Friday, May 27, 2011

Growing up in the Melting Pot: A First Generation Rusyn American

Presentation by Dr. Andrew Skumanich
WHEN:    TUESDAY, JUNE 21, 2001 
                    at 7:30 PM
WHERE:  Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural Center
                   915 Dickson Street
                   Munhall, PA 15120


Reception with delicious Rusyn/American appetizers will follow the lecture. 

Andy Skumanich
It is no secret that the Carpatho-Rusyn Society was founded by the grandchildren of Rusyn immigrants.  In fact, only one founding member was actually born in the homeland. So what made the second generation of Rusyns different from their parents?  Why is it that the first generation tried to distance itself from their identity while their children are emotionally drawn to it?

Many times we’ve talked about this marked difference but never really addressed it.   For the present generation, the term “hunky” can be used affectionately.  Yet, for the first generation it has been a very painful reminder of the derogatory terms applied to them while growing up.   

Andy Skumanich, his wife Mary, and children Andrew and Marina

We have never given due credit to the first generation nor have we tried especially to understand their dilemma:  How to grow up in a household with old world outlooks, language, customs, traditions, and then walk outside and into the American way of life.  This new life was very different from the one they experienced at home.  In school and on the streets they often heard accents ridiculed and noticed that their parents were different from most of their classmates’ families.  They experienced the vivid and sometimes harrowing contrast between the old world they had never seen and the place where they had been born. 

Dr. Andrew Skumanich, a first generation American Rusyn, will shed light on his formative years and how he grew with them.  He’ll reminisce about coming of age in an emigrant community, the American environment of the 1930s and forties, and how he adapted to both. His contemporaries helped build the American industrial giant, win a world war, and create the most prosperous republic in history.  Yet, there is danger in trying to cram them all into a preconceived template.  In short, they accomplished things most of us never imagined. They were part of what has been called without exaggeration “the greatest generation.”  Dr. Skumanich offers his insights as a heart felt tribute to his generation of American Rusyns.

Dr. Andrew Skumanich is the eldest son of Petro and Maria Scripova.  His parents came from Pčoline (father) and Čukalovce (mother), present day Slovakia.  His father came to America in 1921 after escaping being a prisoner of war in present day Ukraine.  His wife followed him in 1928.   Andy was born a year later.  He was raised in a traditional Rusyn culture.  His father had studied for the priesthood (Uniate) so Andy and his younger brother Vasil were raised in a religious environment.  As there was no Uniate church at that time in Wilkes-Barre Township (Blackman’s Patch) the family attended a Russian Orthodox Church.   Andy was an altar boy and was expected to become a priest.  His dad received mining papers and worked as a miner in the local Anthracite mine.  His mother was a housewife but to supplement their income she worked as a cleaning lady at the local school or kept boarders.   The father was able to assimilate but his mother never did.  She learned only rudimentary English and often Andy was her translator.  Their friends were mostly people from their village.  His first language was Rusyn and only when he entered first grade in 1935 did he learn proper English.   Nevertheless, Andy excelled in his studies.   When he was 17 years old his father died of lung hemorrhage secondary to Black Lung Disease and weak lungs resulting from being exposed to mustard gas in WWI.  
Daughter Nonna, C-RS Board Member

When Andy saw the kind of life his dad had to live, covered in black dust and working underground he vowed not to do the same.
Early on he developed an interest in Astronomy. As an undergraduate he met another first generation Rusyn who was also studying Physics and Astronomy. Through him he met his future wife Mary who happened to be his friend’s cousin.  She too was a first generation Rusyn whose parents came from Galicia, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For his PhD degree he applied to and was accepted at Princeton University.

Andy found that his Rusyn home culture never left him while his interests in things Slavic broadened.  He learned Russian as well as German for his PhD degree. He translated Russian physics journals.   He found that working in Astrophysics led to another melting pot, as most scientific communities are a mix of different cultures. 

His work took him to Boulder, Colorado where he and his family were still able to keep some Rusyn traditions.  Dr. Skumanich has passed his pride in being Rusyn on to his daughter Nonna, who is recording secretary of the C-RS.  

Written by:  Maryann Sivak (



Michael Decerbo said...

Sounds like this might really help us younger folks understand the older generation a little better. Wish I could be there! I hope someone films it and posts it to YouTube (hint, hint...!)

Norine V. Rathbone said...

My family is from the Bereg Region known as Zakarpattia Oblast. My grandmother and great grandfather and their family are from Munkacs-Varkulsca Hungary which is now known as Kliucharky Ukraine in the SubCarpathian Mountains.

Growing up my cousins and I are the generation to be assimilated as Americans not being taught to speak Hungarian and Rusyn that our mothers spoke to their mothers. Our grandmothers were two sisters who married two Serbian fathers. We always thought we were just Serbian.

It wasn't until I found a 1914 document my mother left me. It was in Hungarian because of the Austria-Hungary time period where Ruthenians were forced to learn the Magyar language which many refused. It was a bill of sale for part of a house and named my great grandfather and my grandmother as the buyers. It is a huge piece of our Rusyn puzzle as to where we came from in the Zakarpattia Oblast region.

After my grandmother and her two sisters came here for a better life, the girls never talked about their past but left us grandkids clues which we have been putting together for years. I never knew one of the sisters only finding out a few weeks ago about my Aunt Maria.

We grandkids bugged our mothers to no avail. They just told us bits and pieces. The 1914 document turned out to be the huge missing piece that now led us to to the rest of the puzzle. We suspected we were Rusyn on our mothers' side. I followed my newfound clues and on the 1920 US Census my grandmother confessed to being a Rusyn and the census taker wrote "Ruthenian" on it. We now have the proof from 1914 confirming our original hometown and my grandmother stating she was indeed a Ruthenian was the ultimate proof to their homeland.

Only a Ruthenian, Rusyn, would know who they were. I am so proud to be a Rusyn now. A direct descendant all the way back to the exact village.

It is good to know who you are and where you come from. More so. I am now apart of the Carpatho-Rusyn history.

Norine V. Rathbone