Your Grandfather was from Staryj Kraj (The Old Country)

I remember her reaching into her favorite "Sunday Church" purse and pulling out a half sawbuck; carefully folding it up to insure on one else could see what it was; and then handing it to me saying, "Don't tell your mother. Just put it in your pocket and get a pizza pie." Such are the little pleasures of having a "Baba" or grandmother, for those of you unfamiliar with the name. Back when I was a teenager and living with her and my parents in her little duplex home on Ruddle Street, it was usually only one dollar instead of five. Back then she saved the fives for things like birthdays, Christmas, or maybe going to the Prom. Baba's only source of money was her monthly Social Security check of $50. It's not like she needed the money. The house was paid off long ago and food, utilities, and other household necessities were covered by my parents. Aside from the grandchildren, the only other usual recipient was the weekly church collection plate. Baba died in 1976. At that point my wife, Gale and I were married seven years and our first daughter, Kate was a year old. In those seven years before she died, we had visited Coaldale many times and each time we were packing the car and saying goodbye, Baba always came up to me on the sly and pushed that picture of Abe Lincoln into my hand. It was always followed with the "don't tell your mother" line. Occasionally Gale would see what she was doing and give me hell for taking money from an eighty year-old woman on a pension. My response was that I take it because it makes her feel good. When she was a young mother with no income and six children to feed, that five dollars could feed them for a week. For all I know, she might believe it still could. Back in the 1950's there was no direct deposit for Social Security checks so my father took her check to the bank and cashed it. Dad and Baba went through the monthly argument about her insistence that he take her five for cashing the check. Mom told him the same thing. Take it….she’ll know she is contributing to the household expenses.

We all have four lines to fill in with our family tree under the heading ‘grandparents’. Baba was the only one of the four I really knew. Her husband, John Panchura was killed in the mines back in 1923 and my father’s mother, Annie Sharpe died in 1926. The only other grandparent I ever saw was Dad’s father, William Sharpe. William died when I was only five years old and was only a faint memory to me. That is a shame because I can’t think of a better adult role model for a young kid than a grandparent. Yes, you might argue that certainly the parents are far more responsible and influential but then, that is the job of a parent. They must constantly be on guard watching your every move and anticipating any potential threat. They are also new to the job of overseeing a young person, while the grandparents have had the benefit of well-seasoned wisdom to sort out the important from the trivial. I remember a warm day in early spring when I was about age nine. Several of the neighborhood kids took advantage of the weather and took their bikes out of winter storage. For the past few years I had been hinting about getting a bike but my parents always seemed to change the subject or express concern about safety. I sat on our front porch that afternoon and watched kids my age riding their bikes and enjoying the day. I never was one to cry easily but tears were running down my cheeks as I watched. I also didn’t notice that Baba was watching me from the front window. If a kid keeps wiping his face, you don’t need to see the tears to know they are there. The next day Mom and Dad told me we were going to George Soberick’s store on Water Street to look at the new Firestone bikes he just received. It wasn’t until Baba’s funeral that Mom told me about Baba coming up to her that day and saying, “Either you buy that kid a bike or I’ll buy him that bike and pay for it by giving George Soberick every pension check I get until it is fully paid”.

Mary Donish (Baba) was born on October 15, 1891 in Audenried, PA to her parents Michael Donish and Mary Bitsko, both of them immigrants from “The Old Country”. Mary was the oldest of seven Donish children. Her first exposure to language was the ‘Mother Tongue’ of Michael and Mary. Once she entered formal schooling, she was taught to read and write in English. Mary was comfortable with both languages and completely bilingual. In 1908 she met and married John Panchura, an immigrant also from The Old Country. They eventually had six children and lived at the family home on Ruddle Street. Having a wife who was bilingual was a great benefit for John as he tried to acclimate to the new country, language, and customs. As I mentioned earlier, John was killed in a mine cave-in two days before Christmas in 1923, leaving six children ranging in age from 13 years (my mother) to 3 months. I never pushed Baba to talk about the ‘old days’. Of course, I knew the story of my grandfather’s death, but beyond that, Baba was tight-lipped. For that matter, so was my mom. I have been researching family history since about 2000, and many of the missing pieces are filling in the puzzle. It was not a happy time for any of the family and it lasted for decades. The 1940 Federal Census shows six people living there and total annual income for the household of $225. My mother worked in a garment factory for 12 weeks and earned $125 while my Aunt Anna also worked the factory for 10 weeks earning $100. The reason for such little work time was a continuation of the Great Depression for ten years. Mine jobs were difficult to obtain and they went mostly to the father of the family. Young males, such as my uncles, were at the bottom of the list for such jobs. Younger readers here might wonder why the family didn’t seek government help for such an obvious need. Simply put, there were no such programs. If you lost the breadwinner for the family, there was no agency to step in for assistance. Census data can be both enlightening and yet alarming. In summary, it was a time no one who was there wants to remember but still it is important that those who follow know about a time not that far removed from today.

