Carpatho-Rusyns are one of the major ethnic groups of Pennsylvania. From the time they settled the state’s small towns and cities in the late 1870s until the present time, Carpatho-Rusyns have left an indelible mark on the state, and their story should be told. This blog is about a project that will do just that. Read more

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Heart and Soul of the History: Memoirs and Oral Histories

One of the few accounts of the departure of a young Carpatho-Rusyn about to embark for America is this short, but emotionally-wrought story:
I was still a young lad – not even ten years of age – when in 1878, word got out in my part of Lemkovyna that Pavel Fyljak* of the town of Luh, of the parish Ždŷnja in the county of Gorlyci had returned from the army and was preparing to leave for a distant land beyond the sea, America ... When the priest announced in church that Pavel Fyljak, the son of Seman Fyljak, is preparing for America and that a Divine Liturgy will be celebrated on his behalf, a large group of people came to the church. On that day I didn't go to school because I wanted to see how a man prepared for America. A large group of people had gathered at the home of Seman Fyljak. A buffet was served at the home. The father rose to speak. He recited the Our Father and then blessed his son ... The people spoke about how Pavel Fyljak had learned about America from his Czech friends in the army.

[Denys Holod, “Spomyny staroho imigranta” as recorded by Omelian Reviuk, Jubilee Book of the Ukrainian National Association, ed. Luka Myshuha (Jersey City: Svoboda Press, 1936), p. 255.]
*Given in the above source as “Chyljak” but the proper surname of this family in Luh is Fyljak.

Similar sentiments are found in this account of another early immigrant’s departure:
It will be over 50 years now since our Lemkos began to leave Lemkovyna for America. It was a great occasion when they were escorting the first Lemko, Mychal Durkot of the village of Hančova, on his first steps into the distant world. He was accompanied by a huge procession. The entire community came to say farewell, not only his mother and father, but his wife and children too. And everyone wept such tears that a stranger who didn't know what was taking place might have thought that someone was being led to the gallows or some equally horrible fate. But he was respected by the community and that is why he received such a grand farewell.

[Damian Merena, “Pro Pershykh Lemkiv v Amerytsi,” Golden Jubilee Almanac of the Ukrainian National Association, ed. Luka Myshuha (Jersey City: Ukrainian National Association, 1944), p. 250.]

In the course of my research, I have met so many wonderful individuals – storytellers, collectors, those with photographic memories, and pillars of the community – and beyond all the facts, names, dates, and narrative, it is their emotions and memories that provide the real human story of Carpatho-Rusyn immigration and Americanization. I’m blessed that some of these individuals have lent their voices and memories through oral history interviews to provide a direct experience of this history.  In addition, I have collected what I believe is virtually every memoir written and published by Rusyn immigrants and their descendants about the earliest days of Rusyns in America.  I want to make this aspect a central feature of as many community history entries in the book as possible, to be titled “Through their Eyes.”

Among the earliest eyewitness accounts of Rusyn immigrant life in Pennsylvania is an account by Dionyzij Salej of the very first Divine Liturgy held in Shenandoah after the 1884 arrival of Father Ivan Voljans’kyj, and his recounting the genesis of the Rusyn communities in the lower Anthracite region, serialized in the almanacs of the Russian Brotherhood Organization.

Another very rich account of the life of an early immigrant family was that of Michael Luchkovich, born to Lemko Rusyn immigrants in Shamokin in 1892. He wrote about his Shamokin childhood in his published memoir, A Ukrainian Canadian in Parliament (1965).

Community activist and early leader of the Ruskij Narodnyj Sojuz (later the Ukrainian National Association), Dymytrij (later “Dmytro”) Kapitula of McAdoo, Schuylkill Co., penned a memoir (1936) of his 1888 arrival in the U.S. and the difficult circumstances he faced as a young immigrant in Honey Brook, just outside McAdoo (“Shcho znachylo kolys’ buty imigrantom,” Jubilee Book of the Ukrainian National Association 1936, p. 260.). In that same publication was a memoir of Teodozij Talpaš about his early American life upon arriving in Shamokin in 1880.

Two extensive accounts were published separately but authored by related members of the Grisak/Gresock family who came from Slovinky, Spiš County, to Jefferson and Indiana Counties. The Grisak Family (1978), by Michael J. Grisak, based on the manuscript of his father, Joseph Grisak (1873-1950), is substantially about the family’s lineage and life in Europe, but also with valuable accounts of his life in the U.S., around Punxsutawney, Vintondale, and Dunlo (the latter two in Cambria County). The Gresocks of Chambersville, by Dennis J. Baca (1994, rev. ed. 2011) followed the life of another branch of the same family who settled in Indiana County. The amount of detail in The Grisak Family especially is quite remarkable, so I will have to be very selective in what excerpts I may have room to provide.

