This is the fourth and final (for now) installment about my great-grandmother Eva (first three are here, here and here). She left a fairly comfortable family in Europe 102 years ago this Friday, on the eve of the Great War, to start from scratch in America. Eva arrived in Brooklyn on her sixteenth birthday, married at seventeen, raised four children, and lived to be 92.
In the last installment, I learned that Eva was born in Dworce, East Galicia, then part of the Austrian Empire, which today is Dvirtsi, Ukraine. It is very near the Polish border, in the East Galicia region. When she left Europe she was living in the larger adjacent town of Mosty Wielkie (“Big Bridges”), now Velyki Mosty, Ukraine. On the ship manifest from her arrival in New York in 1911, Eva’s nationality was listed as “Ruthenian.”
The common heritage of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia traces back to the Varangians, a Viking tribe who between the sixth and ninth centuries settled among the Slavic and Finnish north of today’s Ukraine. By the ninth century the Varangian Rurikid dynasty had become known regionally as “Rus” (deriving from the old Norse word for “rowing” since they came from Sweden in boats). In 882 the Rurikid dynasty liberated Kiev from the Khangars who dominated the land down to the Black Sea and the Caucus. They moved their capital to Kiev and in the 10th century conquered land even farther southward to the northwestern shores of the Black Sea in modern Moldova and Odessa and east to Volga.
The reigns of Vladimir the Great (980–1015) and his son Yaroslav I the Wise (1019–1054) constituted the “Golden Age” of Kiev. This period saw the creation of the first East Slavic written legal code, the Russkaya Pravda (“Justice of Rus”). In 988 Vladimir the Great converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity to solidify his trading relationships across the Black Sea with modern-day Turkey and Greece, which were dominated by that church. (In 1988, in the spirit of perestroika, the Kremlin under Gorbachev authorized celebrations of the millennium of this event.)
Of the three successor states, Galicia-Volhynia in the southwest had the closest ties to the Roman Catholic Church. Princes there had long traded and intermarried with nobles in neighboring Catholic Poland and Hungary. Thus many Galicians called the Kievan Rus’ empire by the Latin word “Ruthenia.” The other successor states’ only dealings with Catholics came in the form of Prussian invasion, and they deeply distrusted Rome as a result. Thus they favored the Eastern Orthodox Church Greek and, accordingly, called the Kievan Rus’ empire not by the Latin “Ruthenia” but by the Greek term, “Russia.”
During this time Catholicism was the official religion of Galicia, and many nobles converted to it, but the powerful Ostrogski family resisted. They spent much of their considerable wealth promoting the Eastern Orthodox religion and the Ruthenian language, with its Cyrillic alphabet. As a result the traditional language and religion remained common among the people in Galicia. Nonetheless, the Catholic influence of Poland meant that the people continued to call themselves “Ruthenians,” using the Latin term, rather than “Russians,” using the Greek.
Poland and Lithuania formally merged in 1569 to create the (theoretically Catholic) Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. (Their ties dated back two centuries to the 1380s, when the pagan Lithuanian sovereign Jogaila rejected an offer to marry the daughter of Moscow’s ruler because that union would have made Lithuania a fief of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Jogaila instead married the queen of Poland and converted to Catholicism, keeping his state under his control.) The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ruled Galicia for another two hundred years.
In the 1790s, after the defeat of forces led by Polish nationalist and American Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kościuszko, the three empires (Prussia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary) divided among themselves what was left of Poland in the Second and Third Partitions of Poland. This drove independent Poland out of existence until 1918, the conclusion of the First World War. The southern part of Poland was given to Austria-Hungary, which called it “West Galicia” and renamed the Ruthenian “Galicia” it had acquired in 1772 as “East Galicia.”
In 1807 Napoleon conquered much of West Galicia and established a puppet government there, but the 1815 Congress of Vienna gave it back to Austria-Hungary, which merged East and West Galicia into the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Though the capital remained in the Ruthenian city of L’viv (L’wow in Polish and Lemberg in German), Polish continued to be the official language and many nobles and politically ambitious people learned Polish and converted to Catholicism. That was the case of my great-grandmother Eva’s father, who held minor office under the Austrian empire and baptized his children as Catholics.
