Lately, I have been reading a lot of parish records and, although I have seen many infant deaths recorded in the years that I have spent doing family history, I am still surprised and saddened at the high mortality rate through the years. Thankfully, in the modern world, the death rate among infants has dropped significantly.
Today, I want to tell the short life story of little Michael Scerbak, the younger brother and second born child of Michael Scerbak and Anna Murcko, who migrated from Udol in today’s Slovakia to Passaic, New Jersey.
When I first started asking my grandmother about her family, I asked about her brothers and sisters. I knew her brother, Peter, and I also knew she had a sister, Mary, who had died of tuberculosis in the 1920’s. I also knew that I had “cousins” in Slovakia, but I didn’t know many details.
Besides my grandmother Julia’s brother, Peter and sister, Mary, I learned that she had several other siblings. She had a brother, Michael, born about 1906 and who died in “Russia” in the 1950’s. The cousins that I knew of in Slovakia were children of her brother, Stefan, who she never met. You see, Julia was born in Passaic in 1893, but the family returned to the village of Udol about 1898. In 1910, when my grandmother was seventeen years old, she left the village for the last time and returned to Passaic to live. Her youngest brother, Stefan, wasn’t born until 1917 and he never came to the United States. They corresponded by letter and occasionally spoke on the telephone, but they never met in person, but that is a different story.
I asked Nana if she had any other siblings. She said her mother had given birth to one child, who she said was stillborn. I haven’t found any record of that child yet, but it was likely born in Udol.
Nana said she had one other sibling, a brother Michael, who was born after her in Passaic. She said she remembered when he died, but I am not sure she really did, as she was only two years old when it happened. She most likely has early memories of people remembering baby Michael.
Julia was born on 17 August 1893 in Passaic. Her brother, Peter, was born on 25 December 1896, also in Passaic. That left a large enough gap where another child could have been born. When I wrote to St. Michael’s Church in Passaic asking if there were any records for a baby Scerbak born in 1894 or 1895 to Michael and Anna, back came the reply:
Michael Scerbak, son of Michael Scerbak and Anna Murcko, was baptized on 30 Jan 1895 at St. Michael’s Church. It was customary for babies to be baptized within a couple of days of birth, so Michael was likely born about the 27th or 28th.
There was also a burial record:
Michael Scerbak, son of Michael Scerbak and Anna Murcko, was buried on 13 October 1895, also from St. Michael’s Church.
Infant Michael was not quite nine months old when he died. My grandmother said he was taking a nap and didn’t wake up. If her information is accurate, it sounds something like today’s crib death. However, immigrant families in Passaic at the time didn’t have much access to medical care. It is also certainly possible that Michael became ill and died. There are no New Jersey state records detailing his birth or his death.
I learned a bit more about baby Michael recently. Ancestry has the 1895 state census of New Jersey in its database. I searched for the Scerbak family and found one Mickael Scserbak and family living in Ward 1 in Passaic, which is the area around St. Michael’s.
Scserbak Family, 1895, Passaic, NJ
This census page is somewhat faded and a bit difficult to read. However, eight lines down on the left page is Mickael Scscerbak, Annie, Julia and baby Michael.
This particular census was taken between 15 May and 1 July 1895. The Scerbak family was living among a neighborhood of friends and relatives, including Michael’s brother John, who is enumerated on Line 15, living in the same multi-family household. I recognize other names – Spirko, Knapp, Timcsak and Murcsko – on the same page. They were all from Udol.
Sometime during the summer of 1895, Michael Scerbak, my great grandfather, took a trip back to the village. My grandmother said he crossed the ocean several times. I found him on a ship’s manifest returning to America.
I can only imagine how excited he was, landing in New York after a two week or so voyage, and only fifteen miles from seeing his wife and children again. However, there is one detail that this manifest page doesn’t show – the arrival date in New York, which was 24 October 1895.
When Michael arrived in Passaic, he arrived to the news that his infant son had died and been buried just eleven days before. A happy arrival home became a very sad day for him.