The April glimpses into the maternal branches of my family tree will focus of two of my Rusyn 2X great grandmothers. “2X greats” sound so far back in time, don’t they? However, when I instead call them my Nana’s grandmothers, that doesn’t sound nearly as ancient.
Maria Patorai, like the generations before her, was born on 5 March 1839 in Ujak (now called Udol), Slovakia in the Presov region of Rusyn villages. She was the eldest of six children – 3 sons and 3 daughters – born to John Patorai and Anna Szurgent. Unusual for the time, all six grew to adulthood, married and had families.
While life remained hard in the village, Maria was the first generation of her family to experience the modern world, which would slowly creep in during the latter part of the 19th century.
When Maria was born in 1839, residents of the village and surrounding area were living the exact same daily lives that their ancestors had been living for centuries – lives of little more than serfdom to the local nobility.
Peasants owned no land and lived in shacks with dirt floors, working long hours just to feed their families. There were no schools, no doctors, and the only locals who could read and write were the parish priests.
However, by the late 1840s, the political climate would begin to change and nobles weren’t quite a powerful as they had been. There were governmental changes, too, in the 1850s and 1860s, clearly seen as the Greek Catholic church registers repeatedly changed overnight from Latin entries to Cyrillic, back to Latin and then the cycle would start again.
Maria grew up helping her mother in the house. There was cleaning to be done, at least as much as was possible with dirt floors, animals to be fed – perhaps sheep, chickens and, if they were lucky, a cow. Clothes were sewn and mended and food had to be prepared daily. Electricity didn’t reach Udol until the 1960s, long past Maria’s lifetime!
Maria and her family would have attended church each Sunday and all the holy days at St. Dimitry’s Greek Catholic Church, just up the road. The church was always “up” the road, as in up the hill. Rusyns had learned long ago that when fire burned the village, the church could be saved if it was built up the hill from the homes.
Church was not only a time to worship, it was a day to socialize with friends and other family members. Hajtovka, an even smaller village just one mile away, was also part of St. Dimitry’s parish. Sunday worship provided the opportunity to see acquaintances, too.
Unlike many young men and women in Ujak, Maria never made the trip to America, although her youngest brother, Peter, did permanently emigrate to Passaic, New Jersey around 1900 with his wife and children.
Instead, Maria married John Scerbak on 11 February 1861 in Udol. Maria and John faced much sadness, losing five of their eight children in their youth.
Children, all born in Udol:
1. John, born 18 July 1862; died 28 February 1938, Garfield, Bergen, New Jersey; married Catherine Dzuriczki, c1886, probably in Pennsylvania
2. Maria, born 17 April 1865; died 1 April 1872
3. Michael, born 17 February 1868; died 16 March 1932, Udol, Slovakia; married Anna Murcko, 22 October 1892, Passaic, Passaic, New Jersey
4. Anna, born 11 June 1870; died 22 December 1955, Udol, Slovakia; married Michael Zavaczki, 16 July 1894, Udol, Slovakia
5. Stephen, born 3 January 1875; died 2 November 1876, Udol, Slovakia
6. Suzanna, born 28 June 1878; died 11 January 1879, Udol, Slovakia
7. Maria, born 19 September 1881; died 28 December 1882, Udol, Slovakia
8. Stephen, born 10 December 1883; died 1 April 1884
By the late 1880s, life changes were becoming evident in Ujak. The great migration of Eastern Europeans to work in the factories and mines in America had begun.
Maria’s eldest child, John, left for America in the 1880s, returned for a short time when his daughter was born in August 1894, but then left again forever for New Jersey. Maria never saw her son again.
While many chose to remain in America for the opportunity to a better life, many young men AND women, left the village to make their fortunes in America, but then return to the village with money in their pockets.
Maria’s second son, Michael, my great grandfather, did just that. He left in 1890, married Anna Murcko from the neighboring village of Hajtovka while both lived in Passaic, and then moved the family back home c1897. Michael earned enough money in Passaic to buy a small plot of land in Ujak.
The 1890s brought other changes to the village. Although the population was dropping due to immigration, the Hungarian government, now firmly in charge of the area, brought schools to the villages.
Maria’s children didn’t benefit, but her grandchildren became the first family members to learn to read and write. Schooling was offered through the fourth grade level.
Maria knew most of her grandchildren. Son John had one son and one daughter alive during the interval when he returned to Europe, but others were born later in New Jersey. Maria never met them. Son Michael had seven children, although one died as an infant in Passaic and the other an infant who died in Udol. Although her daughter, Anna, gave birth to four children, she buried three who died in childhood. One survived to adulthood.
Maria lived long enough to see the first of her Ujak grandchildren leave for America, too. Julia, my Nana, left in 1910 and never returned to Europe. Others followed, but not until after Maria had passed away.
Maria (Patorai) Scerbak died two years later, on 27 January 1912, and was buried in the Ujak cemetery. A wooden cross would have been placed to mark her burial spot, but the cross is long gone.
She lived a long life compared to many Rusyns, passing away a few weeks before her 73rd birthday, but she was the first of Nana’s grandparents to pass on.
There are no known photos of Maria. I doubt that she ever met a photographer, given that she lived in a small village in the foothills of the mountains.