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Lois T., I Sell Fish

Hilda Polacheck, a WPA writer, conducted an interview with Louis T. in June 1939. Louis T. was Jewish and from Poland. According to the excerpt below, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, why did Louis want to come to the United States? How did he get here? What problems did Louis confront upon his arrival in Chicago? How does Louis's experience compare to that of other immigrants at the time? Before? After?

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Where was I born? In a small town in Poland, called Gonitz. I got married when I was nineteen. When I was twenty-one, I had two children. It was two years after the World War, and I found out that I would be called to be a soldier. My wife said she did not want me to be a soldier in the Polish Army. She said better I should try to go to America. I could not get a passport, because I was running away from militaire (military service). I knew a feller what used to take people across the border. So I fixed it up with him that he should take me. This feller had two other man that wanted to go to America, so two o'clock in the morning, it was January, and it was cold, we all met and we walked through a wald (forest) about a mile and we were in Germany. I paid the feller fifteen marks. The other fellers each paid fifteen marks. The three of us then waited till morning and we hired a wagon and drove to Berlin. In Berlin, we took train for Amsterdam, Holland. Then we took the boat for Cuba.

Now, in Cuba, the excitement started, I found a boarding house where I shared a room with two fellers. I wanted to get to Chicago, where I had three brothers and many uncles and aunts. The only way that I could go to Chicago, was to be smuggled into America. After six weeks, I met a feller who said he would take me to America for $150.00. I had enough money to pay this, so I told him: all right. . . .

[After being smuggled into Florida from Cuba.] Well, the next day we took a train for Jacksonville, Florida. We waited there six hours and then we took the train for Chicago. I'm telling you, when I saw my brothers and uncles when I got off the train in Chicago, I cried like a baby.

Well, maybe you think my troubles was over? No, my troubles was just beginning. I found out that I could not become a citizen, and so I could not bring mine wife and the children to Chicago.

Well, the first thing was to make a living. One of my brothers had a fish market. So he gave me a basket of fish and told me where to go to sell them. The first day, I made two dollars. When I could speak a little English, I peddled fish in the high-toned places, and I could charge a little more and I made a pretty good living.

My wife was writing me letters how terrible it was in Poland. I sent her money every month. But it was terrible to have to keep quiet about being in Chicago. I could not get citizenship papers, because I was smuggled in. And without citizenship papers I could not bring my family to Chicago. Then my wife wrote me a letter that one of our children died. I had plenty troubles. I couldn't go back to Poland and I could not bring my family to Chicago. I didn't wanna go back to Poland. But I did want my family.

Well, then a law was passed that all people who came to America in 1921 and before could get their citizenship papers. Well, I can tell you I got my papers as soon as I could. Then I brought my wife and my daughter to Chicago. And you can see, I still sell fish.
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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.