by Femigration Staff Writer

Her name was Janja. A difficult name to pronounce just by looking at it, unless you are Serbian or Croatian or know any Eastern European language in which the letter J is pronounced like a Y and the letter A is always soft like “ahhh.” Emphasis is on the first syllable: Yaahhhhnn-yah.

She was born in May of 1876 in a small village in the Kordun area of what most people know as the former Yugoslavia. The region includes Vrginmost and belonged to the Hapsburg Military Frontier, a borderland to the Hapsburg Monarchy. In exchange for land-grants, religious freedom and favorable tax rates, the area was colonized and served as the bulwark against Ottoman incursions.

She married in her twenties and the couple was later blessed with a healthy baby girl. Harsh winters, sparse living quarters, meager crops and no means to make a living forced Janja and her husband to consider alternatives. It was decided they would go to America, land of opportunity, where other Serbs had preceded them and reportedly were living well.

With little money, he set out alone, leaving her and the baby with family. The plan was he would find a place to live, secure a job with sufficient income, then send the money Janja would need to join him. The prospects were exciting.

It was difficult to separate from her husband, but she was determined and willing to make the sacrifices required to help create a better life for all of them. After all, she would be with family while she waited. And, so he set out on his journey alone. She cried as she hugged him for what she feared could be the last time. She clung to her baby girl when they separated. The year was 1904.

Months after he had left her, he found someone who would write letters to her which he dictated. The letters assured her that he was working and saving. She had to find someone to read the letters. Neither of them was literate. She would cry when there were no letters, and she would cry when letters arrived.

It was 18 months before her husband put together enough money for Janja’s fare. Although the baby was just over two years old at the time, and most likely would not have cost additional fare money, he instructed her to come alone. “Come to America by yourself. We will send for the baby later,” he told her. He needed Janja’s freedom from childcare in order to cook and clean and wash clothes for other men with whom they would share their living quarters. It was not quite a boarding house, but simply a large house that he was renting. He entered into arrangements with men who needed sleeping rooms and a place to wash, fellow coal miners. So, she left the baby with her mother and sister. As difficult as it was to leave the little one behind, she was comforted that she was not taking this fragile little girl into the great unknown.

Her journey took her from Europe to America, entering through New York. Somehow she managed to communicate her final destination and was put on a train. She was finally reunited with her husband at the train station in 1906. They rode a wagon and walked the final miles to the house near Coal City, Illinois.

They worked hard together, he in the mines and she in the house. They had three or four men living with them. She washed their clothes by hand, kept their beds clean, cooked for them. They worked in 12-hours shifts, some sharing the same bed depending on the shift. When there was no meal on the table, there had to be things available to eat – pickles, hard boiled eggs, smoked meats. At times she wanted to switch places with her husband and go into the mine. At least her day would have a beginning and an end. Her work was never done.

By January 1907, another baby was born. Janja laid down on a bed on the back porch and gave birth. She cleaned the baby and tied her umbilical cord, washed herself and went back into the kitchen. The baby was wrapped tightly in a muslin cloth and gently laid in an open bureau drawer which Janja had lined with soft blanketing. She carried on with her duties, and nursed the baby whenever she cried. Several of the men didn’t notice the newcomer for days. Thankfully she was a good baby.

Just as things were beginning to fall into a comfortable rhythm, the mines were beginning to slow production. Her husband said the clock was ticking and it wouldn’t be long before his mine would be tapped out. His dire prediction meant that they would not only lose his meager income, but they would lose their tenants and the income from their rents. He explained this to Janja to justify his reasons for leaving her again. He would leave her with the same promise: “I will find a place to work and live and send for you.” And there she was, alone again, only now with a baby and no family to talk to or to help, in a strange country whose language she had not learned.

He left. Within a few short weeks, each of the tenants left one by one as rumors of mines closing in Illinois circulated among the workers, as did word of employment opportunities in West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania. He paid the rent in advance for six months. He left her some money for food.

It may have been four months, maybe it was six. She didn’t really know. The days were the same. The baby would cry and she would nurse her. Her own hunger was satisfied with nibbles of food. Winter arrived. January was the coldest month. The porch bed was moved to the kitchen where the stove would provide warmth. The rest of the house was not in use. When she ran out of wood for the stove, she selected old wooden chairs and began breaking them up to throw on the fire. It was bleak. Then he came to get her.

He traveled back to Illinois to get his wife and baby and, as much as she had hated him at times for leaving her a second time, she fell into his arms with gratitude. They quickly put together the few items she had and the little bit of smoked meat that remained, and they boarded a train for Pittsburgh.

The place where they settled was called Crow’s Nest, after the mine. It was in the Greensburg area outside of Pittsburgh. The house was white clapboard on a hill, two stories high plus a walk-up attic and a basement with a dirt floor. The mine was working well. Plenty of immigrants were arriving daily, all of whom needed a place to sleep and wash and eat. Soon the house was full and Janja returned to her boarding house routines. Several miscarriages in between, another baby girl came along in 1916, then another in 1918. The first was healthy and joined her older sister in play on the kitchen floor as Janja moved around between wash basins and soup pots. The youngest was sickly and would only live for 20 months.

Acceptance into American society was not a consideration or a concern. Her entire life revolved around her family and her duties, all of which could have been in a village in the old country. She never learned to speak English, she never spoke to English-speaking people. Her husband and the boarders learned enough English to get by in the mines, pay the bills, ask questions of some other person who had a better grasp of both languages. They were all too busy doing what they needed to do. They became American citizens despite the language challenges. It was a source of great pride to pledge allegiance to their new country that was giving them a chance.

