Another January 7th Orthodox Christmas has recently passed. When I was a little girl my Mom would take me over to see “Baba”. This was my Great Grandmother. We would visit her often during the holidays. She was always sitting in a recliner in front of the television. She wore a babushka and several layers of afghans draped over her, even though the heat was on and often it felt at least 80 degrees in there. She watched wrestling. Yes…wrestling. She would see me come through the door and she would smile at me. My Mom would push me towards her, “Go say hello to Baba”. I would then apprehensively walk over to her and she would say, “You Jema’s girl?”. (My Mom’s name is Jamie so she would call her “Jema”). I would nod yes. “I’m like”, she’d say. She spoke in a very gruff and gravelly voice. She spoke broken English and couldn’t read or write.
One year she gave me a doll for Christmas. That is really all that I remember about her. She passed away not long after my 9th birthday. I never met her husband, my Great Grandfather, who was affectionately known as “Gedo” (Grandfather). As children, we always incorrectly pronounced it “Gee-tle” (like “Bee-tle”). He died before I was born. My Grandma Julia, Baba and Gedo’s daughter, died when I was 7.
Mom often told me that we were “Russian” or “Ukranian”. She said Baba told her that we were Russian. I never thought any differently about it. She told me of child hood Christmas feasts with 12 different dishes and hay under the table. And Mom made a special Easter basket every year for Orthodox Easter and would take it to the church late at night to be blessed. It would have lots of goodies in it, like special homemade cheese called Hrutka, Pascha bread, special dyed Easter eggs (Pysanky) that my Mom would make patterns on with wax, horseradish root, butter with a candle and myrtle leaves, pierogies, ham, and kielbasa. When I got older and into genealogy, I wanted to know more about this branch of my family. My Dad’s side of the family were Scotch-Irish and English who had been in America for hundreds of years. But who were these Russian people on my Mom’s side? I did some digging. It turns out that Baba wasn’t saying that we were “Russian” after all. She was saying that we are “Rusyn”! More specifically, Lemko Rusyn.
Anna Smerekanicz (better known as “Baba”) traveled for several weeks, a young woman alone, across the sea. She arrived in New York from her departure port of Hamburg on June 13th, 1914. The ship manifest says she was 17 years old with a birth year of about 1897. Records here show that she was born in 1895. So we will put her age at 17-19 years of age. She was sponsored to come to America by an aunt, a sister of her mother’s, who was close in age to her and had sent her money to come over. She at first settled in Moundsville, West Virginia and got a job in a factory for minimal money painting china. It is there through a co-worker, his sister, that she met Paul Zaperacz (better known as “Gedo”). Baba was from a village in the Carpathian Mountains (in what is now modern day Poland) called Swiatkowa Wielka. Gedo, similarly, was from the village of Swierzowa. They are approximately 25 miles apart from one another, yet these two met in Moundsville, West Virginia. They married and had 11 children. In the 1930s, they moved to Monaca, Pennsylvania (Center Township). The family now spells the surname like it is pronounced – Zaperach.
So who are the “Rusyns”?
Carpatho-Rusyns (“Carpatho” is derived from their villages which are in the Carpathian Mountains) are also known by various names such as Ruthenians, Rusnaks, Lemko Rusyns or Lemkos, or simply Rusyns/Rusins. They are a nationality or ethnic group and their homeland is known as Carpathian Rus’. It is located where the borders of Ukraine, Slovakia, and Poland meet. Usually Rusyns belong to the Byzantine/Greek Catholic or Orthodox Christian churches. Rusyns speak a language called Rusyn which of course also has within it various dialects. Most Carpatho-Rusyns emigrated to the United States from 1870 until World War I. At that time their homeland was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Often times, when finding immigration information or ship manifests, you may see Rusyns listed under many terms for Ethnicity. I have seen Ruthenian, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish, amongst others. Because they are a people without a country or a state, they have had a hard time being recognized as a distinct group so many Rusyns were forced to assimilate or choose a country or ethnicity. Many chose Ukranian, Slovak, or Russian. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Rusyns started returning to the original Rusyn identity and the idea that Carpatho-Rusyns are not Russian, Slovak, nor Ukranian, but a distinct nationality.
By 1900, the Monongahela Valley towns in Pittsburgh had one of the largest Carpatho-Rusyn settlements in America. By 1920, nearly 80 percent of all Carpatho-Rusyns lived in only three states: Pennsylvania (54 percent), New York (13 percent), and New Jersey (12 percent). Many settled particularly in coal mining regions around Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in eastern Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh and its suburbs in western Pennsylvania, and in areas such as Cleveland and Youngstown Ohio. Western Pennsylvania now has about 60,000 descendants of Carpathian immigrants. From about 1925 to 1975, the children of Rusyn American immigrants born in the United States started rejecting the old world heritage of their parents and tried to integrate fully into American life. However, since about 1975, many descendants of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants have wanted to know what their grandparents knew about their heritage. The things that their parents tried to forget in their desire to assimilate to the American way of life. Many now, like me, are wanting to learn about their Carpatho-Rusyn ancestry, heritage, and culture.
Finding information on your Rusyn family prior to their arrival in America can seem to be a daunting task but it can be done. Some records from various villages are now available online through Ancestry and Family Search but others are not. In my case, the villages of Swiatkowa Wielka and Swierzowa were not online. Fortunately, my research led me to a cousin residing in the area who had gone back to the villages in recent years. Her tour guide there was also available to hire for research in the archives. I was able to hire her to find out more information about my Rusyn families in Poland. I now have these branches back to the early 1700s. Never did I think I would be able to obtain any information on these branches, let alone back that far. We also have a very good resource here in the Pittsburgh area for Carpatho-Rusyns – The Carpatho-Rusyn Society in Munhall, PA. They are a wealth of information and even have homeland group tours at various times.
In doing genealogy, I often meet people from the area who tell me that they are Ukranian or Russian, as I once thought I was. And I always say to them… “Are you sure? Maybe you’re Rusyn?!”
Of Further Interest:
“The Carpatho-Rusyns of Poland – The Lemkos” by John J. Righetti, April 17, 2013
“A People Without a Country: The Carpatho-Rusyns” by Dr. Michele Parvensky
St. Nicholas Chapel, located in Beaver, PA. The 1992 chapel was designed to evoke the wooden churches of the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe, the area is now Slovakia. The chapel was named a parish in 1995.
Carpatho-Rusyn Society, Munhall, PA
Gloria Dran’s Genealogy Page – Includes photos, village names, surname of Carpatho-Rusyn Villages and more
“Immigrant traditions stay alive in the Mon Valley” by Anne Cloonan, Pittsburgh Post Gazette , March 24, 2011
“Carpatho-rusyn Americans” by Paul Robert Magosci