Michelle Ann Kratts

Archive for the ‘Coming to America’ Category

Stories from Niagara’s rich ethnic past told in “Melting Pot”

In Coming to America, Irish Americans, Niagara County, Niagara Falls, Polish Genealogy, Recipes, The African Americans of Niagara Falls, The Armenians of Niagara Falls, The Italians of Niagara Falls, New York, The Polish of Niagara Falls, Tradtional Ethnic Costumes, Uncategorized on July 18, 2017 at 7:32 pm

Melting Pot; Niagara’s rich ethnic heritage

By Michelle Ann Kratts, Lewiston Public Library

BookCoverPreview (2)

I will always see Niagara Falls as a delicious melting pot of cultures, languages and traditions. In fact, just last summer, I found myself at an international crossroads while sitting on a bench at the State Park. It seemed the world passed me by as I snacked on an ice cream cone. Women strolled by wearing colorful Indian saris or Middle Eastern hijabs. Men presented themselves with Hasidic tendrils or donning Sikh turbans. My ears discerned voices speaking every manner of language imaginable. I could even smell the traditional spices of the world’s cuisines mix and mash with the rising mist as these men and women marveled at the brink of the great cataract.  Some things never change.

Niagara Falls is a great American story. Throughout the years we have nurtured a sacred tradition in which we have welcomed and embraced people from every corner of the world. Our history includes the stories of brave refugees of war, genocide and famine. So many came to Niagara Falls to make a new start. At the dawn of the past century and for many decades afterwards, the factories and the railroads brought in thousands of much-needed workers and their families. They came from the cotton fields of the Deep South, from depression-ravaged towns. Some came from exotic countries– utterly desperate souls– and occasionally with only false papers, as they would never have been allowed in the lawful way. They crowded onto sea vessels with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They said their last farewells to their loved ones and to their homelands—and most often, never again stepped foot on the land of their ancestors. Niagara Falls was the last hope for so many.

BLONEVA

Our new book, Melting Pot; Niagara’s rich ethnic heritage, published by the Lewiston Public Library, is a celebration of these people and their stories. Over the past few years, as the local history librarian, I have collected the stories of our immigrant ancestors for the purpose of sharing their struggles, as well as their triumphs. As you read through the narratives, you will see that oftentimes great hardships precipitated remarkable achievements. Despite differences in ethnicity, these Niagarans shared common housing, jobs, and churches and even married into each other’s families. They shared meals with one another and learned bits and pieces of each other’s languages and traditions. They crafted businesses out of what they did best and introduced our area to unique foods, music and customs. They also valiantly fought prejudice and bigotry whenever it arose—from the violent threats of the Ku Klux Klan to racist intimidations from unkind neighbors.

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Novak Family at Ellis Island 

Some of the personal stories mentioned include insightful histories of African Americans in Niagara Falls. Exquisitely written by Dr. Michael Boston, assistant professor of African American Studies at Brockport, and a trailblazer and researcher of Western New York African American history, these chapters highlight the importance of “family” as well as leadership in the African American community at Niagara Falls.  Our friend, Bill Bradberry, a Niagara Falls Gazette columnist and the chair of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Corporation, as well as the winner of the Civil Rights Achievement Award in January of 2017, opens the book with a poignant and nostalgic look back in time at the multiculturalism present in individual neighborhoods throughout Niagara Falls.

Other stories in Melting Pot include: the brave and invincible Armenians, heroes and heroines, who defied all odds before coming to our city; the industrious Germans, who dominated local industry and business; the story of coalmining Italians who ventured into Niagara Falls from a dismal life in Pennsylvania; Polish tales of hardship at Ellis Island, and lost connections with the Old Country; the children of Spanish immigrants who had worn the customary clothes of Spain to American schools; the ancient Ukrainian tradition of the painted Easter eggs, or pysanky; and recipes from a war bride from Wales. Many of our Irish stories were submitted by the local chapter of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. Another Irish chapter, written by Niagara Gazette columnist, Don Glynn, reveals a modern day friendship with ties to the Lynch and Buttery families. Yet another tells the story of St. Mary’s Church.  Melting Pot also contains precious family recipes, collected and written with great care, family photos and nostalgic news clippings.

