sorts of dilemmas we face in retrospect as we try to intuit just what our ancestors were thinking when they disappeared from their presumed trajectory and resurfaced far afield from our assumptions. Sometimes, a wider appreciation for what was happening in the big picture of history helps to second-guess our disappearing ancestors.

Sometimes, however, even though I wish I could, there is just no figuring out why these people chose to do what they did.

Above: Anna Gramlewicz' entry in the passenger list for the S.S. Friedrich der Grosse, bringing her back to her birthplace from Poland in 1913; image courtesy Ancestry.com.


  1. My great grandparents returned to their village because my great grandmother said the air was bad here. She might have been on to something since they lived in Passaic, known for its factories which brought TB, yet lived to be almost 97 back in the village. My grandmother, like Anna born here, returned to the U.S. in 1910, but never saw her mother again.

    1. Those must have been hard choices for family members back then. I wish there was a way to better understand what our ancestors were thinking when faced with these dilemmas.

      Thanks for sharing that story about your great grandparents, Linda. It helps to know others were also considering those same options. I wonder how many others made that same choice.

  2. So the whole family went back, they must have had some money to do so or relatives in Poland that helped finance all the Atlantic Crossings;)

    1. Good point, Connie. It couldn't have been cheap to pay for all that travel for a family of their size. I know Anna's father was a mason--and later a contractor--in New York, but while he likely made more than a common laborer, it couldn't have been that much more!


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