Tag Archives: Julia Scerbak Sabo

Social, Cultural & Political Contexts Are So Important: Understanding Nana

Recently, I wrote a series of posts titled Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records. Beginning genealogists strive to answer three of the important research questions – Who, What and When – and, quite naturally begin as name collectors. The fourth important question – Where – is sometimes important, sometimes not so much as the answer is routine.

Here’s a good example. My 4X great grandfather, Thomas Adams was born in 1783. His eldest brother, Sturgis, was born in 1771. So far, we have the Who and What and When. Where is vitally important in this case. as Sturgis was born in Connecticut and Thomas was born in New Brunswick.

The fifth question, Why, provides the social, cultural and political context that is required to understand the daily lives of our ancestors. In this case, Why was the American Revolution. Their father, John Adams, was a Loyalist who left his Connecticut home and started a new life in Canada when the war ended. For someone with no knowledge of the Revolutionary War and family splits that happened, one’s reaction would be that the family just moved on for whatever reason.

Now, let’s jump two centuries forward in time to my Nana, Helena (called Julia) Scerbak Sabo.

Nana was born on 17 August 1893 in Passaic, New Jersey. She lived there until 1897 or 1898, when her parents decided to move back to Ujak, their home village in today’s Slovakia. Nana returned to the United States in 1910, when she was 17 years old and remained in America for the rest of her life.

My grandmother was a sharp lady, even though she only had the chance to finish the sixth grade in the village school. When I started asking questions about life in Ujak and relatives, Nana was remarkably accurate with the information she shared, as I proved statements she made with government records.

I always wondered about a few things, though.

1. Nana never, ever called herself Carpatho-Rus, Rusyn or Ruthenian. She always said was were “Slovak.”
2. When I asked my grandmother about her father’s siblings, she said he had just two sisters. It wasn’t until after she passed away that I discovered my great grandfather not only had a brother, but my grandmother definitely knew him.
3. Nana probably knew almost all of the cousins and friends who migrated from the village to Passaic, many of whom attended St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church with her. However, there were a good number of villagers who attended St. John’s Russian Orthodox Church, also in Passaic. That wasn’t one of the many churches in Passaic that I visited with my grandmother and, as far as I know, she didn’t socialize with any of the parishioners in any way.
4. My grandmother had not only an intense distrust of, but I venture to say, close to a hatred of “the Russians.”
5. Nana said she understood Hungarian, but didn’t really speak it much. I put that down to the fact that the U.S.S.R. included Czechoslovakia under Communist rule after World War II, but the answer was more complicated than that.

As you might guess, I already knew most of the Who, What, When and Where answers in Nana’s life. My grandmother has been gone for 33 years now and one would think that I would never learn the WHY answer to any of these questions.

This is the reason that understanding the social fabric of our ancestors’ lives is so important. I believe I now know WHY about each of these four questions I have about Nana.

The answers are not only tied, but tightly knotted together, and the knowledge came from books I own.

The most important of these books is With Their Backs to the Mountains: A History of Carpathian Rus and Carpatho-Rusyns by Paul Robert Magocsi. This book is a very complete history that encompasses pre-Middle Ages up to the present day.

First, to understand how Nana’s statements all tie together, a very short overview of Carpatho-Rus is necessary.

Rusyns settled along the mountains and lowlands in a wide swath of area that today extends from western Ukraine and Romania across the northern boundary of Slovakia and catching part of Hungary and Poland. The red square marks the area where Ujak, today called Udol, is located.

As this past weekend marked the centennial anniversary of the end of the Great War, it is fitting to mention that from my grandmother’s birth in 1893 through the close of World War I, pre-war and then war events had a profound effect on inhabitants of Carpatho-Rus. This land had been the target of marauders and conquerors from early times. The Great War was no different.

Nana didn’t remember much of her life in America before the family returned home to Udol about 1897. Her schooling was in Ujak and she would have been well aware of the political happenings that affected daily lives in the village.

By the 1890s, there was a concerted effort by Hungary and Russia to influence loyalties to each of them. By the early 1900s, Hungarian was the mandated school language in the Presov area where Udol sits. Hence, Nana commented that she understood Hungarian, but didn’t use it much. At least part of her education was conducted in Hungarian!

The religious front, far from being a peaceful refuge, was also a war front. A hallmark sign of Ruthenian people is that they attend the Greek Catholic, or Byzantine Catholic Church. The Greek Catholic liturgy follows St. John Chrysostom, while Roman Catholics attended Latin Mass. The name Byzantine came into use because of the religious influence of the Orthodox Church based in Constantinople. This is a very simplified explanation, but it serves its purpose here.

By the turn of the 20th century, Rusyns were often mistaken as  Russians, at least in the minds of some people, because the words are so similar. The Tsar was most interested in building up support and influence among Rusyn people and encouraged the unification of Greek Catholics with the Russian Orthodox Church. Those who did tended to view Russia as an ally and protector.

