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"