Friday, February 21, 2014

Working in Ukraine, 100 Years Ago: The Rychlyj Family Story

There are a lot of reasons that people left Ukraine, one of the most important was work.  People worked very hard in Eastern Europe. Many were subsistence farmers, growing what they needed to live, and having very little left to sell.  They were always working. Everybody in the family, including children, worked: doing farm work, housework, or working outside the home for cash wages. There was very little to show for all their work, they were poor, and there was no opportunity to get ahead. It isn’t surprising that so many men decided to take a chance and leave their home and family and try America.  They knew that they would have to work hard there, but at the end of the week, they were paid in cash.  They could work, save, and eventually return to their homeland and provide a better life for the family.  Or they could work in America, save money and bring their family to America.  My great grandfather made the second choice.

My ancestors lived in a small village, Bila, just outside the city of Ternopil’.  It was in Eastern Galicia, part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire.  They were small farmers, the farms were small because the land was divided between sons at the death of the father, by the end of the 19th century, most farms were only a few acres.  

A village in Ukraine about 1910.

My family, like most of the people in the village grew grain, wheat, rye, oats and barley.  They also grew hemp, which provided cooking oil and a source of fiber for linen.  Every family had a vegetable garden where they grew corn and potatoes and seasonal green vegetables.  They had one cow, which provided milk, chickens for eggs and ducks. 

A vegetable garden outside a village in Ukraine, 1910.
A typical village house in Ukraine.

Their work was determined by the seasons.  The grain was cut and dried in the summer and threshed in the winter.  Potatoes were planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.  Hemp was cut in the fall, and prepared in the fall and winter.

Cutting hemp.  this picture was taken in Russia about  1910.

Nothing stopped work.  Nobody took the day off after a celebration like a wedding or a sad event like a funeral.  Being tired was not an excuse skip work.  The punishment for refusing to work was a beating.  The work was hard, physical labor.  People worked barefoot, summer and winter, since shoes and boots were too expensive to use for work.  My great aunt, Katherine Pylatiuk tells of cutting her finger while working in the field, it was serious enough for a trip to the doctor.   Her family was poor, there was no cash to pay for the doctor’s services, so Katherine had to work in the doctor’s fields in order to pay his bill. She had to go to work immediately, even though her finger was raw and sore, and work until the debt was repaid. 

The grain was bundled and stacked four bundles high, with a smaller fifth bundle on top.

Painting by Evhen Leschenko, from the National Museum of Ukraine

Children worked along with the adults.  When she was seven years old, Katherine swept the floors, made the bed, washed the dishes, chased flies, weeded the garden, hilled up potatoes, watched the younger children, as well as bringing water back to the house from the community well.  She carried the water using a “koromyslo”, a long pole with a pail on each end.  The pole went behind the head and balanced on each shoulder.  This method is still used to carry things in China today.  Another chore was to take the grain to the mill to be ground into flour.  Katherine carried about  a half a bushel of grain in a sack, walked three miles to the mill in Ternopil’, waited for it to be ground and brought back the flour to the house.  

Water is carried in China today in the same way it was carried in Ukraine 100 years ago.

Older family members worked outside the home in order to earn cash.  The money they earned was turned over to their parents, because everybody had to contribute to the families’ welfare.  Even though life revolved around work, there was still time for fun, but that is a story for another time.

Sources:  The Produkin-Gorski Collection.  Library of Congress  (all photos except the last)

        (carrying water in China)

                  Lawryk, Julia, Katheryna (Kashka), Autobiography by Katherine Pylatiuk                         Lymar, as told to her Daughter Julie in 1988. copyright 1988