Social, Cultural & Political Contexts Are So Important: Understanding Nana

Recently, I wrote a series of posts titled Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records. Beginning genealogists strive to answer three of the important research questions – Who, What and When – and, quite naturally begin as name collectors. The fourth important question – Where – is sometimes important, sometimes not so much as the answer is routine.

Here’s a good example. My 4X great grandfather, Thomas Adams was born in 1783. His eldest brother, Sturgis, was born in 1771. So far, we have the Who and What and When. Where is vitally important in this case. as Sturgis was born in Connecticut and Thomas was born in New Brunswick.

The fifth question, Why, provides the social, cultural and political context that is required to understand the daily lives of our ancestors. In this case, Why was the American Revolution. Their father, John Adams, was a Loyalist who left his Connecticut home and started a new life in Canada when the war ended. For someone with no knowledge of the Revolutionary War and family splits that happened, one’s reaction would be that the family just moved on for whatever reason.

Now, let’s jump two centuries forward in time to my Nana, Helena (called Julia) Scerbak Sabo.

Nana was born on 17 August 1893 in Passaic, New Jersey. She lived there until 1897 or 1898, when her parents decided to move back to Ujak, their home village in today’s Slovakia. Nana returned to the United States in 1910, when she was 17 years old and remained in America for the rest of her life.

My grandmother was a sharp lady, even though she only had the chance to finish the sixth grade in the village school. When I started asking questions about life in Ujak and relatives, Nana was remarkably accurate with the information she shared, as I proved statements she made with government records.

I always wondered about a few things, though.

1. Nana never, ever called herself Carpatho-Rus, Rusyn or Ruthenian. She always said was were “Slovak.”
2. When I asked my grandmother about her father’s siblings, she said he had just two sisters. It wasn’t until after she passed away that I discovered my great grandfather not only had a brother, but my grandmother definitely knew him.
3. Nana probably knew almost all of the cousins and friends who migrated from the village to Passaic, many of whom attended St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church with her. However, there were a good number of villagers who attended St. John’s Russian Orthodox Church, also in Passaic. That wasn’t one of the many churches in Passaic that I visited with my grandmother and, as far as I know, she didn’t socialize with any of the parishioners in any way.
4. My grandmother had not only an intense distrust of, but I venture to say, close to a hatred of “the Russians.”
5. Nana said she understood Hungarian, but didn’t really speak it much. I put that down to the fact that the U.S.S.R. included Czechoslovakia under Communist rule after World War II, but the answer was more complicated than that.

As you might guess, I already knew most of the Who, What, When and Where answers in Nana’s life. My grandmother has been gone for 33 years now and one would think that I would never learn the WHY answer to any of these questions.

This is the reason that understanding the social fabric of our ancestors’ lives is so important. I believe I now know WHY about each of these four questions I have about Nana.

The answers are not only tied, but tightly knotted together, and the knowledge came from books I own.

The most important of these books is With Their Backs to the Mountains: A History of Carpathian Rus and Carpatho-Rusyns by Paul Robert Magocsi. This book is a very complete history that encompasses pre-Middle Ages up to the present day.

First, to understand how Nana’s statements all tie together, a very short overview of Carpatho-Rus is necessary.

Rusyns settled along the mountains and lowlands in a wide swath of area that today extends from western Ukraine and Romania across the northern boundary of Slovakia and catching part of Hungary and Poland. The red square marks the area where Ujak, today called Udol, is located.

As this past weekend marked the centennial anniversary of the end of the Great War, it is fitting to mention that from my grandmother’s birth in 1893 through the close of World War I, pre-war and then war events had a profound effect on inhabitants of Carpatho-Rus. This land had been the target of marauders and conquerors from early times. The Great War was no different.

Nana didn’t remember much of her life in America before the family returned home to Udol about 1897. Her schooling was in Ujak and she would have been well aware of the political happenings that affected daily lives in the village.

