Elizabeth Smetana Miller (1858-1944)

When I use prompts or themes to write with challenges such as “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” or the much loved but long-gone “Carnival of Genealogy,” usually I either read the theme and know immediately who or what I will write about, or it takes a great deal of thought to come up with something. This week, for Week 3 of the 2022 “52 Ancestors” theme of “Favorite Photo,” I discovered a third option: I knew exactly which photo I wanted to write about, but then it was as if another ancestor was like a child raising her hand and yelling, “Me! Me! Pick me!” When your great-great-grandmother metaphorically speaks to you, listen – as it turns out, I had already written about my “other” favorite photo in 2015, and my 2nd great grandmother’s life was quite extraordinary in simple ways. Her name was Elizabeth Smetana Miller. Her ancestors were “pioneers” of sorts, fleeing religious persecution and settling – even founding towns – in a foreign land. In her youth, her family and several others moved 90 miles away from their birthplace in search of better things. Later, as a mother, her children began to migrate even further away to the United States. I have a documented oral history from a cousin that tells even more of her story: she cared for her younger children plus five grandchildren for over a year. Then, after seeing her grandchildren and one son off to America, she faced widowhood and a world war on their doorstep. Surviving the war years, she would make one more journey – this time to America herself – where she lived another quarter century as the family matriarch in Metuchen, New Jersey. The few facts and stories tell me she was one tough cookie!

Here is my favorite photograph of Elizabeth Smetana Miller. It was taken on Long Island, NY in 1925 and she is holding her great-granddaughter Lucille. Besides wanting to tell Elizabeth’s story, I chose this as my current “favorite” photo for several reasons. I was able to see and photograph it in the summer of 2014, but I had only learned the previous year that Elizabeth immigrated to the United States. I had assumed she died in Poland and was quite excited to discover otherwise. Finding the cousin that had the photos and stories – as well as finding out about Elizabeth’s long life – was a mix of genuine research and serendipitous good luck!

Elizabeth Smetana Miller (age 67) and her great-granddaughter in 1925

Elizabeth Smetana was born on 06 April 1858 in Zelów, a town that is in Poland today. Then Poland did not exist as a country, and this area was under Russian rule. Her family, and most of the town of Zelów, had lived in the area that is now Poland for over a century, but they were ethnically Czechs from Bohemia. Her name in Czech is Alžběta Smetanová; in Polish it is Elżbieta Smietana.

She was the fifth child born to Pavel Samuel Smetana and Anna Karolina Jelinek (Jelínková). Pavel’s ancestry will be discussed later this year for another theme of “52 Ancestors” – for now let’s just say there are some questions about his parentage. But Anna’s ancestors are among the “founding fathers” of Zelów and some of the other Protestant Czech settlements that proceeded it as they were fleeing religious persecution in their homeland (read about one of her ancestors here). Both sets of Anna’s grandparents, Jan Jelinek-Maria Pospischil (Pospíšilová) and Jan Jirsak-Anna Nemecova, moved to the town within the first few years of its founding in 1802.

Zelów was founded as a farming community, but as the town grew, residents who were not landowners became weavers. Their skills led them to migrate to two larger cities that had a need for skilled textile workers: Łódź and Żyrardów. During Elizabeth’s childhood, approximately in the 1870s, at least eight Zelów families moved to Żyrardów for these opportunities.

In addition to the Smetana family, the family of Matej and Marie (Szara) Miller were among those who moved. The Miller family had a son, Jan, who was born in Zelów on 24 November 1849. He was almost a decade older than Elizabeth, but the pair were married by 1880.

Elizabeth and Jan Miller had eight children:

  • Emil born on 22 December 1881
  • Marya (Mary) born on 24 March 1884
  • Karolina born on 12 March 1886
  • Elizabeth born on 19 November 1890 (my great-grandmother)
  • Paweł born on 11 December 1893
  • Alfred born on 18 April 1896
  • Zofie born on 03 April 1903

Their oldest son, Emil, was the first to emigrate to America in 1904, followed by his wife and daughter. Jan and Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth followed in 1909. In 1912, Mary, now the wife of Ludwik Szulc (Shultz), followed her husband. At the time, the Shultz’s had five children, but Mary left the children – temporarily – with her parents, Jan and Elizabeth. It is through Mary’s oldest daughter, Louise, that I know about their living arrangement. Louise was born in 1903 and was only a girl of nine when her parents left for the U.S. For a year Louise lived with her siblings, grandparents, uncles and one aunt who was the same age as her. Decades later, Louise told her story to the Ellis Island Oral History Project. [The entire story of Louise Schultz and her family is told in a 3-part series of posts beginning with Life in Poland and the Decision to Leave (Part 1); I repeat a few snippets here.]

