Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source

Oral History Interviews

Why immigrant ancestors came

When you come to the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center you will see videotaped oral histories of Johnstown residents reminescing 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.

As you read these stories, listen for the personal push and pull factors that motivated immigrants to take a risk and come to Pennsylvania.

Walter Cyburt tells how his grandfather came to Johnstown

Grammaphone icon signals oral history interviewMy grandfather came from Jesuv(?), Poland. He was the first to come to America, because he heard of so many things America was a God's country. And he wanted to make money, to send to keep his family in Poland, because they had property there. It was a little farm, and he thought what he could make, he would send over to his wife and children.

But this thing went along. He finally brought in one of his daughters, and she was like a housekeeper for him, and little by little as grandpap got money, he sent over for the rest of the family, which they came in one by one. But my grandmother came in after her daughter. And from there on in the boys came in, and another daughter came in.

So they all mostly settled in the little town of Worm(?), which was a coal mining town. And from there grandpap came into Johnstown, where he worked in the steel mills of the old Cambria Iron Company.

And then he moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and some of the sons worked out of town, but mostly stayed in Johnstown. And one of my uncles was a businessman, as we all called him [weeping]--I'm softhearted. We called him "Uncle Joe". He was in the grocery and meat business. He was a very good businessman, and the others actually worked in the mills, in the mines, and in construction, whatever job they could get. And that's about all I remember from that family.

Mr. Beerman tells how his parents came to Johnstown

Grammaphone icon signals oral history interviewMy folks came over at a very young age. They met on the boat and then when they got settled they married. And they were in their teens....

They came from-- the country that they came from was in Russia. The name of the town I don't recall. I understand that it was a very small town....

And their names were Rachel Levinson Bierman, when she got married. And my father's name was Israel Bierman. And, of course, he didn't change his name.

...They wanted to get out of Russia, to come to America, to pick up all the gold and the honey that was laying on the streets. And that's why we ended up in Johnstown. Now how we ended up in Johnstown, that I do not know.

Yes, they must have had family here because in the course of the years he always talked about his brother and my mother's sisters, which they visited quite often. Our home seemed to be the focal point for everybody. Whatever happened, happened in our house. So it was like a community affair, everybody came to our house....

I think that they had some relatives here, which may have been my father's brother and my mother's sister. And I think that's what influenced them to come to Johnstown, is the fact that they did have family here. And that's why Johnstown seemed to be the place for them to be.

Martha Banda tells about her grandparents coming to America

Grammaphone icon signals oral history interviewI'm Martha Banda(?), the daughter of Stephen(?) and Anna Riebar(?), and I'm from Johnstown. I am a retired teacher. I was the deputy mayor of the city of Johnstown, and very glad to be here to talk about my grandparents and my great grandparents.

My great grandfather, my grandfather, and my grandmother came together, and they came from Slovakia, but in those days it wasn't Slovakia. It was Austria-Hungary, and I think they were so happy to leave allegiance to the Hapsburgs and Austria-Hungary that they came here because they would be free to be Slovaks, but also to become Americans.

I don't know about an immediate reason, but I know that my grandfather was a Hussar, which was a soldier in the Austria-Hungarian army. Their allegiance was to Austria-Hungary. They would have been at the bottom of the pecking order, and I think, being intelligent proud people, they didn't want to be at the bottom of that pecking order.

So I know that my grandfather brought my grandmother here, who was seven. I don't know about my great grandmother. I'm sorry. I should say my great grandfather came here with my grandmother, and also with my grandfather. Now my grandfather when my grandmother married, he was 34, she was 14. I don't know if that was arranged that way or whether it was just convenient, but he was much older than she when they got married.

Mr. Jakovitz tells how his family came to settle in Johnstown

Grammaphone icon signals oral history interviewI don't know the exact dates, but from what I've been told my parents came in the late, oh, around 1909-1910. And they did not come to Ellis Island. They came in separate ships of course, and landed in Philadelphia, and that is where they met, and that is where they were married.

My mother had a father who was inclined to be a gypsy. He was always interested in knowing what was happening somewhere, and he brought two of the other children to the United States. He decided that he liked it here, and that he was going to stay. My mother was still in Hungary with her mother, and two children, and eventually they came to join the family. I don't know too much about my father, because my father did not speak very much about his background. I only know that he came from Russia with his brother, who was supposed to serve in the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War.

I do know that life in Russia was very hard, and I have very little idea of what my father did there, except that I know that people were anxious to come to the United States, especially Jewish people, because the only thing my father would talk about would be the Cossacks, who came through the small communities, and would cut down anybody that they saw. And they especially sought out Jewish people. Life there, from what I have read and known, was very difficult, and that was probably why my father found his way to the United States.

