Category Archives: Archival Sources

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.