Elizabeth was now responsible for her own four children still at home – ages 19, 16, 12, and 9, as well as her daughter Mary’s five children – ages 9, 8, 6, 4, and 3. In addition to the added responsibility of caring for five young grandchildren, Elizabeth was the sole supporter of the family because her husband Jan was sick.

Jan and Elizabeth Miller in 1913 with four of their children and the Schultz grandchildren. Left: Ludwik Miller, Zofia Miller, Elzbieta Miller, Louise (Ludwika) Schultz, Alfred Miller, girl in front – Julia Schultz, Jan Miller, Pawel Miller, Henry Schultz, Edward Schultz.

Louise, like most 9-year-olds, thought her grandmother “was old, but actually she was not.” [Note: her grandmother was 55 years old at the time.] Louise explains, “My grandfather was sick; he was in bed. She was very fast, my grandmother. She worked the looms, one on one side and one on the other so she could make enough money.”

Finally, on 06 August 1913, Mary and Ludwig Schultz sent enough money for their children to immigrate, accompanied by their uncle Alfred Miller. Just three weeks later, Jan Miller passed away on 25 August, leaving Elizabeth a widow with three children still at home: Paweł, Ludwik, and Zofie. Perhaps she had hopes of joining her adult children in America, but those hopes were dashed by the “Great War.”

When the war began, Żyrardów was on the front line. Hundreds of workers were drafted into the army. Because of the decrease in workers and the lack of raw materials, the factory began to reduce production. Food prices increased. As German troops made their way through Russian Poland, martial law was declared.

In early 1915, goods, raw materials, and machines were removed from the textile factory. The town was deserted due to forced digging of trenches, general displacement, and epidemics of infectious diseases. The worst came after the collapse of the front line of Płock-Bzura-Rawka. On the night of July 16, 1915, the retreating Russian army blew up the main factory buildings. By the end of 1915, the town was under German occupation. During that time, charity committees were abolished and strict food regulation was imposed.

In an article in The New York Times on October 26, 1915 (originally printed in The Chicago Tribune on September 24), reporter James O’Donnell Bennett writes about crossing “Russian Poland” which at that time in the war was in German or Austrian control. He writes:

Often in the last five days I have made the experiment of looking out over the wide landscape to see if I could find an unscathed tract of country. Always the experiment is a failure. Always a shattered church tower notches itself against the sky or a battered village lies crumpled at the edge of fields.

The reporter mentions several towns his party traveled through, including Żyrardów. He describes the whole country as

…flyblown and sodden and a ‘nobody cares’ atmosphere envelops it…It is all waste and wreckage, wreckage and waste, a land of grime and ruin and sour smells, of silent fields and slatternly women, of weary sentries…

Louise said her aunt eventually told her what it was like during the war and “how awful it was when the German army went through the town.” Louise realized that she and her siblings “just missed the horror of a war. They used to hide in cellars and had no food. My grandmother went from one farm to another to beg for a piece of bread.”

It is believed that Elizabeth’s son Paweł was part of the Soviet roundups in Żyrardów that sent residents to Siberia. He did not return from the exile and presumably died there. Elizabeth’s daughter, Karolina Miller Razer, may have suffered the same fate; her sister Zofie later told her niece Louise that Karolina died “in prison”.

Ludwik Miller, a young teenager, either joined or was conscripted into the Russian Army sometime during the Great War. He survived the experience and lived a long life. [Although he visited the United States, he never immigrated and remained in Żyrardów.]

The oldest son, Emil Miller, who was the first of the family to immigrate to America, actually returned to Poland in 1913 after the death of his father. He brought his wife and their children, two of whom were born in America, but after the war began there was no way to leave. Emil and one of his daughters died in Poland during the war. Emil’s wife, Zofja, and American-born son Edward could finally return to America in 1927 (Edward) and 1929 (Zofja). Another daughter (Wanda) stayed behind in Żyrardów.

