Americans of Slovene origin are a small community of devoted and fully integrated citizens who have contributed to every aspect of life in the USA. The descendants of Slovenes who emigrated feel a strong bond with Slovenia, despite often having only a vague recall of the heritage shared by their grandparents.
Many of them return to Slovenia, looking for their roots and an interpretation of their heritage. Over the coming months we will delve deeper into the migration itself, Slovenian communities in America, personal stories of Slovenian Americans and last but not least, explain the connection to Slovenia and the tourism that brings it all together – Ancestry Tourism.
SLOVENIAN EMIGRATION TO THE UNITED STATES
A Tough Journey to the Promised Land
In order to understand the peculiarities of heritage travel, lets take a step back.
The Slovenian mass emigration to the United States started in the second half of the 19th century, mainly travelling to the ‘promised land’ between 1860 and 1920. There are no exact numbers of how many Slovenians emigrated to the United States because, over the years, some Slovenian territories belonged to the neighbouring countries – Austria, Italy and Hungary. Between 1880 and 1930 there were four million emigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which the Slovenian people belonged too.
There are many stories about why people left their homeland, every emigrant had a different reason; be it political, social or economic, but most were looking for a better future. At the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was mainly people from the poorer southern Slovenian regions that were wanting to emigrate. Even though emigration was controlled, early passports had no photo, creating the perfect opportunity to be smuggled from country to country, enabling hundreds of young men to avoid military service, they could change their name and start a new life abroad. Many others changed their names because it was convenient to simplify it for the English-speaking audience. Sometimes their names were changed unwillingly because of the difficulty of the Slovenian language, “J” became “Y”, “Č” was switched to “CH” and so on, and even within the same family they may have spelt their surnames differently. This is an important factor when looking for ancestors in the archives, many surnames were spelt differently and also, the various Slovenian dialects caused the spelling variations of the ancestral villages.
Most emigrants travelled to the USA on ships. There were three classes of tickets – first, second and steerage class, to which they added an additional class which was better than steerage. Many passengers could only afford the cheapest tickets. Despite the fact of a low price (on average equivalent to US$30), more often than not all family members had to work collectively to save money for their emigration. For steerage passengers, conditions on the steamships were unbearable, their accommodation was next to the boiler room and it was noisy and crowded. The shipping companies tried to put as many passengers on each ship as possible because of the money that could be made. The onboard meals were poor, mainly starchy food such as rice, potatoes and bread, any meat was boiled and always old and tough, and vegetables were unrecognisable and therefore avoided by many, resulting in a lot of waste going overboard. Extra food such as fruit and candies could be purchased, but only those who had extra money could do so. The majority of the emigrants ate what they were given, they had no choice. The hygiene aboard was substandard and facilities insufficient, it is hard to imagine the odour from the toilets, seasick people vomiting, no showers and the only fresh water on board was for drinking.
Immigration agents represented various shipping companies across Europe. In Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, the Railway Road (Kolodvorska ulica) near the train station was the place to be, many official agents were based there. There were also freelance agents who would go from village to village to sell tickets, there were many unauthorised agents amongst them with no proper license to operate in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, working for companies originating from countries such as Switzerland and Germany. These unofficial agents utilised excellent tactics to attract emigrants, this was widespread throughout Slovenia. They would give their customers precise instructions how to travel to a departure port, telling them to avoid Ljubljana and board a train couple of stations outside the capital. At that time, the Ljubljana Municipal Police employed detectives to search for fraudulent agents, although later, the search for illegal businesses expanded to the outlying areas. Travellers, who bought a ticket from an illegal agent, were told not to talk to anyone about their emigration to the United States, but rather say they were going for a visit to Germany or Switzerland. They would be advised to send their luggage beforehand to the port from where they would embark their ship, enabling them to travel lightly and not raise any suspicions. The illegal emigration agents took the risk of breaching the law because they made a very good profit through the transportation of emigrants – it was the business of the century.
The official emigration agents, who represented shipping companies from different ports around Europe, were very successful at marketing, they included advertising brochures, postcards, leaflets and posters, all with inviting slogans. The brochures had the exact information about the ship’s accommodation, the daily menus, luggage requirements, money exchange and transportation within America. The material also explained why not to go through illegal agencies, describing the advantages of buying a ticket via an official emigration agency.
One of the official emigration agents from Ljubljana wrote: “Because I am familiar with American immigration law, I advise people before their departure from Ljubljana about how they have to act during travel and upon arrival, and how to talk with the immigration commission in New York. This is because you can avoid troubles and successfully pass the commissioners numerous questions; only if you are familiar with immigration law.”
In a warning about deportation, he wrote: “American law allows only those to disembark in the United States who are eligible to work, they deport those who are not capable. In such cases, the passenger loses all of their prepaid travel arrangements. Our steamship company organises a doctor’s visit for passengers, before departure to the United States, to check whether they are healthy and eligible to work in America, those who are not are advised to return home and the cost for the trip home is covered.”
It was not an easy decision to leave home and embark on the long journey to the unknown world. People of the time were very resilient and could cope with such a journey, as they believed a brighter future was awaiting them. In the most part they never regretted leaving their homeland, but of course leaving traditions, culture, friends and family came with a price, the greatest cost of all being their longing for their home country, which never completely vanishes.
HOW CAN YOU CONNECT TO YOUR SLOVENIAN HERITAGE?
For many years, Manja Lilek, founder of Manja Travel, has been connecting descendants of Slovenians with their homeland of Slovenia. The business idea of ancestry tourism was born out of her own experience of meeting distant relatives and descendants of a great-grandmother who, 100 years ago, travelled from the Prekmurje region to Argentina. Her descendants, however, have been coming to Slovenia for years and Manja organises new encounters with Slovenian heritage and culture.
Manja has gradually built her experience in a thoughtful, in-depth and planned way. Above all, she has expanded the circle of reliable partners, such as researchers, genealogists, ethnologists, archivists, parish priests, to help create the perfect tourism product.
Please continue following our series of articles related to Slovenian heritage, activities of Slovenian communities in the USA and ancestry tourism with genealogy research.
“Manja Travel”, part of the Travel Agency Židana Marela, which specialises in creating tailor made trips for travellers.
This article was written by Andreja Flach and Manja Lilek, the driving force behind Ancestry Tourism.