To the day they died, I’m sure my immigrant ancestors remembered where they were when they learned of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, one hundred years ago. That calculated act of terrorism plunged the countries of their birth – Germany, Austria and Russia – into a brutal, four-year war, which they experienced from afar.
I wonder how they coped. Were their friends and family personally affected? Without telephones or email, how were they able to know their loved ones were all right? When the United States finally entered the war in 1917, how did some of them deal with the taint of being associated with an enemy nation?
When war broke out in July 1914, I had six immigrant ancestors living in New York and New Jersey. All of them came from countries swept up in what people would soon call the Great War.
Mary Miller Vannote and Tillie Miller Agin
My great-great-grandmother Mary Miller and her daughter Mathilde, who went by Tillie, emigrated from Germany some time in the 1880s. Based on a notation in Mary’s death record, it is possible – even probable – that they hailed from Koblenz, a historic city at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers in southwestern Germany. Despite its close proximity to France, Koblenz remained far from the action on the Western Front. But after the war, the French occupied the city for a decade.
In July 1914, Mary (then around 64 years old) was living in Kingston, N.J. with her husband William Vannote. The couple had married a decade earlier in a marriage that became a tabloid sensation. It was Mary’s third marriage, following a divorce, and William was a famous “woman hater” who had reportedly not spoken to a woman in the 37 years preceding their nuptials.
Tillie, then about 42, was also living in Kingston with her husband Jacob Sylvester Agin, my great-grandfather who was then 45. Jacob worked in a limestone quarry; Tillie was a homemaker. When the war started, the couple had seven children ranging in age from 19 years to three months. My grandfather Harry, their third, was 13 at the time. Their eighth and last child, Vivian, would be born in 1916.
I don’t know how invested Mary and Tillie were in their German identity. At a time when most immigrants lived in isolated ethnic enclaves where they found spouses from the same hometown, it’s striking that they both married American men. Under the practice at that time, Mary and Tillie took on American citizenship automatically.
Many German-Americans opposed our getting involved in the conflict, particularly as allies of Germany’s enemies Britain and France. I wonder how Mary and Tillie felt.
After a quarter century in this country, it’s possible that Mary and Tillie were fairly assimilated (particularly Tillie, who came here as a child). But that probably didn’t shield them from the wave of fierce, anti-German sentiment that swept the country. During a period when sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and Germans were depicted in war propaganda as “The Hun,” it must have been uncomfortable for them.
I don’t know anything about the family and friends they left behind (I’m still looking for evidence connecting them to a particular hometown), but they must surely have worried about friends and loved ones back in Germany.
I can confirm that Jacob and Tillie’s oldest son Jacob Jr. (he later went by James) had to register for the draft in the closing months of the war. The registration form shows that James, then 21, worked at the Wright Martin Corporation factory in New Brunswick. He still lived with his family, which relocated to a house on Somerset Street in New Brunswick. I know that the Kingston quarry closed in 1918, and I believe Jacob relocated the family to take a new job as a security guard.
Andrew and Mary Sabol
Meanwhile, my Slovak great-grandparents Andrej (Andrew) Sabol and Maria (Mary) Daniel were raising a family in nearby Raritan, N.J. They were born citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: their hometowns of Trebejov and Kysak were located in the province of Upper Hungary. Andrew emigrated in 1891 and Mary came over in 1895.
When the war broke out in 1914, they had four children ranging in age from 14 to 2. My grandmother Anna, their second, was 9 years old. Andrew, then 42, worked as a railway laborer. Mary, then 34, was a homemaker and may have been running a boarding house for immigrant factory workers (as reflected in the 1910 census).
Andrew became a U.S. citizen in 1900, which meant that Mary was automatically considered a citizen too. It’s not clear what they considered their native country to be. On four successive census returns, from 1900 to 1930, they listed their home country as Austria, Hungary, “Slovakland” and Czechoslovakia. My grandmother would always say her parents came from Austria (near Vienna, she’d insist, which was way off).
But since Austria-Hungary was a multi-ethnic state with significant regional differences, it’s hard to know how invested any of my ancestors were in an “Austrian” identity. Austria, of course, was an enemy country as much as Germany was, but it’s not clear that Austrians suffered the same stigma Germans did. This may have been particularly true for non-German speaking immigrants from the Empire.
Andrew and Mary’s hometowns of Trebejov and Kysak were far from the Eastern Front, and the region was spared the ravages of war – apart from a fatal military train crash at Kysak’s strategic railway junction in 1918. But it does appear that many men from the area were called up in Austria’s general military mobilization. Did they worry about friends or family members fighting in the war? Or, after two decades in this country, did their ties to the old country fade away?
After the U.S. entered the conflict, their oldest son Andrew Jr. signed up for the draft. The draft registration card is dated September 1918. The war was over two months later and Andrew Jr. was not called up.
My grandmother Katarzyna (Katherine) Bosakowska came to this country in April 1912, two years before the war started. She was also a citizen of Austria, from a town called Założce in the mostly Polish province of Galicia. Założce was situated in the far northeast corner of the Empire, a mere 10 km from the Russian border.