Widowed Elizabeth and her youngest child, Zofie, would eventually immigrate to America themselves. They sailed aboard the Megantic from Liverpool and arrived in Portland, Maine on 10 December 1920.  Elizabeth a lived for a time with Alfred in New York, then with Mary in New Jersey. 

I’d like to know more about Elizabeth’s life in America, but I only know where she lived and that she died on 08 November 1944 at the age of 86 (even though her obituary says 81 – I have her birth record!) Thanks to other snippets of her life gleaned through her granddaughter Louise’s memories, I think she was a brave woman. Like her forefathers before her, she also made trips in her life in search of better things. She worked hard for her family, cared for her husband, and suffered both the separation from her children and grandchildren as well as the deaths of some of her children. She also had to be of strong character to endure the suffering caused by World War 1 from 1914-1918 and continued with the Polish-Soviet War from 1918-1921. She was fortunately to be able to leave the country while it was at war.

Elizabeth was 62 when she arrived in America and she lived for another 24 years. In fact, she had a longer lifespan than her husband, probably all of her children (Ludwik’s death date is unknown, but he was alive in 1977 at age 83), and even longer than the majority of her grandchildren who grew up in relative comfort in America as compared to her life in Poland.

Sources:

  • Štěříková, Edita: Zelów (Česká exulantská obec v Polsku), published by KALICH, Prague 2002, ISBN 80-7017-793-4
  • Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1826-1888. Authors: Kościół ewangelicko-reformowany. Parafja Zelów (Łask) (Main Author). Format:Manuscript/Manuscript on Film. Publication: Salt Lake City, Utah: The Genealogical Society of Utah, 1970, 1980, 1990.
  • Ellis Island Oral History Project. Series AKRF, no. 0033: Interview of Louise Nagy by Dana Gumb, September 16,1985
  • “Zigzagging Over Poland” by James O’Donnell Bennett, The New York Times, October 26, 1915, page 3.
Finding the photo of my 2nd great-grandmother courtesy of her great-granddaughter, Judy.
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Life in America (Part 3)

This 3-part series of posts uses my cousin’s interview in 1985 with the Ellis Island Oral History Project. Part 1 tells the story of Ludwig and Mary Schultz, who came to America in 1912 and temporarily left their five children with Mary’s parents. In Part 2, their daughter, Louise, discusses  living with her grandparents and the eventual journey across the ocean to join their parents.  In today’s post, Part 3 will tell more about what happened after their arrival, how the family left behind fared in Poland after they left, and how everyone’s life eventually turned out.

The Family Left Behind

Before discussing the Schultz family’s life in America, one interesting question asked by the interviewer in 1985 was: “Do you have any idea of what would have happened to you if you stayed in Poland, if you hadn’t come here?”

Louise responded: “Pretty awful, because we came in 1913 and in 1914 the first World War broke out.” What happened to the grandparents, uncles, and aunts they left behind?

The children’s grandfather and Alfred’s father, Jan Miller, died just three weeks after they left Poland. He passed away on 25 August 1913, leaving Elżbieta a widow with three children still at home: Paweł, Ludwik, and Zofie.

When the war began, Żyrardów was on the front line. Hundreds of workers were drafted into the army. Because of the decrease in workers and the lack of raw materials, the factory began to reduce production. Food prices increased. As German troops made their way through Russian Poland, martial law was declared.

In early 1915, goods, raw materials, and machines were removed from the factory. The town was deserted due to forced digging of trenches, general displacement, and epidemics of infectious diseases. The worst came after the collapse of the front line of Płock-Bzura-Rawka. On the night of July 16, 1915, the retreating Russian army blew up the main factory buildings. By the end of 1915, the town was under German occupation. During that time, charity committees were abolished and strict food regulation was imposed.

In an article in The New York Times on October 26, 1915 (originally printed in The Chicago Tribune on September 24), reporter James O’Donnell Bennett writes about crossing “Russian Poland” which at that time in the war was in German or Austrian control. He writes:

Often in the last five days I have made the experiment of looking out over the wide landscape to see if I could find an unscathed tract of country. Always the experiment is a failure. Always a shattered church tower notches itself against the sky or a battered village lies crumpled at the edge of fields.