The paternal side of my family were immigrants from Ireland. The first Sharpe to immigrate was my great grandfather, John. He married Mary Killen from Tamaqua, bought a house on High Street in Coaldale and had nine children. Tracking down information about John was relatively easy with modern technology and a few hints from two of his children who we often visited when I was young. I remember them mentioning in passing that “The Sharpes are from Glenties”. Glenties could have been on the far side of the moon as far as I was concerned then, but it’s interesting how a young mind can absorb what would have been useless information to me then. Research proceeds by leaps and bounds when one can actually nail down this tiny little town in County Donegal as a source. My family and I have visited the town twice now and have actually stood within the remains of the wall of the stone thatched cottage that was their house.

John Panchura, on the other hand, has proven to be an enigma for a very long time. For years all I ever had about him was his naturalization paper which showed his country of origin as “Austria-Hungary”. In school, I should have paid more attention to courses in 19th and 20th Century European History. A better understanding of the Hapsburg Empire and post-World War One Eastern Europe would have helped. In the 1980’s The Ellis Island Foundation had a sponsorship program of engraving the immigrant’s name on a wall on Ellis Island and having a certificate made with the name of the relative and country of origin in exchange for a donation. The certificate I had made for several family members had Austria-Hungary listed. A nice feature of having Federal Census data available is the ability to see the actual pages that the census taker filled out as he walked the streets of town. Data is currently available up to 1940 and is indexed alphabetically. Not surprisingly, there were many Coaldale residents from the same basic region as John. A common census question for any person not born in the USA is ‘country of origin’. Looking over the many years available (every year ending in a 0) one can see how the answer to this question changed. One year it was Austria-Hungary. Then it was just Austria…then Hungary….then Czechoslovakia.\ Once, the census taker got so frustrated going along Ruddle Street (also known as Hunky Street) that he just wrote ‘Slovakland’ for most residents. Trying to focus in on an ancestor is nearly impossible if all you have to work with is a country….and worse yet, one that changes its name every ten years.

PENDING: Image of the census.


Another seemingly easy census question which is not so easy to answer is a"language spoken". For my Irish relatives it was pretty easy…..either Irish (Gaelic) or English. John Panchura’s answer to that question in 1920 was Greek. Just on Ruddle and Ridge Streets that same answer was given by the Firki, Gretz, Kasander, Lesko, Stoffey, Sotak, Paslausky, Hedish, Deminovich, Vavro, Pavlik, Kevolick, Maholko, and Jabbo families…just to name a few. Every one of these entries in the actual census book was later crossed out and replaced with ‘Ruth’. The other interesting fact about the 1920 census is that the Enumerator (the person actually collecting and writing the information) was William Clements who lived at 25 East Ruddle Street and

who also happens to be the first entry in the 1920 book. I remember Mr. Clements living at the top of our hill and driving (in the 1950’s) what I believe was the only Cadillac in town. He was a mine boss of English descent and was around all these new immigrants on a daily basis. Of course it was not the language spoken in Greece. So why didn’t these poor immigrants even know the name of their language? These people were members of St. John the Baptist Byzantine Greek Catholic Church in Lansford or St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Church in Coaldale. I’m not prepared (or able) to explain the name ‘Greek’ in the church name except to say it is connected to the Byzantine Empire. My Baba also called it Greek. For a while she even had me attend a class in learning how to speak ‘Greekie’. Unfortunately I never had much success, although now I wish I had stayed with it. I learned The Lord’s Prayer, “Christ is born”, “Christ has risen”, and “pivo” (beer). The language is officially called Ruthenian. It is a mixture of several Eastern European languages including Slovak (its closest match), Polish, Czech, and Russian. The ethnicity of this group called Carpatho-Rusyn. The Carpathian Mountains run along the northern border between Slovakia and Poland. It is a minority part of the Slovak people and is primarily located in the northeastern part of current-day Slovakia. The western part of Slovakia near the capital, Bratislava is more closely affiliated with the Czech Republic and sees itself as part of Western Europe. It is also more industrial and technological. The eastern portion is more agricultural and belonging to Eastern Europe. The Carpatho-Rusyn shares more of his heritage with Eastern Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.

Slovakia has suffered at the hands of others for centuries now. After the Hapsburgs, they were invaded by the Nazis. After a short period of freedom in post- World War 2 Europe, the Russian Communists moved in and used the country as a place for cheap labor; building heavy military equipment for the Red Army. Only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and later a mostly friendly separation with the Czech Republic have they become masters of their own fate. Throughout all of this strife, the little town where my family lived changed little. There are no large manufacturing businesses nearby and the people exist on a very simple life of living off the land and taking care of each other.

