Unlike my mom’s side, ancestors who emigrated from Western Europe to America hundreds of years ago (and who have been in the same region of Pennsylvania ever since), I know very little about my dad’s side, specifically of my “20th century” immigrant ancestors. My paternal grandfather’s parents emigrated from Eastern Europe around the turn of the last century in what was truly America’s European immigration heyday.
Being the somewhat nerdy 12 year old that I was, I wrote to the Immigration and Naturalization branch of the U.S. Department of Justice for more information on my great-grandparents because the short story of it was that I knew next to nothing about them. Eva, my great-grandmother, died an untimely death in 1944 while in her early 50s. She never got to see any of her three boys again, as they were all fighting overseas in the Second World War. Paul, my great-grandfather, never spoke much English, or so I’m told. My dad always said he was kind to him and would take him for a coke at the local Ukrainian club. My grandmother’s memories of her father-in-law were slightly less warm. Apparently in the first couple of years of her marriage, she and my grandfather lived with his father and his demeanor towards his daughter-in-law was less than kind. (She was not of Ukrainian ancestry and she felt he snubbed her for that.) He knew enough English to ask every two weeks, “How much I get?” in regards to his paycheck.
I received my great-grandfather Paul’s naturalization file sooner than Eva’s. Hers was harder to find. It took another nine months to see the small picture she had submitted of herself with her petition. I discovered that was she was extremely short, her eyes were gray, and she was married on the same day I was born 68 years later. I also learned that she had immigrated to the United States in 1912 only two months before that doomed sailing of the Titanic. I saw the name of the liner she had crossed the Atlantic on, the port in Europe she had forever left the Old Country from. More importantly, I saw the name of her birthplace in Eastern Europe. And this is the point in when I realized that sometimes travel would be the only way to truly discover your roots.
Eva’s nationality was listed as Polish which at the time I didn’t quite grasp, since I had always understood that I was a quarter percent Ukrainian and not Polish. It was only after delving deeper into history did I learn about the constant changing of borders in Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how what was once Poland is now the Ukraine. Borders may have changed, but cultural ethnicities had not. Naturally, I was never able to locate Eva’s village on a map. Granted I’m sure if I were to visit the Ukrainian or Polish embassy I probably would be able to.
This is why the Ukraine is on my bucket list of places I want to visit before I die. Simply put, I want answers. I can probably assume that the reason for Eva emigrating from Europe was due to economic motives. And yet, who did she travel with? She immigrated in 1912 at the age of 17 but didn’t marry until 1917. Even an immigrant girl would not have made a transatlantic voyage unchaperoned. But I know nothing of Eva’s family-her parents, if she had any siblings. Her ship the SS Finland left from Antwerp, Belgium which is quite a distance from Eastern Europe, especially in the early 20th century. How did she get there? By train, by wagon?
When I visited Ellis Island as a teenager I tried to imagine my great-grandmother standing there almost a century before in the same places I was. I wondered if she was scared of having to pass the arduous exams physicians and other officials made the immigrants go through before they could be admitted to America. I wondered if she knew anyone that was deported back to the Old Country for having been sick or diseased.
I know trying to trace Eva in the Ukraine would not be easy. I’m sure much of its history was lost in both the Second World War and when it was part of the former Soviet Union. I know that hiring a native, specifically since the Ukraine does not use the Roman alphabet (they use the a variation of the Cyrillic) would be a must. I have no idea if I would ever be able to get the answers I so desire. Perhaps my only connection with Eva will be through a couple of sheets of paper that make up her petition for naturalization.
I do know that even if I can’t find out her past, I at least one day want to travel to the Ukraine to see my cultural heritage. To see the origins of my surname that although forever mispronounced, really gives me a unique identity that I am quite proud of. One day I hope to make this come true, because for Eva, I do indeed want to do it.