The reporter mentions several towns his party traveled through, including Żyrardów. He describes the whole country as “flyblown and sodden and a ‘nobody cares’ atmosphere envelops it…It is all waste and wreckage, wreckage and waste, a land of grime and ruin and sour smells, of silent fields and slatternly women, of weary sentries…”

Louise said her aunt eventually told her what it was like during the war and “how awful it was when the German army went through the town.” Louise realized that she and her siblings “just missed the horror of a war. They used to hide in cellars and had no food. My grandmother went from one farm to another to beg for a piece of bread.”

Ludwik Miller

I am not certain exactly what happened to Paweł Miller. According to Louise, her aunt Zofie said he was part of the Soviet roundups in Żyrardów that sent residents to Siberia. He did not return from the exile and presumably died there. Their sister, Karolina Miller Razer, may have suffered the same fate; Zofie said she died “in prison”.

Ludwik Miller, a young teenager, either joined or was conscripted into the Russian Army sometime during the Great War. He survived the experience and lived a long life. Ludwik did not immigrate to America. He married twice and had no children, and owned a footwear store in Żyrardów. He died there sometime after 1977.

Elizabeth Smetana Miller with great-granddaughter, Lucille (Louise’s daughter). Long Island, NY, 1925.

The oldest brother, Emil Miller, who was the first of the family to immigrate to America, actually returned to Poland in 1913 after the death of his father. He brought his wife and their children, two of whom were born in America, but after the war began there was no way to leave. Emil and one of his daughters died in Poland during the war. Emil’s wife, Zofja, and American-born son Edward could finally return to America in 1927 (Edward) and 1929 (Zofja). Another daughter stayed behind in Żyrardów.

Widowed Elżbieta and her youngest child, Zofie, would eventually immigrate to America themselves. They sailed aboard the Megantic from Liverpool and arrived in Portland, Maine on 10 December 1920.  Elżbieta, or Elizabeth as she was called in America, lived for a time with Alfred in New York, then with Mary in New Jersey.  She died on 08 November 1944.

The Schultz Family in America

Finally in America after a long, scary journey, Louise said, “My first impression was pretty awful! Because [in Poland] we lived surrounded by trees and orchards and little houses by themselves.” In America, they lived in downtown Manhattan “on 16th Street, that’s where we moved first. The place looked dirty to me, crowded dirty.”  But the family adjusted. Louise was particularly good at learning the new language and communicating on behalf of her parents who, according to her, did not make as much of an effort in assimilating.

The Schultz Family in America, circa 1923. Top row from left: Louise, Mary, Ludwig, Edward. Bottom row from left: Walter, Julia, Henry.

The Schultz family enjoyed their new lives in America. They lived in Brooklyn, then in New Jersey’s Somerset county. Eventually they moved to Metuchen in Middlesex county, New Jersey. Ludwig died in 1950 at the age of 77, and Mary in 1969 at the age of 85.

Henry, who never married, was the first of the Schultz children to die in 1954 at only 46 years old. Edward married and had three children; he died in 1984 at the age of 75. Walter, a decorated U.S. Army Air Corps veteran, died in 1986 at the age of 78. Louise, the source of this wonderful story, married twice and had two daughters; she died in 1990 at the age of 87. The youngest, Julia, married and moved to California where she had two children; she died in 2003 at the age of 93.

I should also note what happened to Alfred Miller, the brave teenaged uncle who brought his nieces and nephews to America! Alfred lived with the Schultz family for some time. In 1921, he got married. The couple had a daughter in 1922 and a son in 1926. Alfred died in 1969, two months after his sister Mary, in Piscataway, NJ.

The only Miller sibling that I did not provide an update on was Elizabeth, my great-grandmother. See her story and a photograph of her with her brother Alfred, sister Mary, and some of the Schultz children here.

Louise Schultz Nagy

When Louise was 82 years old, she was interviewed about the journey she took as a young girl for the Ellis Island Oral History Project. Thanks to that transcript, I was able to learn not only about traveling by ship to America, but also a little about her family, what life was like in Poland before and after she left, and her impressions about life in America. Thank you, cousin Louise, for sharing your journey with all of us!