Friday, April 6, 2007

Courtship & Marriage

Young men found interesting ways to pay special attention to young women in whom they were interested. On the night before May Day they decorated small trees with colored ribbons and placed them on the peak of the girl's thatched roof. In the morning the girls came out to see whether there was a tree atop their house. If a boy was no longer friendly with a certain girl, he could express his feelings by putting an old broom on the roof.

Family-made matches were common in Eastern Slovakia but children did not always abide by their parent's choices. When a proposal was to be made, a representative of the young man's family brought the boy's silken handkerchief to the young woman's home and left it on the family's table. If the girl wanted to accept the proposal, she kept the handkerchief; if not, she sent it back to the boy. Wedding clothes were handmade by the family or by the tailor in Poruba. The clothing was made of white fabric, probably linen, decorated with embroidery patterns peculiar to the village.

A three-day celebration was typical of village weddings. There was music, dancing, and food, most of it for the bridal attendants and guests rather than for the bride and groom. On their wedding day the couple traveled to the church in a horse-drawn wagon even though the church was within walking distance. Relatives from far and near came to join with the family for a wedding feast. These occasions were often the only time family living further than adjacent villages were able to be with their loved ones. Travel was difficult on the primitive roads of rural Slovakia with walking being the main mode of transportation. Horses were beasts of burden needed for farming and not meant for the convenience of the traveler, unless occasionally hitched to a cart to haul a group to their destination. Baba recalls that when her sister Anna married Alex Kovac from Helen’s house, on July 18, 1909, her father's brother George Maczko, a large, heavy man, came to the celebration from a larger village called Topolany. This was one of only three or four times in her life she remembers seeing her uncle, and Topolany was not far away by our standards--approximately thirteen miles southwest of Poruba.

Remarriage of widowed men and women was extremely widespread in the villages of this part of Slovakia. The life span was much shorter than what we are accustomed to. Recurrent epidemics of cholera, smallpox, scarlet fever and influenza ravaged the residents. The difficulties of childbirth took their toll on the lives of women. Thus there was an abundance of widows and widowers available for marriage to each other when their first or second spouse died. Yes, third and occasionally even fourth marriages occurred which meant that village children often had several families of step-siblings. A widow required a provider for herself and her family, while it was essential for a widower to have someone care for his children while he provided a living for them; re-marriage was therefore a necessity. It was uncommon for a couple who married for the first time around age twenty to grow to old age together.

About six months after her arrival in the US, Baba's brother, Michael Csornej-Maczko, arranged a marriage for her to John Bubnash of Snowden, Pennsylvania. John had also grown up in Poruba, had been in the country about a year-and-a-half, worked at the Crescent Mines in Snowden, and boarded with Baba's brother. He expressed interest in a marriage with her, and Baba protested to her brother that she was too young to be married--she turned sixteen on June 11, 1912. Michael prevailed and on July 20, 1912, Baba married John Bubnash in Clairton, Pennsylvania, at Ascension Byzantine Catholic Church. Ironically, if she had stayed in the Old Country, Baba wouldn't have been married for several more years. Poruba young women commonly married at age eighteen or nineteen, and men at age twenty-one or twenty-two.

There was dancing and some food and drink at the celebration, and I believe men paid for the privilege of dancing with the bride, because Baba said that about $50 was collected that day to give them a start in life. Unfortunately, Baba and Grandpap have no wedding photograph. They were both orphans and had so little money between them.

A Pastoral Existence

landscape looking east towards Poruba November 1997

19th century hay storage now displayed at Humenne skansen (open-air museum)

19th century sheepfold (skansen)

Up until about 1848 this area of Eastern Europe was still organized in the pattern of the manorial system, that is, it was covered by great estates owned by the aristocracy, but worked by the common people who were called serfs. When the estates were dissolved, the serfs became free to purchase some land if they could. By the dawn of the twentieth century, most village families owned and cultivated their own piece of land. In the parish records a landowner is noted in Hungarian as 'gazda' and someone who worked the land of another was a 'zseller' [the same as 'cottager' in some countries]. The number of men designated as gazda increased as the years passed.

The village farmers worked in cooperation with one another to raise their crops and tend their animals. Each farmer’s acreage extended out from the village in parallel contiguous strips. Each one grew the same crop in the same year, rotating to a different crop the next year. The village women worked in the fields as well as tending to their household duties.

Though individually owned, the animals were herded together. By five o’clock each morning the cows, sheep and goats were turned into their yards. Men assigned to care for them herded the animals into the woods to graze and returned them home in the evening. Baba thinks this job was done by younger sons who had no land to farm and who were paid either in cash or in bushels of grain or other crops.

In the summertime school children, including Baba, had the job of pasturing the animals each day. It was hard work to move the animals up into the woodsy foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, but once there the children had a little time for relaxing and playing games while keeping one eye on the animals. They brought lunch with them, usually a few raw potatoes which they roasted over a fire they built. After dark the young people told stories around the fire and were sometimes frightened by ghosts which spooked their animals and seemed to inhabit the mountains after sunset. The ghosts made such an impression on the children that in later years they were a favorite topic when relating experiences about the old country. One of the few things I know about the childhood of my grandfather, John Bubnash, is that he truly believed in ghosts, for he had experienced them while herding sheep in the Carpathian Mountains.

