At the turn of the twentieth century, Paulina Yurco arrived on Ellis Island after leaving her home in Czechoslovakia. Although she was accompanied by her parents and siblings, she knew little about the country that lay before her.
Her family had left Europe seeking a better life in the United States, but how could she have known what to expect?
As she filed her paperwork and awaited inspection at the immigration checkpoint, the Statue of Liberty loomed before her in the upper Hudson Bay. She likely looked upon the statue with excitement, fascination, and trepidation. This symbol of freedom beckoned her into a land unknown, yet one can only wonder what thoughts were racing through her mind. She was at the crossroads of a former life, looking forward toward America while keeping memories of the past alive in her heart.
In all honesty, I know very little about my great grandmother. I have gleaned everything I know of her from the few remaining documents filed away in my family home and the stories relayed to me by my mother. Among the documents is my great grandmother’s Certificate of Naturalization, issued by the state of New York in 1945. The photograph attached to the front of the page depicts a slender yet strong woman gracefully reaching middle age. She has dark features, high cheekbones, discerning eyes, and the same recognizable nose that I find upon my own face. I can see glimpses of my mother, aunts, and grandmother in her portrait, and, in a way, I can almost see myself.
I do not know if her life was difficult or easy. I do not know if she was proud to be an American citizen or if she desperately wanted to return to her homeland. Living in central New York, she may have traveled to the ocean and stared out across the Atlantic, wondering what life must be like on the other side of that vast, blue expanse. Although I can do little but speculate about her life, she is the reason that I am alive today. Her courage is what led her across the ocean, and her courage helped her establish a home in America.
Now, nearly a century later, I will be making a similar voyage across the Atlantic. Yet, this time, I will be traveling in the opposite direction. She moved away from the old country, and now it is my chance to return. I will embark upon a journey to the Czech Republic along with other students from Colorado State University. I will be studying international business and culture in Prague at the University of Economics. I intend to return to the States with a new perspective on the world and my place in it. This is my first time traveling overseas and I am incredibly excited about this adventure.
However, I cannot help but feel connected to my great-grandmother. Although it may seem overly romantic to compare my comfortable study abroad experience with the story of a humble European immigrant, I cannot help but feel the subtle pull of history. I will have a layover in New York, and a century ago she had a similar experience. The two of our histories are intersecting, while simultaneously being separated by space and time. Both leaving our homes, both seeking new experiences. No one else in my family has traveled to the Czech Republic in search of memories from a time once forgotten. I will be the first to make this passage.
At present, I do not expect that that I will ever be able to gather enough facts about my great-grandmother to compile a comprehensive history of her life. Even now, my mother is rummaging through the various cubbies, file cabinets, and closets in our home, searching for more information about our family history. A letter, a report card, an immigration photograph, these are all pieces to the puzzle, each a new key for unlocking my family history.
I do not know if I will be able to learn anything new about my family history while I study abroad in Prague. I do know that, regardless of what happens, I am a product of this history. With that in mind, I will embark upon this journey with hope, excitement, and the weight of history upon my shoulders. In less than a week I will be walking upon the city streets of the land my family used to roam. I can only imagine the excitement this adventure has in store.