Photograph by Nick Kupensky (2015).
By the turn of the century, John Žinčak Smith had become the most accomplished Carpatho-Rusyn businessman and community leader in Mahanoy City, and in 1908, Smith moved his family from their modest West Centre Street home to this monumental mansion at the corner of South Main and East Spruce Street. Built at a cost of $40,000, the mansion included fourteen rooms, four chandeliers, wooden cabinets, and a number of stained glass windows (Mahanoy Area 2004, 15). Just as he changed his name from Ioann Žinčak to John Smith nearly 30 years earlier, his move from the predominantly Slavic, Catholic West End to the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant East End symbolized his meteoric rise from his humble origins to the economic elite of the region.
However, not all Carpatho-Rusyn Americans viewed Smith’s prosperity favorably. One parishioner penned an anonymous letter to the Carpatho-Rusyn newspaper Postup (The Progress) that sharply criticizes Smith as “a former nobody who wants to stand on the brow of the Rusyn people in America.” The author implies that Smith is embarrassed by being Carpatho-Rusyn, for “he doesn’t speak Rusyn with his children at home” and “is ashamed of his father’s last name” (“From Mahanoy City, PA: Our Chairman” 1908: 3).
The letter also references the way in which Smith unilaterally conducted the affairs of St. Mary’s as its honorary president. Even though he would only show up to the board meetings once every few months, according to the author, he would immediately get up, put on his hat, and leave if the board rejected his proposals.
The identity of the author very well could have been the paper’s editor Viktor Hladyk, who was the former editor of the Russian Brotherhood Organization’s newspaper Pravda (The Truth) but had to relinquish control of it to the RBO after a year at its helm. As a consequence of this, Hladyk and Smith seem to have had a falling out, for when he visited Mahanoy City in 1908, Hladyk had a chilly reunion with Smith, who refused to drink with him.
Whether the letter is authentic or not, the parishioners of St. Mary’s do remember that Smith assumed a privileged position within the church. During services, Smith didn’t sit in the pews alongside the common people; instead, he had a large, wooden seat reserved specifically for him in the very front of the church on the right side of the iconostasis. Others also suggested that Smith employed less than honest business practices in the Rusyn American Bank and implied that money sent to family members through the bank didn’t always reach their relatives.
Kubek and Smith seem to have had a cordial relationship, and part of the reason may be that since Smith and the church board dealt with the operations of St. Mary’s, Kubek had more free time to pursue his writing. That being said, Kubek seems to approach a slightly parodic representation of Smith in one of his most artistically successful short stories “Palko Rostoka” (1922), for the eponymous character is a highly-successful, well-respected community leader with a double identity as a poor Carpatho-Rusyn villager and an influential American self-made man.
Specters from the Past: Kubek’s “Palko Rostoka”
Like he did in “Merry Christmas,” Kubek draws upon Mahanoy City and the biography of Smith to create the setting and central character of “Palko Rostoka”. The story takes place in the town of “Northwest,” which is “a town like all American towns.” Since its residents are “a working people from all over Europe,” the city itself is described as “a whole Babylon” where “there isn’t a single European language that can’t be heard on the streets.” Furthermore, the neighborhood of Northwest where most of the story takes place is called “Pleasant Hill,” which seems to be a creative adaptation of a real Mahanoy City locale of the same name. At the beginning of the 20th century, Pleasant Hill was a picnic ground just to the north of the city’s business district. It had a grove of birch trees and a band stand where concerts were held in the summer, and St. Mary’s often held church picnics there.
The title character also bears a number of similarities to John Žinčak Smith as well. Like Smith, Palko Rostoka grows up in poverty in Europe, Americanizes his name to “Paul Smith” after immigrating, and builds a successful career in the United States. Both Smiths are associated with classical music; John Žinčak Smith’s New York apartment was the former residence of the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, and Paul plays Mozart sonatas on his Stradivarius violin. Both have a slight British – not American – accent; John Žinčak Smith first learned English while working in Liverpool, England, and Paul Smith “judging by his speech […] seems to be English.” Both are populist community leaders; John Žinčak Smith during his presidency of the GCU and RBO was a constant advocate for raising the amount of money members would receive for injuries or death, and Paul, as the foreman of the Northwest automobile factory, negotiates on behalf of the workers to secure a shorter working day and higher wages. Finally, both shaved their facial hair as a sign of Americanization; John Žinčak Smith abandoned his prominent mustache by the time he moved to the East End and went clean-shaven for the rest of his life; in the beginning of “Palko Rostoka,” Paul Smith “wears not just a mustache but a full beard,” but by the end of the story, he shaves his beard to suit the American style.
