On Her Way: Through the Paris Menagerie

Let me start by saying that I am not French. A few of my ancestors were once Parisian, oh, about 400 or 500 years ago, but that DNA has long ago been driven out. When I look at myself I see a combination of stubborn, freckled Scottish with strong Slovak cheeks and a steady German hairline.

One of those steady German bloodlines comes from a rare place that is actually in French hands today – the Alsace-Lorraine region. It’s easy to see, when looking at images of my Alsace ancestors, how the Alsatian people, with their distinct dialect and culture, straddled the line between what we consider stereotypical German and French people. My third great-grandmother must have been a beauty in her youth. Sophia Dambach was dark-haired with large, pale eyes, a strong jaw, and a distinctive nose. Sometimes I think she looks French, sometimes Rhinish, and sometimes I wonder if she’s the source of my grandmother’s mysterious trace of Ashkenazi Jewish DNA – a mere two percent. But whatever secrets her blood held, she was Alsatian above all else.

Sophia Dambach Gelbach-1

Sophia Dambach Gelbach

Sophia was born in the village of Pfalzweyer, in the Vosges Mountains of the Alsace bossue region, near the Rhine border, on August 23, 1823. The Alsace-Lorraine region was constantly being fought over by France and other entities, from being a dowry for the Kingdom of Germany in 1299 to being sold to the Archduke of The Holy Roman Empire in 1469. While Alsace was constantly being divided and cut up into different pieces to suit others, Pfalzweyer itself remained under French control from the mid-17th century onward. By the beginning of the 19th century, Alsace had survived the French Revolution and was experiencing a post-war baby boom, which Sophia and her six older siblings were all a part of.

But the surge in population created a strain on the economy. There were food and housing shortages, and they were even felt in tiny mountain towns like Pfalzweyer, which doubled in population from 1801, with 181 people, to 1821, when there were 321 residents. Compounding this was a decrease in the value of the grain harvest, which resulted in a high cost and poor quality of bread, and a cholera outbreak in 1832. Then there were the ridiculous laws set down by the government.

In 1827, under King Louis XVIII, there was a new forestry law enacted, making the gathering of wood, leaves, acorns, beechnuts or any other items from the forest floor forbidden. Given that the village was located in the mountains, where the topsoil was thin and rocky, the forest was an essential component of everyday life. The farmers were dependent on its wood for building their homes, the dead leaves were used for stable litter and then fertilizer for the fields, their pigs were fed with acorns, and they even made an oil out of the beechnuts they collected.

The mayor of Pfalzweyer recorded this explanation for the departure of his residents, listing those families that left for more “fertile soil.”

“All these individuals have left this village for it is located on top of the Vosges mountains, where the soil is so unproductive that it needs plenty of manure, and these people are forbidden to collect the dead leaves in the forest surrounding the village,” he wrote.

The Dambachs (pronounced Dam-baugh) were part of this exodus. Sophia’s parents Christian and Juliana, aged about 60 years old, packed up their family in 1838 and set off for the port of Le Havre, an epicenter for emigration in the early 1800s. During this trip there is a curious note in the family history, passed down by one of the Dambach children, who were all young adults at the time. Sophia was the youngest at just 14. The family paused on their journey in Paris to “see the wild animals in the zoo.”

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The Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, 1794

The zoo they saw was the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, one of the first public zoos in the world. It had been formed after the French Revolution, when the the Paris police department ordered that exotic animals being exhibited on Parisian street corners be confiscated and handed over to the Museum of Natural History. These were such creatures as polar bears, mandrills, agoutis, tigers, vultures, and eagles. There the professors gave them a new home, opening the doors of the Ménagerie in 1793 to the public. It was free for everyone from the beginning, and by the spring of 1838 when the Dambachs walked through it, the Paris zoo housed as many as 400 species of mammals and birds, making it the largest exotic animal collection in Europe. In fact, 1838 also happened to be the last year that the Ménagerie was considered the premier zoo. That was the year that Frédéric Cuvier, the head zookeeper at the Ménagerie since 1804, died. The Ménagerie still exists today, and while it will never again be what it was when the Dambachs visited it in the 1830s, a walk through the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, with its historical buildings, is like stepping back in time.

