On a November day in 1909, Malgorzata Filipiak boarded a ship called the Neckar in the port of Bremen, Germany. Nearly 750 other passengers, mostly immigrants, were on the ship with her.
Filipiak, 18, spoke little English and lacked money or stature. When the immigration man asked her what she did for a living, she replied: "servant." She told him she was of Polish origin and was on her way to America to stay with a cousin in New Britain, Conn.
Two weeks later, on Dec. 10, Filipiak arrived at Ellis Island. Eventually, she settled in Buffalo and became known as Margaret. A few years after coming here, she married another Polish immigrant named Michael Gardon. The couple had five children: Walter, Sally, Alice, Edward and Bernard.
In 1927, Malgorzata Filipiak died at 36, after a failed pregnancy. That, in a nutshell, is the story of my grandmother's life.
For me, she has always been just a picture on a wall. It's a wedding picture, and young Margaret is sitting next to her husband, looking blissful and radiant in bridal attire.
My relationship with my grandmother changed this month when I went to the Ellis Island Web site to research her journey to America.
That's where I found out she was 18 when she came here. I learned the name of her ship and how long the trip took. I also saw a copy of the ship manifest that she filled out on Nov. 27, 1909.
It listed "servant" under occupation, among other details about her, including the fact she had a cousin in New Britain.
On paper, these may sound like cold facts, but they take on new meaning when you see them. I wondered, for example, what it must have been like to be only 18 and set off on such a long, strange, frightening journey.
"My mother was a brave woman," my mother, Sally Violanti, 84, said. "She had a lot of guts."
Now, my mother has a better idea of what her mother was all about. The Web site has filled in the gaps of our family history by giving us the details of a young lady who left Poland for America so many years ago.
- Anthony Violanti