Zofia Szczerba (1879-1953) is the subject of this week’s Matrilineal Monday.
When my sister and I decided to start looking into our family history back in the 1990s, it was our grandmother Zofia Szczerba and grandfather Jozef Mirota, that I was most interested in researching. At the time we knew very little about their origins in Poland. We knew that they were born in neighboring villages located in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, in southern Poland near the border. We didn’t know much else that could narrow down our search for information about them. Little by little, we discovered enough information through our research to enable us to order LDS microfilms for the church records for the villages of Berdechow and Plawna. Through those church records we were able to trace our Polish ancestors and their families back to the 1700s. I am still amazed at how much information we were able to uncover just from those LDS microfilms.
We discovered from those records that when Zofia was 3 years old her father, Piotr Szczerba, died. Six months later, as was common in that remote area of Poland for widows with young children, Zofia’s mother Pauline Olszewski Szczerba remarried. Zofia’s step-father was a widower named Wawrzyniec (Walter) Wasik. We have not found out whether he had any children by his first marriage. Pauline had four daughters but Zofia was the only girl to survive to adulthood. According to church records, Zofia had a sister named Mariana Szczerba, who would have been two years older, and two half-sisters, Anna Wasik and Ludovica Wasik, born four and five years after Zofia. Sadly they all died at a very young age. One of Zofia’s half-brothers, Jozef Wasik, died in infancy. Zofia’s three surviving siblings included her older brother Pawel Szczerba and two younger brothers, Jan Wasik (1887-1934) and Stanislaus Wasik (1889-1959). Stanislaus was Jozef’s twin. The Szczerba and Wasik siblings remained close through out their lives.
Zofia was expected to work in the house, work in the fields, tend the farm animals, and when it was her turn, spend the night in the hillside pasture watching over the sheep to protect them from predators. This work was normally uneventful. However, for a very short period of time the village children had been scared off night after night by ghosts who would suddenly swoop down on them, sending them running home in mortal fear. Their parents punished them of course for leaving the sheep alone. When it was Zofia’s turn, she was ready for the ghosts. As soon the apparitions appeared, whooping and hollering around her, Zofia picked up a big stick and gave the ghosts a nice whacking. The ghosts, who were mischievous boys from a neighboring village, quickly turned tail and ran home. They were never seen again in their ghostly form.
Life in Poland in the early 1900s was extremely hard and the future for Poland appeared to be getting bleaker. Poland had just gone through a deep economic recession, workers were striking in various cities, and social unrest was everywhere. A large number of Polish men and women were getting out of Poland while they could. Zofia’s older brother Pawel Szczerba left Poland in 1905. He found work in DuBois, Pennsylvania. However Pawel became very homesick and he returned to Poland, living first in Bobowa and then later on in Falkowa, where he died in 1922. Pawel gave Zofia money to leave Poland, which she did in 1906.
Zofia travelled alone through Poland and Germany, probably by train, to the port town of Bremen where she purchased third-class passage on the steamship S. S. Rhein. She entered the U.S. via the port of Baltimore. She most likely again traveled by train going to Carnegie, Pennsylvania where her cousin Teresa Motyka was living. Zofia had $12.00, a small bag of personal belongings, and from what I was told she also brought along a big stick so no one would bother her on the ship. In Carnegie, Zofia found work as a servant and moved to nearby Idlewood, PA. Two and a half years later she married Jozef Mirota, a coal miner who had emigrated from Plawna, Poland. She was 30 years old. The marriage ceremony was performed by Reverend Frank F. Poszukanis. He was the parish priest at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Carnegie for the years 1906 to 1911. The church no longer exists.
Zofia’s husband disliked working in the coal mine and longed to own a farm. He saved every cent he could and was able to buy a farm in New Jersey. Zofia once again found herself moving away from her family. She loved their farm which was nestled under a small mountain. Hunterdon County, New Jersey reminded her of the farmland back in Poland with its rolling, green hills. She was happy in New Jersey and made good friends among the growing Polish community. Zofia was very social and loved to go visiting and to have visitors come to her home. She kept in touch with her brothers and her cousins traveling to see them when she could and welcoming them to her home when they were able to travel East. She never returned to Poland.