Thus a strong nationalist movement arose in the 1800s. Although it affected all over modern-day Ukraine (the part under Russian control and the part under Austrian control), its intellectual center was in Austrian East Galicia. This was largely because the Hapsburg emperors in far-flung Vienna saw the Ruthenian nationalists as a defense against their bigger problem in Galicia, the Polish nationalists.
By the early 20th century, however, Ruthenian nationalism was as large in Galicia as Polish nationalism, and many Ruthenians wished to unite Ruthenian East Galicia with the rest of the Ukrainian people (who were being neglected by imperial Russia) in a new homeland. This dream would not be entirely realized until after the Second World War, and true independence from Moscow only came in 1991.
Interestingly, so strong was the pull of the Ukrainian/Ruthenian language and ethnic heritage, and so strong the hatred of the Poles, that most Ruthenians in East Galicia wanted to be united with Ukraine and cared little that it was communist and under Moscow’s dominion. This was so even though, like French in France and Québec, centuries of political separation caused the language to evolve somewhat differently in East Galicia than in the rest of Ukraine.
During World War II the area fell first under Soviet, then German, then Soviet control. The Yalta Conference of 1945 drew the Poland/Ukraine border along ethnic and linguistic lines. Traditionally Polish “West Galicia” and the now Polish-dominated western half of “East Galicia” went to Poland; the Ruthenian eastern half of “East Galicia” to Ukraine. My great-grandmother’s birthplace of Dvirtsi/Dworce and residence of Velyki Mosty/Mosty Wielkie are on the Ukrainian side of the line, but barely 10 miles from the Polish border.
So there you have it. My great-grandmother was born an ethnic Ruthenian/Ukrainian, and the New York neighborhood where she met her husband was known as Little Ukraine. There are Ukrainian restaurants and churches there to this day. She was “Austrian” with a Polish influence because she grew up in an Austrian province that, due to four centuries under Polish control, used Polish as its official language though its population was largely Ruthenian.
On the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census forms, Eva and her sister Maria wrote “Poland” because their birthplace was then under the control of Poland. Maria insisted they came from Poland for this reason, and because Polish was the official language growing up. Eva, whose home region of East Galicia was the only part of the traditional Ukrainian homeland (or the larger Kievan Rus’ empire), to be ruled by either Poland or Austria, married another ethnic Ruthenian/Ukrainian and drifted away from the Polish language.
I came to understand the confusion about the name of the town where Eva lived. It is “Velyki Mosty” in Ruthenian/Ukrainian, but “Mosty Wielkie” in Polish. Polish being the official language when she grew up, Eva told my aunt the town’s name using the Polish order of words. But as a native speaker of Ukrainian, she gave “Wielkie” the Ukrainian pronunciation “Velyki.” I imagine this was just far enough from “Wielkie” that the Polish professor my aunt asked didn’t recognize the everyday word for “big” in Polish.
Eva and John were ethnically Ukrainian, but neither ever lived in Ukraine. Eva’s hometown didn’t become part of Ukraine until 1945, and John, who came to the United States at 18 in 1907, grew up in a small village near the city of Pinsk. It was under Russian control during his youth and today is just north of the Ukrainian border in Belarus.
The religious musical chairs makes sense now too. Eva’s father, a rising local political star loyal to the Hapsburgs, adopted Catholicism as his religion though the Eastern Orthodox religion remained strong among the Ruthenian people in East Galicia. When she married John, he came from Russian-controlled lands and was Eastern Orthodox. Eva happily attended that church because they spoke her language there. Later all of her children married Roman Catholics in the United States and she was happy to switch back. She just didn’t care that much about religion.
As may be clear by now, Galicia was the most ethnically heterogeneous of the Austrian empire’s kingdoms. It contained not only Ruthenians and Poles, but Jews, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Russians, Armenians, and Roma. When Eva arrived in Brooklyn in 1911, so many things must have been new and different for her. But seeing so many people of different ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds jockeying for turf was not among them.