By Tom Piatak
Fun fact learned over the weekend: my Polish great-grandfather came to America on the same ship as my Slovak great-grandmother, along with several thousand others. I wonder if they ever realized that.
Walenty Kowalczyk died just six years after his daughter married Maria Piatak’s son in the city I am fortunate enough to call home.
I understand the difference between a pioneer, who helps to create a civilized country where none had existed before, and an immigrant, who arrives after that civilized country has already been created. And I agree with the magazine for which I have been writing for two decades that America is not a nation of immigrants.
In fact, America is a country created by the men and women who succeeded in establishing 13 English colonies on land formerly largely given over to wilderness. The English colonists created America, and America would have done just fine without us Ellis Island folk.
Still, I cannot but marvel at the courage of Walenty Kowalczyk and Maria Piatak and all the others like them. For most of them, the journey to America was the first time outside of the cluster of villages in which their families had lived for decades, even centuries. It was their first time on a train. It was their first time in a large city where virtually no one would be able to understand what they said–in this case, Hamburg. It was their first time on a boat of any kind.
Then, at the end of a far from pleasant Atlantic crossing, they found themselves in another large city where virtually no one would be able to understand what they said, needing to figure out how to make their way to a third strange city, often deep in a country quite different from the one they had left. Most never saw their parents again, or even spoke to them.
Walenty and Maria have my gratitude, and admiration.