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Immigrants in the Progressive and New Eras
Adam Laboda, Polish Textile Worker

Adam Laboda was a Polish immigrant who had become a textile worker. When he was interviewed by the WPA (the date is not certain), he had five children, three of whom also worked in the textile industry. One daughter was still in school. Laboda lived in decent, if not lavish, circumstances. From the excerpt below, from American Life Histories, 1936-1940, why did Adam immigrate to Germany and then to the United States? Why did he travel back to Poland and what did he encounter there? Why was he fired from one of his first jobs in the United States? Do you think such treatment was common practice?

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"What we do for amusement when I am a boy in Poland? We played only about the yard or the barn, for we work very hard and long hours on the farm, all of us. There are so many in the family, eleven of us, and the farm is about 25 acres, your size (American). When we play it is mostly to play soldiers; all the boys and girls play soldiers, always, then and talk a great deal about war and battles, [for?] then at that time where I live we are under Austrian rule, for Poland was partitioned to Austria, Russia and Germany. It was partitioned three times, in 1772, in 1777 and in 1779 and did not be free until 1918. We are taught much of the history of Poland, of its wars and its fighters and of the peasant revolts, which my father told of when the peasants armed themselves with -- what you call, sy'es (scythes) on long handles and go to fight the high ups. That is all the weapons they have and they are beaten. . . .

". . . Yes, we are very proud of our country's history and we are taught it in school. You see, besides going to the grammar school I also took special work three days a week and learned German. I prepare for high school like your junior high school here and when I am twelve I go to Germany. No, we do not have much time to play, because of school and work. We get up at 5 o'clock in morning and work 'til dark. We have only kerosene lamps, then and we work hard in daylight, all the time. In winter we children must thresh out the wheat and rye and corn in the barn. . . .

"But when I am twelve my father say to me, 'Adam, you must find a job, because we are so many.' It is the custom when a Polack boy is to be married that the father gives him a share of the farm, maybe two or three acres, you see. But if he gave it to all of us he would have nothing and no one would have enough land, although it is rich land and some families live on only two or three of four acres there. Lots of poor people, oh, yes, many very poor people in Poland. . . .

"[Them?] Germans are many, too and we are friendly with them. The poor people are very nice, the Germans, and so I found them in Germany, where I went. Yes, I went all alone and I got a job with a farmer and I worked for a farmer and then as a spinner in a mill in [Nulki?], a city there. It took me two days and nights to get there by train. I was treated very well by the German people there, poor people. The high man is hard and military and looks down on all and cannot be spoken to except by title and all that and are not nice to get along with. They are harsh and hard.

"We did not like that kind of Germans at all. All the poor ones are good people. . . .

"I worked for two years in Germany, six months as a spinner and then go home and then we come to America, as I told you. The church? Oh yes, it is an important part of our life. We are Roman Catholics, all about where I lived. We have many, many feast days for the church, besides such as Christmas. Our Santa Claus is St. Nicholas but we do not make so much of it there as here. . . .

"About my work in America. At first I work in the mill at Gilbertville, Massachusetts. There were about 24 of us in one house. That house is still standing but has been moved. It was a company house. In one room about twice the size of this one (20x15) there were three beds and six boys slept there. We bought our own groceries and gave them to the woman who kept the house and she cooked for us. She would furnish the salt and pepper and so forth but we bought the rest and paid each $3 a month for room and the cooking; because, you see, we could only earn about $2.64 a week. I was a spinner, there, but when I wanted to get married I did not want to board but to have a tenement of my own and the company houses could not be bought there.

"So I came to Pittsfield where they told me I could get a job with the Berkshire Woolen, but when I got here they told me to go to Pontoosuc (Pontoosuc Woolen [Mig.?] Co.) as I would get a better job. Well, I could not talk English yet and I worked there one day and then the boss told me I would have to go. I did not know why. He paid me, I think, $1.50 and I went to the Berkshire Woolen. The boss at Pontoosuc was Irish, his name was Pat Fleming. He is dead now. I was a Polack. You see, I did not know why I was fired at first. . . .

"As I say, after I am marry I want a tenement of my own so I buy this one from the Jew who had bought the company houses.

"That was after my visit to Poland, where I was married. I found things much changed. Yes, too much changed, but one thing I noticed, that all the boys would tip there hats and bow and I thought it was because I am an American and they know me and then I found that they are teaching them to be polite, now. They did not use to know how to be polite in the old country but they do now. They are polite to everyone and it is good. Now they must all go to school. . . .

"Well, I found out why I am fired at Pontoosuc; it is just because I am Polack and the other, they are mostly Irish and French, do not like me. It is hard to ge acquainted, you see, and then, people were cold to me because there are some Polacks who do not know how to behave. When I come here there are only eight or families here and they are new and some of them are what you call bums. Bum weavers and bum spinners -- and just bums that drink too much. They are so poor that they never had money in Poland. They raised things on the farm and when they get a couple dollars here they go out to spend it and get drunk. And the Polacks are always strong and like to show how strong they are and they start throwing things and fighting, and in a boarding house a fight would start and they would break the windows and furniture and the police would have to come."
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View the entire interview from which this excerpt was taken, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.