Beloved brother, you are interested in how mother died. In death there is nothing of interest, only great sorrow. I was present at father's and then mother's deaths. One stands by a living person and in that second they're dead. And even if you wanted to ask something but now you can't. And you remember that they can't speak anymore and then such a sorrow envelops you that you can hardly stand on your feet.
Letter from Serhii Neprytsky-Hranovsky in Ukraine to his brother Alexander Granovsky in Chicago, May 25, 1914
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For many immigrants who made their way to America in the early 1900s, letters from the homeland could be filled with death, hardship and, sometimes, reproach. In letters home, the far-flung writers might confess their worries, lonesomeness and, sometimes, guilt.
Often, though, the letters simply exchanged the stuff of life: asking about clothing sizes or wondering how the sheepdog died or trying to woo a girl back in the homeland. Letters were how bonds were maintained once someone had passed through what Donna Gabaccia calls "the saltwater curtain."
Gabaccia is director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota (ihrc.umn.edu), where a project to digitize letters between immigrants and those they left behind has been progressing toward a public exhibit, "A Heart Connects Us," that opens Monday at the Elmer L. Andersen Library.
"We chose letters that highlight the maintenance of emotion among people who are separated," Gabaccia said. "These are thinking, reading, writing, feeling people."
Letters from a man in Ohio to a daughter in Italy ache with a wrenching grief. Letters from a man in Ukraine to a brother in Chicago document the desperation of World War I. Letters from a woman in Croatia to her son in St. Paul seek promises that he will return home so she can "put in your hands these callous hands." Letters from two young men (unbeknownst to each other) courting the same girl back in Finland are hopeful, then hopeless, but always protective of her virtue: "Throw into fire as soon as you have read this."
The letters often are one-sided conversations, saved by recipients who settled here from Croatia, Finland, Cambodia, Italy, Latvia and Ukraine. Some have Minnesota ties, but many have arrived from across the country to be stored in the library's two vast storage caverns mined from sandstone in the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.
The finite nature of this storage space spurred the digitization project, Gabaccia said, which then enabled what she and other researchers long have sought: bringing these slices of life into context by making it easier for people on both sides of the saltwater curtain to access the material. "Once they're digitized, the letters and photos that ended up in North America now are far more accessible to researchers in the countries from which they were mailed," she said.
This greater reach, Gabaccia said, is what Theodore Blegen, the first immigration historian at the University of Minnesota, had in mind when he began studying immigration in the 1920s. The son of Norwegian immigrants, Blegen helped offer what may have been the nation's first immigration history course. It became known as the "Minnesota school" of study, and championed the idea of learning "history from the bottom up."
A physical presence
The work of reading and often translating the letters can be complex. The way people wrote -- how they formed letters -- was different, as was their grammar, their dialects and their level of education.
"It became clear at some point that people had been taught about letter forms -- that there is a standard salutation and signoff -- as opposed to nothing," Gabaccia said. In other words, letters no longer were a matter of, "You know who is it's from, I know who I'm writing to."
The letters in the collection speak of a different era of language, which lends insight to a native culture. Consider this passage in a 1925 letter from Diego Delfino of Bellaire, Ohio, writing to his daughter who remained in Reggio Calabria, Italy, soon after the death of his wife, and her mother:
Alright! We'll continue to suffer with the same resignation that has guided us for a long time under the protection of the Saints as we remain hopeful that one day our cruel and ferocious fate, tired of its usual persecutions -- which I suffered with courage and perseverance throughout the long path of my life, a courage and perseverance that was blood-soaked and steeped in sorrow, perhaps, but always triumphant -- will change course and, defeated and regretful, will vanish in the shadows where no pilgrim goes unless he is lost.
Sometimes, Gabaccia said, the letters feel almost too private, yet families have donated them to the collection aware that they are there for public study. That concern for privacy, though, is one reason that none of the letters in the exhibit is from beyond 1950.
The center has exhibited some of the letters at the Minnesota State Fair, which prompted interest from people who said, "we have these letters at home in a language we don't understand," said Gabaccia. They may lead to a project more tightly focused on letters from within the state at some point.
What was most interesting is that despite having no idea what these letters said, families had held onto them through several generations. Why?
"The physical letter was the physical presence of the person you missed," she said. "Now, it's a connection to the past."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185