Friday, March 31st, 1939, was a chilly but sunny day in Chicago. Anna Kutnik was excited and nervous all at once. She had lived through many important days: the births of her children, and later, the death of one of her daughters; her marriage, and later, her divorce; the day she arrived in America; and now, today, the day that she was going to become an American citizen.
My great-great-grandmother was born Anna Czemerys in east Europe in the late 1880s. Anything beyond that is uncertain: baptismal records from the Hungarian Reformed Church indicate that she was born near Csorvás, Hungary. Her declaration of intention says she was born near Sboras, Poland (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Zbarazh, Ukraine), while her petition for naturalization says she was born in Chaharia, Poland. The 1920 and 1930 census list her birthplace simply as “Russia.” Similarly, her birth year is reported differently in different places. Her records from Ellis Island indicate that she was born in late April or early May of 1887. The baptismal record indicates she was born shortly before 22 July 1888. Both her declaration of intention and her petition of naturalization list her birthdate as 26 July 1888. However, the record of her swearing the oath of allegiance indicates that she was born in 1889, as does her tombstone. The 1920 census guesses her birth year as 1890, while the 1930 census guesses her birth year as 1895. It seems most likely, though, based off these records, that she was born sometime in July 1888. It seems most likely that she was born in a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was part of Poland in the years between the world wars, but is part of Ukraine today (she lists her nationality as Polish but her race as Ukrainian). I don’t know that for certain, though; it’s only a best guess: so much of what I know about her is only a best guess, knowledge that is not really knowledge.
Records become more definite after Grandmother Kutnik got to America. She boarded the S.S. Finland in Antwerp, Belgium, and disembarked in New York City on Wednesday, August 1st, 1906. East Europe was a dismal place in 1906: a drought was sweeping across what is now southern Ukraine, and a revolution in 1905 was shaking up the political landscape. The Ukrainian People’s Party, the Ukrainian Democratic Radical Party, and the Society of Ukrainian Progressives, among others, were calling for radical social change in the region. The Ukrainian language, long banned by Russians, was becoming legal again, and Ukrainian peasants were being allowed to own land for the first time, of which there was not nearly enough. In the midst of such dramatic social change and the hardship caused by famine, many Ukrainians fled to America. These people came to the United States looking for something better for themselves and their families: the American dream. That was not always what they found. Eastern European immigrants, particularly those immigrants of Jewish faith, found it difficult to assimilate into American culture. Instead, they formed their own neighborhoods, where they kept many of the traditions of their own cultures. Many of these immigrants felt isolated and alone, even in a community of people with similar experiences. I wonder if this is what happened to Grandmother Kutnik–if she was excited to come to America, if she got to New York City and was lonely and homesick.
I don’t know how long Grandmother Kutnik stayed in New York City, but by Saturday, January 22nd, 1910, she was living in Saint Louis, Missouri, where she married John Kutnik. Like her, John Kutnik was an immigrant from east Europe. He had been born 15 August 1887 in Grodna, Russia (now Grodno, Belarus). He did various unskilled-labor jobs, practiced Judaism, and drank too much. A year later, on Sunday, February 12th, 1911, the couple’s first child was born in St. Louis–a son, named Nick for his paternal uncle. The young family moved to Chicago, where they had four more children: Henry was born in 1913, Mary was born in 1915, Alla was born in 1917, and Nadya was born in 1919. Still, things were not always perfect: John Kutnik still was not steadily employed and still was drinking. Things got worse when Alla died in the 1920s, before she had even reached thirteen. Finally, in 1925, the couple divorced. They never saw each other again.
The Great Depression was hard for Grandmother Kutnik and her surviving children. She was, once more, alone, only this time she was trying to raise four children. She didn’t speak English well, if at all. She worked as a janitress, where her wage was likely less than $10 a day. Her family was so poor that her sons stole bread in order to eat. As America’s economic situation worsened, social programs were put in place to help Americans. However, immigrants were excluded from many of these social programs. Things were even worse in east Europe, where Hitler had risen to power and declared the Nazi party the state party. By the end of the decade, the “Jewish Daily Forward,” the largest-circulating Yiddish newspaper in the United States, was printing letters from readers describing men in subway cars drawing swastikas and writing “Death to the Jews. Choke them wherever you meet them. Heil Hitler” on the walls. I can imagine that, as the mother of half-Jewish children, Grandmother Kutnik would have worried. I can imagine that, as an immigrant mother who could not receive aid to help her children, Grandmother Kutnik would have worried.
I don’t know what Grandmother Kutnik’s relationship with her children was really like. She’s buried beside her younger son, but my great-grandmother lived beside her mother for a year around 1947, and then moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and never spoke to her again. I don’t know if her other children were close to her, if they were estranged from her, or something in between. However, most of what I’ve heard seems to indicate that her relationship to her children was more like the former than the latter.
Still, Grandmother Kutnik declared her intent to be naturalized on Monday, 25 May 1936, and applied for citizenship on Wednesday, 14 December 1938, most likely for her children’s sake. Finally, on Friday, 31 March 1939, she became an American citizen. She swore to renounce the United Soviet Socialist Republic (which owned Ukraine at the time) and to support the United States.
Anna Kutnik was excited and nervous all at once. As she swore the oath of allegiance in her accented voice, she thought of her homeland. She thought of the Hnizna River as it ran through her hometown; she thought of Zbarazh Castle. She thought of the week she spent on a steamship in the north Atlantic. She thought of the better life she’d come to find, the American dream, reduced to an alcoholic husband, reduced to a deceased daughter, reduced to raising four children alone in a land full of economic ruin, a land full of anti-Semitism. She thought of the American dream: her children, American citizens by birth, as their children would be and their children’s children after them. She thought of the way that here, in this new country, people were told that they could do anything, be anything, that her children could be anything.
Like so much of what I know about her, this isn’t necessarily true. This is only what I have imagined, the things that might have happened. I don’t know for sure what Grandma Kutnik was thinking when she became a citizen. I don’t know for sure what happened when she became a citizen, but I like to imagine that her family was there, watching. I like to imagine that, for a moment, they were all proud — that, for a moment, they were all happy.
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Clarendon Hills Cemetery (Darien, DuPage County, Illinois), Anna Kutnik headstone, found on findagrave.com, photograph added 26 September 2014.
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