This agrarian life was not without its hazards. When Baba was six or seven years old she went near the barn where the threshing machine was running and foolishly began to play around the machine. The belt caught her left index finger, nearly ripping it off. Somehow she managed to get her hand out without sustaining a more serious injury. The finger was so skillfully bandaged that it healed quite well. Since that incident the finger has been crooked but fully usable.

Religion in Poruba

Poruba's Greek Catholic Church, built ca. 1837 (photo 1997)

Eastern Slovakia was steeped in Carpatho-Rusyn and Slovakian religious tradition, with both the Greek Catholic and the Roman Catholic churches being strong. Slovaks were ordinarily Roman Catholic and Carpatho-Rusyns usually Greek Catholic, now called Catholics of the Byzantine Rite. Byzantine Catholicism came about as follows: Portions of Central and Eastern Europe had been of the Eastern Orthodox religion since the schism between the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople in 1054 AD. Those of the Eastern Orthodox faith living in areas dominated by Roman Catholics, namely Carpatho-Rusyn people, were made to feel like second-class citizens. Their Eastern Orthodox clergy decided in 1646 at the Union of Uzhhorod, to once again recognize the Pope in Rome as head of the church, without the requirement of giving up their liturgical language and Byzantine religious customs. The result was the Uniate Church, most commonly referred to as Byzantine Catholicism.

There are several ways in which the Byzantine Rite differs from the Latin Rite, or Roman Catholicism. Children are confirmed during infant baptism rather than in young adulthood. Communion is taken in the form of bread and wine. Celibacy among priests was not required until about 1930. The Liturgy is celebrated in Old Church Slavonic, a Slavic Liturgical language used as was Latin in the Roman Catholic Church (English is now used in the US). The symbol is the three-barred Eastern cross. Churches are often built and decorated in the Old World style with gilded onion domes outside, and exquisite, intricate mosaic work inside. Christmas is celebrated on January 7 and there are other unique religious holidays. Worshippers in a Byzantine Catholic church are accustomed to the sweet aroma of incense which permeates the building because the priest burns it during each Liturgy.

Baba recalled many old traditions associated with Easter time. During the week leading up to Easter women prepared special meats, breads and pastries for the Easter meal. These items were packed into roomy baskets and taken to church on Easter Sunday to be blessed by the priest. Pysanky (also called Rusyn or Ukrainian Easter eggs) were decorated with wax and natural dyes to create stunning flowered and geometrical designs of every color. These were given as symbolic gifts at Easter time. On Easter Monday young men called at the home of a favorite young woman hoping she would be the person to answer the door, and regardless of which female did answer, she was doused with a bucket of water. Girls too young to be seriously interested in boys avoided the front door on this day. The custom was reversed on Easter Tuesday when the young women did the same to the young men.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Nemecka Poruba in 1900

The following description of Poruba is based on information given to me by Baba, who described it as it was when she left there in 1911.

NOTE: 2 photographs above were taken at Humenne skansen, an open-air museum that features Rusyn living quarters as they commonly appeared pre-WW 2.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Poruba contained just over 100 houses. Its population was composed mainly of Carpatho-Rusyn and Slovak, but also had a number of Jews who ran many of the commercial enterprises in the area--beer gardens, shops, etc. There were Hungarians, Gypsies, and a few Germans as well.

Nearly every family was engaged in pastoral pursuits. The cultivated area surrounding the village was sectioned off into long strips of land, and most families owned one or more pieces. Wheat, potatoes, oats, and rye were grown. Cattle were raised. Wood was cut, stockpiled, and sold on the plains far from the mountains in order to raise cash for items not easily manufactured at home. Woodpiles awaiting sale covered many acres around the village. Charcoal was made in the woods and sold in the surrounding cities. There was a flour mill in Poruba where farmers took their grain for grinding. Shoemakers produced boots for village residents.

Houses were all one story made of brick, or less often of logs, but always with a thatch roof. These dwellings commonly held multi-generation families. There was no electricity and roads were rarely anything but dirt. For products not made at home or not available in one of Poruba's three drygoods stores, villagers traveled six miles southeast to Sobrance to shop. The larger city of Michalovce, eleven miles to the southwest, was also occasionally visited as it was the location of the farmer's market.

Slovak was the predominant language in the village but many also spoke Rusyn or Ukranian, and Hungarian. School was taught in Hungarian as the area was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Greek Catholicism was the principal religion in Poruba, and there was a church in the village [built circa 1837] as well as one in Jovsa, which was also the name of the parish. There was no Roman Catholic church nearby so the few Roman Catholics in Poruba attended the Greek Catholic church.

Nemecka Poruba had been known by several names over the years. Nemecka is Slovak for German, thus German Poruba. Nemetvagas was the Hungarian name. Vagas means cutting, thus German Cutting. Currently it is called Poruba pod Vihorlatom, which means Poruba under Vihorlat, but it is usually shortened to simply, Poruba. Commanding the northern skyline above the village, Vihorlat is the highest peak in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Slovakia, rising to 3530 feet above the Hungarian Plain.

Nemet Poruba coat of arms courtesy of