100 Years Ago This Month Grandma Came to America and Everything Changed
I wanted to know what I missed by being born in America, to understand what it means to lose two thousand years of history in the time it takes to buy a one-way ticket on a ship leaving ‘the old country’ for the new. That motivation is what led me to my life-changing seven-month sojourn to Poland in 2000 to find my family, my roots, in the much misunderstood land of my ancestors. This July in 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of my grandparents emigration to the new world. Sto lat!
Eighteen years was all my grandmother, Helena Bryszkiewska, had in Poland, but she never forgot Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, the bustling “big town” near the village of her birth, Sugajno. It was the destination for which she put on her best clothes, a place that made her smile just to think of it. She told me she was her father’s sprytna child, the clever one, who was ready to go before he had finished asking her to put her coat on, and it was he who handed her over to his brother-in-law and saw her off to America at the train station in Nowe Miasto.
The Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm sailed from Bremen, Germany, on July 12, 1913, with my grandmother on it, and arrived in New York on July 21. Nine nights at sea, during which everyone was seasick except her. She once told me that the part of the trip she loved best was being able to eat all the pickled herring she wanted, while her sister ran for the basin.
Her Uncle Stanislaw Jurkiewicz, her sister Wanda, and my grandmother are the first three entries in the ship’s manifest, which I located in the National Archives, written that day in 1913 in a careful, readable hand. Uncle Jurkiewicz’s wife, Veronika, awaited then at 580 Ferry Street in Detroit, the log says. Scrawled across his nationality in the ship’s record is “US Citizen.”
My grandmother, or Busia, as I called her, never became a US citizen, although her second husband, my grandfather, Antoni Brodacki did in 1938 at the age of 46, having arrived in America in September of 1913. She believed, she told me, that if her husband was a citizen, that was sufficient–she was a citizen too. Wrong. In 1963, she was the sweet little old lady in a babushka who got pulled over by customs at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit after they asked her to tell them where she was born. “I borrrrn in a Michigan,” she fibbed, just to make the crossing to Canada easier. After all, she had done so once before when her son Hank took her through Canada to visit her daughter Mary in Maine. But her accent gave her away this time, and instead of making our crossing easier, we were detained for an hour while authorities registered her as an “alien” and told her to carry and ID card saying so for the rest of her life.
In those days, you did not need a passport to go to Canada. The driver told the border authorities that you were from Michigan, and they waved your car through. Except we got lucky with a super-efficient border guard who asked each of us to declare our place of birth. I will never forget Busia trilling “I borrrn in a Michigan,” and I will never stop thanking her for making it possible for me to own my most valued possession–my American passport. God bless grandma and grandpa, as I imagine them in heaven, blissfully oblivious to the poverty they endured, the wars they sent their sons to fight, and imperious border guards who never knew them.