Others remained loyal to Hungary and remained within the Greek Catholic Church. This schism occurred both in Europe AND with Carpath-Rusyns living in America.  The AND is really important here. The break in America could be seen in each local Greek Catholic Church. Those who supported Hungary as an ally remained in Greek Catholic parishes that they established upon arrival in the 1890s. American Greek Catholics who preferred to support Russia LEFT the church and either attended Russian Orthodox Churches already established or they created new Russian Orthodox parishes. By most accounts, these local parish schisms caused much disappointment and anger on both sides.

With all that in mind, it’s time to take another look at my list of four questions about Nana. You might now be able to answer some of these questions yourself.

  1. My grandmother was a deeply religious person her entire life. She was born Greek Catholic and she died Greek Catholic. I believe because of the Rusyn = Russian affiliation rampant as she was growing up, she probably rejected the terms Carpatho-Rusyn or Ruthenian and preferred to be called Slovak. However, she would have been well aware that her family and friends were, ethnically, Rusyn.
  2. Nana definitely knew her Uncle John, who was six years older than her father, as John lived in the same multi-family house that her family lived in when the 1895 New Jersey state census was taken! Furthermore, her cousins, John’s children, were marrying in Passaic by the time she returned to live in the United States. AND John continued to live in the Passaic-Garfield area until he died in 1938! So, why didn’t my grandmother mention Uncle John? Because he left St. Michael’s and joined St. John’s Russian Orthodox Church!!!
  3. You now know the answer to this one – those who converted to the Orthodox religion were not people with whom my grandmother cared to socialize.
  4. As for my grandmother’s dislike of the Russians, it long pre-dated World War II. The Rusyn villages suffered at the hands of multiple armies passing through, including the Russians in the years leading up to World War I and during the Great War itself. Most Rusyns were poor peasants, some of whom were taken out and shot because their sympathies had to lie (in the Russian minds) with Hungary because they hadn’t joined the Orthodox Church. By the close of World War II, the Communist regime made village life even more oppressed than it had been past years. By my lifetime, Nana’s attitudes towards Russians was well entrenched in her mind.
  5. How did Nana come to understand Hungarian? From those years in school when the government mandated that it be taught so that young Rusyns would become “magyarized,” which was the term used to describe bringing them into the Hungarian way of life.

I thought I knew a lot about Nana and her life growing up, but even though we lived in the same house, I actually didn’t have any idea about any of the cultural and political influences that shaped her life and the lives of my Rusyn ancestors.

If you haven’t yet moved beyond the Who, What, When and Where of your ancestors’ lives, you will find that Why is what completes their stories.





Julia Scerbak Sabo – Her New Life from 1910-1915

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. 

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.

SS Batavia
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.

Ellis Island
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.

Passaic, c1910

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.

Passaic, c1915

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.

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.

R.I.P. Nana

Sabo Gravestone Design and Final Product

Have I mentioned before that my family and Dave’s were savers? Yep, I think I have. Among the boxes and drawers of photos and papers that my Nana, Julia Scerbak Sabo, kept were the original design for what became the family headstone at St. Michael’s Cemetery in South Hackensack, Bergen County, New Jersey.

SaboJuliaGravestoneSketch_Page_1 SaboJuliaGravestoneSketch_Page_2
Headstone Design with “Sazbo” Misspelled

My grandfather, George Kucharik, aka George Sabo, died in 1936 in the midst of the Great Depression. My grandparents not only saved papers, they saved money and Nana was able to have a beautiful gravestone designed.

I found the original sketch in her papers. It was too large to scan in one image at home so Dave scanned it in four sections and then pieced them together. That is why there is a space down the middle of the drawing.

She also kept the deed to the plot at St. Michael’s Cemetery:

Deed to Grave at St. Michael’s Cemetery

I am actually a bit shocked because my grandfather’s gravesite cost $200, which was a small fortune during the Depression.

How did the gravestone turn out?

Gravestone, c1937

It is a beautiful headstone and is unique, at least in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Our surname spelling was corrected and I am surprised that the cross was not added to the stone, as Nana was very religious. The 1937 picture was taken soon after it was placed on my grandfather’s grave. The little girl is Nana’s niece, the daughter of her brother, Pete.

Through the years, Nana went regularly to the cemetery to not only visit my grandfather’s grave site, but to visit the graves of other family and friends. She actually knew most of the people who had been buried there since the cemetery didn’t open until the early 1920s.

The gravestone in the left forefront below that only has “AK” and “71” is the headstone of her brother, Peter Scerbak, who died in 1971.

Dave had Nana stand next to the Sabo headstone when we visited in 1981. Notice that she has her gardening gloves on. She was 88 years old and still pulling weeds at the cemetery!

Nana at St. Michael’s Cemetery

Nana died four years later, in May 1985, and was finally reunited with the love of her life, my grandfather, George.