Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Zlatniks come to America

My grandparents, Antonine and Julie Zlatnik, were married in Libštát Bohemia during a restless time. Many farm families in the region were immigrating to the United States with the promise of a new life and affordable productive land.

Family home in Bohemia

The Austro Hungarian Empire was alarmed that so many farmers were leaving for America, and so large tracts of land were opened in the eastern regions for homesteaders. Antonine and Julie went east to the Volyn Valley of what was then Eastern Poland, but today is NW Ukraine. The local government encouraged different national enclaves to exist there – and the Zlatniks settled in with other Bohemians, including a number of Julie’s family.

My grandmother's extended family in Boratin (Volyn)

Antonine and Julie, still drawn by the American promise, were dissatisfied with the low yield that they were able to harvest from the land due to the climate of the Volyn region. And while they could “get by”; they decided that it would be wise to take the risk and go to America. They sold everything, land, tools, and animals; travelled by train to Hamburg Germany and embarked for the new world. They crossed the Atlantic, passed the Statue of Liberty in NY harbor,

Smithsonian Museum - Washington - Artists view of arriving immigrants

... entered through Ellis Island, and discovered their first shock – the rate of exchange for their money was far lower than they expected – so they entered the US with a limited amount of money. They had been in touch with other Bohemians who had found good land in the Midwest – and so first they visited a number of locations before they finally learned through “through the system” that there was good land in NE Kansas and there they travelled. A supportive Moravian, George Heijtmanek sold them a block of farmland, but that required practically the last of their money.

Early home English lesson - in the hand of Julie Zlatnik

So as others had done before them, they set about building a creek bank dug out – first they dug back into the soil to build a living space, lined the dugout walls with logs, added crossbeams and thatch, created a system for rain runoff, and made a simple door for the front. Windows were made of greased paper to allow light but exclude rain. A stovepipe extended through the thatch to carry away smoke from the cooking fire. The land was rich, growing corn and wheat. They added cows and pigs to sell for profit. But for the first years they were desperately poor. They often lived on corn meal and game that they could hunt.

Grandfather Antonine (?) with pig in the early years - this pig is ready for market!

Education was important and the children went to the village school – but at first they had difficulty because they spoke no English – some of the other Bohemian and Moravian students helped them to learn. They went to school without shoes, but feet wrapped in canvas wrap.

Delia Presbyterian Church (English language) replaced the Moravian church (Czech)

The Zlatniks were devout Reformed Moravian church members ... a Czech language church, and quite similar to the beliefs of Presbyterians. Their local area had a community Moravian church that was both the spiritual center and community center for the new immigrants – both Bohemians and Moravians.

Bohemian/Moravian community in the early years -

To greatly add to family difficulty, tragedy struck. Antonine died of water borne disease in the early years. My grandmother Julie and her family of 5 boys and 2 girls continued farming the land and survived with the help and advice of the Czech church community.

The first wooden house -

In a few years they were able to build a simple wood frame house. Progress was slow but living conditions steadily improved.

Inside of the first wooden house

My father Anton was not able to attend high school because of family responsibilities, but was self educated – always reading. When we applied for the position of local mail carrier he had the highest score on general knowledge and was awarded the position. With income both from that job and the farm, the family moved to a larger farm with a small wooden house and a twofloor rammed earth house. They weathered the depression largely living on the produce of their own farm, but selling enough to stay afloat financially.

As the Zlatnik sons and daughters grew older they spread out – one to Nebraska, one to Idaho, and one eventually to Southern California, and two remained in Kansas. Neither of my aunts married – one died while she was in training to work with the immigrant community in Pittsburg, the other continued to live on the family farm with grandmother Julie. From this family have now grown an extensive number of Zlatniks scattered across America!

Grandmother Julie in later years with my sister Helen

By the time I came along my farther and mother had a farm of good rich soil creek-bottom land near to the town of Delia, and also near to the old family home. My father continued as the local mail carrier, which was no small task in NE Kansas where the mud roads turned to chocolate pudding in the spring and the snow drifted high in the winter. I feel great admiration for my family and for the many adversities that they faced to establish a good life in America. I’m sure Antonine and Julie would be quite amazed to see the luxury that we live in today two generations later…