I was looking back at my grandmother's voyage to America, she made the trip from Zbaraz in the Ukraine through Warsaw and then on to Gdanks and through steerage class to the New York. I know she took a specific route through Poland and to Gdansk but not how, that was something we never documented. It made me wonder how emigres from the region might have travelled across Eastern Europe and to ports like Gdansk in the early 20th Century (for my grandmother this was about 1917), were train lines available as transportation and affordable to emigres? Would they have walked? Horse and buggy/cart/wagon or some other means? I'm only concerned for Eastern Europe at this point, but if anyone has ideas for how travel might have gone in the region I'd be curious to know.

My own knowledge of the region and time makes me think most would have travelled north or maybe east, going south the Ottoman Empire or the Black Sea doesn't seem like the best method to emigrate to the US. Northern sea ports on the North Sea seemed to have the routes to New York and the US more settled than others, but I am not sure if there were ports east of Italy that might have been used (although there probably are and I am unaware of them.)

edit: Originally I erred and noted Warsaw as the port when it should have been Gdansk, sorry about that!

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    A minor point: Warsaw isn't a port. If she went through Warsaw, perhaps she sailed from Danzig? May 11, 2012 at 14:43
  • If this was in 1917, she possibly travelled Germany-occupied territory.
    – Anixx
    May 11, 2012 at 15:46
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    – DVK
    Mar 18, 2013 at 3:45
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    of course Warsaw is a port, an inland waterway port as main polish river Wisla goes thru Warsaw; Gdansk is also located next to the same river so that part of the journey might have been conducted by inland ship Apr 2, 2015 at 18:21
  • On April 1917, the USA entered in war with Germany. Before that (1916...), many ship sinkings by U-boats had taken place. I have some doubts that your grandmother has had the opportunity to take a ship in 1917 connecting a german harbour to the USA. May 16, 2021 at 15:23

4 Answers 4


Warsaw is not a port. It is in the middle of the "country" (the earlier version of Poland, not today's), which is why it was chosen as the capital.

Warsaw was also something of a rail hub, as far as was the case in Eastern Europe in those days. The easiest way to get to a port such as Gdansk, on the Baltic, was by rail from Warsaw. A few other cities in eastern Europe (Kiev, Minsk, etc.) were also connected to Warsaw by rail. Otherwise, people took more "primitive" forms of transportation (e.g. wagons) to Warsaw, and from there, to Gdansk.

Few people went from modern Poland to Italy (a different country). Early in the 20th century, most of Poland, along with most countries of the former Soviet Union, was part of Russia, with Poland being the westernmost of these countries. Hence, people from the modern Belarus and northern Ukraine might head west for Warsaw, and from there to Gdansk and abroad.

The city that I called Gdansk, which is now part of Poland, was the German city of Danzig in 1917. At that time, there was no "Poland," only Polish land and cities divided between Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, following the three "partitions" of the country in the 18th century. Gdansk, where more people spoke Polish than the cities in the next sentence, would have been the most logical port for someone from Poland, or even the Ukraine who spoke Polish. Salonika, Venice, Hamburg, or Amsterdam would have been much harder transit points for speakers of Slavic languages. Someone from the south (as opposed to north) Ukraine might have preferred Odessa, a Russian port on the Black Sea.

There may be a reason why your grandmother made the trip in 1917, and not some other year. That was when Germany had conquered not only Poland, but the western Ukraine from Russia, meaning that one country controlled the whole route your grandmother traveled (Ukraine, Warsaw, Gdansk). I can't imagine her making a trip across the (Russo-German) border earlier in the war. Such a trip would have been possible, but difficult, before the war.

  • Doh, yeah I meant Gdansk guess I was thinking of how there was a stop in Warsaw for tickets and travel papers. I'll update the question.
    – MichaelF
    May 11, 2012 at 14:42
  • At the time it would have been Danzig, and it was another country as well. Technically it was a "Free City" after WWI, but part of Germany before that. According to wikipedia, part of the WWI settlement was that Poland administered the rail line.
    – T.E.D.
    May 11, 2012 at 15:19
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    @TomAu - In a further decent into pedantry, Poland did actually exist as a kingdom, and part of a commonwealth with Lithuania from the eleventh century up until 1795. So it only didn't exist as a political entity for roughly the century right before WWI, and of course a few years during WWII.
    – T.E.D.
    May 11, 2012 at 17:50
  • Accourding to the official census of the 1st of November 1923, 95.03% of the population were native German speakers. Free City of Danzig - Wikipedia May 15, 2021 at 18:51
  • @MarkJohnson: Ok, changed it to "more people spoke Polish than in ...Salonika, Venice, Hamburg or Amsterdam."
    – Tom Au
    May 17, 2021 at 23:09

During Partitions of Poland, Zbaraz was a part of Austro-Hungarian Empire and there weren't good railway connections between Galician towns and those at Russian side, also because of different breadth of rails.

