For Marshall Katz, creating the nonprofit website Sub-Carpathia Genealogy was both a labor of love and a step back into the past.
Katz’s family immigrated to the United States from the Subcarpathia region of Europe, composed of the eastern sections of Hungary and Slovakia that border present-day Ukraine. The area was home to a large Jewish community. His grandfather came to America alone in 1905, making a stop first in New York and eventually settling in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, 12 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
“He was only 15 years old,” Katz said. “I think it was pretty brave to come to America by yourself.”
The family patriarch opened a butcher shop before returning home to Europe. He was conscripted into the Hungarian army during World War I, captured by the Russians and held as a prisoner of war in Siberia. In 1918 he came back to his village, started a family and in 1923 returned to the U.S.
Curious about his family roots, Katz began a quest that would lead him back and forth between the United States and Eastern Europe, and ultimately to the creation of a website to help others discover their own family histories as well.
At the outset of his research, Katz found the manifest of the ship that brought his grandfather to America.
“It said the village he came from, but I could only find one reference to it on the internet,” he explained.
But that internet clue led to someone in Detroit whose family was from the same Hungarian village as Katz’s. Remarkably, both families had settled near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where Katz’s father had owned a kosher butcher shop.
Katz’s new virtual friend had a nephew still living in the Subcarpathian village.
“I ended up staying in his house three or four years in a row,” Katz said.
The Hungarian house where he stayed was down the road from his own family’s ancestral home. Katz explained that those trips gave him an appreciation for village life in Europe.
“Everything’s a barter system,” he said. “You raise chickens and have eggs, you take the eggs down to the guy with some cows and get some milk.”
After the Soviet Union closed its border in 1945, the members of Katz’s family who survived the Holocaust were trapped there until glasnost. A cousin eventually left Ukraine and came to America, settling in Columbus, Ohio. He assisted Katz in filling in some of the missing pieces about his family.
Katz, a retired Air Force serviceman, has spent the last several years traveling through Subcarpathia, cataloging its villages and towns.
“There are 631 cities, towns and villages and I’ve been to all of them,” he said.
As part of his travels, Katz visited all of the region’s 240 surviving Jewish cemeteries, photographing all of the 25,000 tombstones he found.
Those photos are available, along with their English translations, for free on his website.
Katz has also noted all of the towns and villages he has visited and provides information about each stop on his site. He views this as a service to those who are unable or unwilling to venture to Eastern Europe or Ukraine, “mostly because their families talked negatively about what the Ukrainians did during World War II, turning the Jews in and those sorts of things,” he said.
Katz is quick to point out that the Subcarpathia region has a unique history and makes for challenging research.
“My great-grandfather never moved but his house has been in five countries,” Katz said. “Records are all over the place.”
In addition to tombstones and information about the individual towns and villages, Katz’s site offers travel tips gleaned from his yearly trips to the region.
He has also cataloged many synagogues, including ones that have been altered from their original purpose.
“There’s a lot of shells of the old synagogues,” Katz said. “There’s one synagogue the Soviets turned into a culture center and auditorium. There’s a small synagogue I participated in the restoration of. I donated money, so did my cousin. Both our names are up on the wall.”
Families with roots in the region can find other information about their ancestors including “vital records, Holocaust records” on the site, said Katz. “It’s pretty comprehensive.”
Katz provides access for users to research family trees and records for free. If someone has an interest in a particular record, they can purchase it for a modest fee.
The website may be of particular interest to people in Western Pennsylvania as thousands of Hungarian Jews settled near McKeesport, Katz noted.
Both Poale Zedeck in Pittsburgh and Gemilas Chesed in McKeesport were founded by Hungarian immigrants, said Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. In fact, the charters of both congregations explicitly stated they were Hungarian congregations.
Other synagogues that dotted the Eastern suburbs also had large Hungarian contingents, including Agudath Achim in Braddock, Ohav Zedeck in East Pittsburgh, Homestead Hebrew Congregation in Homestead and Ohav Shalom in Donora.
“The website has been a big success for a lot of people,” Katz said. “There are people who have been looking for information for 30 or 45 years and, yep, I’ve got it. I’m happy to provide the service.”
Those interested can explore the website at sub-carpathia-genealogy.org. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.