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And Then There Were Two

April 21, 2010

Mother and Child, Mary Cassatt

Varila myšička kašičku

Mother Mouse Was Cooking Porridge

Finger Play

The mother mouse was cooking porridge,

In that colourful pot,
To this one she gave a little on his spoon,
To this one she gave a little in his bowl,
To this one she gave a little on his plate,
And to that one she gave some on his wooden spoon.
But she did not give any to the small one,
Cause there was none left.
So she sent him to the pantry to eat some jam.

The actions to this nursery rhyme are similar to the English rhyme “This little piggy went to market.” You hold the child’s hand with open palm upwards and you go round and round in circles on it. Then you prick the thumb, saying… “tomu dala”… “to this one she gave”… same with the index finger, middle finger, ring finger… and when you touch the little finger saying …”tomu malemu nic nedala”… “she did not give any”, then you go up the child’s hand and arm with your index and middle finger to tickle her/him under his arm.

When I was little, my grandma Pauline used to do this finger play on my hands and arms, chanting it in Slovak, stirring the imaginary porridge in the palm of my hand and saying, “Kasha, kasha, kasha”. I would beg her to do it over and over, never really giving a thought to the idea that this was a game her mother Mary must have played with her, and with Pauline’s brothers and sisters when they were young.

Ludwig and Pauline 1913. The other children in the picture were cut out by Mary.

Although I am sure there were happy times between mother and children in the Milec family playing games like this, the war brought more than fighting and death to soldiers; it infiltrated the lives of women and children left behind in insidious ways, causing equal pain and destruction.  While Paul had been fighting in the war, his family at home had been dealt one terrible blow after another.  They still lived in the same house and Mary ran the bakery, but a typhus epidemic in 1916 swept through the Balkan region, including Soljani, and took with it the lives of many in the small village, including some of the Milec family members.

Dr Edward Ryan of the American Red Cross

As I was researching the epidemic, I came across several newspaper articles about a doctor who was credited with saving many lives from the grips of typhus. In 1915, a young American doctor by the name of Dr. Edward Ryan, from Scranton PA, volunteered with the American Red Cross to help treat typhus patients and to control the illness as it threatened the lives of tens of thousands of people in Western Russia, the Baltic States and the Balkan region during and immediately after the war.

Dr. Ryan was a legend in his own time, and sadly today he is all but forgotten; hardly anything has been written about him since the 1920’s.  His supervisor at the time, John Gade, said of him, “Ryan proved himself to be a wild, fighting Irishman, constantly getting himself into hot water and me into a state of exasperation, doing things which I highly disapproved, even going to Moscow despite my having forbidden it. Absolutely fearless, often gambling with death, he did a grand job of holding high the shining fame of American charity.”

New York Times article, 1913

Ryan was a like a cat with nine lives, always barely escaping harrowing situations by the skin of his teeth.  Prior to arriving in the Balkans, Ryan had served in Mexico evacuating refugees in 1913 during the Mexican revolution.  While helping out in a village one day he was arrested by a rebel leader and declared a spy and prisoner of war. He was ordered to be shot at sunrise, as was the custom in Mexico at the time.  The story goes that he stood there staring down the barrels of guns looking very calm and stoic, and the rebel leader, impressed, halted the execution for one day.  The next morning at sunrise, he was pulled out of bed and placed in front of the firing squad and again he remained calm and once more the execution was halted. This went on for 13 days, and finally on the last day, he was set free.  Another prisoner at the time disputes this story, and says drily that only on about the 5th day did Ryan look calm, as he was finally hopeful that he would escape the death sentence, and besides, he was used to the ritual by then.

Dr Ryan and other Drs in WWI serving in the American Red Cross

In March of 1916, the epidemic hit the city of Belgrade hard, and Dr. Ryan was sent to work his organizational magic and to set up shop there, establishing hospitals all over the city and treating patients by the thousands. Not only did he treat typhus, he and his assistants performed over 8,000 operations on refugees in the year and a half he spent in Serbia, and he soon became an international hero. Unfortunately he contracted typhus himself, and nearly died from the illness.

NY Times article, Jan 31 1915

After recovering, he picked up a souvenir of another kind in Belgrade. This particular souvenir was a “dud” artillery shell which he planned to show off back home in the US. But while boarding the train in Budapest, the porter roughly handled his baggage and the “dud” went off, exploding and killing several people. Again, Ryan escaped unscathed.

Dr Ryan's makeshift Hospital, Narva, Estonia 1920

At the time it was unknown how typhus spread, or how to prevent it from passing it on from one person to another.  In the Milec home, one young child contracted it, succumbed to the illness after a couple of weeks, and was no sooner buried than the next child came down with typhus.  The family legend has it that upon returning from the funeral of one child, another child would die, and Mary would have to go through the agonizing ritual of burying a child over and over, one after the other.  As many as four of Mary and Paul’s young children died, with only Pauline, the youngest and Ludwig, the oldest, surviving.

