Bernice Sobinski Still Sharing Oral History at 95

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Mary Anne Zak


One word unlocked history Bernice Karakla Sobinski shared with the Polish Heritage Society at its 2018 September meeting. This particular year marks the first century of independence Poland has experienced since it was partitioned in the late 18th century. Bernice’s oral history revealed an aspect of Suffield’s Polish – American history previously unknown. Few people realized that many Polish men had been smuggled from their homeland to America.

 That came about over 100 years ago when Russia annexed Poland just as it annexed Crimea two years ago. Removing the Polish language from the courts and schools, Russia began drafting Polish men into its army. Many Polish men who came to Suffield at that time did so to escape Russian conscription. The late Felice Marnicki proudly reported that her father had come to America for that reason. She did not know or explain how he came or that smuggling may have been involved.

Bernice Karakla Sobinski used the word smuggled as she shared family stories her father long ago enriched with memories of Polish life. Her father’s village, Suchowola, was home to many Polish Jews just as Poland was home to millions of Jewish people. Relationships between the two groups long caused death and destruction in pogroms throughout Eastern Europe.

 Sobinski reported that Jewish people had nonetheless helped Poles by smuggling men from Poland. (Poland’s Constitution, the first in Europe, had recognized and ameliorated conditions for Jews.)

 The smugglers took Polish men by farm wagons at least as far as the German border. Probably covered by straw, they traveled only at night and hid carefully by day. The journey took about two weeks, and the Poles made their way to Hamburg to buy steerage fare for about $30. What they paid the smugglers is not known

Arriving in New York, the Poles were helped again by Jewish people. Bernice Sobinski said that for a nickel, Jewish agents took or connected the newcomers with sponsors, family, friends or potential employers. With family or friends in Suffield, many newcomers paid board from wages of a dollar and a quarter a week. Sleeping on the floor, they became accustomed to privation, hardship and hard work in a homeland that had remained feudal for many centuries.

At 95, Bernice Karakla Sobinski, has shared valuable oral history with the Polish Heritage Society and Suffield, as did the late Helen Zera. In 2013 Helen wrote a lively memoir of her family’s farming and kinship with nature, Polish Harvesting of Natural Bounty a Century Ago. “Every Polish farmer a naturalist,” she said. Rightly so. But that’s another story! 

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