Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Asked One Question, And Another, And Another...

I have a memory of my mother ironing while watching a TV broadcast of Nikita Kruschev talking at the U.N. More correctly, he was shouting, screaming and pounding his shoe on the table at the UN. An interpreter in an accented voice was translating the unfriendly words. I was not quite 10. What I remember as being remarkable about this event was that, even though there was a delayed translation, my mother was recognizing some of the words he was speaking. This was definitely more interesting than ironing to her. I had heard the name Kruschev, the term Cold War, was amused by a grown man pounding a shoe, never thought twice about why my mother understood this foreign language, and packaged the memory away for 50 years.

Why now, I ask myself? Why am I now curious about Rusyn vs Russian? I never once discussed being "Rusyn" or "Russian" with my mother. While my brother had a phonetic understanding of the home village name, I was clueless. When I started Google-ing different combinations of search terms to enlighten me on who the Rusyns were, I realized that the information out there is as confusing and disjointed as the ethnicity itself. Everything, everything, even beginning with where they came from is muddled.

Then I came across an article, written by an 'outsider', a non-Rusyn, to clear up a few things. The article was from The Pittsburg City Paper, authored by Chris Potter. From what I have already read, Pennsylvania could have been called "Little Ruthenia" in the early 20th century. Close to 100,000 Rusyns ended up in the Keystone State, my grandparents included. They were married and had their first child in Pennsylvania, before moving on to Indiana. In order to write the article, Potter attended the Pittsburgh Folk Festival and viewed Rusyn identity politics in action over heated discussions about the difference between nationality and ethnicity. In summary, Potter concludes, Rusyns are like the Basques of Spain---"one of those countless and usually uncounted peoples whose roles on the global stage has largely consisted of bit parts written by someone else."

The Rusyn homeland (northeast Slovakia, southern Poland, western Ukraine) has been described as terra nullius (no-man's land) and terra indagines (the land in-between). Because it was at the crossroads between east and west, its location was strategic and found itself the center of attention all too often. Potter quotes a common joke among Rusyns, that their family has lived in five different countries without moving once. This references the shifts in rule under the Magyars of Hungary, the Poles, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. But there was one day in 1939, one short 24-hour period that the Republic of Ruthenia existed. This joke is one that can no doubt be told by many ethnicities and some nationalities. A people whose sin was geography.

I make no attempt to explain the Greek Catholic Church. My mother was baptised as a Greek Catholic, but I was raised Roman Catholic. I do remember that St. Nicholas Day (6 December) and the Epiphany (6 January) were important dates to her. I think the Rusyns originally were practicing in the Eastern Orthodox church, and at some point in the 1600's a schism occurred which resulted in a bartering session and creation of the Greek Catholic Church. The priests were given a position of elevation, allowed to marry, were connected to the Vatican and the Pope but retained all the trappings of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Whereas the priests benefitted from this religion paradigm shift, the peasants probably did not. Potter quotes what he describes as a rueful summary of Rusyn history:

"First they took our God, then they took our land, and then they took our identity...Many Rusyn immigrants surrendered each of those things on their own. For immigrants, the goal was just to make a living, and not stick out your head...The second generation is the melting pot---being Rusyn is the past, you're American now. It's the third generation that really begins to take an interest."

My grandparents were the immigrants. They both died in their early 50's, so I never met them. My grandfather worked a laborer's job, they lived in company housing. My mother often talked about going to a 'settlement house' in the neighborhood, sort of a community hall for the immigrant populations and activities for children. My grandparents had six children, all of whom had an anglicized surname. I'm not sure when or how the surname changes occurred, but it fits in with the description of the previous paragraph---'you are an American now'. And, as I have said, my mother and I didn't talk about her childhood all that much, and we never talked about her parents or anything she might have heard about her grandparents. And then it comes to me, the 3rd generation. For nearly 60 years I ignored a full half of my ancestry. And then one day, I asked one question, and another, and another.....

When I contracted my researcher Michael and provided him the name of my grandparents and their home village, he countered by initially doubting that those were surnames from that village. I thought what an odd comment. To know a village by people's surname. As it turned out, my family was from Hostovice. There was only one Szteranka family in the village. As far as the Kicsas go, in true Rusyn form, things are muddled. But what he was explaining was that in the 1800's in the Rusyn homeland, people didn't leave their village much. There was no need, perhaps, except to emigrate.

I asked Michael about my memory hearing my mother translate Nikita Kruschev, and whether I could have been imagining this. He said no, it was indeed possible and probably likely. Rusyn and Russian have similar words, because Rusyn is a mixture of East and West. It's still all muddled, but that's what piques this mongrel's interest.

Thanks to Chris Potter for the story "How the Rusyns Could Save Civilization" URL:


Anonymous said...

You are keeping me totally captivated with your trip and discoveries. When I was a child Russian (my mother) and Polish (my father) were spoken in my home depending on who was visiting. My father was taught in Polish by the nuns at his grade school in Indiana Harbor.

When I was around 9 or 10 Bryan and I went once a week to be tutored in Russian by a Russian Orthodox priest...that's when we discovered that my mother's Russian was pretty she started learning the "proper" language with her kids! Unfortunately, the good priest was transferred to Kansas City and after two years, Russian lessons were over.

I still know some vocabulary words, but we never really learned to read the cyrillic text well, so I was pretty lost when we went to Russia...but my mother was capable of still communicating in a very "basic" Russian vocabulary.

Thank you so much for sharing your adventures and your thoughts on what you have seen. It has brought back a great many memories to me!

Take care. Luke

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating, Nancy. I have always been intrigued with the derivation of things, particularly words and humans. I always want to know , upon hearing a person's surname, the derivation, what country their ancestors were from. Some people know, some don't. I'm sure Doug has discussed with you what we know about our grand parents and great grandparents. It was one aunt on our mother's side that gave us all the history we have. I wish we knew more about dad's side of the family. And the Southgates, I would love to know more about them. The only thing I remember Grandma Cunningham saying was that we are directly related to Richard Warren who signed the Mayflower Compact. That could be the Southgates (awfully English sounding) or perhaps her mothers maiden name which I have never heard. It would be interesting to know. Thank you for getting us all wondering about our heritage. Maybe we can do a better job for the little kids coming along. I think the problem is that they aren't interested until later in their lives. It entails writing it down or taping it for them. Your brother must be thrilled with all of your discoveries.lro

Peggy said...

I know, your discoveries have me wondering about our heritage too. (Note to Leslie: I have quite a bit on the Reids and I filled it in on and we need more on the Southgates.) I'm so happy that you had success and learned about your ancestors. I've really enjoyed hearing about it.