Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source: Oral History Interviews

Growing up in an Ethnic Community

Two couples stand on a pier looking out to sea, luggage and bundles nearby

Mr. and Mrs. Cybert remember growing up Polish

When you come to the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center you will see videotaped oral histories of Johnstown residents talking about their immigrant parents and grandparents. The Generations Theater is only able to show brief portions from those interviews. Below are other excerpts from the interview transcripts.

Minersville memories

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptMr: Minersville, where she lived, it was a nice section also.

Mrs: Very nice.

Mr: And the neighborhood itself was very good.

Mrs: The neighborhood itself at one time was Irish. And then little by little different nationalities start coming in. So we had a mixture of Poles, Slavs, Irish, German and, of course, at that time, we had some blacks living down the lower end of Minersville. But it seemed like everybody got together, and no one had any problems with anything there. Right?

Mr: It was great.

Mrs: The neighborhood was wonderful. Everybody worked for each other and helped each other out when you were trouble, you know? So it was a great neighborhood, a good growing up feeling, because we reminisce all the time about how we used to do, you know? How things were in our days, and it was great. Even my daughter today likes to listen to that. Because she had it much better than we did. [Laughter.]

Not only that, but there was some businesses in Minersville. In fact, there was a Polish grocery and meat market and then we had Schultz, which operates Schultz Brothers Beer Distributors today started their distributorship in Minersville. And there was other little confectionary stores and we had a gas station in Minersville. At that time you pumped gas by hand. It wasn't electric. It was in a dangerous spot, because it was on a corner of Iron Street and Benshoff Hill Road.

"Eventually, it all changed, where we all became like one"

Mr: Our parochial school was in Cambria City close to our church and a few blocks on Chestnut Street was the Irish parochial school. And there was a little bit of a difference there, you know, as they came through after lunch or something like that. But there was no arguments, no fights or anything like that.

As you stated before, the little difference was that they thought a little bit more than what we were like, you know? They thought that they were in a higher class than us, because we, Polish people, we always stuck together, and helped what we could to everybody that wanted some help. But that went over as the years went by, and people got older, that was sort of settled after that.

But outside of that the neighborhood was wonderful, and I often talk to her, I says "I'd like to buy a piece of property in Minersville, and build a home again. [Laughter.] But she says it would be too close to the P and A club.

Well, what I mean by that was that the Irish people lived in Minersville first. And, as some of them got better jobs in the mill and so forth, they moved otherwise and immigrants started coming into Minersville.

So we started getting the Polish people in, the Slav people, and little by little, this all started to change with the kids. The kids started to play ball together, dance together and so forth, and that's how it sort of broke up in Minersville. And it became that everybody was equal then. And we had some nice Irish people living there, and they respected the Slav race and we respected them....

I remember very faintly, because I went to school with some of the boys of Irish class, and they thought that they were a little bit better than what we were. But like I said, eventually, it all changed, where we all became like one. We went to school together. We played together and different things there. And in fact we intermarried and so forth, so that sort of changed a lot of things there.

Being "Polish"

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptMr: Well--really when the immigrants; Polish, Slavs and so forth came into Johnstown or whatever city it was, they mostly came into their own class of people--neighborhood. And they stayed with one another as long as they could. Then they had their parochial schools, like St. Stephen's, for instance, was Slav. St. Casimir had the Polish School, and St. Columba was Irish school. So most of our people they spoke at home in Polish. So we were brought up in Polish, because we went to grade school, parochial school, and they taught us Polish history, Polish prayers, Polish reading, writing, and we knew that.

And at home we all talked Polish most of the time. In fact I didn't know a word of English when I went to first grade. I was all but Polish, so in other words I was sort of a dumbbell. Other kids were talking a little bit in English, and there I was in Polish, but eventually you picked it up from Grade 1, and so forth.

And at home my parents spoke in Polish, same as her parents, and we spoke also, my dad sort of educated himself by reading the newspapers. And he would talk to us mostly in English, so he could straight himself up a little bit, but mum knew a little bit of English, but not as well as my dad. So we always spoke to her in Polish.

And after the grandchildren were born, she was called babush in Polish, is grandmother, and jadgi(?) was grandpap. That's how we always addressed them after the grandchildren were born. And any time we spoke to my parents it was mostly in Polish, and the same way with her family.

And then when you went to the KMP singing rehearsals and so forth, you sang nothing but Polish songs at that time. They didn't intermingle like today. Today they sing American and some Polish, so we picked up more words. Then we read the Polish newspapers. We read them, Polish history books, so we picked up on it more and more.

Mrs: No. Not my parents. We had a fantastic Polish school, and our nuns were the best teachers in Johnstown. They were really wonderful teachers. When they would teach you English, you knew it right off the bat.

And we did have like he said Polish subjects in the lower grades, but later on in about the fourth or fifth grade, we were going up higher. And they had given us our good education in English, and speaking about these social things, well, yes, my mother always warned me not to--she didn't say "Don't go with this one or that one." But she always warned me about other things, you know, like every mother does to their daughter.

