Friday, December 26, 2014

Winter Holidays in Eastern Europe: Verteps and Szopka

Portable Vertep stage with puppets.

Christmas was the beginning of a festive time in Eastern Europe.  In Ukraine, festivities began on Christmas day, celebrated on January 7, according to the Julian calendar and concluded  on January 19, with the celebration of the Epiphany.
Vertep puppets, 17th century.

Ukrainian Vertep

One of the most interesting  Ukrainian Christmas customs was caroling and vertep.  Vertep is a portable puppet theater, which was carried by carolers from village to village. This custom began in the 16th century, and reached the height of its popularity in the 1750’s.  Students at the Mohyla Academy in Kiev, contributed many ideas to the theater, including the two part performance.

Vertep, 1945, Ivano-Frankivsk Region

The theater itself was small and portable.  It was a two-story structure, with two stages, one on top of the other. The stages had horizontal and vertical grooves cut into the floors, which enabled the puppeteer to move the puppets around. The puppets were wooden, with a wire attached to one leg, which enabled the puppeteer,who was standing behind the stage, to control the puppet’s movements.  The plays were accompanied by music, a choir, cymbals. flute, drum, violin and bandura, a  large Ukrainian stringed instrument, similar to a lute. 

Each play had two acts.   The first act, performed on the upper stage, was religious.  The nativity story was presented and sometimes a story about Rachel and King Herod was performed.  The second act took place on the lower stage.  Short, humorous scenes were performed to entertain the spectators.  There were stock characters, representing people in village life.  Every play included “Kozak Zaporzhets,” a character who represented a hero popular in Ukrainian folk tales.  The Kozak character was always larger than the other puppets, he smoked a pipe and played the bandura.  The stories were about daily life with characters representing greed, cowardice, and cheating.  The Kozak always prevailed, outwitting all, including the devil. 

Kozak Zaporzhets, a character in Vertep plays

Vertep plays declined in the middle of the 1800’s, which is probably why my grandmother and great-aunts never mentioned them. Vertep lives on in miniature nativity scenes displayed in people’s homes, and carolers dressed up as characters from the vertep plays.  Vertep plays continue today in Ukraine and the United States with live actors instead of puppets playing the characters.

Carolers dressed as characters from Vertep plays

Polish Szopka   

A custom similar to Vertep developed in Poland.  It began in the 13th century with a creche, displayed in a church in Krakow.  Living nativities followed and when dialogue was added they became jaselka plays.  By the eighteenth century the still figurines in nativities  were replaced by puppets, first stick puppets, then marionettes. Puppet shows were banned from the church, and moved into the towns and villages. They became associated with caroling and lost some of their religious connections. The plays were a reflection of daily life in Poland, making fun of everyday situations.
Szopka with two stages.
The  theaters, called szopkas, were carried from town to town by carolers. They performed religious and secular plays often with real Polish characters such as Tadeuz Kosciuszko, or mythical ones like Pan Twardowski and the Dragon of Wawel. 

Krakow is the center of szopka making and many are made for the tourist market. People built elaborate szopkas with two towers, resembling St Mary’s Church in Krakow and a central dome modeled after the Zygmunt Chapel of Wawel Castle.  The practice of building szopkas declined during World War I, but was revived in the 1920’s. Today, the city of Krakow  sponsors a Szopka contest every year. 
Contemporary Szopka puppets in front of traditional characters.

Brama, "Ukrainian Christmas Puppet Theater, VERTEP".
Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, "Vertep, New Year,  Epithany". www.encyclopedia of
Polish American Journal, "Szopka, A Fairy Tale Stable."
Rukutvory-Ukrainian Folk Art on Line,

Friday, December 19, 2014

Genealogical Mysteries: The Final Word on Joseph Koshuba

The mysterious Joseph Koshuba was the subject of my first blog post in March of 2013.  Since then I solved the puzzle of the identity of Joseph, several times, and most of my solutions were way off.

Joseph Koshuba was my great uncle, and brother of my grandfather, John Koshuba.  Joseph died suddenly in 1919, leaving his wife Florence and three children.  I have a lot of family pictures, and my main source, my mother, identified many (unknown to me) family members.  In the wedding picture below, my mother identified the man in the first row, on the  far left as Joseph Koshuba. 
Wedding of John Koshuba and Pauline Rychly , November 1916.

The picture above is  of my grandmother Pauline Rychly Koshuba's wedding to John Koshuba in November, 1916.  Florence Koshuba is in the first row on the far right. My mother also identified her. I assumed that the man standing behind her, with his arm on her shoulder was Joseph Koshuba. At the time I assumed that because his hand was on Florence's shoulder. Since my mother was born in 1918, two weeks before Joseph died, I assumed that she was just guessing that the man on the left was Joseph. Now I know that she was right.  How could I prove it?

Top row from the left: Florence and unknown man,. Front row: Fred Koshuba, Joseph Koshuba and Katherine Florence. Source: Susan Strickler.

