Through Different Eyes

An Immigrant's Heroic Journey

History comes alive as you follow Anna Mrkvička Kups' difficult journey to America.

From the first page, you are seeing the world Through Different Eyes as you are transported into another time.

Journey with Anna as she leaves the dirt floor of her over-crowded one room home to enter an unknown world with overwhelming challenges a every turn.

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Through Different Eyes--An Immigrant's Heroic Journey 1889-1909 is available at

Copyright 2003 J. Barbara Alvord

ISBN: 1-4134-3488-6 (Paperback)

ISBN: 1-4134-3489-4 (Hardback)

Pages: 342

Publisher: Xlibris Corporation

Publish Date: March 2004


Subject: HISTORY / General

Book Excerpts (page 42-43)

Most early immigrants understood little about the America they strove to reach. Anna learned something very important at her very first day of school with the good nuns:

"What captured Anna's attention most mid-afternoon was Sister Marie Helena explaining exactly where the six-year-old "was" in the world. Where she really "was." The little girl never had seen a map before. The hand-painted one hammered to the schoolroom wall intrigued her. The Austrian-Habsburg Empire was a large and prominent shape spread on it, green with shaded browns for mountain humps. The wimple-clad Sister tapped her pointer to a spot with "Kutná Hora" printed beside it, looking sternly at her pupils to announce, "This is where you sit in God's world. Right here!" Anna was fascinated, her different eyes wide.

Then the nun showed the class where Prague was located nearby, at the center of Europe, and she continued to identify countries and continents as they spiraled out from Kutná Hora, where Anna "was." She tapped on Germany, France, and the British Isles. At last her pointer moved across a painted blue sea dotted with inked images of billowy sailing ships afloat on inverted v-shaped waves. She finally banged her stick on a strange brown shape called the United States of America.

Anna glanced back and forth between the spot that was Kutná Hora, her spot, and the brown shape across the blue Atlantic Ocean. So that was the America grown-ups talked about so much by firelight. It didn't look so far after all from where she "was" on the colorful map. From that time forward in her mind the United States was a strange and irregular brown blob beyond bright blue seas."

Story Behind The Book

J. Barbara Alvord, former educator, has retired from the corporate world to write. Her poetry has been published in Lyrical Iowa, Byline and Cayuse Press zines: Retrozine and The Green Tricycle. Her stage plays Due Time and The Waving Man have been produced.

In 1992, as Barbara stood on Ellis Island pondering her grandmother's name on the Immigrant Wall of Honor, she vowed to write Anna Mrkvička's courageous story. Anna was but a fourteen-year-old, meagerly educated peasant girl when she was chosen in 1903 to leave her family and accompany her illiterate godfather from Europe to the Midlands of America. She left the dirt floor of her over-crowded one room home to enter an unknown world with overwhelming challenges at every turn.

Through Different Eyes describes the back-breaking peasant life of that era. (Anna worked beside her parents in the fields at six years of age.) It travels with the young peasant in steerage on a daunting ocean voyage, and it reveals the frustrating immigrant experience of Ellis Island. It explores the sounds and smells of sleeping for six weeks on steamy tenement rooftops of New York City's dangerous Lower East Side, sometimes with a knife handy for protection.

The journey includes a lengthy train ride into the Heartland of the United States, reveals the anxiety of arriving to work with strangers on an isolated farmstead in early Iowa. With no way to learn the English language of America, for three hard years the frightened girl was unable to escape an abusive step-aunt. She was neither paid for her exhausting farm work nor allowed enough to eat; she was beaten.

Yet Anna not only miraculously survived her ordeals, her grit and determination at last enabled her to bring all seven members of her family and a foster brother to Iowa in 1909. It was just in time; World War I was threatening to engulf Europe.

After years of research, this creative biography honors all unsung immigrants like young Anna. It pays homage to the millions of men and women who desperately struggled to transplant their family lives to the freedom of America--their precious gift to those of us so privileged to be citizens of this great land.

Notes From Author J. Barbara Alvord

I am a published essayist, poet, and playwright, but I consider Through Different Eyes, the story of my grandmother Anna’s immigrant journey to America in 1903, to be one of my most satisfying writing achievements.

As a child I visited my Bohemian grandmother regularly. During those times she shared with me, her first American grandchild, a precious oral history about her strivings to become "American."

By 1992, long after my grandmother’s death in 1956, I determined that those stories should not be forgotten. I began to build on them with years of in-depth research, seeking to "walk in Anna's shoes" through her heroic journey.

Research led me to Ellis Island, the Tenement Museum in New York City, and the Czech Republic. There, in the historic town of Kutna Hora, I discovered Anna’s 1889 baptism records. They had survived two world wars and the communist occupation. The Records Clerk and I both shed tears.

My long quest led me to a valuable insight. Through Different Eyes not only developed into a vibrant story about the survival of the human spirit, it helped me to understand the old-world impact that Anna had on those who came after her. She taught us well the meaning of responsibility and steadfast loyalty to family.

Readers who know little of their immigrant heritage tell me that Anna’s story helps them visualize what it must have been like for their ancestors to break away from everything familiar, and to settle their family lines in America.

The book, then, has become not only a remembrance about a particular brave Bohemian girl, but a reminder to readers about their own courageous family histories. Regrettably, so many of those stories have been lost to us forever.

Researching Family History

There is an abundance of help for those of us who wish to learn more about our immigrant heritage. Because I wanted to make little Anna's incredible journey come alive, I spent thousands of hours researching what she faced each day.

My book listing of Resources for Through Different Eyes shows a wide variety of information found in usual and unusual resources. I'm sure that other researchers have discovered other data centers I did not investigate. The following explains only the path I followed.

