by Alex Janowicz
My family is originally from what is now Slovakia, and like many others, they immigrated to America in search of the freedom to create a better life for themselves. My maternal great grandparents were born in Austria-Hungary to poor families that led simple lives. However, even though that was all they knew, they still wanted something more. I’ve learned about the Austro-Hungarian Empire in school, but it’s still hard to imagine that just three generations ago it was my family’s home. Although I’m sure life there was never easy, the Bosnian Crisis pushed my maternal grandfather to a point where he couldn’t stay there any longer.
Escape was the challenge of a lifetime. Supposedly, he had to kill one of the Emperor’s footmen to get away, but nothing could stand in his way. He trekked through the rugged Carpathian Mountains for weeks just to get out of the country, and from there, he strained and struggled all the way to Western Europe where he was able to get on a boat to America. He spent every penny he had on a steerage ticket, so after three grueling weeks at sea when he arrived on Ellis Island, things were still far from smooth sailing. He continued to pursue the American dream despite all the hurdles he faced and eventually started a family during one of the most challenging eras in the country’s history. During the outbreak of the Great Depression, my grandfather was born.
My grandma’s dad was a first-generation immigrant but grew up around the same time, so he faced very similar challenges. As the oldest of eight children, he had to quit school in the fifth grade and work in a coal mine to support his family. Because of his work though, his youngest brother was able to attend college and his sisters finished high school. Eventually, he left the mines, trained as a carpenter, and got married.
When the depression hit, they had two baby girls but no job, so they moved to Detroit to hopefully find work in an automobile factory. Unfortunately though, it was in vain. However, my great grandmother did get a job. Shortly thereafter, she became pregnant with my grandmother. Eventually, they moved back to Pennsylvania and settled in the small town of Washington, PA. Work there was scarce though, so to provide for themselves, they had to get creative. My grandma’s dad converted the back of their car into a makeshift truck bed that he filled with produce. He drove it back and forth to Pittsburgh every day, selling to anyone willing to buy.
Somehow, they eventually managed to buy a little store in town called Clover Farm and everyone ran it together as a family. When my grandma was only four years old, she would stand on a milk box, answer the phone, then call her mother to take the order. Her dad delivered the orders in the afternoon. That was their life. Unlike most families at the time, they believed wholeheartedly in the value of education, so my grandmother and all her siblings went to college. My grandma studied education and home-economics and graduated in 1955.
My grandpa had a similar story, having grown up in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression, and the hardships he overcame procured an unparalleled sentiment of American pride in him. He was so passionate to defend the country that during World War II, he dropped out of school at sixteen, lied about his age, and joined the Marines. He was also a pilot in the Korean War. After his service, he and my grandmother met and quickly fell in love. They moved to New Jersey and both became teachers and ultimately started a humble family of their own.
They passed on the same hallmark American values that they developed to my parents, and my parents did the same to me. Since my ancestors first immigrated here, with hard work, perseverance, courage, and ingenuity, every generation was able to make a better life for themselves than the one they were born into. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a much easier environment than any of them, but I still maintain the same values because I recognize that I would never have the life I have now without them. Their stories taught me the unbelievable opportunity that America offers the people that call it home and my appreciation for it is impossible to overstate. I am determined to continue the upward progress of my forefathers and committed to realize the American dream for myself.
About the Author
Alex was an intern at The Common Good, working on web design, event organization, and research projects. He is a rising junior at Colby College where he studies government and economics. After graduating, he plans to pursue a career in law.
In addition to his work at TCG, Alex is also the Treasurer and CLO of Vienna Capital, a private investment company he co-founded in March, 2019. There, among other things, he is working on pursuing litigation against FINRA and the SEC to challenge an unconstitutional regulation.