Episodes from the Life of an Immigrant Woman.
My father's name was Stepan Buksak. He was a member of a peasant family living in Rava Ruska, Eastern Galicia. My mother came from some French nobility lost by Napoleon during his military campaigns in Eastern Europe. She was born in Brody and her name was Anna Dekonta. I was born in Turylcha, christened in Skala by the Zbruch River (Borshchiv District) and grew up in the Sniatin District of the Pokutia.
I was eleven years old when my father died of a heart attack at work. He left six orphan children among whom I was the eldest. Six months after my father's death our youngest sister died, leaving five of us for my mother to care for.
In 1911, many families in our area, as well as single men and girls were emigrating to Canada. Although I was only 14, I was bitten by the desire to also go. My father's brother, who acted as our guardian, wouldn't allow me to leave, saying that I was too young. So a year went by.
In 1912, another large group from our area was preparing to immigrate. Our neighbour Ivan Shtefiuk with his family was also planning to leave to join his brother in Canada. The Shtefiuks liked me and promised to talk to my mother to allow me to go with them. During that period people actually fled to Canada, our life was very difficult in the homeland. There had been floods over a number of years, the taxes were very high and the peasants were sinking deeper and deeper into debt. The more radical among them could not face the growing destitution among the peasantry, so they sold what they had and left home.
THE HOPED-FOR DAY ARRIVES
In the spring of 1913, I went to Zabolotiv to get a work permit because I so desperately wanted to emigrate to Canada. In answer to the questions about my name, age and so on, I decided to pretend that I was a year older, so I told the clerk that I was 17, although my 16th birthday had just passed. He asked what year I was born and I said 1898. He wrote this down and I went home quite pleased with myself.
The longed-for day finally arrived. I believe it was May 25, 1913, when a great many of us gathered to board a special train, the first move on our trip to Canada. The agent collected our passports and emigration papers. He asked me for mine and I told him that I had given them to him the week before. He tried to remember, and then said that he had probably forgotten them in the office and sent me there to pick them up. By the time I returned the train had left without me.
I decided to catch up with it in Lviv, but it wasn't there when I arrived, so I continued alone to Vienna. There I met three Polish young people, a brother and sister and brother-in-law, who were going to New York.
The agent in Vienna put us on a train to the then Austrian port of Trieste. Here we were taken to a building by a park. The people already there surrounded us, asking why we took this route as they had already been waiting there a whole month and others as long as six weeks for a ship. They said they were hungry, were being eaten up by lice, and suffering all kinds of discomfort. And truly, there were many people there - women with small children, all faint from hunger, lying about on the grass, or rather, on the ground, for the grass was so tramped down that it had dried out under their feet. We were called in to lunch in a barrack-like building, seated behind long tables and offered beans and macaroni. This was our food for the entire week-beans and macaroni.
One day we went to get inoculated against smallpox, after which I was summoned to the bureau. An immigration officer asked me to whom I was going and how old I was.
"Seventeen", I told him.
"How could you be 17 and be born in 1898," he wondered. "You've got to return home, my girl."
I explained to them about my travelling with the Shtefiuk family and how we were separated. I confessed that instead of adding a year to my life I had actually lowered it a year that I was actually 17 and would rather drown myself than return home.
This didn't help. The bellicose bureaucrat insisted that I must return home. One misfortune after another. But I suddenly remembered that I had taken my birth certificate from my mother before I left. The next day, I straightened the matter out with the bureau and wasn't sent home.
I began to hear discussions among the emigrants that all of us, young and old, would take part in a demonstration to the Austrian consulate where a delegation would go in and tell them of our maltreatment at the port where people had been waiting for two months for a ship. All agreed that we wouldn't leave till we were given a satisfactory reply or a return of all our expenses and sent home. Although we weren't all living in the same building, people to organize the demonstration were found, and, at the agreed-upon time, several hundred emigrants, including even the small children, walked through the streets of Trieste to the Austrian consulate where our delegation entered the building. After some time they came out and gave us a report on their meeting. I can't recall their exact words; I just remember that the consul assured us that a ship would soon be in port. True enough, a couple of days later, an agent came and informed us that a ship had arrived. I believe that this demonstration took place between the 2nd and 5th of June, 1913.
ON THE SHIP "POLONIA"
We boarded the ship "Polonia". Some among us wouldn't board because it had only one stack. They decided to wait for a bigger ship, one with at least three stacks. The ship was actually a freighter, not a passenger ship. It was extremely dirty and didn't have the necessary amenities for people. There wasn't even any water to drink. The beds were built out of boards in two tiers, covered with straw and a grey blanket. I can't remember if there were pillows or sheets. A ship's officer divided us into small groups of ten or so; a sailor distributed tin plates, cups, a spoon and a fork to each of us and two bowls and a jug for each group. One of every ten went to the kitchen three times a day and brought us our breakfast, dinner and supper. We ate on the deck. The food was terrible, potatoes in their jackets, not even washed, a dry herring or other fish. They also gave us a jug of wine twice a day to drink instead of water. That wasn't available even for the children. One could buy more wine in the canteen, as well as tobacco, chocolates, candy and some foods.
