Migrations, Then and Now

For me, migration patterns are one of the most fascinating elements of family history. So many of our European ancestors made trans-Atlantic migrations, enduring difficult journeys to arrive in North America and begin new lives among people whose culture and language were foreign. But there are other relocation stories I’ve discovered through my research, too. What prompts a shoemaker in Podlachia to move 150 miles away from his place of birth, and settle in a small village in Mazovia circa 1800? And why does a young girl working as a domestic servant in 1900, leave her job, home, and family in St. Catharines, Ontario, and move to Portland, Oregon? Financial considerations and work opportunities seem to be logical answers, but there are probably other, more personal answers as well. A sense of adventure? Love? A desire to escape difficult circumstances?

I’ve made moves like this myself, both actively and passively. My first home was on Grand Island, New York, but I have no memory of it. When I was about 2, my Dad took a new job and we moved a thousand miles away, to Omaha, Nebraska, where we lived for about a year, until he was transferred to another office in Cincinnati, Ohio. When I was 10, we moved back to Western New York, where I finished my schooling and obtained my bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo, before moving on to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. Primed by those early moves, I felt confident in my choice to move 2,600 miles across the country, and I remember the feeling of excitement as I stepped onto the airplane, bound for California, ready to claim my future. Did my ancestors share that sense of hope and eagerness, or were their moves made in a spirit of resignation, bitterness, or sorrow at what they were leaving behind? Certainly we sacrifice less today than they did, given the ease with which we can stay in touch with our loved ones via Skype, Zoom, and texting, not to mention airline travel.

Or do we? It seems that nowadays, our moves are more solitary. My then-fiancé, now husband came with me to California, also intending to obtain a graduate degree, but it was just the two of us there for five years. There was no chain migration, no steady flow of friends and family from Buffalo coming to join us in Berkeley and establish a new community there. When our oldest son was born, and I was an exhausted, anxious young mother, confronted with the reality that I didn’t know a thing about taking care of an infant, I didn’t have my mother or mother-in-law there to comfort and guide me. Despite their supportive phone calls, we were on our own.

I think that “big moves” of more than a few hundred miles help us understand and define ourselves. Living in California, Bruce and I discovered that our identity derived, in part, from our origins in Buffalo. Buffalonians are like an ethnic group, Bruce observed on one occasion, bound together by our shared experiences and common culture. Moving to a new place forces us to choose—whether consciously or not—the elements of our original culture that are preserved, and the elements that are left behind. Unable to last five years without Buffalo’s famed “beef on weck,” Bruce learned to make his own kummelweck rolls. Unable to find a good Polish deli locally, I ordered kiełbasa from Redliński’s Meats in the Broadway Market and paid an arm and a leg for shipping, despite our impoverished graduate student status, because it was unthinkable to not have kiełbasa for our Święconka celebration at Easter.

Although we chose to preserve these elements of our Buffalo culture, other elements were discarded. The Seven Churches Visitation on Holy Thursday is a lovely custom, but it’s not universally practiced in Catholic communities throughout the U.S., so it was absent from our family culture as we moved from California to Illinois to Massachusetts. Czarnina, or duck’s blood soup, which was popular in Western New York’s Polish community and a favorite of both our mothers, has been jettisoned from the family’s culinary legacy. Although I’m saddened by the fact that our family no longer speaks Polish or German, the languages of (most) of my ancestors, I’m guilty of making the same kinds of cultural choices, keeping what works and what we like, and letting go of the rest.

As family historians, our ability to understand our ancestors’ culture, history, and environment is often the key to breaking through brick walls. By studying their FANs (Friends, Associates and Neighbors), we gain insight into our ancestors’ motivation and thought process. Can’t find documentary evidence for great-great-grandpa’s hometown in Germany? See where his FANs came from. Can’t determine which port he sailed into? Even details such as specific travel routes were often repeated by immigrants from the same villages. In earlier times, people retained their social connections, recreating whole communities on the other side of an ocean. Today, not so much. Nowadays, when people move across the country or across the world in isolation, it can be harder to guess their motivation. Unless, of course, they write a genealogy blog.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020


21 thoughts on “Migrations, Then and Now

  1. I was very young, but I remember remember my dad picking up and dropping off his sister, my mother, and me to walk between seven churches in Buffalo on Holy Thursday. It must have been in the early 1960s. It was doable, because the churches were not that far apart. As I learn more about my relatives, I am amazed how much chain migration there was to Buffalo, and how families from the old country reconnected with one another in the new country. I think we all keep what’s meaningful to us and leave behind what does not resonate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Julie,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and interesting post. It led me to reflect on my and my parents’ migration from being stateless refugees in Germany to finding sanctuary in America. At 16, I left home in Queens NY to start college in Massachusetts and eventually settled here after a 2 year sojourn to a town called Calexico on the Mexican border.

    It looks like I won’t have a chance to meet you this May, but look forward to doing so next year.

    With my best wishes,


    Liked by 1 person

  3. I find your writings fascinating. I grew up on the east side of Buffalo and went to high school with a friend who shares your last name. She also grew up on the east side. Wondering if you’re related.

    On Thu, Apr 23, 2020 at 7:25 PM From Shepherds and Shoemakers wrote:

    > Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz posted: “For me, migration patterns are one > of the most fascinating elements of family history. So many of our European > ancestors made trans-Atlantic migrations, enduring difficult journeys to > arrive in North America and begin new lives among people whose culture ” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Karen! Thanks for your kind words. My husband’s family was from Kaisertown, so it’s possible that there’s a connection. You can send me a private message through the blog’s contact form (in the menu at the top of the page) if you’d like to explore this further.


