The people of Ujak and Hajtovka, Slovakia had lived the same daily lives for hundreds of years, from the Rusyn settlement in the late 1500s until 1880.
Governmental and political changes did little to affect the lives of economically poor and uneducated people who struggled to survive. They were sometimes hungry, cold and without any means to better themselves.
In spite of the difficulties that life presented to them, the Rusyns were a hardy group and St. Dimitry’s parish reached its peak population with 400 in Hajtovka and 800 in Ujak by 1880. Even the never ending epidemics couldn’t wipe them out.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the time period from the 1880s to 1920 would bring about more drastic changes to the villagers’ way of life than any other historical event.
For the first time in history, a few opportunities for a better future were presenting themselves. The economic stranglehold that the nobility had on the peasants was diminishing. Men became able to work for themselves. Land ownership was even a possibility although money was still scarce. Daily wages for a 14 hour day in the village equaled pennies on the dollar.
The meteoric growth of businesses in the Western world hadn’t yet made their way to Eastern Europe. That quickly changed as agents for European and American businesses sought out workers willing to emigrate and work for low wages in their new homeland.
The definition of “low” pay was seen very differently in the eyes of the villagers. By U.S. standards, factory workers worked long hours for little pay. However, what an American factory worker earned in an hour equaled Rusyn wages for that 14 hour work day.
Colonial emigration to America meant that men and/or their families left Europe for life across the pond. Young single girls generally didn’t set out on a long difficult voyage alone in that time period.
The Rusyn emigration to America was different. At first, it was the young men who headed across the Atlantic to find out if what they had heard about opportunities was really true. They likely had no expectation of returning home to friends and family, but would send word about their new lives.
Word received back at home was positive – men easily got work, often for the same company with factory shifts set up so that people speaking the same language would be working together. Money began flowing back home to their families. That, in turn, encouraged not only young men, but unmarried young women to head for the United States.
Passaic, New Jersey was a popular landing point for most residents of Ujak and Hajtovka who emigrated. The effect of the decrease in population can be seen in St. Dimitry’s church books with notation after notation made by the priest – “Emigrated” or “Amerika.”
Some residents who emigrated decided, for whatever reason, to return home. In those cases, the priest often wrote in the Observations column of the parish register – “Married in Amerika. Proof of marriage not shown.” In those cases, the priest actually left the legitimate/illegitimate status of a baby being baptized in Ujak empty because the couple failed to bring back a certificate from (usually) St. Michael’s Church in Passaic confirming the date of marriage.
My own family is a good example of what this emigration did to village families.
My 2X great grandparents, John Scerbak (1836-1916) and Maria Patorai (1839-1912) were the parents of eight children, of whom only three survived to adulthood and married:
1. John, born 18 July 1862
2. Michael, born 17 February 1868
3. Anna, born 11 June 1870
John married Catherine Dzuriczki in the late 1880s and they are one of the couples with the priest’s entry of married in America, but proof lacking.
John and Catherine returned home to Ujak before the birth of daughter Maria in August 1894. However, by September 1899, they were living in New Jersey, where they spent the rest of their lives.
Michael, my great grandfather, is found on a passenger list in 1890, arriving in New York. My great grandmother, Anna Murczko, also left Ujak sometime before October 1892, when she and Michael married at St. Michael’s in Passaic.
Michael and Anna lived in Passaic for about five years before they moved permanently back to Ujak. However, in future years, three of their five surviving children emigrated to America and never returned to the village.
The youngest of John and Maria (Patorai) Scerbak’s children, and their only daughter, married Michael Zavaczki and lived out their lives in Ujak. The village child mortality rate affected this family is a big way. Three of their four children died as toddlers. Their youngest child, Joseph, also lived in Ujak, where he died in 1999.
My great grandmother’s family faced much the same fate. Anna (Murcko) Scerbak was the daughter of John Murcko (1831-1917) and Maria Szova (1845-1925). They were the parents of six children of whom four lived to adulthood.
Anna was the eldest. Daughter Susanna left for America and married John Kovalycsik at St. Michael’s in 1894. They lived out their lives in New Jersey.
Son John married Maria Fedus and emigrated to the U.S.
John and Maria (Szova)’s youngest, Helen, married Stephen Pristas and settled in New Jersey.
It is estimated that from the 1880s until 1920, 75,000 Rusyns emigrated to the United States. Most lived in small villages like my family.
I’ve read that houses in Ujak (renamed Udol in 1948 after the Communist takeover) and Hajtovka didn’t even have electricity until the 1960s!
A quick review of the village population through the years clearly illustrates the decline:
1869 – 313
1890 – 281
1921 – 196
1970 – 160
2021 – 91
Ujak (now Udol)
1869 – 718
1890 – 685
1921 – 524
1970 – 574
The United States closed its borders to most immigration by 1921. Hajtovka’s inhabitants decreased from 313 to 196, while Ujak’s decreased from 718 to 524.
I recognize so many of the surnames found in St. Dimitry’s records – somewhat Americanized in spelling – because I wrote out the addresses on Nana’s Christmas cards. Pristas, Chanda, Biss, Fedus, Kovalycsik, Murcko, Sedlak, Hrinya, Mikulik and the list goes on.
I even recognize some of the names of my classmates, who as I was growing up, I had no idea were from Nana’s villages – like Warholak and Arendacs.
The same families who made the villages what they are also left an imprint on Passaic.
By the 1960s, even while under Communist rule, the decline continued as young people left to find work in nearby cities.
My grandmother’s youngest brother, who, by the way, she never met as he was born after she returned to America in 1910, lived out his life in the village, married and had six children.
The family still has a house in Udol, but it is for weekend getaways, not a permanent home.
Life goes on in St. Dimitry’s parish. It is drastically different than life in the 1800s, but it is still there.
A trip to Slovakia is on my bucket list. I want to walk in their footsteps! Maybe when this pandemic ends. 🙂