Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bohunk Names in a New Jersey Graveyard

During a recent visit to Rockaway, New Jersey, I was wandering around town and I came across a graveyard. This graveyard was chock full of Bohunk names. I tried to find out how these Bohunks made their way to Rockaway.

This isn't easy to confess: I find the lure of cemeteries impossible to resist.

No, I don't wear black fingernail polish, and I don't perform misguided rituals that exploit innocent and unsuspecting cats.

I love graveyards at least partly because I love names. Rows of tombstones are treasure troves of names: Salvatore Pagnano, Casimir Budzinski, Clementine Butternut. These names encapsulate discreet worlds. Salvatore and Casimir were both Catholic but I bet they never said more than a few words to each other. John Guzlowski, who married an Italian, said that Italians are wine; Poles are vodka. And Clementine? How did she get in there?

The birth and death dates – did he witness World War One? What's it like to die at five years old? Why did they give an infant who lived only a few days a name? Did the name change how they mourned her? The chosen identifications: mother, daughter, soldier, believer.

With inspiration on every tombstone, how can you resist animating deftly-plotted stories, peopling richly populated histories?

There is a Paterson, New Jersey graveyard that is the final resting place of Jews whose ancestors came from Lodz, Poland. Five tombstones in a row there proceed from the surname "Arnowitz" to "Arnold." That nominal journey is a saga in itself, pregnant with nuance, drama, economics, religion, maybe even some tears.

I also love the trees, the birds, the hush to be encountered in graveyards, even in the midst of bustling cities.

But I really love graveyards for this reason: their tenants have done it all. No matter what else you say about their lives, you must grant them this: they succeeded. They ran the course from birth to death. They know more than we can know, till we stop being who we are, and join them. Why not pause to shoot the breeze with such an experienced crew?

So, during a recent visit to Rockaway, I could not resist this graveyard, tucked away on a small, wooded hill. The avenue in front of the graveyard was quite busy, but no one walked among the tombstones just a few feet from the road.

Rockaway is a perfect little town. It is cute and attractive and neat. There's money. I think it might be called a "bedroom community."

Rockaway. source

Rockaway is very different from where I live. I live in one of New Jersey's notorious slums.

Because New Jersey is so small and so densely populated, our slums can be steps away from wealth. Recently someone was shot to death right outside my front door. On my daily commute I pass people who, year after year, spend all day on the street, people who haven't so much given up as never even had a clue as to how to try, and I walk, in just a few steps, over a town border and past a ritzy restaurant that is featured on the reality TV show "The Real Housewives of New Jersey."

In a few steps, I proceed from sidewalks where everyone I pass is black, to sidewalks where I pass no one, because all the white people here have cars, and they do not walk, and they do not spend their days inhabiting streets, porches, and sidewalks.

Whenever I visit perfect little New Jersey towns like Rockaway, the thought occurs to me: when will the have-nots rise up like a tsunami and invade, smashing and taking and evening the score?

As part of my work, I visit elementary schools. Little kids who attend the slum school less than a mile from my apartment walk past piles of garbage, abandoned buildings, and encampments of homeless men to get to class. Their school library is empty and locked. Their windows are scored with wire. The state comes in frequently and shakes things up; the students can't even relax into the slim comfort of routine.

When will these tots rise up in a Children's Crusade?

Some say Nature, Darwin, Evolution, rightly locates us losers in the slum, and the winners in the cute, neat, moneyed towns with so much stuff they choke on it.

But Nature also dictates homeostasis: where's there's more of something, it moves toward where there is less of something.

Mind: I'm not saying that that should happen. I really don't think that it should. I'm just wondering when it will happen, or, rather, why it does not happen. The glass walls of some of the finer homes make such a semi-permeable membrane.

Wait – I do have a point. I'm not just ranting about class.

I know exactly whom I will pass on the sidewalk, buy from, chat with, ask directions from, see on gravestones, here in my slum: African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and Bohunks, in that order. I shop at a miraculous produce store, Corrado's. Corrado's is always crowded. You hear many different languages from the shoppers: first Spanish, then Arabic or Turkish, then Polish; shoppers buying yucca, plantains, halvah, tahini, halal, makowiec, and kiszka.

I know everybody's story. We all do. Everyone in New Jersey knows the significance of a last name, of a shade of skin, of an address.

Jews and Italians arrived over one hundred years ago and worked textiles: thus the Paterson cemetery for Jews from Lodz. Lodz was a textile manufacturing center in Poland; Paterson was a textile manufacturing center in the US. Italians and Jews made their money and left Paterson, but if you look high up on older buildings, you can still see their names carved into many an antique facade.

