Life in the Old Country

by Henry Zart

I was born in the old Austrian Empire, which is now Yugoslavia, in the village of Kostajnevac on August 14, 1897.  I was the second child of Adam Zarth and Eva Heberling.  My older brother was named Adam.  A couple of years later, we were joined by another brother, who was named John.  My maternal grandmother lived with us, which made it quite crowded, for our home consisted of only two rooms – the kitchen and a bedroom. Adam and I had a bunk in the barn where we slept.  Most of the walls were built of yellow clay tamped into a form two feet thick.  Then they were plastered and whitewashed.  The clay was dug from pits thirty feet deep.

My mother was not able to read or write.  My father, however, had more than the average citizen’s education.  He had attended a school of higher learning for some time.  In the absence of a pastor, he would conduct services and also funerals.  He was a very ardent Bible student.  We had constant admonition as to things of the Lord.  While we did not have any musical instruments, I would accompany him many an evening in singing the old hymns that were known to him.

The countryside was rolling, located on a plateau, which had very deep and rich black soil, sometimes from three to four feet deep.  Heavy rains were common.  The winters were mild, as we were inland.  Most of the grain was wheat, with a goodly amount of corn and beans.  The wheat grew up to a height of about five feet, normally.  February was usually the month for seeding oats.  Potatoes and root crops were grown to feed the livestock. Apples, prunes, cherries, pears, and grapes grew in abundance.  There were some apricots grown.

The village where we lived was a Slav village.  The people were Roman Catholic, we being the only German, Protestant family in the village. Originally the family had come from Wuertemberg and Saxony.  They were brought to Hungary as a bulwark against the Turkish Invasion.  My grandparents came from Hungary to settle through a purchase from the government.

I started school at the age of seven.  Our schools were all religious schools, so we had to walk to the German village to school, about two miles. The main subjects were reading, writing, and arithmetic.  It was taught in German and Croatian.  However, I grew up with three languages, speaking all three very fluently.  The third language, Hungarian, I picked up from our Hungarian neighbours and a great-uncle who had been a Hungarian schoolteacher.    In our school it was the custom, if you knew the answer for a question put to an older grade, to raise your hand.  If no one in the upper grade knew the answer, you could recite.  School was very easy for me. During three and a half years, I had skipped one grade.  One year we had no teacher for most of the year.

One of the things that had a great influence on my life was my religious teaching and training.  We attended the German Evangelical and Lutheran Church in Mlinska.  We had to learn many things concerning our faith. Everything had to be learned by memory.  Prayer and a prayer song always opened our opening exercises at school.  “Dear Father, high in Heaven, remember Thy child’s pleading.  Let me this day in every way be in Thy tender care.”

When I was ten, my mother passed away.  After finishing grammar school, the following spring my father and older brother went to the United States. Before my father’s leaving, he had made arrangements with the German village cabinetmaker for me to learn the trade.  This proved very unpleasant for me. For one thing, I didn’t get enough to eat.  I weighed two kilograms less at the end of two years.  My task was to get up at 4:30 a.m. to care for the livestock, work in the field all day, and in the evening work at the bench. If there was a funeral, we would have to stay up all night to make the casket to order, without resting the following day.  This man was also a drunkard and very rude.  I was going on thirteen when I went there.  After two years, he became violent, so I left him and went home to be with my grandmother and younger brother, until August that same year, 1912.

 That August my father sent me the fare to come to the United States.  The day I left I overheard two men as they were threshing wheat tell of their experiences as beggars in the United States.  They had an organization set up in Chicago that would bail then out in case they got arrested.  They had made several trips to the United States.  After saving about $2000, they would return home.

 I left on August 18, 1912 with Henry Becht from Mlinska, who was two years older than I was.  This day was significant, for it was the old Emperor of Austria’s birthday.  Since the Austria-Hungarian Empire would not grant any passports to any country except Germany to anyone of military age, (16-32), we had contacted a travel agency in Switzerland.  They gave us advice and information on how to get out of Austria to Switzerland.  We started in the evening to board a train in Kutina for Zagreb.  Arriving at Zagreb around noon, since Becht was of military age and I was not, I did all of the inquiring.  I went to inquire of the depot agent as to what time the train would leave for Steinbrucke, Austria.  Immediately he suspected that we were going to the United States, as there was a large migration to the United States.  I tried to deny it, claiming that I was an apprentice cabinetmaker. The agent asked if I were Adam Zarth’s son, I looked so much like him.  It seems that he had been my father’s boyhood friend.  This gave us a break. He had us hide in a woodshed and had his wife make us a lunch.  He told us to wait until 6:00 when the guard at the station would change and then to get on the train.  He had our tickets ready for us.  We traveled without any suspicion in Austria until we came to Freiing Spitze, Tyrol.  A plain clothed man, who looked like a secret service man, approached me.  He told me that the cabinetmakers were on strike in this city.  Since I was round shouldered, which was common to cabinetmakers, and since I looked older than I was, he thought that I was a cabinetmaker.  This explained why he stopped us.  We then went to Innsbruck, where we were instructed not to linger around the depot.  We bought tickets for Buchs, Switzerland.  We had to wait until the train began to move, jumping on so that no one could stop us.  It was a fast passenger train that did not stop at the border.

 We arrived at Buchs the next morning.  The agent whom we had contacted in Switzerland was waiting for us.  There we had to take a physical examination before we purchased our passage to the United States.  I passed the physical and was guaranteed my passage, but my companion had sore eyes and wore glasses.  He was told that he would have to travel at his own risk.  All third and fourth-class passage on ships leaving European ports had been booked months ahead, so we had to buy second-class passage on an American steamship leaving for New York.  After paying the passage money, I had barely enough money to get me to Milwaukee.  At this time, the agent advised me to give my age as seventeen instead of fifteen, because I would have had to have a guardian to travel with me.

 We went through Basel, Switzerland and Paris, leaving the port of Cherbourg.  We arrived in New York on the second of Sept, staying on ship until Monday morning.  I was detained, for I didn’t have the necessary five dollars.  I had two Austrian pennies, less than one cent.  I had to telegraph my father for money, which arrived the following day.  I went by train to Milwaukee, where I rejoined my father and brother.