One story that Baba often repeated was about her visit to the ‘Old Country’ in 1913. The story she told was that her husband, John wanted her to meet his relatives there. She took along her only child at that time…my mother, Mary. She was also pregnant with her second child, who would be named Helen. While there, Baba went into labor and delivered Helen. The baptism was done quickly in the local church. There was always a fear that an unbaptized child would die and wind up in ‘Limbo’. If you’re a younger reader, look up the name Limbo for more information. So when the three of them returned home, Helen had a baptismal certificate from Slovakia. Mom told me that when they were kids, she would often tease Helen by telling her that if she wasn’t good, she would be sent back to the Old Country. Fortunately this certificate was carefully saved and I eventually got it. It was written in three different languages…Latin, Ruthenian, and Russian (Cyrillic alphabet). My best shot was with Latin. The church was located in Zbudska Bela. It is just a tiny blip on the northeastern part of the Slovakia map. As tiny as it is, nevertheless I found online a copy of the church records for the Greek Catholic church in that town the covered the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the actual handwritten book that was scanned by there was no index. Reading was difficult at best. It was in Latin but the ink was often smudged and faded but occasionally the name ‘Pančura’ appeared. ‘Č’ is pronounced ‘ch’ in their language and therefore the difference in spelling the surname. It was enough to convince me that at some point I would need to visit Slovakia. One other entry in that book (#37 in the attachment) had me very confused.

It was a baptismal record for my grandmother! It didn’t make sense because I know she was born in Audenried PA on October 15, 1891… not in Zbudska Bela. Her maiden name was Mary Donish and so was the name in the church book…and the date of birth was exactly the same. The last column says she was born in the USA. I was unable to resolve this until after returning from our visit.

Our visit to the “Old Countries” was a combination bus tour and riverboat tour. It began in Warsaw, Poland and after a few days working our way south and west moved into the Czech Republic. A few days were spent in Prague with a few side trips to other towns nearby. We only got to see a small piece of Germany near Nurnberg in the Bavarian part of the country. It was there where we boarded a riverboat headed down the Danube River. We stopped in Austria to visit Vienna and then continued down the river. We just nicked the southwest corner of Slovakia at Bratislava but no stop was scheduled. The final destination was Budapest, Hungary. The city has made an unbelievable recovery from the allied bombs of World War 2 when the Nazis occupied the country and then the Communists took over and left their ugly mark on the city and the people. Today it is a major European city that can compete with all the major Western European cities. This was the culmination of our two-week tour. After a few days there the group was chauffeured to the Franz Liszt Airport for the trip home. The tour operator was nice enough to provide us with a separate car to take us the car rental location at that airport. Within the hour we had the rental papers signed and the car packed as we headed northeast toward the border with Slovakia.

A brief sidebar here: Driving anywhere in Europe excluding the British Commonwealth and Ireland is normal right-hand driving with the steering wheel on the left. However, most rental cars are manual shift. The shift pattern is the same as most USA cars and automatic is available for a fairly significant price increase. Major highways in both Hungary and Slovakia put our Interstate Highway System to shame. They are new, well-maintained, and smooth as silk. Speed limits of 80-90 mph are common (but of course are listed in kilometers per hour). Although they continue to improve the roads, when you have to leave one and get on an older road, expect what the Communists considered good roads back in the 50’s and then imagine how bad they could get after 60+ years of neglect. One final suggestion for driving anywhere in Europe….get a good GPS unit and make sure it will accept a European map card. Ours is a Garmin which was less than $100 and has a slot for a microSD card in back. The card can cost as much as the GPS when purchased new, but I got one for a fraction of that price on eBay. Many use the card only once and then want to sell it. Check to see that the version you buy is either current or close to being current. Updates usually involve the major highways which are obvious without a map, but the real benefit is with those older roads which certainly will be on older versions. Nonexistent signs and markings are common and asking directions can be difficult in a small town where nobody speaks English. We were able to weave our way through twisting mountain roads in the foothills of the Carpathians as we approached our destination.

The closest hotel we could find from Zbudska Bela was about 15 miles away. After a night’s rest we set off north bound. If it wasn’t for the overhead electric wires and the cars, I imagine it looked the same as it did when my grandmother visited over 100 years earlier. The townsfolk were very helpful even with the language barrier and very soon one of them escorted us to the current Panchura family in the town. Actually the family’s name was Urban but Daniel Urban’s mother is a Panchura. We sat down at the back yard table and Daniel’s wife appeared with a bottle of whiskey and shot glasses. Sure, it was only 10am but this was to toast long lost relatives. Daniel gave me a tour of the church cemetery and identified family members. Slowly the puzzle pieces came together and then we went back to his place for lunch. We invited any of the family he could round up for an evening dinner at our hotel. I had no idea how many would actually show and started thinking that this could be a very expensive evening. There were ten of us and with drinks, dinner, and dessert our total bill came to just over $100. That was a pleasant surprise, especially compared to the prices we paid in Budapest.