Zofia and Jozef had four children, all born in Cherry Valley, PA. The children spoke only Polish until they moved to New Jersey and attended grammar school in Readington Township, NJ. Zofia didn’t believe girls needed an education but once she found out that it was compulsory she had no choice but to allow her two daughters to go to school. Zofia never learned English and didn’t see a need for it. She made plenty of friends who also only spoke Polish.
In fact, with the influx of so many Polish Roman Catholics moving in to the township in the early 1920s, a new church was formed in White House Station in 1923, which had a Polish speaking priest, Father Mieczyslaw A. Konopka. In 1932, the Polish-American Citizens’ Club was organized to provide a venue for Polish fellowship and cultural preservation.
During the Great Depression the family always had enough to eat because they owned their farm and did not have to worry about making mortgage payments. Along with working as a farmer her husband worked as a laborer on the Central Railroad of NJ. He earned $6.00 a week for that work. $1.00 per day. In the summers they rented out a bedroom to city folks who came to get out of the crowded city and enjoy the fresh country air. Zofia’s four children slept in the barn’s hay loft when the summer boarders were in residence. In the late 1930s Zofia’s two oldest children, Stephen and Genevieve, married and moved away to start their families. Her two youngest remained at home until the late 1940s; her son Joe had a job in Bound Brook but was happiest like his parents when he was working on the farm. Joe signed up for the Army during World War II and served valiantly in the Pacific arena. Zofia’s youngest daughter Mary graduated from Drake Business School and became a career girl, working as a private secretary to a woman of prominence in Plainfield and New York. Mary was glad to give up her career for motherhood when she married in the late 1940s.
It wasn’t until the creation of the Alien Registration Act of 1940 that Zofia felt any need to do anything about her legal status in the US. Unregistered aliens, especially those who had been born in German and Austrian occupied countries, became afraid they would be deported or detained, although that wasn’t the purpose of the Act. Considering what happened to the Japanese Americans on the West coast it was definitely a real possibility. By August 1940 every alien was required to file an Alien Registration Form, which included answering a lot of questions and being fingerprinted. (If you are interested in researching someone’s alien registration from that time period you can make a genealogy request from the US Citizen and Immigration Service.) Zofia filed her naturalization papers in May of 1940 at the county courthouse in Flemington, NJ and was finally made a citizen in 1944. She had been living in the U.S. for 38 years.
The photo on the right was probably taken for her US Naturalization file. Zofia was about 59 years old. The immigration paperwork circa 1944 described her as having a fair complexion, blue eyes, grey hair, 5′ 3″ tall and weighing 117 lbs. The witnesses for her naturalization were Rose Rebucci (occupation: at home) and John J. Park (occupation: Real Estate) both of Whitehouse, N. J.
Taken in the late 1940s, the photo below shows Zofia and Jozef surrounded by their grown children, in the living room of their farm house. The photo is a little out of focus. Zofia did not like having her photo taken and it looks like she’s been forced to sit for this one, probably at her daughters’ insistence. I’m glad they did.
Zofia died in her home in 1953 after a lengthy illness. She was survived by her husband of 44 years, two sons and two daughters, 9 grandsons, 1 granddaughter, and 2 foster-granddaughters. Another granddaughter would be born after Zofia’s death.
Zofia’s granddaughters, Veronica and Maryann, are the authors of this blog. It is our hope that we will continue to find new information about our grandparents and extended family. When we do, we’ll undoubtably share it here!
Matrilineal Monday is a daily blogging prompt used by many genealogy bloggers to help them post content on their sites.
Jennifer Geraghty-Gorman, of ‘On a flesh and bone foundation’: An Irish History, has created Matrilineal Monday. As Jennifer describes it, blog postings would focus on the female line of the family, and could include any of the following:
1. sharing histories of our female ancestors
2. discussing great genealogical finds in the female line
3. ‘brick walls’ or frustrations we encounter in uncovering the ladies in our line
4. research tips for locating female ancestors