Category Archives: Archival Sources

Linguistic Challenge Revisited

The linguistic challenge post, written 10 years ago, at the start of the Bohdan Pawłowicz project in 2013, was a snapshot in time triggered by the memories and feelings towards the languages I had learned at different times and in different ways for different purposes, as well as the realization of the need to learn the Polish language differently: not only as a way to communicate orally with the family, but as a means to reading, interpreting and translating it into English and eventually Portuguese.

The trip to Poland in April and May 2013 proved that my speaking and listening fluency was adequate, as I managed to understand, be understood and hold my own in everyday situations.  Once I had recovered my grandfather’s papers, I further put the language into practice: I gradually built this website and fleshed out  the biographies with more information and detail gleaned from the documents, the recorded narratives, and the annotated photos of my ancestors. 

In October 2015, I visited Arizona and stayed with my cousin Leszek, who handed me two boxes filled with more of my grandfather’s diaries, articles and family photos which had been left in his care by my late uncle. These have joined the ones my mother had given me and those I had brought from Poland. Although I managed to go through some of the materials and absorb enough information to convey the basics, progress was still very slow.

At the end of 2021, I officially retired from teaching English at the French school, which meant my close involvement with English and French was diminished considerably. Besides, picking from a list of resolutions for the new year, I decided to enroll in an online course of Polish in March 2022. The course named “Uczymy się razem” (We learn together) is offered every semester by the Casa da Cultura Polônia- Brasil in Curitiba, Paraná, and is sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. 

After an interview and a positioning test which placed me in the most advanced level offered (Polish VII), I started taking classes every Saturday from 9 to 11:30 am. The group in this class (about nine to ten students, most of whom I have now met for three semesters)  are in general much younger than I am and represent the third or fourth generation of immigrants, who have had very little or no contact with the language at home. The exception is a lady from São Paulo, who, like me, is second generation, and closely matches my age and linguistic profile: Polish is the language she learned at home from her parents. 

While the younger generation is learning Polish to obtain the Karta Polaka to eventually go to Poland to study, get a job, or live there, my colleague and I want to improve our reading, hone our writing skills, and expand our vocabulary. Both of us know the language and use it instinctively (and, much to my surprise, correctly most of the time) without having to parse mentally hard grammatical rules such as the various cases and declensions, most of which we may not even be aware of. I am amazed at how well my parents (and hers) succeeded at teaching us so well informally: all the components of the language come together like a well choreographed dance, and they hardly ever miss a step. We also notice immediately when something gets tripped up. Heaven only knows what it must be like for the other students who have not had this advantage, as Polish is not an easy language to learn.

Although I am now more effective when it comes to reading, writing assignments inflict utter misery on me. Dictation is, for the time being, the fiercest of furnaces and a source of anguish. To counteract it, I diligently write down and copy all my exercises and corrections, in the hope of getting acquainted with the spelling, understanding the patterns and memorizing the most common words. “The Polish spelling is not for the fainthearted.” 

As a student on the course I am also invited to participate in various folklore festivals and cultural events that take place in the Polish community. Most of them happen in or around Curitiba, in the different towns of the state of Paraná, where many Polish immigrants have settled. As I live in São Paulo, I have been following only what is broadcast online, such as interviews with Polish writers and professors, which have exposed me to a different register of the language than the one I am used to in everyday situations. The distancing from English and French and closer contact with Polish has kindled the questions I asked myself at the end of that post I wrote ten years ago. The situation has changed since then and the rapport among the different languages, reversed.

This year, for the first time, I translated one of my grandfather Bohdan’s articles into Portuguese instead of English.  This decision was the result of a chance encounter, which, together with other apparently unrelated events, developed into a publishing opportunity. 

At the end of January 2023, following a link shared in our Polish class Whatsapp, I learned about  Fabricio Vicroski (Wichrowski), an activist of the Polish community and a representative of the Polish ethnic group in the Sectoral College for Linguistic Diversity in Rio Grande do Sul.  He launched and is promoting an initiative called National Inventory of the Polish Language in Brazil. When I got in touch with him, he told me more  about the project and I introduced him to my own family project, which he complimented me on.

Some weeks later, while looking at my grandfather’s documents, I randomly picked one of his articles from a box of yellowish newspaper clippings, and read it.  It was published in 1966, a year before Bohdan died, and is titled “Letter from Father to Son.”  Being addressed to his son, Leszek, and his son’s generation, it is also dedicated “to all the Polish fathers from the post-war Polish diaspora scattered across the globe.” 

It is an urgent plea for the post-war generations to maintain their Polishness, pass it on to their children, and promote it in the countries to which they have emigrated. I found the intense tone a bit too nationalistic for my taste but I could relate to the article’s feelings in the context of the trying times Poland had undergone, having been partitioned several times, having seen its people rendered stateless, their nationality and language suppressed many times. I contacted Fabricio and sent him the article, which he suggested I translate into Portuguese and submit to Boletim Tak, where he has also published several articles. I translated it immediately but only sent it to the editor of the bulletin at the beginning of August, once my Polish teacher had gone over it. It was accepted and I was told it will be published in TAK32-setembro_outubro_2023 (added link to file on 21st October 2023 – article is on pages 12 to 15). I was also invited to talk to my class in a few weeks about my ancestors’ experience, challenges and perspective on WWII after a screening of the film Katyn by Andrzej Wajda.

