Old Homes of New Americans

Our Ruthenian Neighbors and Their Old Homes
Chapter 8

Their Many National Names --Not a Negligible Race -- A Story of Oppression and Uprisings -- Their Illiteracy -- Their Religion -- Their Priests and their Churches -- Their Ancestral Love of Freedom -- Their Folk-Songs -- The First Ruthenian Emigrant to America -- How Emigrants escape from their Old Home--The Ruthenians and the American Dollar --Lemberg, the Capital of Galicia--How the Ruthenians show their Colors -- A Ruthenian's Tribute to Canada.

Fro the same part of Austria, namely, Galicia, that sends to America so many Poles, comes another Slavic race, the Ruthenians, who also seem destined to have no small part in shaping the future destinies of America. They are called by various names, Little Russians, Russniaks, Russinians, etc., but the name given to them in Galicia, from which province the vast majority who are now in America have come, is Ruthenians. They are by no means a negligible race, for they cover a large section of Russia, and spill over into Austria and Hungary, numbering some thirty millions in all. Indeed, there are probably three times as many Ruthenian as Greek-speaking- people in the world, and almost as many as there are who call Italian their mother tongue.

For some reason the Ruthenians of Russia, or Little Russians, have not yet begun to come to our shores in large numbers, but there is a constantly swelling tide of Austrian Ruthenians crossing the Atlantic to the United States and Canada, more than twenty-six thousand having come in the year ending June, 1912.

They can point to no such splendid ancient history as can the Poles and Bohemians, but at one time they dominated all southern Russia, and they have always been a liberty loving people. The blood of freedom has always tingled in their veins, and their novelists and poets, of whom they can boast not a few, have made this their constant theme. The story of Mazeppa, as told by Byron, is characteristic of Ruthenian life at its best, life on the free, broad prairies, the life of the horseman on his swift charger.

But they have been horribly oppressed at times by stronger powers, and in spite of frequent uprisings were for centuries in cruel bondage. This has made the peasantry poor and illiterate, and the proportion of emigrants who can neither read nor write is larger than from almost any European country, except southern Italy and Portugal. The schoolmaster is coming into his own, however, among the Ruthenians, and while among the old people eighty per cent are illiterate, of the boys between ten and twenty only thirty-seven per cent cannot read and write. Their ignorance has not been their own fault. Galicia is a poor country, with few manufactures and a comparatively sterile soil. The Government in the past has provided poor schools, and for many villages none at all, so that sometimes a number of peasants have been obliged to band together and hire a private teacher that their children might not grow up in total ignorance.

Religiously, like the people who live in Great Russia, the Little Russians are very devout, and in their churches one will see them bowing reverently before their icons or embossed pictures of Christ or the saints, their hair sweeping the ground, after they kissed the picture with passionate earnestness. In Austria the Ruthenians, though having the peculiar forms and ceremonies of the Greek Orthodox Church, owe allegiance ; to the Pope of Rome. Yet about the only difference between their service and that of the Great Russians is that they pray for the Pope rather than for Emperor Nicholas. Their priests are married like the Russian priests, and their cross has three transverse pieces like the Russian, instead of one like the Latin cross. By this peculiar shape of the cross, the many Ruthenian churches in the United States and Canada may be distinguished, as well as by the icons, where the sacred pictures are usually covered with metal of some sort, gold or silver or some baser metal, except the face and hands of the saints, which appear as if in an embossed frame. They do not allow an organ in their churches, but the deep, mellow voices of the male choirs more than compensate for its absence.

The Ruthenians are among the poorest of the peasants who come to America, their holdings of land in Galicia being very small and not always of the first quality. But though poor, and many of them illiterate, they are not by any means the least desirable of the peoples who are swarming to our shores. They have not lost their ancestral love of freedom. They are willing to work, and they are not a people lacking in literary appreciation and ability. Their multifarious folksongs show this. One collector, we are told, has found no less than eight thousand such songs in a single district.

The printing-press was very early set up in their cities, even before it was in use in England, and stirring and dramatic novels and poems have come from their press for centuries past.

Miss Balch tells an interesting story of the first Ruthenian emigrant to America. He came in the year 1878. This Ruthenian, who lived in Radocyna, had a Polish neighbor who emigrated to the new world, whither many Poles had already gone. He promised to write back to his Ruthenian friend if he found America a good place to live in, and if he considered it desirable for his friend to emigrate.

But the government at that time tried to discourage emigration. It printed all gorts of unfavorable news about America, and even opened and suppressed private letters that gave too rosy an account of the new land. So the Polish friend, fearing his letter would be intercepted, agreed to prick the letter through with a pin if he did not find America equal to his hopes and if he did not advise his friend to leave Galicia. After time the letter came. It had no pin-prick, and the pioneer Ruthenian started for New York. But his troubles had only just begun.

He had lost his friend's address before he reached New York. He was alone, indeed, in a great strange world, the only man of his kind among sixty millions of busy people, who knew nothing about him and cared as little. He could not speak English or German or any of the common languages. He was three days without food. He sat down and cried in the street. What else could the poor man do? Fortunately, a Pole came by, recognized his Ruthenian clothes, and asked him if he was not a Ruthenian.

We can imagine his joy at seeing a friendly face and hearing a friendly, familiar word. The Pole took the Ruthenian to his home, found work for him, and in six months he was able to send back to Galicia for his wife, and send her money for her passage. He had been obliged to steal away so secretly that even his wife did not know where he had gone.