Sdao children (3)

Sdao Family      

The front cover of Melting Pot proudly displays the marriage of Lithuanian born Zygmont Puisys and Ursula Anna Zugzda at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in 1912.  Ursula, an orphan, had been raised in a church rectory in Igliauka, Mirijampole, Lithuania.  It was said that Zygmont had “escaped” his homeland under a hail of gunfire. Their story is representative of how many of our Niagara Falls stories begin…with despair and gunfire.

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                                                              Puisys-Zugzda Wedding 

Melting Pot; Niagara’s rich ethnic heritage will be available at the Book Corner, located at 1801 Main Street in Niagara Falls,    and through Amazon.com. We welcome any new family stories for future volumes.

 

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My Mother’s Mother’s Mother

In Coming to America, Niagara Falls, Niagara in Love, Restaurants of Niagara Falls, St. Joseph's Church, The Italians of Niagara Falls, New York on June 28, 2013 at 4:19 pm
Clementina, Gina and Francesco Fortuna

Clementina, Gina and Francesco Fortuna

The Ventresca family in Italy (not including Clementina, or her father, Angelo)

The Ventresca family in Italy (not including Clementina, or her father, Angelo)

My great grandmother, Clementina Ventresca

My great grandmother, Clementina Ventresca

I have always wondered if there is something mystical about being the first-born daughter, of a first-born daughter, of a first born daughter, etc. As far as I can tell by my research, my maternal line, the one that also carries my Mitochondrial DNA (passed only by mothers to their children) is a long series of uninterrupted first born daughters. Interestingly enough, I also gave birth, first, to a daughter. This special relationship was something that my family celebrated and I have been told that back in Italy things such as this are indicative of some sort of psychic prowess. The Abruzzo region, where my family originated, is known for its superstitious character so I am not surprised. Some things I have read have said it is the area in Italy most “prone to magic and superstition.” Bordered by the Apennines, Abruzzo is home to some of Italy’s wildest terrain. Silent valleys, vast untamed mountain plains and abandoned hill villages carelessly dot the ancient landscape today. Many unusual stories have been passed down and even in America we have a strong inclination toward unearthly things.

The furthest back in this special line of women–that I have had the privilege of knowing personally–was my great grandmother, Clementina Ventresca Fortuna. Her mother, Adelina, was also a first born daughter, however, she died a few years before I was born.

Clementina was born in the small mountain village of Torre Dei Nolfi, in the province of L’Aquila, region of Abruzzo, on November 16, 1901. Her life in Italy was far from idyllic. The eldest daughter on a farm, there was much work to do. Her father, Angelo Ventresca, was often in America, or traveling across the ocean, earning money at various jobs in order to ensure the family’s survival. Adelina, his wife, was left with the arduous task of managing the farm with her daughters. Her only son, Vittorio, was one of the youngest, and could not help with the major work. Clementina, my great grandmother, was a shepherdess and she spent her days tending to the sheep that grazed the primeval hillside. In this sort of natural solitude, her needlework often kept her busy in her loneliness, and of course, there was that other notion to keep her going…the love of a young man. His name was Giovanino. He was a policeman from Rome and over the years this sad, sad story concerning unrequited love has been passed from generation to generation. I only knew my grandmother as an old woman, but every time I looked at her I imagined the young girl she had been, because of this story.