A young Maria (Mary) Mihalic Milec

This was not the first time Paul and Mary lost children. When they lived in Akron, Ohio, I recently learned they lost a baby or two there, and then on the ship sailing back to Europe with their six surviving children, at least one other died en route. The dead child was tossed overboard, buried at sea, and this particular death would haunt Mary for the rest of her life.

Serbian women waiting for news of their loved ones outside Belgrade hospital, 1915

By 1916, Dr. Ryan and his team were well known for their tireless work in saving the lives of countless thousands of typhus victims, and people came from all over the Balkan region to be cured. But he was a two hour drive away by car, or at least a two day walk on foot, through ongoing battles between the Austro-Hungarians and the Serbs, and Mary could not possibly have made the trip with four very young, sick children in tow to be treated in one of his makeshift hospitals.  The four Milec children were some of the thousands of casualties of the typhus epidemic in 1916 in the Baltics, with some estimating that as many as 150,000 in Serbia alone succumbed to the disease.

Dr Ryan dead Sept 23 1923 Schenectady News

The dashing Dr. Ryan went on to serve with the American Red Cross in Estonia, and then later in Persia.  After 10 years, his luck finally ran out and this time he lost a reckless gamble on his life: in 1923  he contracted malignant malaria while stationed in Teheran, Persia (Iran), and died tragically from the disease at the age of 39.

When Paul left home to go to war in 1914, he left six living children, and now in 1920 he returned home to only two.  The devastating disease was not done claiming its victims, however; more tragedy would soon follow, and this time Paul was most likely to blame.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 6:32 am

    I wonder how the thyphus epidemic was brought under control in remote areas, such as Soljani. Also, as an editorial comment, geographically at the time of Dr. Ryan’s death he was in Persia and so I would refer to his location as Persia (currently Iran). See

    • April 21, 2010 9:02 am

      The epidemic wasn’t controlled in these remote places, and I’ve seen estimates as high as 150,000 dead from it in Serbia alone.

      You’re right about Persia – the names of places have changed so often I sometimes refer to the current name so people know where I am talking about.

  2. Stan permalink
    April 21, 2010 9:36 am

    What an incredible story of Edward Ryan. Did you find any biographies of him? His story would make a wonderful movie.
    Thank you for sharing and describing so realistically in your excellent writing. The hardships that generation suffered were bad enough with the War, let alone the diseases.

    • April 21, 2010 10:43 am

      I have only found a few newspaper articles about him, and a couple of PDFs. One of them is about the works of the Red Cross. I also think a story about the Red Cross in general during WWI would be fascinating. I am really impressed with the character and efforts of people born in the latter part of the 1800’s. They were so brave and seemed to rise to the occasion to fight for what they believed in. And they suffered so greatly, between the loss of life in WWI and the terrible disease epidemics. I read last night that 1/3 of the population of Serbia was killed in WWI, and that they lost 1/2 of the male population. Devastating. No wonder it’s called the Lost Generation.

    • April 21, 2010 10:48 am

      Here’s an online book I found on the Red Cross with Dr Ryan in it that you can download for free from Google Books, called “The History of the American Red Cross”, written in 1922 before he died.

      • Stan permalink
        April 21, 2010 11:34 pm

        Thank you for the reference, I have so enjoyed reading it this evening. What an amazing man and his achievements in such a short time. I can see why he would be such a hero in Estonia.

    • April 21, 2010 10:48 am

      Here’s an online book I found on the Red Cross with Dr Ryan in it that you can download for free from Google Books, called “The History of the American Red Cross”, written in 1922 before he died.

  3. Mary Milec permalink
    April 21, 2010 9:59 am

    I’m surprised that they never kept a record of their lost children.

    • April 21, 2010 10:39 am

      Me too. No photos remain, and Uncle Andy can’t remember any names or many details except where and approximately when they died. I am researching birth and death certificates, but Akron, Ohio has not yet put them online. Cleveland has, and I found a Slovak family that immigrated from nearby Soljani in 1912, named Karel and Kata Milec. They, too had several children of which many died of stillbirth, or within a month of birth. I wonder if they are related to us.

      I am also researching the birth and death records in Soljani, and have contacted the local town offices and Lutheran church, and plan to visit them next month.

      I assume that Mary was too upset over the deaths to ever talk about them, or perhaps it was just so common that people didn’t get too attached to them at a young age or too upset over the deaths of young children? The only one that was talked about was Ludwig, as he was older than my grandmother and his death was really felt by her.

  4. Marija permalink
    November 15, 2012 11:30 am

    I love your article about Dr Ryan. I am writing a novel about Americans in Belgrade (Yugoslavia) in the period of 1938-1944. According to this article from LIFE Magazine, written by the U.S. ambassador in Yugoslavia at that time, Dr. Edward Ryan, representative of American Red Cross was alive and well, and living in Belgrade for the past 18 years…

    Could it be the same man?


    • November 15, 2012 11:55 am

      Hi Marija, Dr. Ryan is one of my all time heroes. Sadly, my Dr. Ryan died in 1923 in Persia, at the age of 39, I think. I’ve been writing a book about Americans in Belgrade during WWI – we should chat!


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