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Coming to America, V1.0

January 7, 2010

Pauline Shuster was almost American. Her parents, Paul (also spelled Pavel) and Mary(also variously called Maria and Marjia) Milec, immigrated from Yugoslavia to the United States at the beginning of the 19th century, just two of the 7.5 million Eastern Europeans who made the journey between 1870 and 1914.  And then, like thousands of other “birds of passage”,  the Milecs moved back to Yugoslavia just before Pauline, their second child, was born.

Paul and Maria Milec

Paul and Mary were born and raised in the tiny village of Soljani, near the Sava River in Yugoslavia in the area that is now Croatia, in the late 1800’s.  Soljani, located in southwestern Croatia, dates back to the 1300’s, and gets its name from the Croatian word for salt (living in places named after food becomes a theme).    Their Slovak ancestors had fled what is now Slovakia in the late 1700’s to avoid persecution by the pesky Magyar Hungarians, and thousands of them settled together in villages of Croatia and Serbia, crowded together in the province of Vojvodina. Today, over 50,000 Slovaks still live there, making up nearly 3% of the population (the majority are Serbs and Hungarians).

The end of the 18th century in Yugoslavia saw the growth of vast infrastructure projects – railways were laid, bridges were built over the Sava river, the first telephone lines were installed, the first water supply networks were put into operation, electric lighting was introduced, and electric trams made their first appearance. By the early 1900’s however, things began to change. Emperor Franz Joseph was in power at the time of their youth, and he would use small villages such as Soljani to stabilize the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, by moving Germans into town to take over jobs. Things were unsettled politically in the area, taxes were high, and jobs became scarce.

With all the political unrest and the dour economy (sounds familiar), Paul and Mary, young and newly married, decided to start their life together in the United States.  Paul left for America first, in order to find employment to earn enough money to bring Mary over to join him, and lived in Manhattan on 57th St, Flat B. Mary arrived on Ellis Island, New York, on May 6, 1908, setting sail from the port town of Fiume (now Rejika, Croatia) on the Adriatic Sea travelling across the Atlantic alone on the passenger ship Pannonia, as a third class passenger.

Maria Milec's Ellis Island Certificate

I am sure the trip was difficult and unpleasant; Mary spent two weeks on the ship, often enduring rough seas.  Seasickness was common and the ships were often overcrowded; but this time, it was only half full. The Pannonia was built to transport 840 passengers, but often sailed with over 1300 aboard; on Mary’s trip there were fewer than 400, mostly Austrians, Hungarians, and some Italian and Spanish. In 1908, steerage passengers brought their own food, and were allowed to go to the upper deck for fresh air once a day.  I’ve looked at Pauline’s cookbook and tried to imagine what you would make and pack for a two week voyage with no refrigeration.  Maybe the passengers were sick from food poisoning as much as they were from seasickness.

Upon arrival in New York, passengers were ferried from the dock to Ellis Island and were guided to a large building, where long lines of people waited to be processed. They endured humiliating health checks for signs of tuberculosis or other contagious disease, and to see if they had lice.  On the ship’s manifest it is noted as to whether they have any mental or physical ailments, or were deformed or crippled; anyone could be disqualified if they were physically or mentally disabled. Passengers reported how much money they had, who their sponsor was, who paid for their transport, whether they had been in the United States before, the name and the address of the person meeting them, and whether they were a polygamist or anarchist.  Their height, defining characteristics, hair and eye color were also documented.

Paul had sailed to Quebec near the end of 1907, and I found a copy of his border crossing into New York in November of that year. The Pannonia’s records clearly shows he met Mary when the ship pulled into Ellis Island.  According to the ship’s manifest, she had brown eyes and brown hair, was in good physical and mental health, had no deformities and was not crippled, and had no distinguishing marks of identification.

Pannonia Ship's Manifest entry for Maria Milec, May 6, 1908

Most people applied for naturalization when they arrived with a Declaration of Intention, then filed a Petition of Naturalization, and were finally given a Certificate of Naturalization once you had lived in the US for at least 5 years.  There is no record that my great grandparents did so.

They settled in Akron, Ohio for the next four plus years. Paul first worked for Goodyear Tire, and then ran a successful bakery while Mary ran a boarding house for other immigrants.  They most likely saved $1000, the goal of most immigrants who wanted to eventually return to Europe.  They had several children, some who died in infancy in Ohio.  They had at least living three children and were about to buy another bakery with their savings when they decided they could live like kings back in Soljani on this small fortune. They packed their belongings and crossed the ocean once again.  Mary must have been pregnant with Pauline at the time.

Next: children, war and reversal of fortune

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2010 6:30 pm

    That’s really strange, that Gramma’s parents left the U.S. before becoming citizens. I wonder if they had a bad experience of some kind? If so, I wonder if it influenced Gramma and Grampa’s decision to come to Canada (as opposed to the states) twenty or so years later. Do we know anything about why they chose to settle in Ontario?

  2. clatterbach permalink
    January 12, 2010 1:35 pm

    I’m really looking forward to hearing more about this story!

    Not sure I entirely agree that it’s unbelievable that they should move back to the land of their birth. A common language and culture is a powerful draw, and the idea of having an influence upon events at pivotal moments of history must be very attractive to the very kind of strong-willed young people who are able to up and leave in the first place. It’s fascinating looking back at the kind of dilemmas and opportunities people faced years ago though.


  1. Coming to America, V1.0 « Pauline's Cookbook | Drakz News Station

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