The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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October 31, 2010

Ancestors forged place in Johnstown

Bartlomiej Szczur arrived in Johnstown from Rzeszow, Poland, in December 1899.

A spry young man in his 20s, Szczur was eager for a fresh start in America. But he soon found he was not welcome.

“When he got to Johnstown, there was a place where they had to register and they had an interpreter,” Ann Motak, 90, said of her father.

“They said, ‘You’ll have to go back to Poland. You’ll never get a job in the United States with that name,’ ” Motak said.

“They didn’t like Polish people too much.”

Motak said her father was finally hired to mine coal in Franklin Borough, but found he had been stripped of his name.

“When they were signing them up for work, they changed his name to Martin Bernat,” Motak said.

“He was Martin Bernat at work. Everywhere else he was Bartlomiej.”

Motak was the youngest of five children raised by Bartlomiej Szczur and the former Julia Wisz. They were married in Johnstown and raised a family in a crowded home in Cambria City.

Their story is not unlike that of many Polish immigrants who journeyed from rural countrysides to labor in the steel mills and coal mines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said Richard Burkert, Johnstown Area Heritage Association executive director.

“In many cases, it was the immigrants themselves who changed their names just to make it easier to get a job,” he said.

“Some of them couldn’t tell you how to spell their name.”

Combing the pages of books such as “For Bread With Butter,” “Insecure Prosperity” and “A Precious Legacy” as well as articles and pamphlets, an image of the Polish immigrant in Johnstown emerges.

The story is one of hope, hard work and unbreakable family ties.

Immigrants from east-central Europe had much in common. They came to escape poverty.

Many had traveled to western Europe to work as seasonal farmhands, but found it difficult to get ahead financially. 

“A trip to the United States was a longer trip than that of seasonal migration,” Burkert said.

“They came to the United States for a couple of years to make enough money to get ahead in the old country.

“In many cases, they ended up staying.”

‘Some bad feelings’

The growth of Johnstown can be traced to the founding of the Cambria Iron Works in 1852.

Cambria later bought 50,000 acres of rich minerals in the surrounding hills from which 50,000 tons of coal were extracted each year.

The Polish newcomers in the late 19th century mostly settled in Cambria City and worked digging in the mines or toiling in the steel mills.

Mine workers were paid the most – making as much as $2 to $3 for a 12-hour workday.

Coal mining was dangerous.

A methane gas explosion at the Rolling Mill Mine in 1902 killed 112 miners. Of those, 52 were Polish immigrants. The mine disaster set back plans for construction of St. Casimir Church by five years. The church officially was dedicated on May 12, 1907.

Its priest helped Polish immigrants find work with Cambria Iron Works.

In exchange for work, the company regularly deducted money from Polish-workers’ paychecks for the upkeep of St. Casimir Church.

“That made for some bad feelings among some of the less pious steelworkers,” Burkert said.

By 1910, more than 70 percent of the male blue-collar work force in Johnstown was employed at the Cambria mills and coal mines.

When immigrant steelworkers seeking to unionize went on strike in 1919, St Casimir’s priest played a role.

“He sided with the company,” Burkert said. “Supposedly, some Polish steelworkers dynamited his front porch.” 

The church split in 1918, when about 50 Poles left to form a Polish National Catholic Church after being dissatisfied with what they saw as the insufficient “national” character of St. Casimir.

‘Church in the morning’

Still, St. Casimir was the center of activity for new arrivals and a place of education for their children.

“We had to go to church in the morning and then to school at St. Casimir,” Motak said.

Motak’s mother would take the children to town for Easter shoes.

“We wore black patent-leather shoes to church,” Motak said. “After church, you would put your old shoes on.”

And her mother baked bread for neighbors who had none, Motak said.

“I think she baked for half of Cambria City,” Motak said.

“Everybody got a loaf.”

There were joyful times for miners and their families.

When her father came home on payday, it was always a thrill, Motak recalled.

“He always had something for us,” she said. “We would all sit on the couch in the living room. He brought us an apple or an orange because we didn’t have that stuff years ago.”

Her father was a caring provider, Motak said.

“He wasn’t like the other guys who would go to the bar after work,” she said. “He would come straight home.”

Life was hard for the family of seven, but the parents seldom argued in front of the children. Disagreements were quickly extinguished.

“My mother would say, ‘What do you want from me?’ ” Motak said. “He would just say, ‘Let’s forget it.’ ”

‘Worked at the store’

Clubs such as St. Casimir’s Polski Dom attracted Polish-speaking Catholics who sought to escape cramped houses in Cambria City’s notorious “Rotten Row” district and the drudgery of labor. 

Other Polish groups such as Polish War Vets also organized and a Conemaugh Polish Band was started in 1913.

Polish immigrants sponsored holiday celebrations embracing religious and national events and heroes – including Pulaski Day and Kossuth Anniversary.

Three foreign-language newspapers appeared locally during the 1920s, including the Polish Postep.

Polish businesses also flourished, as second-generation immigrants stepped out to open family-owned stores.

Joan Ludwig remembers working in her uncle’s store, Cyburt’s Market in Cambria City. Joseph and Anna Cyburt opened the butcher shop in the 1920s and closed in the 1960s.

“I worked there when I was a girl selling penny candy,” said Ludwig, 72.

“When I was older, I would fill the orders, put them in a box and my dad would deliver them.

“My mother and the neighbors worked at the store,” she said.

East-central European saloons, groceries, a butcher shop, and furniture and clothing stores sprang up in Johns-town in the early 20th century.

By 1915, there were some 90 Christian and about 100 Jewish businesses operated by east-central Europeans.

The devastating 1936 flood changed the landscape for immigrant families.

“We lost everything,” Motak said.

“When the water was coming down the street, you’d think nothing of it. But then they said you have to move out. My mother was losing her eye- sight. I scooped up an armload of clothes and took my mother out.”

They headed to Morrellville to stay with relatives. Black-faced workers emerged from the Franklin mine to find the city flooded. The brown water had cut them off from their families.

Motak said her father found refuge with an Italian family.

For supper, the family served spaghetti and meatballs.

“My father didn’t know what that was,” Motak said. “He was turning it but couldn’t get it on the fork. So he took a knife and cut it all up.”

‘They became citizens’

When her family finally returned to their home in Cambria City, they grabbed shovels and wrestled with the mud.

“We all had our little shovels to help,” she said. 

The Red Cross arrived to help and carried away her mother’s mud-filled sewing machine. 

“My mother was crying when they took her sewing machine,” she said.

“She was happy when she got it back. They varnished it and cleaned it up so she could make her own dresses.”

Motak is uncertain of her father’s age when he died in 1947 after a lifetime of digging coal.

Her mother, Julia Wisz, died in 1958 at the age of 84.

Family-owned businesses have since come and gone. Immigrants who labored to carve out a living for their families have since passed on.

As the last surviving member of her family, Motak cherishes the legacy of Polish-Americans.

“Everybody learned to speak English,” Motak said. “They became citizens and voted.”

The Catholic and Jewish Polish immigrants fought prejudice, poverty, hostility and language barriers but forged a place in Johnstown history.

“They didn’t speak the language and were made fun of,” Ludwig said. “But they persevered through faith and determination.”


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