After the 8:00 p.m. supper, the women were separated from the men. A man couldn't even visit his sick wife in the women's section. The guards went through between 9:00 and 10:00 every night to make sure that every one slept in their own bed. The greatest amount of sickness existed among the women and children. One of the babies died on its mother's breast. The poor woman cried and begged the Captain in vain to allow her to bury the child on Canadian soil. Nothing helped - the baby was buried at sea. I never once saw a doctor or a nurse on the Polonia. When anyone became ill, some officer showed up took the person's pulse, looked at his watch, then left without a word.
The greater number of passengers on the ship were Slavs, with a sprinkling of Italians and Germans. The ship didn't go directly across the ocean, but stopped at a number of ports in Turkey, Greece and Portugal to take on more passengers. I remember our ship staying in the port of Constantinople six or eight hours not on the shore itself but some distance out. Those who wanted to go into the city were taken there by the cutter and paid 80 hellers for the trip. In all the ports the emigres boarded the ship in their national dress - Turkish, Greek, Portuguese, so that there was an entire international on the ship. There were many dark-skinned people of whom our girls were, for some reason, afraid.
In the middle of the ocean there was some trouble with the ship's machinery and we stopped for a long time during which there was a lot of banging in the hold. During a storm, the ocean waves were so huge that all the ship's hallways and passages were closed off with tarpaulin. Nobody was allowed on deck outside except for the sailors for two days. The lighting was poor and we sat in a twilight that was frightening for most of the passengers.
Another episode I remember was when a large fish appeared and swam behind the ship, leaping out of the water and diving in, again frightening the women who were sure it would capsize the ship. Some among us spread the superstition that the fish was following the ship because it felt the approach of death; someone on board would die. As it happened coincidentally, there was a death on the ship caused by wine. Two Italians, drunk, began an argument in the women's quarters that ended up in a fight with knives. The younger of the two stabbed the older man who later died of his wounds. The screams of the women brought in the sailors who separated the two. Shortly after the murdered Italian was buried at sea, the murderer was put in irons and imprisoned in a small closet-like space where he was only able to sit and to eat only what the sailors brought him.
IN CANADA AT LAST
After 23 days of a difficult and exhausting passage on the uncomfortable ship, we arrived at the Canadian port of Quebec. It was a moment of rejoicing for every immigrant who had lived through so many weary hours of misery and fear. To be able to get off the ship and feel the solid earth beneath our feet was heaven.
We were driven like cattle into an unfinished building where we again underwent an eye examination as well as having to show that we had $25 on our person. Those who didn't have the money borrowed it from someone behind, just to show they had it, for if they didn't there was the danger of their being returned to the old country. My neighbours presented the $25 on my behalf because I had nothing, my mother having had to borrow 100 crowns to pay for my trip. The building where all this was taking place also had a store in the corner where baloney, salami and ham as well as bananas hung on strings from the ceiling. There were also heaps of white bread and buns. The immigrants were impressed with the amount of white bread and so cheap too, four cents a loaf, that they bought a few for the road. We were soon divided into groups and settled into trains that were to take us to our various destinations. I got on the train to Montreal. On arrival in Montreal it was soon noticeable that things weren't as we were led to believe by agents in the old country. People were poverty-stricken and suffering as there was no work to be had. Older immigrants were going around in tatters, having worn out the clothes they came in and with no money to buy new clothing. Our older settlers well remember what their life was like in Montreal in 1913. There was much unemployment, worry, and complaint against one another.
Those who came as families rented out a few rooms then accepted boarders, sometimes as many as ten single men. The women were the exploited here, having hitched themselves to the heavy yoke of washing the boarders, clothes, cooking for them and cleaning their rooms for the sum of $2.50 a month. That was how they were paid then by those who had a dollar to spare. Those who had nothing sought help from their fellow countrymen or endured hunger. The Windsor Station was being built at the time and this was the only construction going on in the city with thousands of unemployed. Our immigrants had no trade, so they had to work at the heaviest jobs and the least pay - on the roads, at the digging of sewers, on the railway extra gangs and so on. Heavy industry had not yet been developed in Montreal; it only began to develop a few years later. It was easier for the women and girls to get work in private homes at housework. Our women, for the most part, went to work for wealthy Jewish families, most of whom exploited them terribly, forcing them to work long hours without time off for $10 to $15 a month. Married women generally took day jobs at housework besides taking in boarders and doing their own work at night. They did laundry and cleaned homes and offices. After a long day's work they received a dollar in payment.