I mentioned earlier that I was surprised to find my grandmother’s name in their church records and none of the family we met could explain it either. With a few leads to work on after returning to the USA, I got an excellent lead about a fellow genealogy buff on It seems that not only did my grandfather come from Zbudska Bela, but so did my grandmother’s family. Her mother, also named Mary, was from the Bitsko (Bicko) family who lived there for many previous generations. So the visit she made there in 1912 was also to meet her uncles, aunts, and cousins who never left Slovakia. I’m assuming that my great grandmother had the church add her daughter’s baptism, even though she had left for America. This contact person had gone through several other church books and had also visited the town years ago. Data that he had was a match to information I was sure of, which makes me more confident in the rest of his records. As poor as the area was economically, the residents made sure that their family plots in the cemetery were always well maintained. Silk flower arrangements were often used and the headstones were often etched with the likeness of the deceased.

At this point, the details I have identified wouldn’t be of much interest to anybody outside the family. I’ve written them because I want my family members to be aware of their heritage and to better understand the people who preceded them. But beyond this, we all have a family story that needs to be put into writing. When I was younger, I could have talked about my family with the people who lived through it. I had my great grandmother, Mary Bitsko Donish alive until I was age 16. The conversation may have been difficult since she barely spoke English but her daughter, my Baba, was bilingual and could have been the interpreter. Baba is the person I wish I could go back to and ask questions. She died in 1976 at age 85 and was very lucid right to the end. Mom was with us until 2004 and I did ask her many questions. Now I have so many more but it is my turn to be the ‘wise old man’ of the family. This generation…the Baby Boomers have a huge advantage over the preceding generations. We have our memories and stories as told to us by the ‘Elders’ when we were young and now we have the Internet as a huge source of information at our fingertips. Instead of traveling to old archives and churches in search of information, it is now usually just a few clicks away. The reason I feel it necessary to do this is thinking about all that will be lost when we are gone. We have an actual link to the people of the ‘old country’. We knew them and loved them. They entertained us with their stories. Now we have the technology to tie it together with archived data. The data is useless until we have that link that connects the known with the unknown and every generation that dies off makes that link more and more tenuous.

For those of you who are thinking that maybe you should do something for your family and those yet to come, I’d like to strongly encourage you to act soon. Step one is to start a family tree. Email it to the family and encourage them to add to it. Include important dates and events. There are many software programs out there that make it easy to set up and maintain the tree. Next, get into some online sources for information. The Mormons have a free site called . There are no strings attached and they don’t bombard you with spam. Another is which is also free. The big site for this is . Yes, they charge a fee but they do have several free options and they usually offer a limited time free membership. Probably the single best source is the Federal Census. Every year ending in ‘0’ is a census year and the latest one open to the public is 1940. It is also indexed to drastically cut down the time searching. Often I just enjoy going to the actual sheets used by the census taker and follow it as he worked his way down the street. One caution is that in indexing the data, somebody actually had to read the handwritten names in the book. Errors are common but they use a Soundex system to try to compensate for this. Nonetheless, sometimes you will find it best to ‘go down the street’ to find your terribly misspelled family. Another extremely helpful source are death certificates. Currently Pennsylvania has made public this information up to DOD 1963. Important information includes names of the deceased’s parents, including mother’s maiden name. Helpful also for your own medical history is ‘cause of death’. Get out the family photo album and start writing names to go with the pictures. I have several such albums where I’m sure my parents knew all the names. Unfortunately I don’t and they are no longer around to do the job. Don’t do the same with your kids. Most family tree software allows photos as part of each entry. That makes more sense than little sticky notes pasted on the picture. Some even have room for film clips and/or audio recording. Again, this can be sent out to the entire family and allow others to input more and/or make corrections.

If you need a starting point for your own research, I can tell you that the cemetery we wandered through in Slovakia had surnames that matched the names of the markers in St. John’s Byzantine Cemetery in Summit Hill. It only makes sense that a stranger to a new country will want to go where his fellow countrymen went before him. He can count on help and support in acclimating and in the case of John Panchura, find a mate with the same ethnicity and knowledge of America’s language and customs. He started out at the bottom of the ladder in the mines but had begun to show his abilities and was scheduled to become a contract miner with the new assignment at the #10 Mine. The cave-in cut short his plans for the family but I like to believe he can see that in just a few generations, his dreams and expectations were met and even surpassed.