It is surprising that with their adult children and increasing age the Dambachs didn’t just settle in Paris, like many of their Alsatian brethren did. But they chose not to leave just France and Europe behind them, but pressed onward across the Atlantic to America.

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From the New York Evening Post’s Marine List, Wed., July 18, 1838, pg. 3.

The Dambachs arrived in New York City on July 18, 1838 on a ship named the Alliance. The trip had taken 40 days and they were part of a group of 210 steerage passengers. Their eldest daughter Catherine, who was thirty-six, had married a man named Johannes Adam Zehner by the time of their emigration and she arrived with him and their children separately, traveling through the Baltimore port. The family was destined for Ohio, the records show, but they stopped in Western Pennsylvania instead, settling to farm in what is now Marion township in Beaver county.In the small, German-Lutheran community where they had settled, Sophia met a neighbor named Philip Gelbach, a Bavarian who had also immigrated with his family through the port of Le Havre in 1832. They married in Butler, Pennsylvania in 1846, and had seven children together. The wedding blanket that was woven for her by a master weaver – emblazoned with her name and wedding date – hangs in a museum in Pennsylvania today. Sophia lived to see a new century, dying at the age of 81 on February 22, 1907.

She saw much in her life – starting in the Vosges mountains, visiting the famed Ménagerie in Paris, crossing an ocean, traveling through 1830s New York City and trekking across Pennsylvania to pioneer a new land. Her family withstood the Civil War and discovered “black gold” in the oil fields of Butler County, setting themselves up as gentleman farmers and wealthy bankers by the turn of the century. How amazing to be able to see such a transformation of your family’s fortune in just a generation.

One day I hope to walk the paths of the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in the footsteps of Sophia.

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52 Ancestors: Anna Devecka, a Stranger in Her Own Land

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Anna Devecka Paytas, wedding portrait, 1924.

Anna “Anne” Marie Devecka Paytas (1906-1982) was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. She was also the first ancestor that really made me excited about researching my family tree. In part this was because my father’s line, which goes back to kingdom come, was full of well-researched WASPs, while the Devecka line was my more mysterious Eastern European ancestry. And in part this was because I look like her, my mother looks like her, and her mother looked like her. The Slovak blood is strong in us. And the most important reason I became interested in learning more about Anna? Because she has a really amazing story.

Anna was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Sept. 8, 1906. Her parents were Martin Devecka and Eva Majzlik, who I suspect married because of Anna’s impending birth, as census records indicate they married in late 1905 or early 1906. I have no record of their marriage yet so this could just be wishful thinking, but either way, Eva was just 16 years old when her daughter was born. She and her husband were recent immigrants from Slovakia, then part of Hungary. They immigrated separately, but probably met because they were from the same region in their home country, Liptovsky Mikulas, and were part of the Protestant minority. Many immigrants tended to form their own communities in America. Eva had come over in November 1903, at the age of 13, lying on the Ellis Island manifest and saying she was 15, probably to ensure that she was considered old enough to work. Martin, who was 22 when his first child was born, had arrived in America in the winter of 1902, settling in the Woods Run area of Pittsburgh in May 1903, then called old Allegheny City. This area borders the North Side, where an industrial riverfront attracted many Slovak, Czech and other Slavic families in the early part of the 20th century.

Soon after Anna’s birth, Eva returned to Slovakia. No one in the family is sure of why she did this – it could have been that she wanted to show her daughter off to her family there – but it was common for recent immigrants to make trips home. Eva’s hometown was Pribylina, a village in Liptovsky Mikulas that has been around since at least the 1200s, and my Majzlik family lived there for hundreds of years. Since “majzlik” literally means “chisel,” they were probably stone cutters at one point in time, though by the early 1900s, they were peasant farmers eking out a living in a depressed area, which is why many of their number were immigrating to the US.

When Eva and Anna got to Pribylina, Anna was introduced to her grandmother Anna, called Hana, whom she was probably named after, and then handed off to an aunt. Eva and her mother, who was a widow of about 55, then left for the city of Bratislava to find work in the factories there. Eva earned enough money to return to the US, with one small catch – she didn’t take Anna with her. Anna, now three, was abandoned in Pribylina – and her mother never explained why. This hurt Anna deeply for the rest of her life.