I GO TO WORK
My first job was in a clothing factory where I worked a week, then a few days in a tin factory. I saw that I was getting nowhere for I wasn't called in every day. There was little pay and when there is no money, there is no food. The woman where I was boarding had already lived in Canada two years, so she was able to give me good advice. One day she told me:
"Why are you scattering yourself like this? There is a storekeeper here who needs someone like you right now, someone who can read and write. He will pay you $10 a week."
I listened and thought how fortunate I am. To get $10 a week meant getting $40 a month. In old country this money would be 200 crowns - a salary earned by civic officials only.
A day or two later this storekeeper came in, looked me over from head to toe, then said that I was still rather young for the job, but that he was a good man and wouldn't work me too hard. "You'll weigh the products and keep track of the payments for me, as most of my customers pay me later. I've been looking for someone like you for a long time," he said. "Do you have any money?" Before I could answer, he pulled a $5 bill out of his pocket and said:
"Here this is an advance on your salary so you will be able to eat. You can start work next Monday."
I soon found out, however, from a neighbouring woman, that this storekeeper didn't really need a worker but a mistress, that he was over 50 years old and had a wife and children in the old country. I returned him his $5 and refused to work for him.
With the help of a young lad I finally found work in a large Jewish family with nine adults and two children. I was rather frightened at the prospect of working for them, but decided to take my chances. I was very hungry at the time and hoped that my mistress, who was a dark and rather sullen-looking woman would realize this and give me something to eat. Her husband was bearded and stern-looking like a biblical patriarch. Their appearance intimidated me completely. The old lady asked me when I came to Canada from where, how old I was, what I was able to do, then the most intelligent question of all - was I hungry. Without thinking I answered that I was - very hungry. She got up from the table - it was supper time - cut up a dill pickle, poured some broth on it, mixed a tablespoon of sour cream in it and placed it before me. I ate this mixture to pacify my hunger, but was unable to sleep most of the night from stomach pains.
On the next day, the mistress showed me what I was to do and told me that I would be paid $10 a month. My throat tightened and I was near to tears, but what could I do about it, a poor girl who wouldn't listen to her mother and uncle. Now I had Canada.
The amount of work I was expected to do was disheartening. It was a two-story house with nine rooms. There were nine adults and two children. I had to clean, wash the clothes by hand as there were no machines then; help with the cooking and, on top of that, look after the children. Obviously, I couldn't get all this done in the daytime and very often washed and ironed clothes far into the night. What I hated most was cleaning fish. They always bought carp which had very sharp bones and scales from which I received many cuts on my hands. Once, when a doctor came to visit one of the children, he noticed the state of my hands and began to reprove the mistress on my account. He didn't realize that I understood the Jewish language.
The old lady was very miserly, bought the cheapest of everything and even skimped on my meals. I was always hungry at first, but later decided to help myself, eating before they did. I didn't even have a room of my own, but slept on a couch in the hallway.
Winter came with heavy frosts and the house became infested with rats. I was afraid to go down into the cellar. As time went on, the rats became bolder and came upstairs. One night, a rat bit me on my shoulder. I awoke from the pain and the rat fled. In the morning the bite burned and ached. I told the mistress what had happened, but she wouldn't believe me, saying that I must have scratched myself in my sleep. On another night, I had just fallen asleep when I felt a sharp pain in my big toe. I jerked my leg and heard the rat jump off the couch and scuttle away. In the morning I told all of them what happened, that the rats were running about upstairs and biting me. The mistress still wouldn't believe me, saying that I must have dreamt it. This made me so angry that I told her that I hoped to God the rats would make their way into her room upstairs and take a bite out of her. It wasn't long before this happened. Three nights later, a rat visited her bedroom and began to bite her hands. Her screams woke the entire household, after which no one slept the rest of the night. Only then was she convinced that the house was overrun with rats and told her husband to do something about it.
The winter of 1913-14 was very cold before Christmas. The frosts were so heavy that the water pipes in the houses burst. Water was brought in barrels. A big city like Montreal cannot do without water for long. New Year's day came and there was still no water in the house. On St. Louis Square a fire started from the candles lighted on the Christmas tree. Four firemen lost their lives fighting it.
The city at the time was using gas lighting. Our people, arriving from the old country, were unaware of the dangers involved in the use of gas. In one home, four people were enjoying themselves till late into the night - drinking, singing and having a good time generally. On going to bed, they put out the gas lamp without turning off the gas. The next morning the city ambulance took four dead people out of the house.
Our early immigrants lived through many difficulties in Canada before World War I. No one really cared about them. They had to fend for themselves as best they could - find work, a place to live, and subsist in general.
"The Ukrainian Canadian" magazine, September 1989, p.35-38 and October 1989, p.34-35, Kobzar Publishing Company Limited
Montreal, Quebec, Canada