The similarities between John and Paul Smith, however, are not absolute, and we should not view the two Smiths as perfect doubles. Kubek’s story creatively dramatizes the tension between Carpatho-Rusyn and American identities that was undoubtedly experienced by the community’s economic and intellectual elites (like John Žinčak Smith and likely Kubek as well). This collision between the past and the present, Europe and America, poverty and wealth, and shame and pride occurs in the story when one day Paul encounters a “dirty,” “shirtless” bum with “holes in his shoes” and “smelling of whiskey.” It turns out this is Ivan Ponti, an international swindler who framed Paul for a murder that Ponti committed. Paul subsequently spent six months in prison in Europe. When he was released, he discovered that his father Stefan died from grief, and the skeptical villagers refused to interact with him any longer, which prompted Paul to change his name and emigrate to the United States.
After a number of years, Ponti also came to America but is struggling to make a living. When he recognizes Paul on the streets of Northwest, Ponti initially asks for help and then attempts to blackmail Paul by exposing his identity to his wife. Threatened by the revelation of “the shame of his youth,” Paul seizes Ponti by the throat, and the two start a violent fight. In the dark of night, they stumble upon a mine shaft, and Ponti slips and falls to his death. As he fell, Ponti grabbed Paul’s pocket watch, which had a picture of his wife inside, and the watch is discovered along with Ponti’s corpse. Although the detective in charge of the case assumes that Ponti stole it from the Smith residence, Paul realizes that he can’t run from his past forever and confesses to his wife and employer that he isn’t really American. They both forgive him and only ask that he shave his old-world beard to assimilate fully into American life.
As is the case in many of Kubek’s works, the question raised when reading “Palko Rostoka” is which of Kubek’s literary personalities predominates: Kubek the moralist or Kubek the satirist? In her article “From the Starŷi Krai to the New World: Rusyn-American Literature,” Elaine Rusinko has argued for the former and makes the case that “Palko Rostoka” expresses values that are “typically Rusyn,” for the moral of the story is that “the keys to success are hard work, modesty, temperance, and economy; and the virtuous man who achieves success is not materialistic, but kind, and most important, unpretentious” (2009, 277).
At the same time, we can see the story of Palko Rostoka’s transformation into Paul Smith as a subtle parody of the life of John Žinčak Smith. Smith’s name is embedded into the two characters through Ponti’s first name (Ivan) and Paul’s last name (Smith), and Paul’s dual confrontation with his swindler double (Ponti) and “shameful” European identity (Palko) can be seen as the manifestation of Ioann Žinčak’s psychic struggle with his lucrative (and, perhaps, exploitative) business career, on the one hand, and his justifiably celebrated reputation as one of the most important Rusyn-American cultural leaders, on the other. In this respect, Paul’s accidental murder of Ponti embeds a second moral into the story; one can, in fact, be a Rusyn-American without having to sacrifice or be ashamed of either side of the hyphen, but in order to achieve this reconciliation, one first has to eliminate the greedy, dishonest materialist inside each of us.
By Emil Kubek
[Description of the Smith House in Pleasant Hill]
The old folks remember when the hills surrounding the city were covered by forests, but now everything is bare, except on hill above the city there remains a two- or three-acre grove, as if a memory from the old days; and this charming area of the city is called “Pleasant Hill.” A dance hall is cut out between the trees, and in the middle of the grove is the main clearing where teenagers and children enjoy themselves.
But this place is far from being a forest. The pine trees are scratched, and boys in love have carved so many initials and hearts into the beeches that the trees won’t go on living.
It was as if this grove was created only to show the capability of man for devastation. It looks like a small and rare bouquet on a bald head. Not a single bird’s voice was heard any longer in the grove; they were killed and completely driven out.
Below Pleasant Hill still in the shadow of the forest stands an orderly house tucked away in a large garden near the automobile factory. In the garden, aside from vegetables, plants, and many flowers, the house itself appears as if it is a large red gazebo; up above, the roses rise up like porch steps, and the walls are covered in roses.
On the porch in the cool of the afternoon, in a colossal chair sits a young woman around twenty-five years old sewing a white handkerchief with silk thread, and looks after her five-year-old son, who is rocking back and forth on a wooden horse. In the other chair sits a maybe forty-year-old man, pensive, deep in his own thoughts, as if he didn’t remember that he was in the presence of his own family.
[Paul’s Confrontation with Ponti]
– He-he-he, I want money, a lot of money . . . so that I can live easily and not be old . . . , – and as is the custom of drunks, Ponti started crying – “and you see, brother, I need to have whiskey . . . a lot of whiskey. Only then am I happy. I forget everything. Take me into your house, clothe me, completely look after me, and a lot, a lot of whiskey . . .
– You wretched scoundrel, into my house? Tomorrow I’ll get you a ticket to San Francisco and there you can go to work . . .
– To work? He-he-he, brother, you’re really funny! If I knew how to and wanted to work, I wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t look like this.
– No? Then hide yourself on the outskirts of town . . . because . . .
– Hide? But before I do, I’ll stop by to Mr. Paul Smith’s place, candidate for vice-president of the factory, and I’ll let Mrs. Paul Smith know that her husband . . . he-he-he . . . sat in prison for half a year . . .