A richly detailed memoir of a Lemko Rusyn family is the remarkable online story of Mary Pawlak, Bald Mountain Childhood, set in and around the large community in the Hudson/Irishtown section of Plains, just north of Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County. Lovingly told by her son, Roland Anderson, it is fascinating and thoroughly researched.

The extensive memoir Growing Up in Woods Run, 1920-1939 (1999) by Andrew Syka, provides another finely detailed look at the life of a first-generation American Rusyn in Pittsburgh, both in the densely-Rusyn neighborhood and the Rusyn-founded Russian Orthodox parish church he grew up in.

Two remarkable memoirs in my possession were penned by clergy, one Galician Ukrainian and Greek Catholic, the other Carpatho-Rusyn and Russian Orthodox. Father Oleksa Prystaj spent a few years of his priestly career in the U.S. in southwestern Pennsylvania, based at Saints Peter & Paul Church in Carnegie, Allegheny County, while doing mission work among mainly Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants in the areas of Canonsburg, Burgettstown, and Avella in Washington County. He wrote in clear terms about the conflicts between Russophile/pro-Orthodox factions and the pro-Greek Catholic segments of these communities and how he as a mainly traveling missionary priest dealt with them. Similarly, Father Arsenij Gavula, a Rusyn immigrant who became a Russian Orthodox priest-monk in the U.S., undertook missionary work to establish new Orthodox parishes among Rusyn immigrants in Cambria and Indiana Counties. He kept a diary as he traveled from place to place, going into details about the obstacles and scorn he encountered from established Greek Catholic Rusyns; publishing this in English translation will add incredible value and color to the otherwise rather brief existing histories of those communities.

A similar source that yields wonderful glimpses into the times is the long-running series by Father Orestes Koman, “As I Remember It” from the Eastern Catholic Life newspaper. Father Orestes wrote about his first parish assignments after coming to the U.S. or about visits he made to his father’s parishes, some of which were in Pennsylvania, especially Central City in Somerset County and Forest City in Susquehanna County.

An unusual type of memoir that also provides extremely valuable first-person insight into the life of our communities during the immigrant era is that by European Rusyn political activist Stefan Fencyk, who made an extended tour of Rusyn immigrant communities in the United States (1934-1935) described in his book Uzhgorod-Amerika (1936). The book includes detailed profiles of each community he visited, covering the main occupation of the local Rusyns, their state of national consciousness, their community institutions, and the results of the politically-oriented meetings and rallies (narodnoje viče) he held there with the community.

I must also mention the writings of Father (now Saint) Alexis Toth, the “father of Russian Orthodoxy in America.” The 4-volume Alexis Toth—Letters, Articles, Papers, and Sermons contains otherwise unwritten-of accounts of the life and early years of communities where St. Alexis directly led the local Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants into the Orthodox Church, such as Sheppton, Old Forge, Scranton, Mayfield, and of course, Wilkes-Barre. His writings will also form an important part of my historical narrative and eyewitness history.

Looking at the entire corpus of memoirs, it does seem that the Lemko Rusyns who ended up in the Ukrainian “ethno-national stream” (as Myron Kuropas has described it) have been the most prolific in recording their lives in America and having them published. (Or perhaps we should say the Ukrainian community has been the most active in seeking them out and guaranteeing their publication.) Of the Subcarpathian Rusyns, whether from the Prešov Region or Subcarpathian Rus’, the above-mentioned Grisak/Gresock family members have created some of the only such memoirs of depth and detail. (I have yet to find any accounts of Pannonian/Vojvodinian Rusyn life in America written by an immigrant him/herself.)

History in an mp3

I’ve conducted oral history interviews myself, of Rusyn Americans who grew up in communities such as:
  • St. Clair, Schuylkill Co.;
  • Williamstown, Dauphin Co.;
  • Marion Heights, Northumberland Co.;
  • Nesquehoning, Carbon Co.;
  • Beaver Meadows, Carbon Co.;
  • Pleasant Mount, Wayne Co.;
  • Moscow, Lackawanna Co.;
  • Simpson, Lackawanna Co.;
  • Conemaugh, Cambria Co.;
  • Barnesboro, Cambria Co.;
  • Monessen, Westmoreland Co.;
  • McKees Rocks, Allegheny Co.
Not all of these interviews were of elderly folks; and some were of clergy. Some were quite lengthy, and others were just a short series of notes or basic information. Sadly, some of my planned oral histories never happened, as the informant passed away before I was able to do the interview. But I intend to conduct a few more that will hopefully provide additional insight into community life as they experienced it.