She got out just in time. For four long years, the people of Założce suffered terribly. On August 19, 1914 – three weeks after the start of hostilities – the Russian army crossed the Seret River at Założce and kept moving west. For the next year, the town’s inhabitants lived under Russian military occupation.
By September 1915, a joint Austrian-German offensive pushed the Russian army back across the border. After some gains and losses for both sides, the fighting bogged down along a thousand-mile Eastern Front that passed right through Założce. The town saw significant fighting throughout 1916, including the Brussilov Offensive, the final big military push by the Russian forces. Each time control was wrested back, the residents of Zalozce were subjected to another round of arrests, deportations and executions.
Those battles caused a lot of physical damage too. The town’s Roman Catholic church – the place where my grandmother was baptized and were my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were married – was burned to the ground. And, tragically for this genealogy buff, the church’s metrical books of vital records, dating back to 1654, was destroyed in the fire – taking generations of family history along with it. Fortunately, Austria required the recording of a duplicate set of records in 1826. These were kept by the archbishop in Lviv. Otherwise there would be no surviving records for the Bosakowski family line.
In addition to the civilian hardships, family members and friends must also have served as soldiers. In an online registry of service members from the region, I see that Katarzyna’s cousin Zygmunt Bosakowski (son of her Uncle Wojciech) was an Austrian soldier who went missing in the early days of the war. Zygmunt, born in 1891, was close in age to my grandmother, who was born in 1889. He was 23 when he went missing.
Far from the fighting, Katarzyna was working as a live-in servant for a family of Russian immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I wrote about that job – working for a man later found to be swindling immigrants in a fraudulent mail order phonograph scheme – in an earlier post.
Katarzyna had lots of family here in the America, including her younger sister Honorata, younger brother Wincenty and numerous cousins. But throughout her life she also stayed in touch with the family she left behind, including her two youngest brothers Stanisław and Władysław. I suspect that her father Józef was still alive in 1914. When Katarzyna immigrated in April 1912, Józef was listed as next of kin. When Wincenty followed suit in September 1913, he was again listed as next of kin. Józef would have been 67 years old. His wife Maria Buczna, who would have been 51, may also have been alive.
Given the difficult situation in Założce, how were they able to stay in touch? I can only imagine the stress, the fear and the uncertainty this must have caused.
In official documents, Katarzyna always listed Austria as the country of her birth. Again, it’s not clear how much she identified with Austria personally. Did she feel any stirrings of longing or patriotism for the country of her birth? Interestingly, Katarzyna is the only one of my immigrant ancestors who never became an American citizen. My grandfather Alex Kowal applied for naturalization in 1940, once the government started registering aliens as we moved closer to involvement in World War II. Katarzyna was content to register as an alien. I’m not sure that this was out of attachment to the Empire, which dissolved in 1919. My guess is that she was not a terribly “political” person.
My grandfather Alex Kowal was the only one of my immigrant ancestors, who came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to hail from an allied country. A Ukrainian, Alex was born a citizen of the Russian Empire. He left for Canada in September 1912 and came to the United States in March 1913.
His hometown of Kharucha Vel’ka was located in Volhynia province, about 150 km from the Austrian border – far enough east to be spared the war’s destruction. While the Eastern Front moved back and forth throughout the course of the fighting, Austrian and German troops never penetrated that far into Russian territory.
Alex left at least two living family members behind when he emigrated. He listed his father Philemon as next of kin in immigration documents. And I remember my grandfather telling me many years ago that he had an older brother who was taken away by soldiers. I always imagined he was impressed into the military, but I now surmise he he was arrested for participating in an illegal strike. I don’t know the older brother’s name or whatever became of him. Did he have to fight in the war?
My grandfather would certainly have been a prime candidate for military service – 22 years old when the war started. He certainly dodged a bullet, figuratively if not literally, by coming to America. Oddly enough, I can’t find any evidence that he signed up for the draft here in the United States. As I understand it, every man between the ages of 18 and 45 was required to sign up – regardless of immigration status. Did he fail to fulfill this duty? Or is the registration form simply lost?
I actually know very little about my grandfather’s whereabouts during his first three years in America. In his April 1913 immigration record, Alex and three friends indicated they were all going to Kreischerville, Staten Island to meet up with someone named Nestor Greshevitz (it was actually Grushewsky). (Bowing to the anti-German feeling sweeping the country, Kreischerville would soon be renamed Charleston.) He next appears in a paper record in November 1916, when he married my grandmother at St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic church in Manhattan’s East Village. The marriage certificate indicates that he lived at 182 Madison Street on the Lower East Side. He was employed as a “laborer.”
There’s something poetic about that wedding. At a time when their two countries were at war – and, to put a fine point on it, when their armies were laying waste to Katarzyna’s hometown – a Polish woman from Austria and a Ukrainian man from Russia managed to straddle the fault lines of World War I and find love.