The mills closed. Blacks came up from the south and were assigned to government housing and government cheese and now constitute the bulk of the underclass, a bulk that expert engineers operating government-approved levers cannot budge. Hispanics and Muslims are still arriving and have created enclaves, often clashing ones. On one street in Paterson, there is one business named "Andalus." "Andalus" is a Muslim irredentist name for Spain. Another business on that same street is named "Matamoros," after St. James, who gained fame killing Muslims during the Reconquista in Spain. And on that same street there is an Hispanic, Christian Synagogue. Don't even ask – it's a long story!

Paterson's Bohunks are much smaller in number and don't call attention to themselves. The parents clean offices, do construction, work as guards and in what factories are left; the kids attend state schools and keep a low profile. I wasn't even aware of Paterson's Serbs until recently.

Everybody knows what ethnicities, what last names, to expect in cute and perfect little towns like Rockaway. One does not expect congregations of Bohunk names.

The New Jersey joke map located New Jersey's "Russians and Polacks" with "toxic fumes." With very good reason. When Bohunks, Eastern Europeans of Christian, peasant ancestry, arrived in this country in large numbers,c. 1880-1924, they were shunted by overwhelming forces into dirty, unsafe, industrial labor: coal, steel, petroleum, slaughterhouses. Thus you have "Out of this Furnace," Thomas Bell's book about Slovaks in steel, "The Jungle" about Lithuanians in slaughterhouses, and "The Deer Hunter" about Lemkos.

When I'm in towns like Rockaway, I feel the wall of separation between me and the town's residents. When they get sick, they go to a doctor. They take vacations. They do not need to strategize security considerations when walking out their front door; they do not triangulate speed, strength, trajectory, intention, eye contact, when passing a neighbor on the street. We occupy mutually exclusive universes.

So, stepping off the road of expensive cars and women in fluorescent spandex work-out gear power-walking with weights in their hands – they wouldn't last a minute in that gear on my street – and stepping into a cemetery full of Bohunk names knocked me for a loop.

I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote down the names:

Kulawiec, Klocek, Dudys, Novak, Ketcherick, Kocur, Ternosky, Hruska, Kapitulez, Bartek, Petonak, Hornyock, Hriszt…, Mak, Chipko, Knapik, Smehi, Sloskie, Grivalsky, Simuradik, Stefanak, Hritz, Moskal, Sopchak, Vrabel.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to encounter these names in a cemetery in, say, Bayonne, site of Bohunk settlement and petroleum refining. During the 1915-16 Bayonne refinery strikes, Standard Oil's manager announced, "I want to march up East 22nd street through the guts of Polaks."

But this enclave of Bohunk names seemed out of place in Rockaway.

I emailed the list to the Rockaway Township Public Library. Alex Tretiak, a librarian, wrote back.

He introduced me to this record, page six of which announces a meeting by the local Rockaway Slavic Society in November, 1933.

He also informed me of Stuart M. Lefkowitz's "Mining in Northwest New Jersey: An Oral History."Apparently there had been a small mine in Rockaway, one no longer in use. Workers arrived from Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other countries to work the mine. Lefkowitz interviewed descendents of mine workers. 



Lefkowitz focused on the Kovach family, from Czechoslovakia. They lived in a house without electricity or running water. They had an outhouse and the father ran a pipe from a stream into the home. They kept animals; the children sometimes slept in haystacks.

The work was dangerous, of course. The Kovach home was destroyed in an explosion and the family patriarch, Frank Kovach, was killed in a mine accident. Other miners contracted silicosis, or white lung, from particles of silicon in the granite rock.

Overall, though, Lefkowitz's informants reported good relations between mine owners and workers, and a positive environment in town.

"The mine for many years represented an enclosed community of employees and their families who were born, lived, and sometimes died, while a part of this aboveground or underground world…There was reportedly a great deal of camaraderie among the mining community and the community was a very tight-knit one even though the community consisted of many distinct cultures and languages."

In 1944, the International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers unionized the mine. Informants report that John L. Lewis had more interest in his own welfare than in the welfare of the miners.

Eventually, the mine closed.

Lefkowitz's study is online here.

I'm grateful to Stuart M. Lefkowitz for recording the history of the Rockaway miners for me to read, and to librarian Alex Tretiak for introducing me to Lefkowitz's work.


  1. So much history is lost. You seem to have unearthed an interesting bit of the lost narrative here. And, yes, I too find old graveyards fascinating.

    Tradition has it that the daughter of King Canute is buried in the churchyard of one of our local villages, though I have to admit no-one has yet found her.

    It is a village where the tide comes in and you have to be very careful where you park your car - or chariot, in the days of Canute.

  2. I should have added that King Canute may well have a place in this blog, as tradition has it that his mother was Polish.


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