When I started working on my genealogy research, I was particularly interested in my dad’s family because I knew so little about them. Members of his family emigrated even later than those in my mom’s family, so you’d think we’d know more, but we didn’t. His ancestors came from Eastern Europe, fleeing from communism and other kinds of oppression. They were desperate to assimilate into American culture to forget the repression they’d left. They didn’t yet trust in the place they’d come to, and they had left large parts of their families behind. It was painful to talk about the past, and harder to forget it if they did, so they buried it and tried to make new lives here.
One family legend was that my great-grandfather, Simon, had emigrated from Romania as a stowaway on a potato boat. People in my dad’s family love to tell this story. It was just after the turn of the 20th century, and the Romanian government was forcing boys into the military, apparently as young as age 12. Simon’s parents saw World War I coming, and didn’t want to see him get killed, so they tried to convince him to leave the country, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to stay with his family.
Sometimes when my dad tells the story, Simon was drafted, but ran away and came back home. In this version, the military found him and put him in military prison, and he escaped again. By then, he agreed with his parents that he had to leave, so he stowed away on a ship. Sometimes my dad says Simon escaped and was captured repeatedly.
Other times, my dad thinks he never was in the military at all, and was convinced to leave before they could draft him. His status as a stowaway was never a question in the story, though.
Simon must have been a fairly lucky guy, because he stowed away on a ship that happened to have a hold full of potatoes, which he could eat on the trip across the ocean and still remain hidden from the crew. When the ship eventually docked on the East Coast, story has it that he got off and panicked. No idea where he was, and not able to speak a word of English, he went back down into the hold of the boat. The boat then left again, travelled through the Northwest passages, and ended up in Chicago, where he decided to brave it and venture out into the world. He was 18 and it was 1907, and that’s how my dad’s family came to be from Chicago. So far, I have not been able to validate any of the crazy details that would confirm Simon was a stowaway, surviving on potatoes, but I’m still working on it. All I know for sure is that he is from a small village in Romania, he ended up in Chicago in 1907, and I happen to like potatoes a lot.