"and as regards the (...) I alredy wrote you in two Letters but I’ll writte you once again"
- from Joseph Bock’s letter to his son.
But for the memory of family and friends, but for care and coincidence, the story of Joseph Bocek, one of millions of emigrants who came to the United States, would have disappeared at the time of his death. His grave is now just a piece of lawn, unmarked and never visited. None of the present inhabitants of the area in which he worked and lived for the last 20 years of his life, never heard and never uttered his name. However, in the village which he left for great America his grandchildren and great-grandchildren take care of relics of the ancestor, so Joseph Bocek is still alive in their memory.
Joseph Bocek was born as Józef Bocek on 11 March 1876 in Istebna – a highland village in the Silesian Beskids. He had eight siblings, his father’s name was Piotr and mother’s Elżbieta. June 1, 1901, he married his wife Jadwiga. They had seven children. If it hadn’t been for Józef’s emigration, his biography would have been pretty ordinary, perhaps less dramatic and perhaps longer than 77 years that he lived. But if it hadn’t been for that trip, Bocek wouldn’t have written down his views on the world and people, and vicissitudes, which he described in letters sent across the ocean to the family. Perhaps no one would have the chance to read and reminisce him in the letters written by his sister, sister-in-law and friends who cared about Bocek, and for many years wrote the truth about his life in the US to worried and waiting for his return family.
From Istebna to the Wild West
The whole story begins at the end of 1913, when Józef Bocek applies for a loan in the amount of 600 crowns to the Savings and Loan Association in Istebna. He wants to go to America as hundreds of other highlanders from his family village. Immediately after arrival he writes his first letter - from coal mine in Dietz, Wyoming, where many people from Istebna had already worked. This distant steppe state of the Wild West, so different from the green Beskids, will become Bocek’s second home. Miner occupation will be his permanent job in America. It was his first trip for earning; it is not known how long Józef Bocek dug coal in Dietz and if only there, but he already signs as Joseph Bocek.
Bocek decides for the second trip
to the United States probably in 1933. This chapter of his emigrant life
is very well documented by numerous letters sent to Poland by Bocek
himself, as well as by third parties, commenting on his life in America.
This time, he has found a job in a small coal mine in Shawnee, Wyoming:
“I am working in a Small Coal Shaft in the winter and I earn between 2
and 3 dollars a day, but I earn nothing in the summer, so I have to save
some money for the summer.” He writes about the crisis and the decrease
in wages: “and as far as a success and earnings are concerned, you can
only earn your livelihood, as it is like that in the entire America, and
even not everybody can earn for their livelihood. Millions of people
have no Job, no Home (...), now there is a depression, i.e. a Worker is
repressed, there is no work, no Money, the American Government Provides
for those who have no Job.”
[translator’s note: “zawodniowacz Rolym” in the original], received 80 dollars and more, those, who Worked with horses, received from 40.50 to 60 dollars a Month, and now those, who received 80, are paid 35 dol. only (...), and those who Work with horses receives from 50 cents a day during the harvest, and only for their livelihood in the winter.”
1938, the health problems of Joseph Bocek began. Find below a fragment
of a letter from the hospital in Douglas, Wyoming: “I am going to have a
Surgery, my guts are twisted, so my Dear Wife, if oh God (...) I do not
survive, please Forgive my affronts, if any, and I will forgive you
everything with all my Heart ...) I also Bless all children and thank
you for all good deeds you have done to me, and I cannot Write anything
more today as I am too weak, my Hands are shaking, as soon as I walk
away from this, I will Write to you, please do not despair of me
[translator’s note: “nie starzejcie nadymnom” in the original], Stay all
with God, Amen.”
The letters written after the Second World War expressed the horror of the tragedy and suffering of the homeland as well as a discouragement and concern about the future of Poland and the world:
• “Sister (...), we are not going to send to foreigners as thousands of thousands Parcels are sent to Poland by good people and they are later distributed in big Cities, and Orphans and Widows in the Countryside are Naked and famishing and no one cannot see that this Miserable Czech Silesia has suffered as much as those in Warsaw, and now nobody can see them, and I will not Write about the politics as it is a small word and is worth nothing.”