This way I believe your grandmother could use the railway connection between Tarnopol and Krakow, which was part of Galician Railway of Archduke Charles Louis. And from there she could take another train going through Kielce to Warsaw, as from what I know, that was the easiest way.

You can see the possible route on the linked map, which shows the state of connections in 1897. Here's its smaller version:

enter image description here

As for the next part, between Warsaw and Gdansk, this map of German railways in 1899 can provide some details:

enter image description here

The main differences that could change the possible way after 1899 were the development of Russian railways in the first decade of 20th century and the overall development and changes in railways during the World War I.

Still, take in mind that when the war finished, there were only a few rail connections between areas of Poland that were previously parts of different empires. So it was much easier to go by train from Polish town to another country than to another Polish town.


It's possible that she didn't take the train from Warsaw, as many Polish peasants who tried to emigrate were crossing the border illegally, paying the bribe, which was was much easier on smaller routes. With the help of Google you can translate this post from Polish genealogy board speaking about Polish emigration to USA in the end of 19th century, which covers this subject among others.

Of course it could look pretty different in the times of World War I.

Also are you sure about Gdansk? Because at the same article it's written that at the end of 19th century the main ports from which Poles were leaving to USA were Bremen, Antwerp and Hamburg.

EDIT: I've found the following map, showing ports from which emigrants from another Galician town, Świlcza, were coming to New York between 1897 and 1924. As we can see, there's also Gdansk on the list, even if the numbers show it was much less popular option.

More details at the linked website in Polish language.

enter image description here

You should also read another website, containing local press articles in which Galician citizens write about their road to USA. The first one (1902) was written by journalist who focuses on the ship itself, but the more interesting is the second relation (1903), describing how emigrants from Galicia were treated in Germany on their way in trains and in the ports.

And a third press article, from 1890, describing relations from the port in Bremen, how Polish emigrants were treated. I suppose it would be similar in Gdansk.

And finally the book by Martin Pollack, "Caesar of America", describing Galician emigration to USA before 1918. Originally it's in German, it was translated to Polish and it's possible that to English too.

  • +1, especially for "different breadth of rails". Railway gauge (which I believe is the technical term in English) differences is a factor that not many people are aware of.
    – DVK
    Mar 18, 2013 at 3:48
  • Very indepth, thank you. The rails is an interesting fact I did not know, seems to be a similar condition to American railways of the 1800's which were different gauges at one point (especially the American south). Gdansk is what we were told, and I have nothing to refute it at this time, maybe there was a change in ports for 1917?
    – MichaelF
    Mar 18, 2013 at 12:10
  • OK, I've found another source which among 10 ports counts also Gdansk as a starting point of ships to USA, used by emigrants in the end of 19th and start of 20th century. Mar 19, 2013 at 0:56
  • In my edit I've added few good sources in Polish language that will help you imagine how it could look like. Mar 19, 2013 at 1:15
  • Good summary, +1. There was some confusion in the original post, which referred to Warsaw as a "port." Hence my comment that the port was probably Gdansk, not Warsaw. Bremen more plausible than Salonika or Venice since Danzig (Gdansk) was also German-controlled (as were large parts of Poland. But I find Danzig more likely for two reasons: 1) The British had a wartime blockade of the North Sea, which would have affected Bremen more than Danzig on the Baltic. 2) There were more Polish speakers in Danzig.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 19, 2013 at 12:30

At the end of the movie Fiddler on the Roof, the Russian Jews are shown leaving in a train of wagons. I always pictured a wagon trail running West, much like in the USA in the 1800's (but in much less happy circumstances of course).

Its just a movie of course. Hollywood movies aren't exactly renowned for historical scholarship. However, it was made in 1971 with the involvement of quite a few Jewish folks who would have most likely had access to older relatives who had made this exact journey.

  • I was on the fence about adding this as a comment or an answer. I erred on the side of giving this question another answer to work with. Hopefully someone will come up with a source a bit more authoratative on the subject.
    – T.E.D.
    May 11, 2012 at 13:07
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    It's not bad but I don't really count Hollywood as a credible source for many things, but an interesting tangent to pursue.
    – MichaelF
    May 11, 2012 at 16:44

For southern Eastern Europe, the main port would have to be Salonika. From there (and other Balkan and eastern Mediterranean ports), there would have been few direct sailings to North America, but shipping could used a hub system like today's airlines do, but sailing to major centres.

Anecdotal evidence points to Marseille as serving as a staging point for emigrants travelling from the east to North and South America.

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    I like this answer, but can't bring myself to upvote it w/o any references.
    – T.E.D.
    May 11, 2012 at 15:59

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