By 1909, Eva had returned to America, and in 1910 she and Martin were living in a boarding house on the North Side with other Hungarian Slovaks. He worked for the Pittsburgh Locomotive and Car Works, a railroad manufacturing company founded by Andrew Carnegie in the 1860s. Anna remained in Pribylina with her grandmother and aunt, among other relatives. It was likely that Eva couldn’t work with a small child and Martin had trouble supporting them all on one income, but this decision – to leave her daughter in Hungary – was going to have a big impact on everyone’s lives, in part because of what was about to happen to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In the summer of 1914, Anna was 7 and a half years old. Her aunt, who was one of her mother’s much older half-sisters, made her clothes for her and was generally kind. They lived just a few houses from the Lutheran church in town. Then the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, throwing the world into turmoil. The First Wold War had begun, and it was especially difficult for the Slovaks. Not only were they, as Hungarian citizens living in the western part of the Empire, caught between the warring factions of Europe, but they had been seeking independence from the Empire. With the death of Franz Ferdinand, who was supporting Slovakian autonomy, they were left to plan their campaign for independence in secret, At one point during the war, Slovak and Czech politicians held a secret meeting in Liptovsky Mikulas, a town just 10 miles from Pribylina. They were truly at the epicenter of the war.

During the war the Hungarian government, which had already been forcing the Slovakian population to assimilate for the past 30-odd years, began to crack down, censoring the Slovakian people even more in an ethnic cleansing called magyarization. Men in the town were conscripted into the Hungarian army for the war effort in the east against Russia, including Anna’s uncle Adam Majzlik, who never returned. Church bells were even melted down to make cannons for the war. The war ended in late 1918, when Anna was 12. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more.

Anna Devecka's Ellis Island record, line 13.

Anna Devecka’s 1920 Ellis Island record, line 13.

A year and a half later, Anna was deemed old enough to work. which meant she could join her family living in the United States. At 13 and a half, she was the same age her mother had been when she’d come to America just 18 years earlier. Her Ellis Island record shows that she was listed as a Czechoslovakian, and then that was crossed out and someone hand wrote “US Cit” across the page. This was an important distinction. After the Great War, American immigration policy changed drastically, and if Anna had not been born in the United States, she may very well have not been allowed in.

In 1920, Martin and Eva were living in Sharon, Pennsylvania, having both been naturalized in March. They’d done some “planned” parenting, waiting until 1912 to start having children again, which meant that Anna, or Anne, as they called her, had four younger siblings she had never met before. They were all under the age of 5, and she was expected to take care of them during the day.

Anne hated it. She was a stranger in a strange land. She was an American citizen who spoke with a broken accent and carried all of the customs of a foreign culture with her, unlike her Americanized siblings. She hadn’t been back on her homeland’s soil since she was an infant or toddler, and most likely couldn’t remember America at all, let alone the mother who had left her at three. There were certainly letters sent back and forth between the two countries – Martin lists her intimately as “Annie” in his US citizenship papers, but that was it. And now, back in the bosom of her family, she was expected to immediately become what amounts to an unpaid nanny. Most older children babysit their younger siblings in large families – it’s been the way of the world for centuries. But most older children aren’t estranged from their families for over a decade.

The Deveckas soon moved back to Pittsburgh, where there was more work for Martin at Pressed Steel. Anne found a job as a live-in maid or nanny in the household of Dr. Donald Gauger Lerch, a local area physician and surgeon. Mrs. Anna Lerch was a new mother in her early thirties, from a well-to-do family in Philadelphia. She soon discovered that Anne couldn’t read or write English, not a surprising fact considering any schooling she’d had would have been in a Hungarian-dominated country. Mrs. Lerch volunteered to teach her and was amazed to discover how clever Anne was and how quickly she learned. Anne’s memories of life in the Lerch household were fond, but that was soon to end.