Different threads seem to be untangling and pointing towards new possibilities.

From Poland to Brazil: the MS Vulcania

Both my mother and my grandparents kept the family saga alive by telling their children and grandchildren episodes from their own and their ancestors lives. Not only that, but they kept many items (photographs, papers, letters…) which, to a certain extent, document these. While researching the family history, my challenge has been to rectify the inconsistencies and connect the dots – bringing their stories together, illustrating them with personal documents and validating them against archival sources.

One such episode concerns my grandmother Wanda’s escape from Poland with her two children at the beginning of WWII. During my childhood I was always told this had succeeded thanks to my grandmother’s Brazilian passport and the Brazilian consulate’s help in Berlin. João Navarro da Costa, the Brazilian consul in Berlin at that time, not only instructed Wanda how to obtain the necessary papers from the German authorities in Krákow but also paid for the family’s trip from Berlin to Genoa and to Brazil. I found a number of documents related to this episode, among them the train tickets from Berlin to Genoa and a third class ship ticket to Brazil issued on May 1st 1940. The name of the ship stamped on the paper ticket is MS Vulcania and the date of departure, May 3rd, is crossed out in and replaced with May 2nd.

However, when I started investigating in 2012, I could not, at the time, find any evidence online that the MS Vulcania had made a southbound journey that year. Wikipedia and other sites indicated her normal route was Trieste – Naples – New York City – Trieste and the only single voyage recorded to South America took place in 1947. I questioned my mother, who replied she was told later they had boarded the last ship to depart from Genova to Brazil before Italy entered the war and closed the route. Yet, this piece of information did not lead me to MS Vulcania but to SS Conte Grande, which sailed at the end of May, weeks later than the 2nd May stated on the ticket. Besides, the travel pass given to my grandmother by the consulate in Berlin on April 26th, stated she was to embark to Brazil on May 2nd.

I talked to an Italian friend of mine, whose father had worked for an Italian shipping company in Santos. She referred me to friends of his, Mr and Mrs Bagnato, who very kindly directed me to the website of Marcello Mascherini, a well-known Italian sculptor frequently commissioned to do work on the famous Italian liners of that time, the MS Vulcania among them. On this site I found a timeline for the MS Vulcania, which records in 1940 a voyage to Buenos Aires starting in Trieste on April 26th.

While looking for more sources, I found an incredible number of amateur (and some professional) Italian historical websites and quite interesting memorabilia and ephemera. Many of these sites also offer detailed information on where to find more records. The Italian immigration to Brazil is one of the best documented in the country because of the sheer number of people who arrived here, as well as the interest of the families in finding their roots. Most immigrants came on Italian liners, like the MS Vulcania, and disembarked at the port of Santos before being guided to the Immigration Inn in São Paulo.

Stimulated by these virtual visits, I decided to surf on to the site of the Museum of Immigration of the State of São Paulo, the headquarters of which used to be the Inn. There, digitisation of documents had started but not all passenger lists were online, so it was only after about two years of frequent poking that I finally found what I was looking for: The Vulcania passenger list for May 1940. So the ship had sailed to South America at this time after all! After downloading the file and updating Wikipedia, I had to continue my search as the list of passengers did not contain the trio’s names…

Questioned again, Mother remembered the MS Vulcania was not the original ship they were supposed to board in Genoa; as some passengers had cancelled their booking, my grandmother and her charges were rushed on board at the last minute. This might explain why the name of the ship was stamped on the ticket and the original date May 3rd had been crossed out and corrected to May 2nd. She mentioned that during the trip there were rumours that some of the people on board were traveling incognito. In Gibraltar, the ship was searched and some people were forced to descend, while off the Brazilian coast a group of passengers got away on a motor boat before the ship reached Salvador. Although mother was just 11, she also recalled the stop in Barcelona, devastated by the Italian bombings of 1938 and the civil war.

Mother suggested that although Italian authorities might not have recorded their names in Genoa, surely the three of them must have been registered by the immigration office in Rio de Janeiro, where they disembarked officially. I then realized the passenger list I had found was not complete as it only contained the names of the people who had disembarked in Santos… Off I went to the Brazilian National Archives, but I was discouraged by the difficulty of navigating the site. I knew the information was there but just could not access it.

So I have very recently tried again in the hope that something had changed. Bingo! The Archives site has been redesigned and from there I was directed to the SIAN database. After a long registration online, in which I had to fully identify myself, I had again a very hard time locating and retrieving the file BR.AN, RIO. OL.0.RPV, PRJ.32870 as the simple search function does not recognize single words like Vulcania, or the year 1940. I had to resort to a different site I found via Google, which gave me the exact name of the file to look for. The search this time was successful as I uncovered a 35-page list (four different pdfs) issued by the immigration service in Rio de Janeiro. The three members of my family are listed on page 4, numbers 20, 21 and 22 in Terza Classe – my mother, Hanna (11 at the time), and my uncle, Leszek (14), traveling on the Brazilian passport of Wanda Salmonowicz (39), my grandmother’s maiden name.