Friday, February 7, 2014

Living in Ukraine 100 Years Ago: The Rychlyj Family's Story

Just outside the city of Ternopil’ is the village of Bila.  It was a farming village, about 3 km walk to the center of the city.  Most of the people of this village made their living from farming, but since their plots were small, many of them have to work at other jobs to help make ends meet.

Ukrainian newspapers had advertisements for jobs in America.  They promised plenty of land, enough food and drink for everybody.  There were jobs in the coalmines of Pennsylvania, and in the steel mills in Ohio and in factories in New England.  There were ads for farms in North Dakota, showing palm trees and lots of land.  Life was hard in Galicia, a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the whole family worked very hard and made very little. Why not go to America, work, for a few years and them come back to Bila, and live like a rich man? So in 1907, Sylvester Rychlyj decided to leave his wife and seven children and go to Tower City, Pennsylvania to work.  He traveled with another man from his village, Wasyl Boyko.  When he got there, he found work as a farm laborer.  It didn’t take him long to realize that life was better in America, and he decided that instead of returning to Bila, he would work to earn enough money to bring his wife and family to live in the United States.

So, what was he leaving behind? What was it like to live in a farming village in Galicia?  Why did so many people leave, and never return?  This is the story of my great-grandparents, Sylvester Rychlyj and Marya Bryniak Rychlyj, who were born in Bila.  It was told by my great aunt, Katherine Rychly Pylatuik, to her daughter Julia Lawryk, in 1988.

When Sylvester married Marya Bryniak in 1895, they moved into a one- room house with his parents and brothers and sisters.  It took him ten years to save enough money to buy a house for his family.  The house was built of wood covered with clay, with a straw roof.  It was old, and painted white like the other houses in the village.  The location was good, only a block away from the well. There was a “pryspa” around the outside of the house, a sloping ledge, in order to carry rainwater away. Sometimes the pryspa was used as a bench, but it really wasn’t comfortable.  In front of the house were some fir trees and an ash tree.  In back of the house were raspberry bushes and cherry trees.  Around the house was a wooden fence.  All the houses had numbers, from 1 to 350, and mail was delivered directly to the house.
Man sitting on a "prypsa"
Ukrainian house in Eastern Ukraine.
Inside the house, there was one room,  painted white with the same material used on the exterior, which served as a living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom.  In one corner, there was a stove and bread oven, made from bricks. Pots and pans were stored in the stove. There was a storage room next to the kitchen area. In another corner was a table with benches along the wall.  The table was a large wooden box, the top could be lifted and inside was a storage area, where clean clothes and linens were kept.  Just before he left for America, Sylvester built a small table and benches for the children.  There was one bed, which had a mattress filled with straw, that was changed every month.  On top of the mattress there was a sheet and a feather quilt.  Colorful embroidered pillows were laid on top of the quilt. On the walls next to the bed were hung with mats made of woven plant material to keep out the damp. 
The thatched roof sagged in places, it was so low that a child could touch it easily.  The wooden rafters were used to hang braided strings of onions and garlic as well as dried corn and dill.  Dirty clothes were thrown on the rafters until they were washed.  The floor of the house was hard packed dirt.  There was no bathroom or outhouse, everyone just went outside.
Painting of the interior of a Ukrainian house in Eastern Ukraine.  The bread oven is next to the stove. 
So, where did the seven children sleep?  Marya slept in the bed, along with the youngest child.  If a child was sick, he or she slept with Marya.  Two children, usually the younger ones slept on the stove. The older ones slept on the benches.  During World I, soldiers from the various invading armies were billeted in village houses.  As many as five soldiers slept on the floor. along with the family of nine people.
The Rychlyj family was poor, they had one cow, chickens, ducks and a dog.  They bought next to nothing—scarves for the girls, shoes and boots, and some items of clothing that could not be made at home.  They grew the food they ate, including the grain used for bread.  They rarely ate meat—and when they did it was chicken or fish.  Meat and white bread were special foods, eaten only on holidays. They bought salt, soap matches, naptha, and baking powder at a village store. Most of the village stores were owned by Jews.  There were two butcher shops that owned by Ukrainians, but the Rychlyj’s rarely bought meat, and when did they did, they went to Ternopil’, where things were cheaper. My grandmother told me that the first time she ate beef was in the United States.  There was a “root cellar”, an underground food storage area, outside the house, which Sylvester built it shortly before he left for America.  The walls were covered with stones, there were stone steps and a door that locked.  Theft of food, and other things, was a problem in the village.  Once before Easter, the family’s holiday foods were stolen.  Someone cut a hole in the wall of the house, and took the food.  This happened while the family was inside the house, sleeping.  The thieves must have been very careful, because nobody woke up, and the theft wasn’t discovered until morning.
Kitchen in a house in Eastern Ukraine. 
The family owned a Bible, written in Ukrainian, church prayer books, which were written Church Slavonic, school books in both Ukrainian and Polish (both languages were taught in the village school).  The children also had a few school supplies, which they kept in small wooden boxes.  Their toys were homemade, the girls had cornhusk dolls, and balls made from cow hair. The family also owned a sled for wintertime fun.  They had playing cards, which provided wintertime entertainment for the family.
Photograph of a house interior in Eastern Ukraine.
Life in the village was hard, but many of the other residents of the village were relatives, so visiting family was a favorite pastime of my great-grandmother.  Her mother and brother lives nearby and there were many cousins and other family close as well.  My grandmother left Bila   in June of 1914, just before World War I began.  After that, village life was never the same.

A note about the photographs:  The only photographs I have found of houses in Ukraine around the turn of the last century are of places in Eastern Ukraine, which was part of Russia at that time.
Sources: Kateryna (Kashka): Autobiography by Katherine Pylatuik Lymar, as told to her Daughter, Julie in 1988. By Julia Pylatuik Lawryk, copyright 1988.

Picture sources: Ukrainian Arts, ed. Anne Mitz, New York, 1955.
L’Arte Rustique En Russie, Edition Du “Studio”, Paris, 1912.