Anne was told by her family that a marriage had been arranged for her. This was surprisingly common in immigrant Slovak communities, even among the children of immigrants. Anne, as a recent immigrant herself, for all that she was American, would not have thought to complain. The marriage was arranged right down to the selection of the wedding rings, and on Mar. 1, 1924, at the age of 16, Anne married Matthew Paytas, a Slovakian dairy farmer from a neighboring county. After three and a half short years learning how to manage in a big city like Pittsburgh, she was in for another complete life change.

The Paytas’ dairy farm was in Cranberry Township, a bucolic rural community in Butler County, about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh. There, Anne was expected to live with her new in-laws, Joseph and Eva Paytas, helping out on the farm and raising vegetables in their large garden to sell. Matthew Paytas, her new husband, was tall with light red hair and a long, square face. He was also adopted. His adoptive parents had taken him in as a small child, more as a way of gaining free labor rather than gaining a son. They treated him unkindly, and life in the Paytas household was far from being a warm, loving family environment.

Anne got pregnant within a month of being married. Her first child, a girl she named Irene Marie, was born Jan. 16, 1925. This was my grandmother. She was only a month younger than her uncle, Anne’s youngest brother Albert, who was born Dec. 16, 1924. Anne had three more children, who were born in quick succession – Helen Jane in 1926, Dorothea “Dorothy” Ann in 1928 and finally a son, Jerome “Jerry” Richard, born in 1932. The children all attended the Graham School, a one room schoolhouse near the farm in Cranberry. The Harmony streetcar line went through the township, offering a low rate for passengers headed to and from Pittsburgh. Being part of such a tight-knit ethnic community meant that the Paytas family might have traveled to their church, Emmanuel Slovak Evangelical Lutheran, in the North Side, for special occasions, maybe even taking the train. But money was tight. At the beginning of the 1930s, fewer than a third of the farms in Cranberry had electricity, and it is doubtful that the Paytas’ would have invested in it. Farm life was hard, and it was about to get harder.

It was the Great Depression. Joseph Paytas’ wife had died in 1931, and soon after he decided to sell the farm. He didn’t give Matthew a choice in the matter, so the Paytas family suddenly found themselves without a home or jobs. Joseph moved to live with his brother’s family, and they moved to Monaca, in Beaver County, where Matt found work at the Sanitary Works. It should have been a relief to be out from under the thumb of the Paytas elders. But Matthew was not always a happy man, and there were rumors in the family that he could be abusive, whether verbally or physically, no one knows really knows for sure.

Matthew and Anna Paytas with Elliott Granddaughters Lois and Carol, Easter Sunday 1953.

Matthew and Anna Paytas with granddaughters Lois and Carol Elliott, Easter Sunday 1953.

He and Anne were hard workers, and as the ’30s slid by, they found themselves on firmer footing. By the time Irene was in high school, they had gone back to farming in New Sewickley Township. According to family records, they purchased, for cash, 20 acres, which included a “fine home” and a barn. Their garden was for their own use for the first time and there were chickens and a few fields of grain for feed. Matt continued his work as a mixer at the Sanitary Works, and later for the American Bridge in Ambridge during WWII. He did his farming in the evenings and during the weekends, with Anne and the kids shouldering their share of the work.

Irene graduated from Freedom High School as the class valedictorian in 1943. It must have been a proud moment for two parents who’d had such hard-scrabble lives and had come from broken families. Denied the opportunity to succeed at an early age, Anne and Matt saw the American Dream realized in the lives of their children. Their second daughter, Helen, got a job as the head bookkeeper in the office of the Freedom Oil Co., where her father was just a maintenance engineer. They would see their third daughter, Dorothy, become the class salutatorian. Their son Jerry joined the military, served in the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper and a sergeant during WWII, and then went on to graduate from Geneva College. He later became an accountant and married an Italian-American registered nurse named Norma Tavolier. Irene worked at the Freedom National Bank before marrying a local Hookstown farmer, Richard S. Elliott, and Dorothy married WWII veteran Bob Campbell of Beaver Falls. After 10 years of work, Helen finally married a career military man, Chuck Whitmore. Helen and her husband lived an interesting life of travel because of his job – one of their children was even born in Morocco! By 1974, when Matthew and Anne celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, they had 15 grandchildren and 3 young great-grandchildren. They had lived to see all of their children marry, lead fulfilling middle class lives, and they had achieved the success of being able to “retire” to their farm.