He was always very happy that he came here, because he extolled the United States, knowing that he came, worked hard, was able to make a living, and he was always grateful for that fact.

When my father first came over and settled in Philadelphia, he worked for this brother, who apparently brought him here, in a blouse factory in Philadelphia.

What brought him to Johnstown? My father and mother were married in Philadelphia, and, as sometimes happens in families, there were family arguments, and they were very unhappy with the situation.

My mother was educated in Hungary. It's surprising that at that time most of the immigrants, who came from foreign countries had no education of any kind, but mother growing up in Austria-Hungary, which was a Catholic country, had Catholic schools, but required all children to go to school.

She went to school until she was about 13, and then she had an individual teacher, who taught her bookkeeping. And she was a bookkeeper, and worked for a wholesale house until she came to the United States.

She never expected to come here, but she came, and she and my father, as I said, were married. And there was difficulty in the family, and the reason why I give you this background is mother was an avid reader, and she used to get--I guess with most nationalities, there were nationality papers at that time for immigrants to read. And she always got the daily Hungarian paper, and in that Hungarian paper, she had read about this wonderful Jewish community that was in Youngstown, Ohio.

So when my father and mother decided that they were going to do something about the family situation, mother felt that they should leave Philadelphia, and they should go west. And so my father--they didn't have money for both of them to come, so my father got on the train with the intention of going to Youngstown.

At that time, it isn't like it is today, at that time, the conductor would call out the name of the community--the next community, where the train would stop. My father mistook Johnstown for Youngstown, and he got off the train here in Johnstown.

Martha Banda talks about push-and-pull today

Grammaphone icon signals oral history interviewMy daughters, the one daughter lives in Florida, I think when they think about Johnstown, they think of safe, they think of friendly, they think of no job. If they came here, where would they work? What would they do?

I do have a son-in-law who is an engineer, who left--I'm going to say 21 years ago, works for Eaton Corporation. Looked into coming back here to work at CTC, but he would have to come in at entry level. And he wasn't going to do that, so they think of Johnstown as a very fond place to live. They have good memories. It's nice. It's very safe, but they couldn't progress here, and I think that that's okay.

I think that the people who are moving in we should embrace them. We should embrace the Indian community that's coming in, the Vietnamese community that's coming in. I think that we shouldn't look at the Hispanics well now they're the bottom of this order, this pecking order. We should embrace all of them and bring them into the community. And sometimes maybe we should get rid of that little old boy network that we've kept around here for 60, 70 years.

I think the new immigrants that are coming in--about four years ago my husband and I visited India, and when we returned we were invited to the 50th anniversary of the Indian Independence from Great Britain, to their celebration.

And it was a real eye-opener, because Nick and I were the only two that would be considered Caucasians. We were not of the Indian community, but we would be introduced to Dr. So-and-So and Mrs. Dr. So-and-So and Engineer So-and-So and Mrs. Accountant So-and-So.

I mean these people are to be really reckoned with, because they are intelligent. They're vibrant. They're a good part of the community. I haven't seen them really included in the political end of it. I haven't seen them included on committees or--and community service, other than they are the doctors, they are the lawyers, they are really prominent.

And they told me that, and it was a doctor, I don't remember his name, he said that when they come over, they will go, they'll get a job at CTC, because they know from living in India how much $50,000 is worth for an eight-hour job. But Americans want $80,000 for that same eight hours. So they will go to Canada, come into the United States even through Canada, because they will work for that money.

And they have become within the last maybe 20, 25 years, the second wealthiest ethnic group in the United States; the first is the Jew, the second is the Indian, and I thought that was very fascinating. I think that they are an asset to the community.

Vietnamese, they are so hard working, and they will start at the bottom, and they will educate their children. My male(?) manicurist is Vietnamese. They work hard, and they bring--her sister is working next to her, her husband is working next to her. There are four or five people in that shop, and they start at 8:00 o'clock, and they work till 8:00 o'clock. And they are an asset. Their children will go to school. They will become educated. And I think we're seeing like the regrowth again of America. It's a good thing. It really is.

Oh, I know what I wanted to tell you the doctor that told me--he tells his son and his daughter that they will only marry Indians. And I said, "Ha-ha. You just wait." I went through that, you know, 'marry your own kind', and they're not going to marry their own kind. They're going to be exposed to other nationalities, and they're going to fall in love.

And he said, "No. You don't understand. You're all white. You can't see a difference. They can see a difference with us. We tell our children, 'You will marry an Indian'", but I see more and more where they're integrating, and they're intermarrying, and I think that's just part of this melting pot that we have that's America, and it's a good thing.


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