Expropriation and the End of a Dream
In 1920, while Paul was walking home after the war, local bank officials came knocking at Maria’s door one fine fall day. In such a small close knit community, the townspeople knew that Paul and Maria Milec had returned home to Soljani after making their small fortune in America. And these men were here to do something about it.
The Milecs had succeeded in achieving the dream that nearly everyone in this part of Europe had at the time and yet which so few actually realized. Envy, greed and jealousy ran high amongst those people who did not have the courage, work ethic or persistence to build their fortune the way Paul and Maria did. And so in a manner that has been repeated over and over through the ages, those who did not earn it rightfully took it upon themselves to take from those who did.
From the late nineteenth century through 1920, the economy was in terrible shape in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Jobs were scarce and young people could barely make a living, the threat of war was looming, and on top of that, to live as a minority Slovak in the German and Magyar dominated empire was to live as a lowly second class citizen. With no freedom of speech, severe restrictions on religion and culture, no education after the age of 13 and no representation in politics, Slovaks with any ambition were left with little choice but to leave.
Smart, hard working and aspiring Slovaks left in droves to the United States where they were promised the opportunity to earn more than a subsistence living, if they were willing to work hard. Between 1880 and 1915, over three quarters of a million Slovaks immigrated to the US. When asked to declare their ethnicity at Ellis Island, few stated “Slovak” and instead listed themselves as “Hungarian, “German,” or “Austrian.” Officials in New York took it upon themselves to rename immigrants upon arrival, changing both first and last names and so Pavel became Paul, Suster became Shuster, Karel became Carl, Jan became John and so on. Loss of Slovak identity and assimilation began the moment one set foot on US soil.
At the time, immigrants from Europe were required to have a place to stay and a person to meet them upon arrival. If they stayed five years, they were nearly guaranteed US citizenship and were then able to then purchase property. Often young men came first, found jobs and settled into the new life, earned some money and then sent for their wives or families; Paul arrived through the port of Montreal in December 1907, and six months later, sent for Maria, who sailed to New York from the port of Fiume, Italy. More often than not, the long term goal was not to stay, but to earn enough money to return back to Europe where their extended families still remained, and with enough money to live fairly well thereafter. Paul and Maria set out to do just that.
Both worked incredibly hard for several years in Akron, Ohio. They ran a boarding house for single Slovak men, and Maria was largely responsible for this endeavor, cooking and cleaning while also raising a growing family. Paul started a bakery, and grew it quickly. Within a couple of years, he had a decent sized factory pumping out hundreds of kifle daily (croissants) along with other baked goods, and as he contemplated expanding it, an offer came in to buy the business, which after careful consideration, he accepted. Despite the impending war back home, or perhaps because of it, Paul and Maria packed up their few belongings, their young children and their newly earned shiny US dollars and headed back home to Soljani where Maria’s family, the Mihalics, awaited their return. Fewer than 30% of European immigrants managed to earn and save enough money to return to their homeland as Paul and Maria did.
Paul and Maria kept their US dollars at home in Soljani, hidden safely. Paul had instructed Maria to keep the money stashed away and out of the bank until he returned. But those bankers were persistent, and on this particular day of their visit (they had visited before), they finally succeeded in convincing Maria to hand over the US currency in exchange for brand new 100 and 1000 dinar bills that had just been issued for the new Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. In an ironic twist, the dinar bills had been produced by the American Bank Note Company in New York.
In terms of sheer volume, Maria’s new dinars outweighed the US currency by about 100 to 1; for every 1 US dollar she gave them, they handed her back 100 dinars. Maria was mesmerized by the new, colorful bills and felt instantly even wealthier. The bank officials, ever so polite, looked her squarely in the eye, shook her hand graciously, thanked her for her business and wished her only the best. As the door closed, they practically skipped their way back to the bank, smiling smugly over their success in scamming yet another unsuspecting victim. People like Maria deserved what they had coming to them, they righteously believed.
When Paul came home soon after the financial transaction was complete, Maria excitedly ran out to the pigsty, and after a few moments, came out of the shed with a wheelbarrow full of dinars. Paul stared, first at the wheel barrow-full of dinars, and then at Maria, speechless. The shiny new dinar bills, you see, had already started to crater in value, and were worth half what they were originally.
Across Europe over the next two decades, the economies of various Eastern European countries would experience hyperinflation, and money would be deemed worthless. In Hungary from 1922 to 1924, inflation grew at an alarming rate of 98%, and in the 1940’s their paper currency would be swept into the gutters, and in Germany in 1923, paper money was so worthless it was used as wallpaper.
Everything Paul had worked for in the US was now gone. The promise of the financially secure future that awaited his return had gotten him through five years of war and a trek across Siberia, and was now nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Paul sank slowly to his knees, the reality of this expropriation by the slick financiers slowly sinking in.
They had lost nearly everything: four children dead from typhus, their life savings lost to swindlers. What now?