Next time you are in the mood for a good story, log onto CLA's Immigration History Research Center website.
You'll find century-old letters from half-mad lovers, pleas from lonely moms in the Old Country, accounts of communities emptying as the youth left Europe for the U.S., photos, newspapers, legal documents, and more, all of which shaped the lives of Minnesota immigrants—not to mention our own cultural legacy.
The IHRC, headed by professor Donna Gabaccia, has one of the largest collections of materials related to immigration and refugee life in the world. The collection is unique because it interprets U.S. immigration history through the stories of immigrants. This "Minnesota School" of scholarship was fostered in the early part of the century by professor and later dean of the Graduate School Theodore Blegen, and carried forward by historians including Hy Berman, Clarke Chambers, John Gjerde, and Rudolph Vecoli. (Vecoli, the IHRC's first director, was known to rummage for documents through the attics and basements of potential donors, according to his June 23, 2008, obituary in the New York Times.)
Lately the IHRC has been digitizing letters from the period 1850 to 1970 by and to immigrants, including letters written in languages other than English.
Peek Into the Past
1899 // Lucia Fazio Hobokan, N.J., to Alessandro Sisca (aka Riccardo Cordiferro), New York, N.Y.
"I had the strength to drag myself to the window and you didn't even look back. I wanted to cry out to you like a crazy woman, but the tears stopped me. Why did you hurt me so much? .... I would like to continue to write to you but my heart hurts terribly. If you don't mind. Tomorrow, wait for me at 3 pm on the 10th Street at the corner of Bleecker [sic] Street where the carriage passes. If tonight I don't die, tomorrow I will be there to speak with you for the last time. Will you come? You won't be cruel to that point, isn't that true?"
1911 // Bert Aalto of Big Falls, MinN. to Hilma Aerila, of Laitila, Finland
"Dear Hilma, I come to you as a flying leaf because the distance is too long for me to speak to you or to greet you with a warm hand. ...I have no girlfriend now, I guess I never have. I will tell you about my conditions here. I am working in the logging site again, I do all kinds of work in the forest and my salary is 3 dollars a month. Hear me Hilma, I am really planning to come to Finland next summer to have some fun. I have been here long enough. I want to see home again, and old friends. I don't know if I have any left; maybe I have lost them all. But it is you that I want to see, and I don't care for anybody else..."
1914 // Serhii Neprytsky-Hranovsky, Ukraine, to his brother Alexander Granovsky, Chicago
"Easter holiday we spent in sadness. When we returned from church and sat down to break fast, such a grief enveloped us that we cried bitterly. We were heart broken that with a heavy heart there were only three of us sitting around the table. During the holidays none of our relatives visited us except for the uncle from Bilokrynytsia. The kind of relatives there are in Berezhtsi, are those that just like to drink and not help in anything."
1957 // Anna Paikens to her son Edward Paikens, Minneapolis
"Why aren't you writing to me about yourself? I am asking you if you are married or just engaged. And if you are satisfied with your life? Son, I am interested in your life. ... You have lived there already 6 years. Are you happy in your married life? ....I don't know if I will ever see you. Write me if I can hope for seeing you ever again. How much I would want to meet and see you again. Most likely it is just a dream, which cannot be fulfilled."
1950s // Ken Enkel, Minneapolis, to Taisto Elo
Minnesota readers of a certain age will remember attorney Ken Enkel—the fierce, fiery, bushy-browed defender of civil liberties. During the McCarthy era he defended, among others, Taisto Elo, a Finnish lumberjack from Beaver Bay who was eventually deported under the McCarran-Walter Act for having been a member of the Communist Party—for two months—two decades earlier. (Others deported under the act included poet Pablo Neruda, novelists Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, and Gabriel García Márquez, philosopher Michel Foucault, and Pierre Trudeau, the future prime minister of Canada.) See his letters at z.umn.edu/2vq.