Monday, July 4, 2011

grandfather thoughts on Independence Day

Did Vasil Lazlo Tomchany achieve what he came here for? Was it in the leaving or the arriving? What did he lose beyond the connection to family and place? What did he gain that he would not have had if he had stayed (beyond his life, which he may have lost if conscripted)?

What social class structures did VLT escape? Which did he not escape on emigration? Which did he “gain” on arrival in the U.S.? Did his class status change in the time he was here? Did he improve the class status of his children? Grandchildren? Great grandchildren? How? In what way?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


My daughter, Nellie, who is currently a graduate student in Russian area studies at the University of Illinois (Champagne-Urbana), looked at the written lyrics of some of the carols sung in Saint Michael's Orthodox Church, our home church here in Saint Clair. It appears that many of the carols are in Russian, not in what is now called BCS, versions of which are spoken locally. Nellie, who has conversed with my mother in the "home language" she learned as a child, has determined it to be a dialect of Russian, not another Slavic language. From the language, Nellie speculated that my grandfather, who self-identified as ethnic Madyar (Magyar), may have been what is now recognized as ethnic Rusyn. My mother inadvertently confirmed this by presenting me with a little brochure from an organization my baba visited in the '60s or '70s, the Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center of Fairview, NJ.

Here's the link to the Wikipedia entry on Rusyns:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

an address!

My mother, bless her, went through her papers and found a tiny notebook into which my Baba (her mother) had written just 10 pages of "family record," as she labeled it. My Didi, Charles Lazlo Tomchany, was born December 29, 1984 and died May 10, 1959. He became a citizen at the Schuylkill County Courthouse in Pottsville, PA (no date noted).

And here is the gleaming gem: His European address was

Zakarpadska Oblast
Uzhorodskij Rajon (Rajou?)
Selo Veliki
(Selo Veliki Tazi?)
P. Kholmets

Today, resuming my search after several months away (mostly because of illness), I downloaded Google Earth and plugged in some of that address. What resulted is the first set of clues that make sense. It appears my grandfather may have emigrated from what is now the Ukraine. And, yes, Charles Lazlo Tomchany would likely have traveled from there through Zagreb on his way to a ship departing from the Croatia coast.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Patrice, Patris, Patricia

The ship Vasil Lazlo Tomchany took was the Patrice. Except there is no ship named the Patrice listed on the Ellis Island databases that can be searched now online. There is Patris--a Greek ship, leaving from Greek and Italian ports. And there is the Patricia, leaving from Hamburg in the period of time in which my grandfather likely would have traveled. She is pictured above, the photograph lifted from the Ellis Island site pages.

So far, my search of the databases of her manifests have yielded nothing definite, except for confirmation that the name spelled Tomchany has not been recorded. Search of offered alternate spellings and sound-alikes has so far also yielded nothing definite.

Yet two names intrigue:

Mihaly Tamkony, Austrian, last residence Tezowicz, arrival date October 31, 1902, 18-year-old male, single, arrived on the Patrica from Hamburg, manifest number 0001

Joun Seandor, Romanian, last residence Denges, Romania, arrival date December 26, 1913, 18-year-old male, single, arrived on the Franconia from Fiume, manifest number 0020

My godfather was John Shandor, and, my mother says, his father knew her father in the old country. To see if there might be a lead, I put Kresny John's name into the Ellis Island passenger database. Seandor was offered as an alternate spelling; the timing and his age seem right. (Kresny, which I am spelling as I pronounce it, is the respectful address for godfather.)

My initial foray into the Ellis Island databases was an exhausting 5 hours of hope raised and dropped. And I haven't yet figured out how to search systematically.

There are people locally I must talk with very soon about firmer leads.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Zagreb, 1901

My memory of my grandfather and what I may have been told about him is faulty, fragmentary. So, I begin with the obvious source: My mother, his last living child, now frail and well into her 80s. But Alice Tomchany Angst's memory is also frail.

"Zagreb," she says when I ask where her father came from. For a moment, I have hope of a solid beginning.

Alice says, "1901," to my question when.

"Frankfurt," she maintains when I ask about the port.

But Frankfurt is not a port. And if her father left the old country in 1901, he would, according to his gravestone--which lists the year of his birth as 1894-- have been 7 years old, and the younger brother my mother says emigrated with him would have been 6, perhaps 5. Something here is wrong.

More likely Vasil Lazlo emigrated as a teen, well after 1901, probably prior to what his parents would have felt was pending conscription for the Balkan beginnings of what we now know as World War I. Likely also that he was not from Zagreb, but perhaps came through it. Perhaps. I have to brush up on my history. I have to straighten out my geography.

My friend Pete Oswald, who visited Croatia a few weeks ago, took the picture above of central Zagreb. Perhaps my grandfather walked before these buildings. If and when he got to Zagreb.

This much I think I know: My grandfather's spoken language was a form of what is now called BCS. I have to trust my firmest, though still very flimsy piece of direct-memory evidence: When I was a teen, my family visited Dubrovnik, and my mother spoke the language she spoke at home as a child, her heritage language, and she was understood, even by a shepherd whose flock blocked a road deep and high in the hills.

A form of BCS understood in rural Croatia: It's a start.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

St. Michael's blue domes

Every time I step out my door, this is what I see: The blue domes and three-barred cross of Saint Michael's Orthodox Church on North Nicholas Street in Saint Clair, the church my grandfather came to when he arrived in the United States.

Here is what I can glean from family lore:

Charlie (his Americanized name) and a brother emigrated as very young men to avoid conscription into the army of Emperor Franz Josef, leader of the Austrio-Hungarian empire that had taken over their homeland. Their parents, who called themselves Madyars, were probably vineyards-keepers and had planned and saved for their boys' travel, knowing they'd likely never see their sons again. Charlie came to "America," his brother to Canada.

Charlie traveled to Ellis Island on the Patrice, bearing few possessions. His trip had taken him from somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains (possibly), over Germany to the port of Frankfurt. He came to Saint Clair because others from his village or "oblast" were already arrived; he had friends here. And a church.

Charlie, my Didi (pronounced DID-ee), died in his mid-60s in 1959, when I was three. He died of pneumonia, before penicillin was in common use, his lungs filled not just with fluid but also with the black dirt from the mines.

It's a common immigrant story around here, so common I never thought to ask about it. I was 24 before I learned his real, given name: Vasil Lazlo Tomchany. I named my only son after him, giving my boy Charlie's Americanized name as his first. I kept as my son's middle name the Slavic Lazlo.

Now, at age 54, my children grown, I'd like to know more, though it boggles me that I never thought to ask before and it puzzles me some why I now need to know more. How did my grandfather get here? Why? What was his life like back in the old country? How did he meet and court my grandmother, who, astonishingly, lost her U.S. citizenship because she married a foreigner? What was life like for each of them and together in the early years of their marriage?

What I find, I'll share. Stay with me, please.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Catching Up in April

In February, it seems that all we did in Saint Clair was shovel snow, chop ice, and hope for spring. Now that warmth has returned, and I can get back on the bike, I can face posting the snow pictures and have begun catching up here (when I'm not out on the bike). Thanks very much for checking back!