The American story of immigration

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I'm sitting on the front porch of George Danko's Regent Square home, looking at photocopies of old documents as a neighbor's power mower punctuates the point he's making.

The point is his family has come a long way in three generations. His grandfather, also named George, came over at 26 from a Slovak farming village in the summer of 1922, leaving a wife and infant child behind, but promising to send money home.

The Czechoslovakian passport he's showing me indicates the man was supposed to return that autumn. The visit was to see a "sister-in-law," at least in the version he told some bureaucrat over there, but this guy never went back.

Immigrants, then and now, have found creative ways to reach American shores. Once here, they generally found their worries had only begun. This Slovak immigrant would ultimately lose his right leg below the knee in an accident mining coal in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania around Scranton, and it took him 15 years to get his wife and son across the ocean to join him.

Yet, it's a couple of mundane numbers -- the immigrant miner's height and weight -- that has our focus.

His namesake and grandson, Mr. Danko, is a fit 63, but sitting comfortably in a pair of shorts with a stack of papers, he looks more like a retired grade school teacher with an Ivy League doctorate in American Civilization (which he is) than any coal miner.

But according to the Pennsylvania miner's license from 1926, when his grandfather was 30, he stood 5 feet, 6 inches and weighed 142 pounds. That's just an inch and a half shorter and two pounds lighter than his adult grandson.

"This is me in the mines," Mr. Danko said of his ancestral body double. "I can't imagine what he went through."

He's not jut honoring that legacy by researching his family history, he also has been steeping himself in the larger European and American story of the time and getting help from people who know the Slovak terrain more intimately.

Sister Michaela is a member of Sisters of the Divine Redeemer in Elizabeth Township. She became a nun secretly when the communists ruled Czechoslovakia. He was led to her by a Pittsburgh priest and she kindly helped Mr. Danko translate that Republic of Czechoslovakia passport and other documents.

"Stature, Middle; Face, Half-Long; Eyes, Brown; Nose, Normal" -- the penciled notes show these bureaucrats went into some detail. The accompanying photo, with Mr. Danko dressed in traditional garb in a yard with fencing that's nothing but gathered sticks, is telling of the hard times he'd leave behind. Family lore has it that he wasn't a sure bet.

His wife's mother reluctantly paid for her son-in-law's passage to America, not at all sure that he'd ever send money back. Mr. Danko -- the Regent Square Mr. Danko, that is -- knows that because he carefully tape-recorded his grandmother, Mary, back in 1976. She proudly said of her late husband that "of the three men he went with, he was the first to send money."

One has to wonder what he was telling his loved ones in his letters home. None of those letters survived, but there was a strong nativist movement in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. in the 1920s. The Ku Klux Klan burning crosses and holding robed parades in coal country -- that's what passed for a warm welcome to these incoming Catholic foreigners.

Mr. Danko eventually made enough money for his wife and 15-year-old son, Stephen, to join him in Luzerne County, but an eye injury held the boy back. His mother went on ahead and Stephen, who would become a father himself in 1950, would later tell his son that he got out of Czechoslovakia just ahead of the Nazi takeover in 1939.

Obviously, the Danko story exemplifies many hereabouts. "It was on his back that this was possible," says the modern Mr. Danko, a happily married father of four living comfortably some nine decades after his grandfather arrived here.

We talked some about nativist rants against today's "illegals," and how they sometimes come from the descendants of those who arrived here with nothing but similarly nebulous status and a strong back.

More of us might want to research our own family trees. We might not change our minds about immigration reform, but we should be reminded that the more the American story changes, the more it remains the same.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-26-1947.


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