Especially valuable in this genre are a set of Rusyn American oral histories collected and published by Bruce Weston in the unfortunately short-lived Southwestern Pennsylvania magazine. He also collected oral histories from Slovak-, Hungarian-, Croatian-, Serbian-, and Russian-Americans that provide a fascinating impression of Central/Eastern European immigrant life in those communities in Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties. The account of Rusyn Americans’ lives in Monessen and around New Salem are rich and detailed, and I plan to excerpt them in the book entries on those communities.

I was also given a series of local newspaper articles based on the reminiscences of Mary (Krasnobrodsky) Krul, a Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant from Velykŷj Bereznŷj, Už County, to North Braddock, Allegheny County.

History Under Oath

As we well know, the ownership of Rusyn church properties was challenged in courts many times over. I’ve been fortunate to have access to the full written record of testimony in the major cases dealing with parish properties in:
  • Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne Co. (1900);
  • Ambridge, Beaver Co. (1937);
  • Olyphant, Lackawanna Co. (1951); and
  • Carnegie, Allegheny Co. (1951).
Even though these latter three cases were in the 1930s-50s, in each one there were founders of the parish still alive who testified about the circumstances of how the parish was established and run in the early years. While the testimony is not always edifying and can be tedious to read, it inevitably contains some valuable, and colorful, recounting of the conflicts within the community or with the parish priests, and reveals how seemingly small incidents could result in the eventual total division of a community. I may not use lengthy excerpts, but some of the exposition is too good to leave in an obscure source few will ever see.

The Story of Rusyn Families

A few family genealogy-oriented publications have come into my possession over the years, including one about a Rusyn immigrant pioneer Peter Ridilla, who lived near Bradenville (Latrobe area) in Westmoreland County. Ridilla, from the thoroughly ethnic-Rusyn village of Šambron in Šaryš County, may have identified as a Slovak, however, as the family genealogy book A Century of Ridillas presents the family as Slovak. Nevertheless, this book paints a unique picture of the extended family interactions between members of a large clan of Rusyn immigrants who settled in somewhat close proximity to one another but who lived in distinct settlements.

Historical novels about Carpatho-Rusyn American life are few and far between, but in them we are able to learn about the essence of the Rusyn experience in Pennsylvania. Where appropriate, I also plan to draw on these. Among these are:
  • The Sorrows of Marienka (1979) and Michal, A Galician Miner (unpublished) by Vasil S. Koban, about Conemaugh, Cambria County;
  • Eternal Memory (1999) by Ann Walko, about Wall and Braddock, Allegheny County;
  • Less Than Diamonds (2003) by Pete Bohaczyk, about Atlas/Mt. Carmel, Northumberland County;
  • Icon of Spring (2004) by Sonya Jason, about Jefferson, near Burgettstown,Washington County.
And of course the iconic Out of This Furnace (1976), by Thomas (Belejčak) Bell, is a purely fictional novel, we are told, but the stories resonate with the author’s own childhood in a mixed Rusyn/Slovak immigrant family in Braddock, Allegheny County, fragments of which I may want to share as well for the book’s vivid imagery.


Shorter first-person accounts of Rusyn immigrant life are found in fraternal organization almanacs and newspapers. (One that comes to mind is that of Nikolaj Pacak, born in Zavadka, Spiš County, who was an early settler who established a farm in northwestern Pa. near Albion in Erie County.) Again, however, most of these are from Lemko Region or Prešov Region immigrants.

Obituaries of community leaders and pioneers are found in most of the Rusyn immigrant newspapers, and more than just dates and names, these sometimes provide a wealth of insight into the life of the typical (or standout) Rusyn immigrant, and I may even republish some of these in English translation as a separate call-out, perhaps “A Tile in the Rusyn American Mosaic.”

Finally, the fraternal newspapers regularly published letters by members of the organization or community leaders. Sometimes these are polemical, emotional, and even possibly libelous, but among what seems like so much “dirt” is a chronicle of events of those early years that must be compared against other accounts, and in my opinion, translated and shared if we are to fully understand what our people went through.

Still Searching for More!

I hope I’ve expanded your awareness of how our story has been told on a small scale. But if anyone is aware of this sort of material from any source I’ve overlooked, please contact me or post a comment here.

Original material is © by the author, Richard D. Custer; all rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. One source I neglected to mention because it seems rather random to find this sort of information therein, is parish history books. A (very) few include some one- or two-line "reminiscences" that would be worth reproducing and only one that I can think of included a very nice page of oral history by a particularly well-spoken woman who grew up in Lyndora, Butler County.


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