This picture was also taken at my grandmother's wedding.  It is of Florence, her two children and  the man I assumed  to be her husband Joseph standing next to her. The seated man with the little girl on his lap appears to be the man on the left in the picture above.  Why is he in this picture?  I revised my theory.  Maybe he was John Koshuba's brother-in-law, Peter Wons or perhaps he was Dymtro Popko, since his wife, Pelagia Rychly Popko was standing behind him in the large wedding picture. This picture was sent to me by Joseph Koshuba's grand-daughters, and they said that the baby girl was their aunt, Katherine Florence. So why was she sitting on Peter Wons' lap?  Well, since I assumed he was her uncle, it would make sense.

Wedding of Florence Holmberg to Joseph Koshuba, Feburary 1913.  Source: Ed Wons.

This picture is from the wedding of Florence Holmberg Koshuba's to Joseph Koshuba in February, 1913.  It was sent to me by Ed Wons,the grandson of Peter Wons and a Koshuba family cousin. This picture proved my theory about the identity of the man in the pictures from my grandmother's wedding wrong. Ed said that in this picture Peter Wons is in the second row, on the left right behind his wife, and John and Joseph's sister, Teckla Koshuba Wons.The two little boys in the picture are their sons. Now I know that Peter Wons is definitely not the man behind Florence in the group picture of my grandmother's wedding.

 Florence was identified as the bride by her grand-daughters. The groom is Joseph Koshuba, since I have the record showing that he married Florence Holmberg in February, 1913. The man on the left with with little girl on his lap in the 1916 wedding picture is Joseph. The man standing next to Florence in the Koshuba family picture taken at my grandmother's wedding in 1916 is not Joseph, neither is the man standing behind Florence in the large group picture from her wedding.

Joseph  and John Koshuba with an unknown man in the middle, wearing sashes and hats of the Zapororzhie Sich Society. 1912. Source: Pauline Noznick.

The next mystery:  who was the man with the moustache?  In this  picture from 1912,  Joseph Koshuba is on the left and John Koshuba is on the right.  The man with the mustache is in the middle. He may either be a relative or a close family friend.  Look again at the Holmberg-Koshuba wedding--is the man with the moustache in the second row on with right--without the mustache? If it is him, he had regrown the mustache by 1916.

What conclusions have I drawn from this mystery? Don't be a lazy or sloppy genealogist . DO NOT ASSUME ANYTHING.  Wait until proof is found.   Remember, patience is the genealogist's friend. I have fallen into these traps myself--first, I assumed that my mother misidentified Joseph Koshuba.  Then I assumed that another man was Joseph, mainly because he had his hand on Florence Koshuba's shoulder. In order to make my story work, I assumed that the man who turned out to be Joseph was either Dymtro Popko or Peter Wons.  All wrong.  I found documentation of Joseph and Florence's marriage when Joseph's grand-daughters identified Florence as the bride in the 1913 wedding picture.  I also had a copy of the marriage license, documenting the marriage. That solved the mystery of Joseph Koshuba--and the identity of the man in my grandmother's wedding picture.


Big Breakthrough in the Koshuba Family
Finding Fred Koshuba
Joseph Koshuba One Year Later 
Assumptions: The Fred Koshuba Story
The Koshuba Brothers
The Genealogy of the Holmberg-Koshuba Family
The Genealogy of the Kleviak Koshuba Family

Friday, December 12, 2014

Winter Holidays in Eastern Europe: Hanukkah.

An Eastern European silver Hunukkiah.

While Christians in Eastern Europe were celebrating St Nicholas Day and Christmas, Jews celebrated Hanukkah, known as the “Festival of Lights.”  Hanukkah, a festival lasting eight days usually occurred in December.  The holiday is based on a historical event, the liberation of Israel from the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE (I am using the abbreviation for Before the Common Era, an alternative to the older BC or Before Christ).

The composer Handel wrote an oratorio about Judas Maccabee.  It is often performed  during the Hanukkah season.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the ruler of the Syrian Greeks, began to harden his rule of Israel,  defiling the Temple in Jerusalem and banning the Jewish religion and requiring the Jews to follow Greek cultural practices.  The Maccabees, a group of Jews led by Judah Maccabees and four of his brothers, sons of the priest Matthias, fought for over three years to liberate and rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem.  Because the victory happened during the holiday of Sukkot, which happened in early fall, the Maccabees decided to celebrate Sukkot after the Temple was rededicated, on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, in the year 164 B.C.E.  Since Sukkot is a seven day observance, Hanukkah used the same time frame.

Painting by Auguste Dore, "The Victor, Judas Maccabeus"

The story of Hanukkah was told by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, writing 250 years later, calling it the Festival of Lights. In the Mishnah, the oldest part of the Talmud, written a century after Josephus, the Festival of Lights became known as Hanukkah, (dedication in Hebrew) In the Talmud, completed 600 years after the victory of the Maccabees, the story of Hanukkah centered on the miracle of the jar of oil.  Although the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks was unexpected, the fact that a jar of oil, containing enough oil for one day, lasted for eight was considered miraculous.   By this time, fasting and mourning were not allowed during the Hanukkah festival.

A special candelabra, called a Hanukkiah was used for the holiday.  It had places for either eight candles or oil pots, and one spot for the Chumash, a candle used to light the others.  At first, the Hanukkiah was simple, but with time, they became more elaborate or fanciful. 