Life returned to its rhythmic cycle. Prepare the food, clean the clothes, wash the bed linens, feed the men and children, sleep if there is time. On Sunday, the men were on their own it was understood. Janja would dress her children in their simple cotton clothes and cloth coats, brush their hair to a shine and clip it back out of their eyes. They would take a trolley to church. There she could speak with other women in her native and only language, interact with people who shared similar backgrounds and current circumstances, watch her children’s joy as they played with other children. In late 1919 she gave birth to a fat and healthy baby boy. Finally, a boy. Her husband celebrated with liquor.

Four years later one more daughter would be born healthy. Enough mouths to feed, she thought. They had bought the house and there was plenty of food. Now on to saving so they could send for their first daughter who had been left behind. Of her, they knew very little. Only that she was healthy albeit very short. Janja’s mother had died, but her daughter was happily living in the village with her aunt. She was now around 20 years old. Over the years many letters had been exchanged, but no photographs. A camera was an unaffordable luxury, certainly in the village; and in Crow’s Nest a camera would have been considered a lavish expenditure. Janja felt disconnected from that life and from those she had left behind. It had been too many years, too many traumatic experiences in between.

In the meantime, her husband had become a stranger to her as well. Twelve hours a day, six days a week he was in the coal mine. When his shift was over, there was a tavern between the mine entrance and the house where he would stop for a drink.  More often than not, Janja would be sitting on the porch, knitting or darning and watching the children play in the dirt, as she would spot him coming up the hill, stumbling, singing, whistling. It was a scene often repeated throughout Westmoreland County. Many men in the mines suffered a miserable existence and liquor allowed them to escape those feelings of slavery.

Janja grew to despise liquor in any form. Her husband was never mean to her, but he offered little in the form of companionship. Furthermore, she viewed the money spent in the tavern as unnecessary waste which would delay getting ticket money together for her dream that their oldest daughter would join them.

She began to view her first born in a different light. At first she was the baby she cuddled from whom she was separated so many years ago. Now she was surely a woman, and that could mean an extra hand to help with the boarders. She visualized her daughter’s journey as one that would be easier than her own. She would come to join her parents and meet her brother and sisters and help in their care and enjoy their time together as well. Which is why Janja was crushed when they finally sent word to the village that they could pay for her ticket.

And she didn’t want to come.

She was, after all, a young woman now. She had spent her entire life within that village community. There was no war going on. Food was fresh and plentiful as it was home-grown and home-raised. Her aunt, who had raised her like her own child, was too dear to her to leave permanently. She was frightened to make the long journey alone. And what was there for her? She didn’t even know her American family, they were strangers. No, she would not go to stay. She would visit, but she wanted to return home, and home for her was the one Janja had left behind.

With this news, Janja and her husband abandoned the idea of ever seeing their first-born again. Round trip travel, at the time, was twice as expensive as one-way. Third class and steerage were all that were affordable, and a one-way ticket was nearly six weeks’ pay, making it impossible to consider doubling it. The subject was dropped, but the letters continued.

Janja eased back as best she could into her life. With no likelihood of ever seeing her first-born baby, she dismissed thoughts of her previous life and fell into her familiar rhythm. Her oldest American-born daughter, now 16, married and moved to another house. Janja’s helper was gone, but it was one less mouth to feed and one more bed to rent out. There was enough food, there was warmth in the winter, there was a social life at church and her husband was consuming less and less liquor given that his stomach was often queasy. It became a comfortable setting. The children were a joy and a help. It was getting better, or at least more tolerable.

Soon came the quiet years. Her children were marrying, one moved away, the others stayed nearby. Her husband died; one unmarried daughter remained at home with her. The two of them let the boarders go and moved to a smaller place, big enough just for them, comfortable. Janja planted a garden on the hillside and it was full of food and flowers. Her family grew to include grandchildren who would visit her often, grandchildren who never knew the younger Janja, never knew what she had endured. To them she was the jolly, round, large-breasted woman with the silver hair pulled back in a bun who always seemed to be sitting in a chair doing some delicate handiwork. She made rugs out of rags, she made doilies, she repaired socks.  

Janja’s children continued to correspond with their oldest sister. They sent her money and goods and the expression of hope that one day they would all meet. But, none of them ever got that chance. She died before any of them traveled to Europe. To each of them she remains a precious picture that was finally sent. They never heard her voice or touched her warmth.

The length and breadth of Janja’s sacrifices, her story of endurance, resilience and strength were eventually told to her youngest granddaughter by her youngest daughter, but by then Janja, too, was gone. She went to bed one night, four days before her 80th birthday, and she simply did not get up. It was a peaceful exit from a life that had been anything but peaceful. Janja’s gift to the generations that followed her lies in both the brilliance and humility her story inspires.

Janja did as much as her husband to provide that coveted better life for the family. She slaved outside the mines, and pushed her children to a new level, teaching them all the time to push their children even higher. That upward climb continues to this day, five generations later, in a family the size of which she could not have imagined.

She was a silent treasure.

Blog Note: Janja was a real person and these events actually took place. You may have known her, and you may know her family. Her story of struggle, triumph and love is told by her granddaughter who chose to keep their identities anonymous. She said it is to avoid the possibility of offending any of Janja’s other descendants. “I feel very proud to come from such sturdy stock. In meeting my own life’s challenges and adventures, I have always pulled from the strength of my grandmother, remembering her story. She was clearly a remarkable person. But I do realize that some people are not keen to reveal their humble background and others are simply private. For those reasons I think it’s best to protect her identity. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to simply have her story shared here. Thank you.”

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