Back row (left to right): Dale and Scott Campbell (Scott is the redhead). 3rd row: Lois Elliott, Robin Whitmore, Becky Paytas, Paul Brown (in Becky's arms), Gary Whitmore (with the long blond hair) and Carol Brown. 2nd row: Cindy Campbell (kneeling), Matthew and Anna Paytas (seated). Front row: Anita Paytas, Susan Whitmore, Laura Brown, Jerry Paytas.

Back row (left to right): Dale and Scott Campbell (Scott is the redhead). 3rd row: Lois Elliott, Robin Whitmore, Becky Paytas, Paul Brown (in Becky’s arms), Gary Whitmore (with the long blond hair) and Carol Elliott Brown. 2nd row: Cindy Campbell (kneeling), Matt and Anne Paytas (seated). Front row: Anita Paytas, Susan Whitmore, Laura Brown, Jerry Paytas, Jr.

There are elements to Anne’s story I know I am missing, because my mother and her siblings lived half an hour to an hour away, and didn’t often get to see the Devecka side of the family or visit “PawPaw” and “Grandma” on their farm. Anne’s relationship with her mother, for example, is a complicated mystery. While Anne was hurt by the abandonment and treatment she experienced as a child, as an adult she and her mother would visit and chatter away together in Slovak – closer perhaps because of their shared background than any of Eva’s other children. After all, they were both raised by the same woman in the same home on the same little village street in Slovakia, and may have felt more like sisters than anything else.

In 2014, after the funeral of my great-aunt Dorothy’s former husband, Uncle Bob, I got to meet two of my mother’s cousins for the first time as an adult. I was telling them some of the highlights of their grandmother Anna’s life story. This included the recent discovery that the Devecka last name was actually spelled Devečka in the old country, and was probably pronounced De-vesh-ka. When I said that word out loud, my cousin Cindy, who had been walking to the kitchen to get a drink, popped her head around the corner of the wall and exclaimed, “I remember that! I remember grandmother and her mother Eva talking in Slovak when I was little, and that’s the way they said Devecka!” Hearing the old pronunciation of the family name brought it all rushing back for her.

Anne lived to be 74. She died May 21, 1982, just 7 and a half months before I was born. Her husband and she had entered the Rees Nursing Home in New Castle, and Matt had died of bone cancer the summer before. Her mother, the tough old bird, had lived to be 87, and had only passed away 5 years previously. It’s hard to know what Anne thought of the course of her life, and the role her mother played in it. Eva was a woman hardened by a difficult existence, and my mother, aunts and their cousins only remember her as a “scary, mean old lady.” But Anne was completely different. Though she never lost her thick Slovak accent, she had a sunny personality and is remembered as being sweet, loving and always smiling. Her heartfelt joy just beams forth from every family picture. She seemed to take life in stride, and each new challenge was met with perseverance and a positive outlook on the future. I’m so happy to have inherited her smile.

This story was compiled from family memories, census, church and Ellis Island records, and from the pages of a family manuscript called “The Devecka Family Tree,” written by Anne’s brother Edward Walter Devecka, Sr. in 1983. For further citations please see my family tree on Ancestry.com.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

This year I decided to start a genealogy blog to complement my ever-growing online family tree. I’ve reached the point in my genealogical research where I’m dealing mainly with brick walls and DNA evidence, so last year consisted of a lot of “cousin bait” research. While it is always fun to find out who your distant cousins are, I realized that I needed to start fleshing out my direct ancestors a bit better, creating a stronger paperwork trail and spicing up their spots on the family tree with photos and stories.

So Amy Johnson Crow’s ingenious 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks project is just the sort of thing I was looking for. This will give me the opportunity to tell the rich, varied stories of my family lines. And of course, I hope that some of what I uncover helps other genealogists piece together their own family trees.

My 52 Ancestors In 52 Weeks:

  1. Anna Devecka, a Stranger in Her Homeland
  2. On Her Way: Through the Paris Menagerie

 

View All 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Posts