Earlier immigrants reshaped the region, then blended in

Second in an occasional series



Donald Warhola knows his family is an exception.

Not only are he and his brothers the nephews of an international icon, Pittsburgh-born artist Andy Warhol, but they are unusual in having kept the traditions of their Carpatho-Rusyn and Slovak ancestors - a practice that is increasingly rare among the third-generation descendants of the region's earlier immigrants.

Donald's brother Mark, 54, met his wife Betty in a Byzantine Catholic church in California - the ancestral faith in which the family continues today. Donald, 50, and his oldest brother, Jeffrey, 57, married two sisters from the Czech Republic, Jarka and Vladmira Ptackova, and Donald and Jarka's son Andrew, 8, speaks both Czech and English.

"From my parents, it was always an emphasis to stick with your ethnic heritage as much as possible," Donald said. "I talk to other people, and I'll ask what is your ethnic heritage, and some people don't even know."

The Warhola brothers' grandparents, Andrej and Julia, were part of an immigrant wave that reshaped Pittsburgh and America.

Between 1880 and 1910, 17.7 million immigrants poured into America, largely from southern and eastern Europe. By 1910, Pittsburgh had become the eighth largest city in the United States, and 26 percent of its population was foreign-born.

While Pittsburghers like to think of themselves as a unique city of immigrants, it was actually just one of many major urban centers that were transformed by people from other countries, historians say.

About this series

Over the next several months, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will take a close look at the people who have come to the region from foreign nations and settled here.

On average, they are a highly educated group, and local leaders eagerly hope to draw more of these skilled newcomers.

In June, the Post-Gazette will launch a parallel project, "Odysseys," in which we plan to showcase one person living here from each of the United Nations' 193 member states.

In that 1910 census, for instance, 23 of the 50 largest American cities had a higher proportion of foreign-born residents than Pittsburgh, topped by New York and the textile mill centers of Lowell and Fall River, Mass., all with more than 40 percent foreign-born.

"The popular image is we're this great ethnic city, particularly strong because of our hills and valleys," said Ted Muller, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh. "Are we saying Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo and Milwaukee were less ethnic? No, they weren't. We were just a mainstream city in that respect."

Donna Gabaccia, a historian at the University of Minnesota who once taught at Pitt, said Pittsburgh was very similar in its immigration patterns to Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo, N.Y. "If Pittsburgh differs from the other three cities, it's because it had somewhat smaller migrations from Italy and somewhat larger immigration from eastern Europe: lots of Poles, Slovaks and people from the Balkans."

The Warhola story

The Warhola family is part of that saga. Andrej Warhola - it was spelled Varchola in Europe - immigrated from the village of Mikova in Slovakia in 1912 to work in construction. He was Carpatho-Rusyn, a Slavic group living near the Carpathian Mountains in Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. He settled in Pittsburgh, and saved for several years to bring over his wife, the former Julia Zavacka, in 1921.

They had three sons, Paul, John and Andy, the youngest.

While Andy Warhol is often portrayed as an iconoclast who created himself as a blank slate without a past, Donald Warhola said there were actually two Andy Warhols.

Courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

In this photo from the late 1940s taken at his family home in Oakland, Andy Warhol (fourth from left) shares porch space with, from left, his aunt, Eva Bezeck; his mother, Julia Warhola; his brother, John; and his oldest brother, Paul, who is holding his children, Paul Jr. and Eva.    

"I think Uncle Andy created this Andy Warhol persona that he sold to the public. He wanted to be mysterious, and I don't think he wanted to be judged as a person, so he created Andy Warhol.

"But when we visited him, that was a different Andy, that was Andy Warhola, and his heritage was important to him. If relatives got married, he would always ask, 'Are they Slovak?' "

When the Warhola family came to Pittsburgh, America had a much different set of laws governing immigration. There were no quotas based on nationality or ethnicity at the time, except for the Chinese, who were largely excluded from immigrating after 1882.

The immigrant flood from Europe in that era was led by young workers, Ms. Gabaccia said, and "if you were a healthy non-English speaking man and looked like you could work, then there was no reason to scrutinize you further and you could just enter the country legally."

