Mama’s Story

A small tribe of eastern Europeans, the Lemko’s, lived in the northern foothills of the Carpethian mountains separating what is now Poland and the Ukraine from Hungary. The land was poor and provided a bare existence for these farm laborers. Over the previous centuries they had mostly been left alone. Most farmed for shares and crossed the Carpethians each year to harvest crops of the more fertile lands of Hungary for cash money. They then returned to their thatched roof log cabins in the rocky foothills of the least attractive part of a region that came as spoils of war for numerous tribes, empires, kingdoms and nation-states over many centuries. Galicia is now shared by Poland and the Ukraine, the western region in Poland and the eastern region in the Ukraine.

Starting in the early 1870’s, and until the beginning of WW I, peasants from that region would emigrate to the U.S., work and scrimp for as long as necessary to earn enough money to return to their villages to purchase farmland. Most earned what was considered their fortunes through breaking and hauling anthracite coal from the deep mines in Pennsylvania. Peter worked the mines and Anna bore three children during the years it took to save enough money to return home and buy some land. Consequently Peter and Anna along with their children Eva, Mary, and William lived in their  small farm near Gorlice, a village in the Galicia region of the Carpethian mountains and now part of Poland.

During World War I the area came under the occupation of the Germans and Peter was conscripted to drive for a German officer. He had learned to drive during his stay in America. He had also learned the outspoken American directness which ultimately lead to his death and a lifetime of hardship for his widow and children.  One day, his simple request for food for his family lead to an argument with the German officer escalating to a fistfight and ending with a bullet in Peter’s head.

Anna and Eva sat on opposite sides of the table stuffing circles of thin dough each folded over a dollop of mashed potatoes and edges pinched. These pierogi’s, boiled and later fried with onions in fatback were to be the night’s supper. There would be no meat for supper. Life was hard since Peter’s death and the family was running out of money.

This was Eva’s last day at home. Young Eva, at the age of thirteen, was now an indentured servant for a prosperous farmer who paid the Widow Krill a sum of money for five years of little Eva’s life. Thus began five years of hell for my mother. All these years Mama slept in a barn on a wooden pallet with straw for a mattress and pillow. They fed her potato soup, and if she were lucky there would be a chunk of potato and maybe a piece of pork fat in the broth. She worked on the farm from sunrise to sunset and spent nights alone in the barn while Widow Krill and the other children struggled on the small family farm 40 miles away. Little Eva’s only hope and comfort during these five years was a folded up birth certificate proving she was born in the United States and an American citizen by birth. Once Widow Krill asked daughter Eva for that birth certificate. Widow Krill could get a lot of money from a Jewish merchant who wanted to send his daughter to the United States…Mama refused. After five years, at the age of 18 mama borrowed some money for a steerage steamship ticket to the United States and she never looked back and never saw her mother again and she never forgave her mother for abandoning her during those long hard years. Her brother and sister followed her to America several years later.

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