This year, I ‘ve decided to begin a new project featuring the women in my family tree, beginning with my great grandmothers.
So often, their stories are lost or are just seen through the lives and accomplishments of the men in the family and historical context is often ignored. Four factors influenced the lives of everyone, regardless of when or where they lived – political, social/cultural, economic and religious events impacted lives, whether in small or big ways.
This series will talk about the lives of my female ancestors on both sides of the family tree, as perhaps seen through their eyes, although the posts won’t be written in first person, with some commentary about historical context.
Today, Anna Murczko, the second of my paternal great grandmothers, will be the subject of this ongoing series.
First a short recap of the historical background in my first post:
Life in the Presov region of what is now eastern Slovakia has always been difficult. The majority of people were peasants, working hard just to survive in an area where land was generally poor for crops, political change was frequent as the area was frequently in the cross hairs of opposing armies and there was no opportunity for education, unless a promising young boy was selected to study for the priesthood.
The population was overwhelmingly Catholic. However, while the area is considered part of the Rusyn community and, therefore, Greek Catholic (today called Byzantine Catholic), there were a number of Roman Catholic churches in the area, most likely to be attended by ethnic Slovaks, rather than Rusyns. However, while that statement is generally true, there were no church objections to parishioners intermarrying, which happened frequently.
What was also true is that they were economically poor with no opportunities to better themselves. Most men were small farmers, shepherds, perhaps carpenters or millers, if they were lucky.
Their daily lives – births, marriages, deaths and holiday celebrations – centered completely around their church.
In reality, life for these peasant families wasn’t much different in 1859 compared to 1825, 1775 or even 1700. Modern conveniences like electricity didn’t arrive until the 1960s!
There were no doctors nearby. Long time home remedies provided the only medicine, along with prayers when illness or injury were severe.
After a hard day of mostly physical labor, the men would get together to enjoy drinks and alcoholism was a rampant problem in many families.
Although all of my paternal ancestors lived in the Presov region of Slovakia, the Kacsenyaks lived just east of Presov in what today would be considered the outskirts of the city, while the Murczko family lived 35 miles northwest of Presov, tucked in the foothills of the Tatras Mountains.
Hajtovka and Udol were the two villages that made up the parish of St. Dimitry’s Greek Catholic Church and, while Udol was 99% Rusyn and Greek Catholic, Hajtovka, being closer to some Roman Catholic villages, had more of a mixed population, with at least one long-time Roman Catholic family living there, the Tengis.
Anna Murczko (pronounced like Murchko and “Americanized” to Murcko) was born on 23 May 1872 in Hajtovka, Slovakia, the second child in a family of five daughters and one son, born to John Murczko and Maria Szova.
Anna’s daily life would have been no different than that of Maria Kacsenyak. However, Anna’s family was strictly Greek Catholic so there would have been few-to-no visits to any Roman Catholic churches.
Anna had no opportunity for education growing up, as there was no school in St. Dimitry’s Church parish, until the 1890s. Like Maria, she would have been helping with younger siblings and handling daily chores at home to help her mother.
While the mortality rate was also high in Hajtovka and udol, the Murczko family fared much better than most as only one child of six died in childhood – Anna’s younger sister, Helena, who died sometime between her birth in 1877 and her sister (also) Helena’s birth in 1881.
Life in the village had been virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, but Anna was born at just the right time in history. As a young teenager, something very different was happening in the parish.
The Industrial Revolution had begun and factories sprang up across the United States. Foreign laborers, who would work longer hours for less pay, were desperately needed and agents began visiting Eastern Europe, promoting the benefits to working in the mills.
At first, young men from Hajtovka and Ujak (today’s Udol), one mile away and also part of St. Dimiry’s Church parish, left for America. Stories about a better life and money sent back home encouraged more and more young people to make the trip across the ocean.
By the time Anna was 18, it wasn’t only the young men who were leaving – the young unmarried women decided to go, too.
Why? Because agents were actively recruiting eastern Europeans to work in American factories. Due to centuries of poor nutrition, men and women were smaller than most Americans and could more easily do some of the jobs required in the mills. Even more appealing to business owners was the fact that they would work for a mere pittance of pay because it was much more than they could earn at home in the same period of time.
Anna was one of those village teenagers, who with the blessing of parents, made the trip through Europe to Germany and then sailed to New York, greeted by the Statue of Liberty.
Whether or not she planned to permanently live in America is unknown. Many of the Rusyns planned to “become rich” and then return home to live comfortably. Within a few years, more and more young people made the decision to stay in the United States and became citizens.
