Monday, October 26, 2020

One Hundred Years Ago, a 16-Year-Old Slovak Girl Sailed past the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor

Less than two years after the end of the Great War, and after crossing half the European continent alone and by themselves, two young sisters from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire arrived in the harbor of Rotterdam in October 1920 and embarked on a liner to America.

Anna and Zuzanna Uhríkova, 16 and 22, were the latest of the six of a total of seven children to be sent across the Atlantic by a widowed farmer in the tiny Slovak hamlet of Vrbica.

A widower whose wife had died in 1903 from childbirth complications at age 38, Ján Uhrík decided that his offspring would be better off in America than in Europe, and as soon as he had earned enough, he would send one child off, one after the other over the years (the brothers first), for a better life in the New World. Only one of his seven children would remain with him in the newly-formed nation of Czechoslovakia. (Ďakujem Glennovi Reynoldsovi za hypertextový odkaz na Instapundit)

After 11 days at sea, Anna and Zuzanna spotted the Statue of Liberty as their ship (named the Rotterdam after the Dutch port) sailed into New York harbor. After the required stop at Ellis Island, they were met on shore by their elder brother Georg (by then George Uhrik of South Orange, New Jersey).

Anna Uhrikova, called Annicka by her siblings, was my maternal grand-mother.

After working as a furrier, she would marry a veteran of the army of Kaiser Wilhelm. The military had never been Hans Birkenmaier's cup of tea, and the only memory of World War I that he ever shared was that, when it was all over in November 1918, he and his comrades had to walk all the way back to Germany on foot.

He also emigrated eventually, albeit first to Argentina, where his Germanic roots could not click with the Latin mentality, and so, a few years later, in the 1920s, he uprooted again, to New York, where he became a tailor named John Birkenmayer and where he met and wed Anna.

Their only daughter was my mother who, after she finished college, met a young foreigner at the United Nations. After he returned to Denmark and joined the foreign service, Virginia Birkenmayer and Eskil Svane were married (at Hamlet's Elsinore castle), and the diplomat couple's first assignment happened, quite by chance, to be the Danish embassy in, of all places, Prague.

Growing up in Queens, Virginia used to say she was so far to the left that she was almost a communist. That came to an end after living, even as part of the élite (foreign or domestic), three years in the Czecho-Slovak Socialist Republic (the CSSR).

In fact, for the first time in 40 years, Anna Birkenmayer returned to her native country (this time by air), met up with her daughter and son-in-law, and together with my mom took a 500-km road trip, just the two of them, to show her the place outside Liptovský Svätý Mikuláš (Liptov (region)'s Saint Nicholas) where Ján and Mária had lived, and where they had died…

Before she flew back to New York a week later, my mom took her into her arms and gave her a big hug:

"I am so grateful that you left this God-awful place and moved to America"

15 comments:

TheGuru said...

My family has lived in South Orange since the late 1800s. I am sure they crossed paths 100 years ago.

roderick said...

My paternal grandmother was from Slovakia. She arrived at age 3, probably in 1911, to NYC.

Both her parents died of the Spanish Flu, leaving her and her sister orphaned in 1919.

Mike said...

Beautiful little piece of history, Erik. Thank you.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

And, in the same year that the construction on the Statue of Liberty began (1875), the federal government passed the first law in US history that restricted immigration, the Page Act. By the time Emma Lazarus' iconic poem had been installed at the base (1903), the eugenic Progressives who wanted to keep out dysgenic riff-raff that threatened to pollute the "American race" had won.

The US had switched from being an open borders country to a complete morass of nonsensical and illegal federal border regulations.

Joanne Jacobs said...

I once asked my Grandpa Sol to tell me about Russia. He was 9 (or so) when the family left in 1905 (or so) to escape the pogroms. "It was bad there," he said. "It's good here." That was all I ever got out of him, but it seemed like enough.

JI said...

Your soulful Slovak story reminded me of Julia and Ondrej Warhola who were also part of the millions of immigrants who set off to America from the pre-First World War Europe.
https://europebetweeneastandwest.wordpress.com/tag/ondrej-warhola/

Segesta said...

My family has been in North America for 300 years—an illiterate German boy who needed the ship captain to sign his name in the manifest coming from Southampton in 1720. My wife has been in the USA only a few years. Nowhere but America.

Sunset said...

A special thanks to 500 million dead in communist experiment of the past so that President Kamala Harris can finally create utopia with a race and 57 gender based communism.

reasonable humanoid said...

It's no longer "good here." Go to Canada or Australia instead.

Anonymous said...

Brava

RustyGunner said...

So, leave. This is still the finest place in the world to live.

Wry Mouth said...

This story is very much liek that of my materal grandfather, who emigrated on the Mauritania at the age of 16, solo, from what was probably Austria-Hungary. My mom is a 1st generation American. Than kyou for posting this; I'm going to share it with my brothers.

madjack said...

Thank you for posting that - Matt Warhola

Anonymous said...

So Great! If anyone like bulldogs then Check it out

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

My parents came from Bratislava to America in 1968, and I wore their ears out thanking them for the opportunities