• “(...) and as far as my arrival to Poland is concerned, it is difficult as previously I needed no arrival application when I wanted to come to Poland from America, I only needed a ticket and came to Poland, now I need to apply to come to Poland by the medium of the Polish and American Consulates, so I am not going to describe it to you as it could do harm to you and me, as you have a President you voted for, or maybe you are not guilty as you might not have voted for anyone, and now let a stone lie and water run, we will see what will happen with miserable Poland.”
• “Józef writes that they do not have any Children yet, Son, who will tell you that it is a sin not to have Children, spit them in their Eyes, as such a Family is blessed that has no Children, as it is a sin to produce children that have nothing to eat and have to wander about the entire World, are beaten, slaughtered, hung, Starved, and nowadays many Orphans are hungry, and most of them are Polish, as the World is heavily populated, because a man, who is Wise and well Educated, has no more than two or three children, but there are still Catholic families with Twenty Children, and I must say that they are Unreasonable.”
• “as there is a misunderstanding between Russia and America, maybe a war will begin. Not a war but a kind of a Scrimmage but I believe that it will fall into pieces thanks to God.”
After the war, Joseph Bocek complains about mail delays (one letter from his wife gets to him after 10 months) and persistently lost shipments:
• “it has already passed three Months from my Letter, and I have no message from you and it has sadly appeared to me that you died there as I read in a newspaper that Parcels and Letters get to Poland, and one out of a hundred is lost, and I am again sending you a parcel with foodstuff, and again it is worth 15 dollars.”
• “so post offices in miserable Poland are poorly organized (...) if this letter gets to Poland within a week and it is not delivered, you will wait for it until your Death, I am so annoyed but what can I do (...) post offices in the Czech Republic are better organized, so I had sent two dollars in a Letter to Jan, Brother to Chyrciawa for Christmas by Europlan, and he received the Letter and two dollars in the letter, and he also sent me a letter by Europlan, so I received the answer within three weeks.”
One Way Trip
However, time of Joseph
Bocek is running – his stay in the United States lengthens, and his
return to Poland delays indefinitely. Despite of obtaining the American
citizenship in 1944, and acquiring the retirement pension rights,
despite a concern and love towards his wife expressed in almost every
letter (“Dear Wife, my solace of my Heart, if I lost you, I would not
like to live [...] My Heart, my golden Wife, my only solace in the
World”), despite his longing for children and parents, Bocek still does
not return. Finally, he dies in Wyoming on 27 September 1954.
What, therefore, did hinder his return to Poland? Unfortunately, it was his alcoholism reported by friends and family in letters which contributed to such a strange separation. The disease which weakened the will and decision-making process of Joseph Bocek, and led him to bankruptcy. This problem was addressed in letters of persons of his closest environment, such as a Joseph’s sister-in-law (“Jozef wrote to us that he had less severe headaches as he had drunk less” 13), or a family friend, Ewa Waszut with whom he was renting a room in Buffalo, Wyoming in the last years of his life. This is how she describes the last weeks of Bocek’s life: “he had drunk a lot and 6 weeks later he felt severely sick.” Joseph Bocek himself, at the end of his life, writes about his last stop in America, i.e. an old people’s home in Buffalo: “I have already been in this Old People’s Home for 6 months, I received 70 dollars of the pension, now I receive 8 dollars a month, and the rest is received by the host of this home.” Two years before his death he shares the following thoughts: “I wish you, my Wife, Happy Christmas, and cry at the Table on the Christmas Eve that we are living such a miserable life in this World, without each other, such an unreasonable life, it is a pity that we lost our Youth, but what can we do that this is our fate, but I think that we are going to Meet some day.”
A depiction of a reunion of Joseph and his sister, Teresa (Bocek) Kostka described with her simple words in a letter to Joseph’s son, Józef Bocek: “and your father conducted a sad life, we went to him to Wyoming once and could not find him (...), he could not recognize me, and when he finally recognized me we started to cry and could not say anything, and we spent there only 2 hours, so we did not talk much when we saw each other, but we were crying.
Joseph Bocek was buried in a cemetery in Buffalo. At the request of the family. Magdalena Legocki found his burial place and lit a candle on the All Saints’ Day in 2006.
Prepared by:Agnieszka Kukuczka - Siąkała
Text: Magdalena Legocki
Fragments of the presented letters come from private collections of Teresa Kukuczka from Istebna.