Chocolate coins made in Israel by Elite.

Hanukkah was a happy holiday, no work was allowed while the candles burned, so that time was filled with games. Children played dreidel, a small spinning toy, and adults played games of chance. Children were given coins as gifts on the fifth day of the holiday, a part of this small gift was expected to go to charity. 
Old dreidel.

Gelt remains today as foil covered chocolate coins.  My father-in-law always gave everyone in the family a dollar bill, announcing that it was Hanukkah gelt. Fried foods, usually prepared using rendered goose fat were eaten all over
Sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts.
Eastern Europe during Hanukkah. In Poland, jelly doughnuts were the preferred treat, in Lithuania, fried potato pancakes called latkes were favored. Cracklings, fried crisp goose skin, called gribenes in Yiddish, were a special treat.

Potato latkes

With the development of Zionism, Hanukkah took on a new meaning.  The idea of fighting for freedom and for national identity became associated with Hanukkah.  As Jews left Eastern Europe for Palestine in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, often they had to defend themselves.  The story of Hanukkah and the Maccabees was the story of freedom and liberty.  The founding of Israel continued these ideas.  The Jews defeated the Greeks in 164 BCE, because they were deprived of their religion and identity. The Holocaust raised the same issues of oppression, religious freedom and cultural identity that Hanukkah did two thousand years ago.

Celebrating Hanukkah in the Lodz Ghetto, World War Two.  Source: Yadvashem
I have not been blogging for the past few weeks, since my brother was very ill and passed away on November 16, 2014.  he suffered from leukemia and developed acute myeletic leukemia.He was a great brother, and had many friends. I miss him.

Pete and me, January 2012.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Winter Holidays in Eastern Europe: St Nicholas Day in Ukraine and Poland

St Nicholas Day, painting on glass by Yaroslava Surmach Mills, 1975.  In the painting, a Ukrainian St Nicholas is with an angel and a devil.  Notice the boy on the right with a branch in his hand.  He appears to be crying, probably because a gift of a willow branch means that his behavior needs to improve.

St Nicholas Day is a children's holiday.  It is celebrated in December, either on the sixth or the nineteenth, depending on people's religious affiliation.
Saint Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century, was the Bishop of Myra in Lycia, which today is in Turkey.  He is known as the patron saint of children, agriculture and sailors.  
Icon of St Nicholas, the patron saint of mariners.

He is one of the most popular saints in Ukraine, his icon is displayed in Ukrainian homes and churches. Many Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches are named in his honor.  St Nicholas Day is a very old festival,coming to Ukraine with Christianity in the tenth century.

Ukrainian postage stamp showing parents putting gifts under their child's pillow, with St Nicholas watching through the window.

Saint Nicholas, known to Ukrainian children as Svyaty Mykolay, wears a bishop's mitre and carries a crozier.  When he visits, he is accompanied by an angel and occasionally, a devil.  He brings gifts to children, usually fruit and cookies.  Sometimes the angel quizzes the children about religious subjects, and St Nicholas reminds them to do good deeds.   In some areas, St Nicholas comes after the children are asleep and leaves small gifts under their pillow. He might leave a willow branch under the pillow to encourage a child to be on his/her best behavior. In other areas, the children leave their empty shoes and St Nicholas fills them with goodies for  the good children and coal for the bad. Many churches put on plays and pageants about St Nicholas, telling his story, and encouraging children do good.  

St Nicholas Pageant, 1912.  St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, Mahony, PA

My first and only encounter with St Nicholas was in St Paul, Minnesota.  I was a  young child, and my grandparents recruited a relative to dress as St Nicholas.  When he came into their living room, dressed in bishop's vestments, and I began to cry out in fear.   The next year, Santa Claus came down the chimney and left gifts under the tree.  St Nicholas never reappeared.

St Nicholas visits the children of the Svitlychka Ukrainian Cooperative Nursery School, Jenkintown, PA.

In old Ukraine,  St Nicholas Day took two forms.  One was warm Nicholas,  his festival was the twenty-second of May.  This was an agricultural celebration, since St Nicholas was also the patron saint of farming.  Farmers would take their horses to the fields for their first grazing, sheep would be sheared and buckwheat sown.  It was also believed that St Nicholas would protect livestock from wolves.  

St Nicholas Icon from Holy Spirit Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor, Regina, SK.

The other form of St Nicholas was "old" or "cold" Nicholas," celebrated in December. Saint Nicholas day heralded the beginning of cold winter weather.  Folk beliefs said that old Nicholas brought the first snow by shaking his beard.

In Poland, St Nicholas comes riding a white horse or rides in a sleigh.  He is accompanied by an angel.  He usually brings a special cookie called a pierniczki, fruit and holy pictures.  In some homes he leaves gifts under the children's pillow, in others he leaves them in their shoes. Some Polish children write to St Nicholas asking for gifts.  If they are well behaved, the gifts may arrive on Christmas day.

Polish children and St. Nicholas. The Polish St Nicolas wears a Roman Catholic bishop's mitre, the Ukrainian saint wears an Eastern Rite mitre.