Uncle Peter, Born in Passaic and Naturalized in Passaic, But Why?

Peter Scerbak was my Nana’s brother. I knew him slightly, as he occasionally came by our house to visit. I have a handful of photos of him, most of which were taken before I was born.

Nana with my infant father and brother Peter

Here is one more of Pete, as he was called:

Nana, Dad and Pete

From their clothing, it looks like these pictures were taken on the same day. My dad was born in February 1926, so the pictures were probably taken that summer. I do recognize our front yard on Summer Street in Passaic as the location.

Pete was born on 25 December 1896 in Passaic, so he was a citizen by birth. However, Pete’s wife, Maria Sedlak, was born in Europe in the village of Udol and they married there.

Passaic County, New Jersey is one of the few county court websites that I’ve ever come across that has digitized naturalization records which are both free to access and download.

I decided to poke around the website, searching various Slovak names that I knew were related to the Scerbak family. I was really surprised when this appeared:

As far as I was aware, there was only one Peter Scerbak in Passaic and that was Nana’s brother.

There is a bit of a back story here, but I was still puzzled. My grandmother, Pete and an infant baby brother who died at the age of 8 months were all born in Passaic. As I mentioned, Pete (three years younger than Nana) was born in 1896.

About 1897 or 1898, the family moved back to Slovakia. I knew that many years ago. However, that didn’t explain the naturalization petition under Pete’s name. Nana was recognized as a U.S. citizen when she returned to America in 1910.

Pete emigrated in the 1920s soon after he and Mary married. Their four children were all born in Passaic.

Pete’s petition packet consists of only four pages:

Reading through the pages, there was no question that this was “my” Pete Scerbak and it clearly states that he was born in Passaic.

There is no explanation as to why he was applying for citizenship, but he had apparently lost citizen status at some point before he returned to Passaic.

The answer can be found in a photo that my grandmother received in the mail, most likely along with a letter from her father or perhaps from Pete himself:

Peter Scerbak, on the left

Remember, Pete was born in 1896. When World War I erupted in 1914, he was the perfect age to be drafted and he was. Pete served in the army, but not in the U.S. army. He served in the army of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which was the enemy in the eyes of the U.S.

That’s why he lost his American citizenship. From what I have read, young men in the peasant villages weren’t really given any choice about being conscripted into the armed forces and I have no idea how long Pete was in the army or whether he took part in any battles.

Many researchers are under the impression that, once a family emigrated, they never again saw their homeland and that is true in many instances.

However, by the turn of the 20th century, many emigrants remained in the U.S. for a while, returned home to Europe and came back to America once again.

In fact, the residents of Udol made multiple trips across the ocean for decades, spending part of their lives in the village and sometimes years in Passaic and the surrounding towns.

If you discover a family member who was born in the United States, but became a naturalized citizen, ask yourself why that happened. If the ancestor is a male, did they serve in the military in an action against the United States? You’ll have your answer.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.