Common sources

On the web, Ellis Island and Genealogical Societies are helpful. Some of the latter groups seek your paid membership, but Ellis Island's Website has much free information. While visiting the Island, I walked the Great Hall imagining Anna and her godfather's frustration at being held there so long before entering New York City.

The History Channel sometimes shows just what you are looking for. During my research, Ellis Island was broadcast; I purchased all three tapes. The Public Television series, The West, The Greatest Enterprise under God, was shown in 1997. I was in the midst of analyzing railroads and Anna's long trip to Iowa at the time.

I found nothing of my ancestors in the Mormon Library records, but it is a vast resource to try. In a well-established Masonic Library I found my grandfather's name in the 1907 Farmers' Directory of Leading Farmers in Linn County, Iowa, printed two years before Jacob Kubesch (Kups) married Anna Mrkvička.

Historical Society Libraries and Museums

I spent hours at the Iowa Historical Society Library scanning microfiche of newspapers printed during 1889-1909. The New York Times informed me that it rained the day Anna finally left Ellis Island. Newspapers published at the time of your ancestors will tell you in fascinating detail what your family members were facing day to day--prices of goods they had to buy, political and worker unrest, weather problems, societal mores, government issues, world influences on the countries from which they came.

Most immigrants in America had relatives and immediate families still across oceans. News about happenings at home was important to them.

Public Libraries

Public library books and encyclopedia entries revealed to me what little Anna faced in the early 1900s in the rural Midwest: keeping warm and processing food, inventions during that era, keeping clean, railroads and their depots, religion and government, farming at the start of the 20th century, the rise of feminism and the push for women's right to vote, leftover racism from the Civil War.

Aging family members

I discovered the name of the Anna's birthplace, a now non-existent agricultural village near Prague, from her only surviving brother, Joe. My grandmother never told me the hamlet's name. Joe died two weeks after my visit. Surviving seniors in your family can be valuable in your heritage search. Use a tape recorder; make a list of questions to ask.

I suggest at my book readings that families have children ask five questions of older relatives at Holiday events. They can use the information for school projects; they can put together family stories of their own. Books don't have to be long or fancy. Family facts collected in a binder can be handed down through generations also.

Military records

The name of the village where the Mrkvičkas lived was verified when I did research at the Camp Dodge museum archives in Des Moines. There, on the army records of Anna's brother, WWI Private Frank Mrkvička, was listed his village of birth: Velký Lunec. That matched what had been told me by 80-year-old Joe before he died.

Family photos

Buried in trunks and old albums are pictures of people no family members can any longer identify. Often, however, there are dates and notes on the backs of snapshots. My mother was diligent with family photo albums, and she always put dates and identity on pictures. People used those old Brownie cameras a lot. Many took shots of gravestones, which give dates that you perhaps can locate nowhere else.

The Internet

This option provides countless sites with genealogical information. It can connect you to other people who are researching their families, and perhaps to long-lost relatives. A contact I made through the Web provided me the final piece of the puzzle as to which of the "Gilbert" brothers' families hired Anna away when she worked (for no pay) for an abusive woman who beat and allowed her little to eat.

Later that information was confirmed by an old postcard found in an aunt's things after she died. It was signed by the children Anna took care of on the "Gilbert" farm. Those two events saved me from making a serious error in Anna's story. My grandmother never referred to her employers by their first names when she spoke to me about them; I had been concentrating on the wrong "Gilbert" brother.

Land Plats, old Railroad maps

These items usually can be found in Historical Libraries and some Railroad Museums. I learned from such maps the logical rail route Anna took from New York City to rural Iowa in 1903; she had told me in very general terms about the route of her train trip--she "took a train from New York City, stopped in Chicago to find something to eat, and finally arrived in Iowa." I was able to find out what trains were operating in 1903.

One problem with old Land Plats is that renters are not listed on them. Only owners' names are on the records, which leads us to census data.

Census reports

These are extremely valuable when accurate, readable ones can be found. Unfortunately, some records have been lost in old buildings through the years through fire and flood. I found that some census reports were put on microfiche, and then print copies were destroyed. If the microfiche was poorly formatted it is difficult and time-consuming to find the names you seek.

Journals, Diaries and Letters

If you are lucky enough to find old letters or diaries or journals in a trunk somewhere, read them carefully. Generations ago people were enamored with the written word, especially before radios or phones were available to the masses. It was important to read, and, for some people, to keep records of their daily lives. Farmers wrote on calendars about weather, the price of corn. Women often wrote of their isolated or social lives. Most of these items are lost to us, unfortunately.

Time Lines

Library Chronicles and Encarta and web encyclopedias have Time Lines, which I found quite useful. If you are not satisfied with the skeleton of a family tree and genealogy, bring family stories to life by positioning them within world events on a time line.

It crystallized Anna's era for me to read that in 1903, during her long trip to the Midwest, the Wright brothers flew their flying machine 120 feet at Kittyhawk; that there was an anti-foot binding edict in China just a year earlier; that the United States already had a Secretary of Agriculture, established the year Anna was born--1889; that when she entered this country the AFL union membership was already over a million, fighting for the rights of blue-collar workers; that in 1906 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 10-hour law for workers in factories and laundries.

You get the picture. It's amazing how one's heritage comes to life as you visualize ancestors' daily challenges. Live persons emerge when names and dates are dropped into the vibrant societies within which they struggled to survive and succeed.

Caution- Dates and Recollections

I found that dates and recollections by family members were sometimes conflicting. Memories fade; old records are not always correct. I finally decided that I would gather all information I could find about my grandmother and her era. Then, when information didn't gel, I was forced to make educated guesses about some issues. That's the best a writer (and you) can do in your quest. I wish you luck.