It was really quite simple. They met, fell hopelessly in love, were forbidden to marry, threatened…and in the end he was dead and she was on a boat to America. Clementina’s youngest sister, my Aunt Phil (Felicetta) remembers how Giovanino would stand outside the window of their old stone house, in the garden, before the earthquake had struck, and he would sing his heart out to her sister. In my imagination, my grandmother was Juliet and poor desperate Giovanino was Romeo. A love so beautiful as theirs was destined for tragedy. The family was set against Giovanino as she had been promised in an arranged marriage to another, the son of the most powerful man in the village. But Clementina was not prepared to surrender. She embodied the stubbornness that we all share today. Even as various relatives did their best to instill fear within her, and even as another cousin who had also attempted to break with tradition and marry the man she had loved was brutally murdered and her body left in Clementina’s family’s garden (an obvious warning), Clementina refused to give in and marry a man she did not love. In fact, she hated him even more. And so, as they had promised, deep in the night, those who had found their love unsavory, murdered Giovanino. My grandmother was heart broken but even fear would not break her spirit. Emboldened by her anger and her grief she found there was only one thing left to do: go to America. Italy had broken her heart.

Lucky for Clementina, her father was in America. He was in Niagara Falls, New York, working on the railroad. He welcomed her to come. Little Felicetta was very small when her sister left for America and just a few years ago she told the story of her sister’s last night in Italy, while my uncle and I interviewed her on film. Clementina had been sweeping the barn when her sister ran in and she stopped her work and held onto her and cried for what seemed to be hours and hours. They cried their eyes out; the littlest sister and the oldest sister. And then she was gone. After close to 90 years, the memory still makes my aunt cry. We were all moved to tears and it was at that moment that I realized the story of America almost always begins with goodbye.

But fate would have it that for these sisters, goodbye would not be forever. For just a few years later, most of the family would be reunited in Niagara Falls. My grandmother also found much happiness and she did find love again. She bewitched yet another young man, Francesco Fortuna, my great grandfather and they lived happily ever after. They were married at St. Joseph’s Church on December 12, 1923, and had two children: Gina (Jean Ann, my grandmother, and their first born) and Joseph (my uncle and godfather). They opened a very popular restaurant located on 19th Street, known as Fortuna’s and it is still there today.

Marriage at St. Joseph's Church in Niagara Falls

Marriage at St. Joseph’s Church in Niagara Falls

Clementina never forgot Giovanino. As complete as her new life had become she made sure we all knew the story. I like to think it was more of a story of who she had been across an ocean and in that other world that didn’t include automobiles or electricity. It was a place and time where love and magic lit up the darkness and in some strange way a piece of me was, in fact, there and remembers everything.

I try to imagine what this special power might be that we all have, all of the first born daughters of first born daughters. Perhaps it’s the greatest power of all…the capacity to love completely and deeply no matter what the consequences. My grandmother’s little love affair with Giovanino is one of the only stories of her youth that has stayed with me. It speaks to me and to all of us and it says one thing: always choose love.

I have much research to do on the rest of our mothers’ mothers. I will be ordering great amounts of microfilm from L’Aquila and hopefully visit one day.
I wish I had more information on Giovanino. I would love to know more of him…this wonderful man, this Romeo, who always held a special place in my grandmother’s heart.

4 generations

Destination: Amerika

In Coming to America on January 30, 2013 at 5:39 pm

bidak

Millions of immigrants probably carried a little pouch very similar to this on their way to America.  This particular one belonged to Filip Bidak.

Filip Bidak embarked on the journey of a lifetime in May of 1900.  Leaving from Bremen, Germany, on the Barabarossa, he entered the United States at Ellis Island.  He was just about thirty years old and this little brown pouch contained all the most important documents that he would need in his new country.    This information linked him back to his birthplace in Dunajow, Galicia.  It is now a part of the Ukraine.

Filip Bidak resided in Manhatten for the rest of his life.  He died in May of 1913 and is buried in Calvalry Cemetery.

Bidak Family

The Bidak Family
Janek (John), Filip, Constantia and Josephine Bidak

Special thanks to Beverly Bidak for sharing.