  4. Motivation is always one and the same – better future. Forced migrations are the exception but even then, after it’s all done, people had to decide what’s better for them – stay where they are, go back home or go into the unknown.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, if people did not ultimately feel that they’d be better off moving to a new place, they wouldn’t go. But I guess what I’m asking is, in what specific way will the future be better? Which opportunities are better? Educational? Financial? Cultural? I’m also interested in the reasons why people chose NOT to migrate. For example, one of my great-great-grandmothers lost 9 of her 10 children before the age of 35. Her only surviving son (my great-grandfather), who was also the only one to marry and have children, was living in the U.S. When his last remaining sibling died in 1921, my great-grandfather went back to Poland, presumably to settle the family affairs and bring his mother back to the U.S. with him. Yet she chose to remain in Poland, living with a sister. One could argue that her future would have been better had she moved to be with her son and his family in America, but instead, she stayed behind. I’m sure some of the answer lies in an individual’s innate tolerance for risk and change. Interesting questions, anyway. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Depending on status – nobility often send young boys to “cultural” centers to get acquainted with the world, get experience. You g girls were send to places where they could meet somone in higher position. Everyone below nobility looked at money – way of feeling the family. Some gave their children away to masters of professions for training knowing their land won’t sustain all the mouths that have to be fed and if a child returned as a master himself he would be able to support himself and his family. As to why your ancestor decided to stay in Poland – there is a Polish saying that “starych drzew się nie przesadza” (you don’t transplant old trees). Moving from one village to another within same county/country is different than moving across the ocean to where people don’t speak the same language. Besides, as my great-grandpa said, is the sky different color there? Is the grass not green there?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “Starych drzew się nie przesadza” — that seems to sum it up well. 🙂 And yet I’ve seen cases where older family members did, in fact, emigrate to be with their children. Three of my husband’s great-great-great grandmothers came to America to be with their children. Apolonia Bogacka was 67 when she immigrated, Franciszka Kantowska was 53, and Marianna Drajem was possibly as old as 78 (haven’t found her passenger manifest yet). All of them came to Buffalo, New York, where there was a well-established Polish community, complete with a Polish daily newspaper, Polish shops, and Polish churches. That was the beauty of chain migration — people could feel very much at home, despite the fact that they were living in a new country.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you sharing some of your personal journey in life. It is always very interesting to read your blogs. I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and grew up in a Polish community and attending Polish churches. I have never heard of the custom of visiting 7 churches on Holy Thursday. Did this custom originate in a particular region of Poland or dit it perhaps originate in Buffalo?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Julie, you are very perceptive. My parents moved first from Poland by force in a way because they were forced labor in Germany. Then they moved to Belgium because that’s where the jobs were and finally to the US which was my mother’s dream after she met a US soldier who bragged about how wonderful life was in the US. “There is money in the streets,” he promised. They knew it wasn’t so but they also recognized that it was a land of opportunity.
    As a 7 year old, I objected heartily to the move; to leaving behind an environment that I knew and friends that were not easy for me to get to know because of my shyness. But, of course, my vote didn’t count and I’ll never know whether we would have been just as well off in Belgium as we are in the USA.
    There is a Polish folk song that you may know. It’s called, Goralu, Czy Ci Nie Zal.” It means, Goralu, Are You Not Sad (more or less.). It’s a story of a Polish mountaineer who leaves the mountains that he loves to go find work and he answers the question posed in the song by saying, “bo chleba, bo chleba te gory opuscic trzeba.” “For bread, for bread these mountains must be left behind,” and for my parents generation and many previous generations that was the case. Thank you for your interesting and informative blogs.

    Chris Bennett

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Julie – it’s like trying to answer the question why our ancestors went down from trees and why our cousins didn’t and live on trees till this day… 😉


  8. I’m first generation Canadian – both my parents migrated here separately. My dad was forcibly migrated during WWII, to the steppes of Kazakhstan and from there went to Persia, Palestine, and finally, England. It was from there he moved to Canada, following his brother, sister, and mother (the other brother went to Australia). My mum lived in the same house about 30 miles from London from the day she was born there until when she came to Canada in 1958, six months before my dad. After they bought their house in 1964, it was their home until my mum sold it five years ago, when she moved from Ottawa to Saskatoon (my dad died in 2001).

    Being a combined family culturally, we observed both Polish and English style Christmases – tons of work for my mum! Even now, we celebrate Wigilia and my husband’s Irish/Scottish family has embraced it as well. My Polish is poor, however, as the only Polish school in Ottawa was downtown and held Saturday mornings. My parents worked all week and had no interest in driving from the suburbs into the city early on one of their two days off. After my babcia moved in with us, I learned some more and know that there’s a lot on there, I just need practise.

    My biggest move was across the country 14 years ago – I’m a definite home body, and it was the first time I’d ever gone so far from “home”. Many people can’t believe I lived in the same house throughout my childhood. For me, it was never the same after my dad died, so when my mum sold it, it wasn’t nearly as emotional for me as I thought it might be.

    I’m equally proud of both my heritages and try to stay as close to my Polish side as I can in an area where there are few people who speak the language.


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