In 1885, Congress passed the Foran Act, which prohibited contract workers from entering the country, but she said there is no evidence that U.S. officials ever enforced the law. And while Congress repeatedly passed laws in the late 1800s requiring new immigrants to be able to read and write in their own languages, presidents in that era vetoed them, "in large part because it was insulting to immigrants and the allies of the United States," she said.

Facing discrimination

If immigrants from southern and eastern Europe initially faced far fewer legal restrictions than today's newcomers, that doesn't mean they were welcomed with open arms.

They were looked down on and described in the same pejorative terms as the Irish had been 30 years earlier.

When the Irish arrived in the mid-1800s, Mr. Muller said, "they were described in racial terms. 'They aren't like us.' It was bald as could be. By the early 1900s, the Irish were considered fine. But now, we have these 'inferior breeds' coming from eastern Europe, the hunkys and the wops."

That eventually led to a major clampdown on immigration from Europe between the two world wars, Ms. Gabaccia said, and "the starting place to understand the rise in restriction in the United States is to realize these immigrants were not welcomed. They were seen as racially and culturally inferior."

In 1917, the U.S. enacted a literacy requirement for most new immigrants. And in 1920 and 1921, it established quotas saying that immigration from any nation would be limited to its proportion of the U.S. population in 1890. Because that was before the biggest wave of immigration from eastern and southern Europe, it sharply constricted new migrants from those regions.

Ironically in light of today's debates, the new laws put no quotas on the Americas, meaning that Mexicans and other Hispanics could flow into the United States without restriction.

There was one other factor that drove the conservative backlash against immigration: the Russian revolution and the rise of communism and Bolshevism.

"There was a very intense hatred of Bolsheviks and anarchists among many Americans," Ms. Gabaccia said, "and there was the idea that you only found these movements in these [eastern and southern European] groups." There also was the fear that the newcomers would have more children than "real Americans," she said.

When he teaches students about this era, Mr. Muller said, he often cites an Edgar Guest poem to show how the Irish had become mainstream, and how the fear of communism permeated attitudes toward the newer immigrants.

The poem says, in part:

Said Dan McGann to a foreign man who worked at the selfsame bench

'Let me tell you this,' and for emphasis he flourished a Stilson wrench;

PG graphic: Pittsburgh, U.S. foreign-born
(Click image for larger version)

'Don't talk to me of the bourjoissee, don't open your mouth to speak

Of your socialists or your anarchists, don't mention the bolsheveek,

For I've had enough of this foreign stuff, I'm sick as a man can be

Of the speech of hate, and I'm tellin' you straight that this is the land for me!

The great assimilation

The quotas, combined with the Depression and the disruption of World War II, meant that immigration to America declined for the next several decades.

One effect, Mr. Muller said, was that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the big immigrant wave assimilated and became "American" even faster than they might have if immigrants from their regions had continued to arrive.

Even more important, he said, three other policies gave a big push to assimilation of Italian-Americans, Slovak-Americans and others from that part of Europe: affordable housing, education and union wages.

After World War II, new federal housing policies made it possible for returning GIs and others to get long-term mortgages and move to growing suburbs, Mr. Muller said. The GI Bill brought the benefits of college and technical education, and union agreements in major industries boosted incomes for the middle class.

Descendants of immigrants who had once stuck to urban enclaves like Troy Hill or Lawrenceville or Braddock suddenly began to buy homes in the new "blue collar" suburbs of Penn Hills and West Mifflin and White Oak, he said, joining the ranks of the English, Irish and German descendants who had come before them.

By the 1950s, he said, it also was becoming common for people to marry across ethnic boundaries within their own Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths.

All of this weakened the old ethnic traditions and practices their families had once had, he said, even if they surfaced again during holidays and big family gatherings.

But not so much in the Warhola family, Donald and his brothers said.

On a day when Andrew Warhola had just celebrated his first holy communion at St. Andrew the Apostle Byzantine Catholic Church in West Deer, which gives its allegiance to the pope but follows an Orthodox style of worship, his uncle Jeffrey summed it up this way:

"I know my parents and their parents would be happy I kept up with these traditions. Sure, a Roman Catholic church is more convenient for me, but I drive 25 miles to go to a Byzantine church."

Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1130 or on Twitter @markomar.


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