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Becoming American: A study in traditions

  • CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Slovakian graduate student Michaela Luterancikova, right, looks at the old church ledgers translated from Slovakian to English by Anne Trauger, left.
    CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Slovakian graduate student Michaela Luterancikova, right, looks at the old church ledgers translated from Slovakian to English by Anne Trauger, left.
Published August 31. 2013 09:00AM

Exploring the lives of early 20th century immigrants from a small Eastern European country to the United States has led 23-year-old Slovak university student Michaela Luterancikova to the Panther Valley.

Luterancikova, a graduate student in British and American studies at the University of Prasov in eastern Slovakia, is interviewing descendants of Slovak immigrants for her master's thesis, "Slovak Churches in Northeastern Pennsylvania."

One recent day, Luterancikova sat with several older people at a table in the community room at St. John's Slovak Church in Lansford, leafing through worn books filled with brittle, yellowing newspaper clippings and sepia photographs.

Gray heads bowed over pages of white paper bearing a brief explanation of what Luterancikova was seeking, and a list of eight questions designed to elicit perceptions, memories and opinions about how the churches helped those long-ago immigrants make the transition from their homeland to a new land.

The elders wrote their answers, in neat script, in between detours prompted by the surfacing of childhood memories.

The group included Anne Trauger, 90, and Martin Chalupa, 86, both of whom grew up in the church and whose parents emigrated to the United States from Slovakia.

Luterancikova leans forward, listening intently as Chalupa, speaking softly, describes how his parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, and helped build the very church in which he and Luterancikova are sitting.

Later, she pores over old church ledgers with Trauger.

Trauger, the daughter of Slovak immigrants and who also grew up in the church, explains how she translated the ledgers from Slovak to English.

Chalupa and Trauger are just two of the 30 people, many of whom are the children of immigrants, that Luterancikova is interviewing for her thesis.

"I want to write something about the history of those churches, about the first people who came here and established those churches, what were their reasons for this? I want to ask people their opinions how they perceive this," she says.

The movement of Slovaks to America is a long-held interest for Luterancikova, who studied immigration while earning her bachelor's degree.

For her, the interviews are the foundation of her thesis. For the subjects, they are opportunities to revive and share fading memories of how their parents struggled to forge a niche in a new land.

Coming to America

Slovakia is bound on the north by Poland, by Hungary on the south, the Ukraine to the east and Austria and the Czech Republic on the west, and is home to about 5.5 million souls.

Large numbers of Slovaks immigrated to the United States beginning in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, seeking work in the coal and steel industries. Many of the immigrants gravitated to the anthracite region of Pennsylvania: Carbon, Schuylkill, Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. There, they labored in the mines, most making about eight cents an hour.

Author June G. Alexander wrote about Slovak immigration in the Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America.

"Large-scale Slovak immigration to the United States began in the late 1870s, steadily increased during the following two decades, and peaked in 1905 when 52,368 Slovaks entered. Slovak immigration declined precipitously during World War I and started up again after hostilities ended in 1918. The movement came almost to a complete halt in the 1920s when American laws virtually stopped East European immigration into the United States. According to immigration records, 480,201 Slovaks entered the country between 1899 to 1918. The 1920 census found that there were 274,948 foreign-born Slovaks in the United States. Slovak immigrants and their children totaled 619,866," she wrote.

One of the first tasks accomplished by the immigrants was to establish churches. They worked after coming home from long days laboring in the mines, and donated as much of their hard-won earnings as they could.

The cornerstone for St. John's Slovak Lutheran Evangelical Church, where Luterancikova interviewed several people for her thesis on Aug. 20, was laid in November 1903, and the building finished by the end of May 1904. The church was built by immigrants, who labored after trudging home from their brutal days in the mines.

Today, the church is pastored by the Rev. Marjorie Keiter who honored St. John's ethnic heritage by offering the Kyrie, or invocation, in Slovak during the church's 100th anniversary service.

Children of hope

The immigrants settled in, worked hard, and raised their children to work hard and to become educated.

Trauger's parents came to the United States in 1920.

"They came from Austria-Hungary, now known as Czechoslovakia," she said.

