Monday, August 23, 2010

Searching for This Mongrel's Horde

The other night I was telling someone about searching for my ancestral roots and our upcoming trip to Slovakia. My ancestors, I explained, were English, Irish and Rusyn, an ethnic minority spread across the area where Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine share borders. She replied that "you Americans really are mongrels, aren't you?" Yes, that's exactly what we are. Mongrels, in the best sense of the word.

On Saturday, we're headed off to Slovakia to visit the home village of my maternal grandparents. It's a 3-day drive, across France, Italy, Austria into Slovakia, and return via Hungary, Slovenia, Italy and into France. Fergus will be adding several new countries to his doggie passport. We were given a not-to-be-missed opportunity to do a house trade in Slovakia.

I've included a map for any of you who are as geographically-challenged as our former president, who called it "Czecho-Slovenia". But, to be fair, George Bush isn't the only one who has 'misunderestimated' Slovakia. Apparently, travel guide writers aren't frequenting too often either. There is only one dedicated guide in English for Slovakia (Bradt).

Click on the map to enlarge, and in the far NE corner, look for the town Snina. Well, that's not it. My grandparent's village (current pop. @ 350) didn't make this map. Hostovice is due north of Snina, a few km shy of the Polish border. As you can see, Slovakia is a landlocked country, surrounded by Austria to the west, the Czech Republic to the northwest, Poland to the north, Ukraine to the east, and Hungary forming the southern border.

The relationship of all these surrounding countries is important historically, because at one time Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And we all know that Empires are a good thing, right? Briefly, the Empire came, saw and conquered, and then fell. Over the course of time, Slovakia has been under the thumb of many rulers. And, not surprisingly, some did not have much regard for human conditon of the Rusyn people.

Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, conditions deteriorated. Rusyns were forced to assimilate into Hungarian society. The process was known as Magyarization. Hungarian was the only language taught in schools. Land was confiscated by Hungarian settlers. On the birth records of my grandparents and great-grandparents, occupations are listed as tenant farmers. They didn't own the land nor their animals. Poverty, famine, and magyarization didn't give the Rusyns much choice. Estimates indicate up to 900,000 Rusyns emigrated, most to the USA. My grandparents were among them at the beginning of the 20th century. Their names were Nicolaus Kicsa and Maria Szteranka.

Birth record for Nicolaus Kicsa: born 23 Dec 1881; Hosztovicza; parents Basilius Kicsa and Anna Miczika-Pavlov

I have long been perplexed about my mother's side of the family. I never really knew where they were from. Over the past six months I started researching in earnest, perhaps because I'm approaching 60. The more I discovered, the more I wanted to know. It was a huge discovery to find my ancestors were Ruthenian, or Rusyn. They are an ethnicity, with a language and culture of their own, but no country. I am still having a hard time digesting what it means to be a people without a country. Their "area" was the Sub-Carpathian Mountains, what is now northeast Slovakia and the adjoining regions of Poland and the Ukraine.
About a month ago, I contracted a researcher to locate birth documents for my grandparents and great-grandparents, etc. These records have been archived in Satoraljaujhely, Hungary. They are Greek Catholic church records, and have been recorded in either Latin, Rusyn, Hungarian or Cyrillic handwriting. The researcher found birth registration records for my grandparents, their siblings, and their parents (my great-grandparents), as well as my great-grandparents marriage registrations. These names provide little pieces to the puzzle.

Birth record for Maria Szteranka: born 20 April 1881; Hosztovicza; parents Basilius Szteranka and Eva Czapar

Somewhere around 900,000 Rusyns left their homes, their homeland (but not their country), got on a boat with a few belongings, rode in steerage for 21 days and arrived through Ellis Island with a few bucks in their pocket. Some were lucky enough to speak a little English. Nicolaus and Maria were not. America must have been the hope for a new start. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..." so greets the Statute of Liberty.

One day while we are in Slovakia, we will meet the researcher on a visit to Hostovice. He will be able to show us around the area, and since he is Rusyn himself (with excellent English), will be able answer questions about that period of history. At the time my grandparents lived there, the village was called Hosztovicza.

I'm not sure what I hope to find there. A sense of place perhaps, to see where my ancestors...and then this mongrel came from.


Anonymous said...

Have wonderful trip to the "homeland"! I can't wait to hear about your adventures in Slovakia!

Keep safe on the road. Luke

Peggy said...

I can't wait to hear all about it. It will be an interesting drive through some different parts of Europe, too. Good luck and keep us posted.

Anonymous said...

Nancy, I am so thrilled for you and your discoveries. The next stage will be incredible and very moving I am sure. We loved Salzberg, Austria, when we stayed there a couple days. That is some beautiful countryside you will be traveling through, not doubt and full of things you cannot imagine. I envy you on your voyage of discovery. Bon voyage et bon courage ma chere.

Love, Leslie

Anonymous said...

One more thought after looking at the map, I hear that BudaPest is one of the most beautiful cities, hopefully you will be able to visit there as well. Leslie

Anonymous said...

Doug, did you notice on the second document Nancy posted, there is the name Alexius. The story I knew about Dad's name was that there was no such name, Grandma just couldn't spell Alexis. Ha, she either got it right by accident or knew more than we did. Love, Leslie