By the 1890s, there was a concerted effort by Hungary and Russia to influence loyalties to each of them. By the early 1900s, Hungarian was the mandated school language in the Presov area where Udol sits. Hence, Nana commented that she understood Hungarian, but didn’t use it much. At least part of her education was conducted in Hungarian!

The religious front, far from being a peaceful refuge, was also a war front. A hallmark sign of Ruthenian people is that they attend the Greek Catholic, or Byzantine Catholic Church. The Greek Catholic liturgy follows St. John Chrysostom, while Roman Catholics attended Latin Mass. The name Byzantine came into use because of the religious influence of the Orthodox Church based in Constantinople. This is a very simplified explanation, but it serves its purpose here.

By the turn of the 20th century, Rusyns were often mistaken as  Russians, at least in the minds of some people, because the words are so similar. The Tsar was most interested in building up support and influence among Rusyn people and encouraged the unification of Greek Catholics with the Russian Orthodox Church. Those who did tended to view Russia as an ally and protector.

Others remained loyal to Hungary and remained within the Greek Catholic Church. This schism occurred both in Europe AND with Carpath-Rusyns living in America.  The AND is really important here. The break in America could be seen in each local Greek Catholic Church. Those who supported Hungary as an ally remained in Greek Catholic parishes that they established upon arrival in the 1890s. American Greek Catholics who preferred to support Russia LEFT the church and either attended Russian Orthodox Churches already established or they created new Russian Orthodox parishes. By most accounts, these local parish schisms caused much disappointment and anger on both sides.

With all that in mind, it’s time to take another look at my list of four questions about Nana. You might now be able to answer some of these questions yourself.

  1. My grandmother was a deeply religious person her entire life. She was born Greek Catholic and she died Greek Catholic. I believe because of the Rusyn = Russian affiliation rampant as she was growing up, she probably rejected the terms Carpatho-Rusyn or Ruthenian and preferred to be called Slovak. However, she would have been well aware that her family and friends were, ethnically, Rusyn.
  2. Nana definitely knew her Uncle John, who was six years older than her father, as John lived in the same multi-family house that her family lived in when the 1895 New Jersey state census was taken! Furthermore, her cousins, John’s children, were marrying in Passaic by the time she returned to live in the United States. AND John continued to live in the Passaic-Garfield area until he died in 1938! So, why didn’t my grandmother mention Uncle John? Because he left St. Michael’s and joined St. John’s Russian Orthodox Church!!!
  3. You now know the answer to this one – those who converted to the Orthodox religion were not people with whom my grandmother cared to socialize.
  4. As for my grandmother’s dislike of the Russians, it long pre-dated World War II. The Rusyn villages suffered at the hands of multiple armies passing through, including the Russians in the years leading up to World War I and during the Great War itself. Most Rusyns were poor peasants, some of whom were taken out and shot because their sympathies had to lie (in the Russian minds) with Hungary because they hadn’t joined the Orthodox Church. By the close of World War II, the Communist regime made village life even more oppressed than it had been past years. By my lifetime, Nana’s attitudes towards Russians was well entrenched in her mind.
  5. How did Nana come to understand Hungarian? From those years in school when the government mandated that it be taught so that young Rusyns would become “magyarized,” which was the term used to describe bringing them into the Hungarian way of life.

I thought I knew a lot about Nana and her life growing up, but even though we lived in the same house, I actually didn’t have any idea about any of the cultural and political influences that shaped her life and the lives of my Rusyn ancestors.

If you haven’t yet moved beyond the Who, What, When and Where of your ancestors’ lives, you will find that Why is what completes their stories.





3 thoughts on “Social, Cultural & Political Contexts Are So Important: Understanding Nana”

  1. What an eye-opener, Linda. It totally makes sense, once you reviewed all the background information. Finding books which can help unlock those historical details makes all the difference–if they are out there to be discovered!

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