In any case, I doubt that Anna went to America with the expectation of never seeing her family again, as happened with Maria Kacsenyak.
There is a passenger list dated 6 September 1890 that includes Anna Kovalycsik, 24, Anna Murcko, 22, and Anna Kucsera, 20, all listed together. It is possible that this is my Anna, in spite of the age difference, which wasn’t unusual, as I know that she arrived in America that year and Kovalycsik and Kucsera are both village surnames.
Also arriving in America, but 2 years earlier in 1888 was my great grandfather, Michael Scserbak (simplified to Scerbak), also a Greek Catholic from St. Dimitry’s Church. The Scserbak family lived one mile away from Hajtovka in Udol.
Both Anna and Michael made the short trip from New York City to Passaic, likely met by cousins or friends, and immediately went to work in the factory mills.
St. Michael’s Church in Passaic was founded about the same time, although the parishioners met in a wooden building that formerly housed a different church.
On 22 October 1892, Michael Scerbak married Anna Murcko. It seems they planned to make the United States their permanent home, as they started a family.
The 1890 census has been lost, but I don’t know if either was in New Jersey at the time to be enumerated anyway since this family DID travel back to Europe more than once, nor does any Scerbak of any spelling appear in Passaic city directories in the 1890s. Somehow, they missed out being in the yearly editions.
New Jersey did take several state censuses and the Michael Scerbak family is found living in Passaic in 1895. Fortunately, it was an every name census, so not only are Anna and Michael enumerated, but my grandmother, Julia, is there, as is her baby brother, Michael, born in January 1895.
That year must have been difficult for Anna. She had just given birth to Michael when husband Michael decided to make a trip back home. Anna remained in New Jersey with little Julia and Michael Jr.
Michael returned to Passaic in late October 1895, only to learn that his son had died several weeks before and was buried on 13 October 1895. Nana said that she remembers being told that the baby took a nap and never woke up. No death certificate has been found, but from the description, it sounds something like crib death.
Although she grieved the loss of baby Michael, Anna gave birth to another son, Peter, on Christmas Day 1896, also in Passaic.
Anna and Michael’s fourth child, daughter Maria, was born 5 June 1899 back in Hajtovka.
Anna hadn’t been back in the village since she left in 1890. I asked Nana why the family moved back to Europe. It seems Anna had some sway with husband Michael. They returned because Anna “didn’t like the air” – she said it wasn’t healthy. Given that their neighborhood was surrounded by dirty, air-polluting factories situated on the Passaic River, and tuberculosis was a very common disease, I’d say Anna was on to something!
Anna must have been very happy to return home to her parents, family and friends even with rough living conditions – there was no electricity in the villages until the 1960s. However, as a school was built in the 1890s, Nana and her siblings had the opportunity to receive a fourth grade education.
Michael, Anna and children Julia, Peter and Maria settled in Ujak, which was the Scerbak family home village. However, Hajtovka was just a mile away and Anna could visit her parents often.
Nana said that her mother lost a second child, although I can find no documentation to support that statement. Anna may well have had an early miscarriage. There is a huge gap between Maria’s birth in 1899 and those of her younger brothers, Michael in 1906 and Stephen in 1917, so it is certainly possible.
I have several photos of Anna. The first is unusual because it is a tintype wedding photo with Anna’s and Michael’s heads added onto bodies.
The other two pictures were taken in Udol, as it was renamed after World War II, when Anna was in her senior years:
Anna was widowed when Michael died on 16 March 1932 in Udol. She lived a long life, passing away on 28 June 1967, also in Udol.
I almost had a chance to meet Anna, as parishioners at St. Michael’s Church in Passaic, including my grandmother, had chartered a plane to go back and visit.
However, there was political turmoil in Czechoslovakia at that time – Prague Spring happened in 1968 – and the State Department recommended against travel to the area. The church trip was then cancelled.
Children of Anna (Murcko) and Michael Scerbak:
1. Julia, born 17 August 1893
2. Michael, born 30 January 1895
3. Peter, born 25 December 1896
4. Maria, born 5 June 1899
5. Michael, born 7 June 1906
6. Stephen, born 28 October 1917
Anna had to be sorry to see her three eldest children leave the village once again. My grandmother left in 1910, when she was 17, and returned to Passaic. She never saw her mother again and never met her youngest brother, Stephen.
Peter left for Passaic in the early 1920s, as did Maria in 1923. Sadly, Maria, who was married and left two young sons, died of tuberculosis just three years later on 8 May 1926.
By all accounts, Anna was a well-loved family member. Although daily life presented many struggles, she was happy with her life and her family.