Her parents met and married soon after they came to America, and Trauger was born in 1923. The family moved to Lansford three years later.

Trauger recalls how tough life was for the family after her father died in a mine accident in 1926. Then, most families believed it was an indignity to accept charity.

"There was no support. If there was, we were not allowed to take it," she says.

Trauger recalls picking coal, and picking apples from trees and trekking up mountains to pick wild huckleberries.

"We lived on bread, halushki, pierogi and other Slovak foods. It kept us alive," she recalls.

But despite the pain of poverty, the family was rich in community, faith and ethnic tradition; all three spokes secured to the hub of their lives, St. John's Church.

"This was my second home," Trauger says. "The church was the hub. We'd have halupki suppers; we'd have Hungarian goulash suppers. We had a Ladies Aid Society. This was a very, very busy place. It was the immigrants' social life."

Despite the hardships, she and her brothers all grew up to go to college and make good lives.

"All of the immigrants' children did well," she says. "They encouraged us to be educated; they helped us with food, with whatever they could."

But the community also expected the children to work hard, both at school, and to make their own way in the world.

Trauger remains active in the church, serving as its historian/archivist.

Chalupa shared old family photographs with Luterancikova. The photographs date from the 1930s. He also shared with her his father's naturalization papers, and information about the ship his father took from Slovakia.

Chalupa's father, born in 1890, was 17 when he immigrated.

Chalupa was born and raised in Lansford, and remembers the strong ethnic community, centered around the church.

He's thrilled with Luterancikova's research.

"I think it's great. She's digging into the past. I've seen the changes from when I was a kid," he says.

Finding the past

Luterancikova enjoys a close extended family here in America. Among them is her cousin, Doug Olexy, of West Reading. It was Olexy who found St. John's Slovak Church.

The family stays close: Olexy has been to Slovakia twice, in 1986, when it was still Czechoslovakia, and part of the Soviet bloc; and again in 1998, when Luterancikova was 8 years old.

"She came and stayed with us in 2005," Olexy says. "Her great-grandfather and my great-grandfather were brothers."

Olexy said his mother was instrumental in maintaining the family's strong ethnic ties.

His parents are from Luzerne County, so he knew of some resources to help his cousin.

"I literally just Googled 'Slovak churches in Carbon County' and the first one that popped up was St. John's here in Lansford," he says.

He contacted Keiter, who arranged for Olexy and Luterancikova to meet with Trauger, who in turn, gathered 10 people who agreed to be interviewed for Luterancikova's thesis.

"It just kind of reinforces a sense of family identity, even though she's focusing on the Slovak American immigration experience," Olexy says.

As Luterancikova learns by interviewing descendants of immigrants, Olexy is learning, too.

"The fact that she's 23, she gives me a real big window on what modern day Slovakia is like, and how college age Slovak kids do the same things as American kids," he says. "They are all technological whizzes, and they are all on social media."

Luterancikova's "generation did not grow up during the communist era, unlike her parents," Olexy says. "Many of her generation have grown up in just one Slovakia, before the split with the Czech Republic. So, many of her generation have no personal knowledge of the former Czechoslovakia."

Luterancikova, who plans to return home in September, is continuing to interview third and fourth generation descendants of Slovak immigrants. She expects to finish her thesis in April.

"I learned that those churches were really important for those people. They are like their second families," she says.

Luterancikova has also spent time this summer with members of her extended family, who live in the Northeast.

"My grandfather's uncles immigrated to the United States. They had to work very hard from the beginning to survive. Their family and their work was the most important thing for them," she says.

The summer's work has unearthed a treasure trove of information for Luterancikova.

"From those interviews, I've got very interesting information about intermarriages in the past. Church was generally against religious and also ethnic intermarriages. Some people told me that later ethnic intermarriages were allowed if those people were of the same denomination."

The immigrants "worked very hard, and after work, they built the churches. They were really tired, but they wanted to do this. I also learned that those immigrants are really proud of their roots. They follow their traditions, even today. That's very interesting, that they are really far from Slovakia, but they keep their traditions," Luterancikova says. "I think it's important that they are proud of their Slovak roots, and to keep the traditions (alive)."

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