But the first Ruthenian emigrant was not the last. By I899 the tide had swelled to fourteen hundred. Then there was a very rapid increase, at the rate of two or three thousand a year, and since an average of more than twenty-five thousand Ruthenians each Year cross the ocean to try their fortune in the new world. Truly this adventurous Galician was the forerunner of a great host, and no one can predict how many more follow in his train.

All sorts of expedients, legitimate and illegitimate, were adopted by the Austrian Government to keep the People at home.

Outrageous falsehoods were printed against America. Indeed, there are few European governments that do not like to magnify America's defects and minimize her virtues.

But the Austrian Government of Galicia went so far as to tell the people that they would die of hunger in America, and commanded the priests to proclaim this in their pulpits which the priests often pluckily refused to do.

Soldiers were stationed at the frontier to turn the emigrants back. Miss Balch gives two incidents of the shrewdness and courage of the emigrants in running the gauntlet. One man, as he reached the German frontier, was arrested by a gendarme. The Ruthenian.stopped, as if to tie his shoe, picked up a handful of mud, and threw it in the gendarme's face. Blinded by the mud for a few moments, he did not see his wily prisoner bound across the line into Germany, where he could not follow to capture him and bring him back.

Another would-be emigrant bought his ticket only to the last station on the Galician side, in order to avoid suspicion; but his wife, who accompanied him thus far on his long journey, was so overcome with grief at the thought of parting from her husband, and wept so copiously, that the suspicion of the frontier guards was aroused, and the man was put under arrest. He asked permission to go back for his bundle to the third-class car he had left, and, instead of getting it, slipped into a second-class car, where the guard did not think of looking for him, and thus he got safely off to Bremen, and thence to America.

The Government, indeed, might as well attempt to stop the flow of the Danube, or like Mrs. Partington, with her broom, to sweep back the Atlantic tides, as permanently to keep the people from going where they can better their condition.

Old neighbor writes home to old neighbor, husband sends for wife, children send back for tbeir parents, and the Christmas and New Year's greenbacks, which tell of prosperity and savings in the new home, beckon the Ruthenians away from the old homesteads.

Millions of American dollars find their way to Galicia every year, and many are used in buying land for the peasants when the great estates are broken up, as they often are in these days. A number of peasants band together to buy a tract of land,putting in all the money they can command, and then coming far short of the required amount. Where shall they get the rest? Why, from America, to be sure. And so they apply to the neighbors and cousins who have prospered on the other side of the sea, and, sure enough, the money comes back, and the land is bought and paid for. Because of this American money, some estates in Galicia; which could hardly be given away forty years ago, are in great demand at tenfold the price asked for them then.

It is only fair that this money should come back to the old country, since neighbors and relations were and are most generous to the poor emigrants, often loaning them money without interest for their traveling expenses. The honesty of the emigrants is shown by the fact that the money is always repaid. Many a girl, we are told, goes to America while her lover is serving his compulsory three years in the army, and in household service earns money enough for his passage to America when his term of service has expired.

This money he always scrupulously pays back to his fiancee, and when he has earned enough to pay this debt and get a little ahead, he marries his true love. We may well believe that those who show such constancy and such honesty will " live happily ever after."

I was much interested when in Lemberg, the capital of Galicia, to see the signs of Ruthenian enterprise and national spirit. Though Lemberg is in the very heart of the Ruthenian country, the city itself is largely inhabited by Poles and Jews. The Poles dominate the city politically and industrially, and their language is used in the courts and schools. The Ruthenians, however, show their colors on every possible occasion. On their fast-days and national holidays, they will march into Lemberg, thousands strong, from the country, the men wearing stovepipe hats, and the women the latest Paris fashions, or as near as they can approach to them, and sporting eyeglasses and lorgnettes to show that they, too, are educated people and even of a literary turn, in spite of the general timation in which they are held by their Polish neighbors.

One of the finest buildings in Lemberg is the Ruthenian Life Insurance Building. It is ornamented with beautiful tiles representing the colored embroidery and art needlework of Ruthenian women, and is a standing monument, visible to every visitor, of the artistic dexterity of these women.

As I have said, many Ruthenian emigrants go eventually to Canada, where we are told they prosper more uniformly than any other emigrants. Volumes concerning the Ruthenian love of liberty and joy in their newfound freedom are told in the following ode to Canada by Michael Gowda, translated into vigorous English by E. W. Thomson. The poem first appeared in the "Boston Transcript":--

O free and fresh -- home Canada I Can we,
Born far o'er seas, call thee our country dear?
I know not whence nor how the right may be
Attained, through sharing blessings year by year.

We were not reared within thy broad domains,
Our fathers' graves and corpses lie afar;
They did not fall for freedom on thy plains,
Nor we pour out our blood beneath thy star.

From ancient worlds by Wrong oppressed swarmed,
Many as ants, to scatter on thy land;
Each to the place you gave, aided, unharmed,
And here we fear not kings or nobles grand.

And are you not, 0 Canada, our own?
Nay, we are still but holders of thy soil,
We have not bought by sacrifice and groan
The right to boast the country where we toil.

But, Canada, in Liberty we work till death!
Our children shall be free to call thee theirs,
Their own dear land, where, gladly drawing breath,
Their parents found safe graves, and left strong heirs,

To homes and native freedom, and the heart
To live, and strive, and die if need there be,
In standing manfully by Honor's part,
To save the country that has made us free."

Back to Old Homes of New Americans Table of Contents

Back to Genealogical Research in Slovakia

Back to Genealogical Research in the Czech Republic