Suffering means overcoming. Sometimes the challenges are visible and dramatic, sometimes less so.
In my mother's immigrant Slovenian family, the obvious challenges were poverty, lack of education, the language barrier, and prejudice. So many Americans have faced these barriers. They overcome them quietly, often through education. That was the solution my mother and her three siblings took. All four went to college. My mother didn't finish until her forties, but she went on to earn a couple of master's degrees, in her fifties. I've always thought that the shame of feeling "different" is part of what fueled the drive to succeed in her generation.
In my mother's family there were other challenges, the ones they didn't talk about: Alcoholism, family violence, divorce. Shame. My mother's generation managed to break that cycle.
I have been trying to unravel the story of my mother's Slovenian family.
Here is the first part of one story, the journey of my great-grandmother Josefa.
Searching for Josefa
For most of my life, my great-grandmother was just a name: Josephine Strukel. I never knew her—or gave her much thought.
She was my mother’s maternal grandmother, who had lived with the family during her childhood in Cleveland. Beyond that, I knew nothing. Eventually, my mother mentioned that her grandmother had been divorced from her grandfather, Louis Adamic. Much later, my mother revealed a final key piece of information: She, like my mother’s parents, was an alcoholic.
My mother wasn’t even certain of her grandmother’s birthplace. Probably somewhere in Slovenia, but possibly—like her mother—in Ely, a town in Minnesota’s Iron Range with a large Slovenian community.
I wondered if she might have been German rather than Slovenian. That last name reminded me of a figure from my own childhood: Mrs. Stoedel, an elderly German neighbor who occasionally served as our babysitter when my parents went out for an evening alone. She was pale, obese, draped in loose skin and a baggy house dress. Whenever our friendly little dog approached her, Mrs. Stoedel whimpered and backed away, a look of panic on her face. Somehow, this unappealing image is what came to mind on those rare occasions when I heard my great-grandmother’s name mentioned.
I never saw her name until I ordered my grandmother’s 1902 birth certificate, about four years ago. This was the first family history document I collected. It confirmed my mother’s belief about her mother’s origins, but it only added to the uncertainty about her grandmother’s. The nationality for both parents was listed, strangely, as Finnish—the fault, I assumed, of the Minnesota official who filled out the form. Another minor oddity: her first name was written as Pepa—a nickname, I guessed, for Josephine.
Last fall, when I became more serious about pursuing my family research, I signed up for Ancestry.com, the Internet’s largest genealogy site. Now I had access to a treasure trove of historical documents, including immigration records. I began to pore over ship passenger lists, hunting for everyone in my family who might have emigrated from Europe.
Eventually, I located a possible match for my great-grandmother: a nineteen-year-old named Josefa Strukelz, who had arrived in New York in 1899. Her nationality was listed as Austrian—an accurate label, since Slovenia was at that time a province in Austria, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
I located the images of the original ship manifest and studied the spidery handwriting on the passenger list. Her last name looked more like Strukelj. In the Slovenian language, I’d learned, j is pronounced like y, so Strukel would have been a good English approximation.
I read further. Josefa was unmarried and had given her occupation as “maid.” She appeared to have been traveling alone. She had told the officials with the German steamship company (who compiled the passenger information before departure) that she planned to join her brother Janez—in Ely, Minnesota.
Now I was convinced that I had found my great-grandmother.
I struggled to decipher the name of her most recent residence in Europe. She had lived in a town in Krain—the German name for Slovenia. The name of the town was harder to read. Nacke—or perhaps Macke? Suddenly, it had become important to me to figure this out.
More precisely: it had become important to figure her out. To piece together the story of my great-grandmother.
Something had changed. Instead of Josephine, a sad old woman who drank too much, I had started to imagine someone else: Josefa, a feisty Slovenian girl who had set out, all alone, to find a new life in America at the turn of the last century.
I knew it must have taken a certain amount of boldness—or maybe desperation—to travel alone to America, especially for a young woman. I had just read a couple of books about the history of immigration during the Ellis Island era, which painted a clear picture of the rigors of the journey. Women, especially if they were alone, faced the possibility of sexual violence at every step in the process: in the crowded steerage where most had booked passage, when they dealt with immigration officials at either end, and when they finally disembarked—in New York City, for the majority of immigrants.
The U.S. immigration service, along with a number of social service organizations, attempted to “protect” women immigrants. Sometimes, the government required that a woman on her own be “released” only to a male relative or a representative of an immigrant aid society.
I wondered how and when nineteen-year-old Josefa made her way to Minnesota. Did her brother come to New York to meet her? Did she take the train alone? Did she go somewhere else first? By 1902, I knew, she was living in Ely, married and the mother of a baby daughter—my grandmother Mary.
I contacted the county recorder’s office in Duluth, and the volunteer genealogist was able to find the record of their marriage. The ceremony was performed in Ely, by the priest at St. Anthony’s, the local Catholic Church. The date shocked me: it was in 1899, just six weeks after Josefa had arrived in New York.
“She must have been a mail order bride,” my mother said, when I told her what I had learned. She didn’t sound surprised, or even troubled, by the possibility. But I wanted to believe that Josefa had known her future husband before they married.
I had already found the immigration records for my great-grandfather, so I knew a little about him. Alois (Louis) Adamic was a miner who had emigrated a year earlier, from a Slovenian town called Ponikve, where he had been a farmer. He had a sister in Ely. He was thirty—a little old, I thought, for Josefa.
The county genealogist suggested that I might be able to learn more—including the names of the bride and groom’s parents—if I contacted St. Anthony’s parish in Ely. I had a series of exchanges, by e-mail and snail mail, first with a deacon and then with another helpful volunteer, who was able to read the old records—written in a combination of Latin, Slovenian, and English. Unfortunately, those records didn’t offer any more information about the parents of the bridal couple. But they included one more odd detail: The bride’s name was given as Josefa Perkaj—not Strukel. I didn’t know what to make of that. Another nickname? A second wife?
In the course of my visits to genealogy sites, I had struck up a correspondence with an American-born professor and translator, now living and working in Slovenia. To help me with my research, my new genealogy friend kindly offered to visit the little village in the Slovenian mountains where my great-grandmother Josefa had lived at the time of her emigration in 1899.
The name of the town, which I’d tried to guess from the records, was Mački. The professor told me it meant “home of the cat people” or, figuratively, “home of the wise people.”
One morning, I woke up, checked my e-mail, and watched, transfixed, as a series of messages arrived, each with a photo attached. A little panorama unfolded. First, the parish church, in a nearby town called Rob, lovely and pink and Romanesque. A well-kept little cemetery. A large Jesus on a cross, overlooking the mountains. Graves of people named Strukelj and Adamič.
Then, the approach to Mački. A narrow, twisting ascent. Burning potato vines by the side of the road. The main street—the only street—in the little settlement. Simple, Alpine-looking houses. Rough, but somehow inviting. Finally, at the end of the road, the abandoned Strukelj house. A dog out behind the house, sniffing around.
“It gave me chills,” my mother said, when I sent her the photos my new friend had taken.
It gave me chills, too. Now I had seen the place where my great-grandmother started her journey. It was at that moment, I think, when Josefa became real for me. Her village seemed so remote and exotic—but oddly familiar, too. It reminded me of driving through Appalachia, with that same unsettling combination of beauty and poverty.
I was glad to know that she had seen that beauty, along with all the harshness in her life.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders