Friday, October 22, 2010

Once upon a time or why Uncle Vasil firebombed the church

This is the first in an occasional series examining some family stories I’ve been told over the years. This is my favorite.

The setting is a Carpathian mountain village known today as Berezovo in the Ukraine. The time frame is in the early 20th century, most likely shortly before World War I.
My great-uncle Vasil was the eldest of my great-grandparents’ eleven children and the father of ten himself. His mother, Maria Tegze, had the money in the family. She was tightfisted with her children, but generous to the priest in Berezovo.
Vasil was married with a growing family while his youngest brothers and sisters were still at home. He went to his mother and complained that his younger brother Mikula didn't even have shoes that fit and that his own children were growing rapidly. She was giving too much to the Church when her own family needed help.
When Maria sent him packing he went to the priest to complain. The priest, not surprisingly, felt his mother was perfectly entitled to give him money, and didn't seem too concerned about the shoes. Vasil came back later, firebombed the church, and the priest left town - quickly. No one knew whether the children got new shoes.
Where to begin? First, let me say that I believe the basic elements of the story are true. I didn’t always, but I do now.

The story was told to us with considerable relish in 1992 by Vasil’s grandchildren during a visit to Slovakia and the Ukraine. Four of his children were still alive. The story of Vasil and the church was part of their family lore.

It absolutely was not part of ours. My grandfather Stephen, one of Vasil's younger brothers, died more than a decade before I was born, so all I know of his family is filtered through the stories my father and aunt told me. According to my father, my great-grandfather Ivan was a carousing alcoholic ne’er-do-well. Stephen despised him and was determined to be nothing like him. He told his children the family was well off, owned land, but that everything came from his mother’s family and that she managed the farm. He had been sent off to school, the tuition paid by his maternal grandmother. His mother’s brother, Fr. Victor Thegze (Tegze) was a priest. He had come to America years earlier. 

The sense I had of Maria was a long-suffering, devout woman working hard to raise her children despite her husband and making sure her son had as many opportunities available to him as possible. While never said explicitly it seemed to me that my grandfather revered his mother.

Vasil’s family had another image of Ivan and Maria. They spoke of Vasil and Ivan going off together for days to visit other villages, of Maria as stingy and dour. They portrayed the men as carefree guys out for a good time and Maria as a killjoy. There was a glee in the idea that Vasil had routed the priest, a sense of him as the protector of his family.

I had trouble believing this was true. It seemed so foreign from the family I knew – and I use that word deliberately. I could imagine Maria supporting the church; I couldn’t imagine her letting her children go unshod. I couldn’t imagine my devout grandfather attacking his church. My own father flirted briefly with idea of becoming a priest; another cousin had. It seemed impossible that anyone in the family would do such a thing.

But as I thought about the trip, the people we had met, their lives and our lives, the stories made sense. My father’s family is the prototypical immigrant family. Ellis Island, hard work, education, better lives for the children and grandchildren – the whole shebang. The stories I heard about our family reflected that experience.

Our cousins in Europe had a very different 20th century. Wars, Stalin and the domination of the Soviet Union took their toll. The stories they told emphasized family loyalty, cunning and a lack of respect for authority. Looked at from those perspectives the different family stories made complete sense.

Even so, my sympathies rested with my great-grandmother Maria Tegze. Boys being boys doesn’t cut it when there are fields to be tended and children to be reared. My grandfather’s view of his father rang true. I decided the story was interesting, but probably exaggerated.

Until I read this.
The wife of Géza Thegze, a priest in Vyshni Bystryi (Felsöbisztra), was attacked with a knife, and their house set on fire by unknown arsonists four times![1]
This was written in 1939 and refers to events before 1901 in a village a little more than thirty miles by road from Berezovo. (The book was translated and published in the United States in 1990.) The author was describing a time of increased economic distress and growing turmoil in the region. Suddenly the fish tale of Uncle Vasil firebombing the church seemed more plausible. If there were other episodes of anticlerical violence then Vasil's actions, though outrageous from my modern American standards, were not unique. He, used to wandering the region with his father, would have known of this other attack. I also had no evidence of my family exaggerating any other stories or information. Indeed, there were  instances of a public story and the more truthful, family version.

So I’ve set aside my sympathies and adopted the story as a way of expressing my family’s survival instincts. My squabbles with bureaucracies and life's petty annoyances do not compare in any way to my cousins' very real suffering at the hands of the Soviet Union. Still, Uncle Vasil has crossed my mind more than once when dealing with AT&T.  And it's just such a good story.

One more thing – one of Uncle Vasil’s sons, Stefan, became a well known scholar and priest.

[1] Alexander Bonkáló (The Rusyns. Fairview, N.J.: [Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center], 1990), p. 136.

Submitted to the 99th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy.


  1. You have such great family lore! Again, really enjoyed this post! Had me hanging on every word of your logic and explanation!

  2. Great story. It's funny how our perspective on old family stories can change.

  3. Great story. I've been tied up this week and am really behind on blog reading so am quickly skimming though many of them and not really reading everything but your titled grabbed me. And I'm glad it did.

  4. I too am getting caught up on my reading after a rather chaotic week.

    Such an interesting post on so many levels. I think your theory on the immigrant experience versus the experience of the family living under Stanlinist oppression may be right on. The most important lesson I've learned doing genealogy is that most people do the best they can given their life circumstances. Some people are able to rise above their difficult circumstances, while others don't do well at all. When you follow the chain of events in an individual's life and in the lives of their parents and grandparents, most people do the best they can given their lot in life. Also, some of us are just plain luckier than others. I think that has helped me to be more forgiving of people and their actions, by looking at the big picture.

    Thanks for such a thought provoking post.

  5. And, congrats on being the featured column in the 99th COG!!! WAHHOOOOO

  6. Your family has awesome survival traits!

  7. Congratulations on being the feature for the 99th COG. I truly enjoyed your article!

  8. What a great story! I always feel that when a family story has lasted for so many years, there must have at least been a kernel of truth to it.

  9. What a great story, and congratulations on being chosen as the feature article! It's not always easy to determine the truth of the family tales, and yours is very intereting!

  10. Great post. Family lore is always tricky, what is true and what isn't is not always clear and most of the time you can't find out for sure.

  11. What a fantastic reflection on the way that stories emerge from a context.

    (She what?! She didn't provide shoes for her own son?!
    He what?! He firebombed a church?!)

    The elements of the story make sense once you account for the life conditions and context of the people who told the story.

    Thank you for telling both the story and the context. The story is much, much richer for the contrast of life experiences of the American immigrant versus war, Stalin, and Soviet regime.


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