Carpatho-Rusyn Heritage: Work

For centuries, the only means of survival for Carpatho-Rusyns was work and hard work at that. I’m not talking about working to get ahead. The people living in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, the Rusyns, were not the powerful land owners in past centuries, nor well-to-do businessmen or tradesmen.

Although they might own small plots of land, the land wasn’t enough to provide enough food for a family. Rusyns were mostly rural agrarians or sheep herders if they lived higher up in the mountains instead of the valleys.

Until the mid-1800s, Rusyns had no hope of bettering their life circumstances. Remember, education wasn’t an option for most of them, they didn’t own anything and could only scrape together enough money or in-kind goods like part of their small crops to pay taxes and feed/clothe themselves. Barely.

Most of the villagers worked for the landowning gentry in a serf-type system for centuries. Remember, too, that various political entities caused governments to change hands so there was much year-to-year turmoil beyond their control.

And there was really no way out. That is until East Europeans headed to the United States in the 1880s.

Many Rusyns, both male and female, came to America to work and make enough money to help the family back at home. Unmarried young ladies didn’t travel alone, but they did come to work in the factories.  Depending on where a young man decided to settle, he might have also worked in the factories, but if he went to Pennsylvania, he might have taken a job working in the coal mines.

Whether or not they were going to leave the village forever and settle in America was a decision most didn’t make until they were living in one of the industrial cities, mostly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The basic plan was to make enough money to send some back home. Many came for a while, worked and saved money, and then returned to Europe for good. Although my great grandparents were in Passaic by 1892, and they arrived unmarried, about 1899, they decided to return to Udol. Nana said her mother didn’t like the air in the city (I can’t imagine why she didn’t like the polluted air coming from all the factory chimneys!) and never came back to America. Her father, Michael Scerbak, did return at least twice to work and make some extra money. I’ve actually found him in a 1912 Ellis Island immigration record pertaining to his brother-in-law, Jan Murcko.

We often think that once our immigrant ancestors settled here, they never again returned to the homeland. In the case of Carpatho-Rusyns, that was far from the reality. Many, MANY made multiple trips across the ocean.

Getting jobs in the factories depended on timing. Occasionally, there was open hiring. However, by the early 1900s, so many immigrants were looking for work that it often meant getting hired was all in who you knew.

A friend or relative from back home was already working and heard about a job opening. The word would be passed on to a new arrival, who would show up to be interviewed and perhaps hired.

For the first three generations, Rusyns kept in close touch with family in Europe or in America, as the case might have been. In America, they lived in tightly knit neighborhoods as they did in the Carpathian villages.

By the end of World War II, there was a new generation of Rusyn-Americans who never knew life in their ancestral homeland, although they were well aware of their origins. The old-timers passed away and the economic boost from American workers to the home villages came to an end.

Today, many Rusyn villages are struggling to survive because the young people are moving away to the cities. Unlike their ancestors, they have the benefit of education and there are no job opportunities in the small villages and towns. Udol today has only about 400 residents. Cousins that I still have in Slovakia return to the village for a holiday, but they have settled in towns like Bardejov and Presov, married and are raising their families in the cities.

It’s rather sad that even to this day, their ancestral homes offer no opportunity for a better life. The only option is to move away.



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