Mr: I know my dad used to always say, "Sonny, watch yourself." And I used to always tell him where I was going. I was dating her already. We'd be going to dances, and "Mom," I'd say, "I'm going to the dance down at the KMP club or else St. Cazimir Social Club." And my dad would just look at me, and "Sonny, watch yourself." That's all he ever explained to me about what had to be done, about the birds and the bees. And I always remembered. [Laughter.]

Mr: They would always say, "You're Polish." Because that's where most of the nationalities stayed with their children. You're either a Slav or a Greek and so forth or you're Polish. But today when anyone asks me anything, I'm proud to be Polish, but I always say, "I'm American of Polish extraction." That's what I always tell them, because actually I was born a Pole, but I was born in America. So I always say that, "I'm Polish of American extraction." That's my way of expressing my nationality.

Mrs: Oh, that would be the same for me. I am proud to be Polish, and I'm glad that I was taught Polish and I know it today, but I am an American of Polish descent, and I'm very happy about it. Because I can talk both languages.

Mrs: We have but one daughter, and she married an Irishman. But, now, she always said she was Polish. She's proud of it. She doesn't speak--she understands it, but can't speak it, but she knows she's Polish and it's rooted in her.

Fraternal clubs

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptMr: He helped to form the St. Casimir's PRC, Polish Roman Catholic Union. That is an insurance company, and they had their own clubrooms, and naturally every Sunday after church or so, they would go down and meet with their buddies and have a few drinks and talk about their old towns in Poland and so forth.

Mrs: Yes. He did, and he also enjoyed other things with it, socially, but he was a good father, and provided very well for us.

Mrs: Well I imagine it would be all the old timers that, you know, that would be interested to belong to the PRCU. And they had their little headquarters, a clubroom, and that's where their meetings were to pay their dues, you know for the insurances. This is how they had insured their families. It was cheaper then, but it was a sure thing, you know? And, well, that was it, that was their great moments at the club.

Mrs: Well, a social club--well, we had, for instance, when we were teenagers, we belonged to a choir, the KMP choir, it's the Polish singing society, and in Polish it would Kukol(?) Mojesa(?) Polski, which was a youth singing society. And naturally we had our choir practices there, and there was a bar, which they had, you know, workingmen. They were the stewards.

You were not allowed to join at an early age. You had to be 16 to go into the premises. But it was mostly for rehearsals and gatherings like that, meetings, and this is where all of this was, you know, coming from. More people gathered and joined and it grew into a pretty nice little thing.

Mr: Oh, yes.

Mrs: Some of them played cards. They used to hold Bingos, or they used to have--

Mr: --have dances

Mrs: --dances, all the time, every weekend, very good dances. And singing an awful lot. The people just enjoy that. The younger generation enjoy that in their days, you know, that was our get out. [Laughter.]

Mrs: Yes. Because we belonged to the church choir, and we had that experience, and the wonderful feeling of singing, you know, in church. And a lot of the singing that we had learned would come from the choir that, you know, we held our rehearsals there. And later on it grew into a bigger thing, and that's the way we used to enjoy ourselves. We have a place to, you know, on the weekends or--we had a place to go and enjoy ourselves.  

A: See that these clubs mostly started from like the Polish Roman Catholic Union, and the Polish National Alliance. They were both fraternal organizations, that's how they first started. And they insured people just in case of death. In other words like today where they have difference insurance, but at that time, the insurance limit was small. It was like $250 per person or something, because people couldn't afford anymore.

And besides that, anyone that belonged to the organization that passed away or was killed in the mine accident or mill incident, every member donated 50 cents towards the burial of that party. Because at that time, people did not have the money to bury anyone like they have today. So that's how the Polish Roman Catholic Union got started in Johnstown.

But they are affiliated with the Polish Roman Catholic Union in Chicago, Illinois. That is the main headquarters. Now, as far as the singing goes that Sophie mentioned, this organization that she talked about, Polish Youth Singing Circle, that started way back before the first world war. And it was an all men's choir, and naturally they sang with the church choir at St. Casimir, and during the first world war, a lot of men left for the services, so they finally agreed to allow the women to come to sing.

So after the war ended they had the mixed chorus what they called, and we sang all practically Polish songs at that time, and we were affiliated with the Polish Singers Alliance of America, at that time headquartered in Chicago.

But since then, it's been moved to New York City, and we've been going to conventions every third and fourth year they had conventions and discuss about business and so forth. However, our choir, the KMP Society, as they called us, it--we lost a lot of our members, the older members died off. The younger people are not interested in singing.

So we observed our 75th anniversary as a singing group, and after that, we folded up. We are still members of Polish Singers Alliance of America, but we're not very active in Johnstown anymore....

Polish food

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptMr: These Polish specialties was the Polska kielbasa, and he made the kielbasa around Cambria County, and it was shipped out to different parts of the state, to different states. I'll never forget when I was going back to my ship to San Francisco my aunt gave me five pounds of Polish kielbasa and a loaf of rye bread.

So when I got on the ship we used to always gather in the machine shop at the end of the day, I said, "Gentlemen," I said, "We got something nice here that you probably never ate." So we got one of the cooks in. I told him how to prepare it, until it was all over, I had to smell. They ate everything up. Hello, Martha. That was his specialty. Martha will tell you the same thing. How about it? Polska kielbasa? Uncle Joe. So that was one of his biggest things.

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