Nana was a big influence in my life, as she always lived with us and was the in-house babysitter for my brother and I after school when our parents were working. Tonight, just as time changes from the 28th to the 29th, just about midnight, marks the 32nd anniversary of her death, a few months shy of her 92nd birthday.
Julia Sabo, c1975
I feel fortunate to have asked her questions about her life and family, but regret not asking her many more. However, I think I learned enough about her life to try a different type of tribute to Nana. I’m going to share her daily life from 23 November 1910 to 6 September 1915, the day she married her beloved George Kucharik aka Sabo, but I am trying something new here and will have Nana tell her story.
To set the stage, so to speak, you really just need to know that Helena Anna Scerbak, who always went by “Julia,” was born in Passaic, New Jersey on 17 August 1893 to Slovak immigrant parents, Michael Scerbak and wife, Anna Murcko, who married in St. Michael’s Church in Passaic on 22 October 1892. Michael and Anna were just two of the many residents of the neighboring tiny villages of Ujak (today, Udol) and Hajtovka, near the Tatras Mountains who migrated to Passaic between the 1890s and 1920. About 1898, Anna convinced Michael to take the family back home. Nana said her mother told her the air wasn’t good in Passaic. That belief likely was formed from seeing the pollution that was spouted into the air daily by the mills that grew and expanded along the Passaic River. Julia returned to Passaic in November 1910, never again to see her ancestral home. She often spoke of all my “cousins” although she couldn’t explain exactly how everyone was related. The villages are so small that the families who have lived there for centuries have intermarried. I imagine today that every resident is a cousin of some kind to everyone else.
Take a few minutes now and step back in time with me.
Statue of Liberty, c1910
Source: My Collection
I made it! Mamička and Oteco (Mama and Papa) told me that the first thing I would see as we entered the harbor was the Statue of Liberty. She truly is beautiful.
Source: My Personal Collection
However, I can’t wait to get off this steamship. Although the sun is shining today, it’s been almost two weeks now with some rough weather. I can still feel the slow, horrible rolling of the ocean that rocked the ship from side to side. Nausea is a terrible feeling, but constantly throwing up isn’t any better. The 13-day trip seemed like an eternity. The Batavia got me here, but I won’t miss it!
I am thankful that I am strong and healthy. Many of the other passengers have terrible coughs and some are sick with fevers. Others have told me about the medical exam and the quarantine area. About the worst thing that can happen is to be refused entry and sent back to Europe. Besides my good health, I am very lucky in another way. I was born in Passaic so I am a United States citizen. I think I will pass through immigration more quickly than others.
Source: My Personal Collection
Then, it’s on to Passaic! I am excited, but also a bit apprehensive about my future. I have only a very vague memory of our life in Passaic – living in a small apartment, lots of people and noisy streets. I was only five years old when Oteco decided that we would move back to Ujak.
Mamička didn’t want me to return to Passaic. She cried when I told her I wanted to go, but Oteco gave permission.
Michael, Anna and little brother, Stefan
Life is Ujak is so hard. It is such a small place that there are no jobs except for long hours farming the poor land. Medicine and doctors are hard to come by and I was only able to finish the fourth grade. I am certain that there has to be a better life for me in Passaic.
Even though Passaic is so very different from Ujak, I feel like I am arriving back at home. It’s not because I was born in Passaic, it is because so many of my cousins, aunts, uncles and friends have already left Ujak. It will be so much fun seeing and visiting with them all in my new home.
Cousin Susanna and her brother made this trip with me. Jan (John) came home for a couple of months this past summer. He brought money and talked about all the opportunities in America. Oteco only let me make this journey because Jan could chaperone Susanna and me.
The train from New York will take us to downtown Passaic. It is good that Jan knew the way because I am sure I would have gotten lost in New York City.
Downtown Passaic, c1907
Source: My Personal Collection
Oteco told me stories about how big Passaic is, but I didn’t really believe him. I should have because there are people and buildings and wagons and so many little shops. We have so little in Ujak that I understand right away why so many have come here to live and work.
My closest family member living here is my father’s brother, John. I don’t really remember or know him very well because he brought his family to New Jersey about the same time that we returned to Ujak. I need a place to live and Uncle John would take me in, but he lives in Garfield now. I want to live in Passaic near St. Michael’s Church on First Street so I decided to move into a tenement with several families living over a storefront.
I will settle into my room and unpack the few clothes I was able to bring with me. I know I have to learn English again – I spoke a little before we moved back to Europe, but it is long forgotten. I also have to find a job, but that will be easy. The mills hire workers every day.
A Few Months Later
I heard many stories about the mills. The hours were long and the pay wasn’t very much, but it was much more than any of us would be able to earn in Ujak. Working conditions weren’t great, either, but as long as one was careful, the jobs provided a living. I was hired on the same day I applied for a job.
Julia, Standing Second from Right in Front
My favorite days are, of course, Saturday and Sunday when I am not at work. Saturdays bring visits to the park with friends:
Julia, right and standing, with friends
There is also lots of time to shop and walk around downtown Passaic. Every street corner brings a friend with whom to talk and shop windows filled with beautiful clothes, baked goods and every other kind of food one might want.
Sunday is the most important day of the week because it is the day we go to Mass. Oteco, having some carpentry skills, helped maintain the old building where the parishioners of St. Michael’s used to gather. Plans were being prepared to build a beautiful new Greek Catholic church at 96 First Street when we moved away and St. Michael’s had been built before I came back. I sent my parents a postcard so they could see it- it is an elegant imposing church that is beautiful inside.
St. Michael’s Church, Dundee Canal on right
Railroad Tracks on left, c1907
The center of my life is St. Michael’s. My friends and cousins are parishioners there and weekends feature religious club meetings, church plays in typical Slovak clothing, parties and weddings.
Weddings are especially fun because I love to dance. Most of my friends are my age and are starting to get married. I am so pleased each time I am invited to be in a wedding party.
Bridesmaid Julia, right, c1912
I think my turn to be married is coming soon. I’ve met a warm, kind, handsome man who lives very near me. His family goes to St. Mary’s, but they are Greek Catholic, too. Like me, George Kucharik was born in the United States. His family first settled in Pennsylvania and then moved to Passaic at the time my father took us back to Ujak.
George Kucharik, aka George Sabo
Another year or so passed and Nana did indeed marry George Kucharik on 6 September 1915 at St. Michael’s.
George and Julia on their wedding day
Julia was ready to begin the next part of her life. Although I never knew my grandfather, as he died on 27 November 1936 of tuberculosis, Nana lived a long and healthy life. She never forgot her Passaic roots.
Where was Nana laid to rest? At St. Michael’s Cemetery, of course, next to her beloved husband, George.