Thursday, July 14, 2016

What did my emigrant ancestors think when they saw Prague for the first (and probably only) time?

As I leave Moravia for the first time, of course I have had many thoughts about what it must have felt like for my ancestors as they left. Many, if not most, of them never had the opportunity to return home and ever again see this place, and more importantly, their family and friends who remained.

Several questions on my mind:
How did my ancestors get from the Ostrava/Frýdek-Místek area to Hamburg or Bremen?
Did they stop in Prague, like we are stopping in Prague now?
Did they do any tourism in Prague?
What did they think of Prague?

I can get the beginning of some of my answers from the book Perilous Voyages: Czech and English Immigration to Texas in the 1870's. 
The day of departure was well planned. Each group loaded its trunk on a cart pulled by oxen and traveled to the railhead at Místek. Unlike some emigrants who had to travel several days to reach a railhead, this group was as the steeple of the village church, that traditional symbol of security and home, faded into the distance. Upon their arrival at the station, the trunk was unloaded and checked with the station agent. The long wait for the train began.
Eventually a slight grayish column of smoke appeared in the distance, and the distinct sound of a steam locomotive was heard approaching. As the engine rolled by the platform, a hollow rattle dominoed back through the cars and sparks shot out from beneath the locomotive's wheels as the train jerked to a halt. This was a special train, one that would snake through the Austrian and German lands, picking up prerecruited emigrants destined for the steamship Strassburg at the north German port of Bremen. It was under the direction of an emigrant agent, who not only assisted the emigrants in their travel but who saw that all regulations were fulfilled. The cars resembled American cattle cars, similar to the ones that carried the Jews to the death camps in World War II, but of a more antique construction. Air brakes had been available for only a few years, and it is unlikely that a train in this service had such a luxury. The cars had practically no furnishings, only a few benches aligned along the walls, a water cask, and chamber pot.
After the agent checked and approved the papers of the eight families, the trunks were loaded into the cars, followed by the emigrants, with the provisions and baggage they had brought for the journey. The interiors were already crowded with emigrants picked up at previous stations. The water cask in each car was filled, and the chamber pot from a makeshift water closet in one corner was emptied before the door was slammed shut and locked from the outside. and past villages, and into the Moravian city of Olomouc, then turned northwest and then west toward the great city of Prague, which many of the passengers saw then for the first time. The continuous wind that whipped through the cars caused the trapped passengers to huddle in groups, hunkering down in their periny, traditional feather blankets. Many more emigrants were picked up along the way: some in Austria and many in Germany. Prague and Berlin were control points for these emigrant trains traveling from the Austrian Empire into the German Empire. At the control points the manifests held by the emigrant agent were checked against the passengers in each car and their corresponding documents before the train was allowed to proceed. Overcrowding was a common problem in the mass transportation of emigrants. The desire for greater profit margins by the transporters often superseded standards of common decency. 
Konecny, Lawrence H. and Clinton Machann (2004). Perilous Voyages: Czech and English Immigrants to Texas in the 1870's (pp. 99-101). College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press.

These few paragraphs (and the rest of this extremely good read, which you can buy on google books), as well as my own experience visiting my ancestral homeland, has made me pause to consider the enormity of my ancestor's sacrifice to leave. It was a huge sacrifice. It is very difficult for me to understand. Whereas my Mormon immigrant ancestors had clear, or at least more clear, motivations for leaving, it is difficult to understand exactly why my ancestors left, and what they must have felt when they left. I know a lot of general reasons, but to know, to really, truly know why they left...that is what has been driving so many of these subquestions, for example about their relationship to Prague.

It seems that the immigrants who left in the 1870's on this particular trip did not stop in Prague for more than a checkpoint. If they did get out, perhaps it was only to stretch their legs on the train ramp or buy some bread or something from a vendor there. It was certainly not to take a luxurious leisure and tourist trip with their true love, sans enfants, like I am doing. It seems doubtful they had the opportunity to cross the Charles Bridge, see Prague castle, or just generally wander the cobblestone streets.

What I do think is very likely: my ancestors would not have felt at home here. Even though Czech Nationalism was a real thing in the 1870's and 1880's when my ancestors left, and even though Prague is the, "mother of all cities," - it would have been like a foreign country to them. Except for the language, there is very little that is similar from Prague to Vratimov, or Prague to Frenštát p. Radhoštěm, or Prague to Trojanovice. It is a different world.

I wonder how they felt. Was it awe? Terror? Eye-rolling? Did the sight of Prague give them butterflies in their stomach? If, unlike the Czechs sited in the above text, mine actually did have the opportunity to spend the night in Prague, where would they have stayed? What would they have seen? Would they have been as anxious about pickpockets and drunkards as I am? Would they have recognized the Bohemian food as Czech? Would they have feared to leave each other?

I know my ancestors traveled in groups. It would be very interesting for me to learn more about the actual specific nature of their trip. Fortunately, there is much information available in the Frýdek-Místek archive, including passports and emigration application records. Of course I will need to research this more carefully and more fully.

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