I, like many others, have picked up new hobbies during the COVID-19 pandemic. A few of them, such as researching my Ukrainian heritage and learning Ukrainian, have stuck. Others, such as baking biscuits from scratch every morning, have not.
I originally pursued Ukrainian to distract me from the everyday anxiety of the pandemic. I love to travel and before the fall of 2019, when I moved to New York City, I travelled often. I even visited Ukraine in 2019, going to Kyiv, L’viv, and Chernobyl.
Because tome, travel has always been a huge part of my identity. A cathartic action, a guaranteed escape. But there is no travel during a pandemic (or there shouldn’t be) and there is no escape from COVID-19.
But I could try, I figured, through books, films, and language. For awhile, it worked. I dug into my genealogy and started meeting with a Ukrainian language tutor 2–3 times a week. However, while researching my mother’s Ukrainian family, I ended up somewhere unexpected: the last major pandemic, the flu of 1918.
The flu of 1918 was a monster. Commonly known as the Spanish flu, the H1N1 virus killed 50 million people worldwide. In countries like Ireland and Iran, as well as major U.S. cities such as San Francisco and St. Louis, the aggressive virus hit hard. For context on how bad this was, nearly the entire adult population of an Alaskan seaside village died, 72 out of 80 adults.
As it turns out, the U.S. city that was hit the hardest by the 1918 flu was my hometown of Philadelphia. An estimated 20,000 people died. And according to a recent article from The New York Times, how the city dealt with the 1918 pandemic was not too different from today. The city banned coughing, sneezing, and spitting in public, and warned people to distance and wear masks.
But many people did not (or could not) adhere to safety recommendations. In late September of 1919, the city even went forward with holding a large military parade. Dan Barry and Caitlin Dickerson, the authors of The New York Times article, noted the parallels between the risky choices made in 1918 and the ones made today.
“Much from that time has the ring of familiarity: the shattering consequence of holding a large public event — a patriotic parade featuring marching bands, Boy Scouts and troops before cheering crowds packed 15 feet deep on the sidewalks — in defiance of scientific advice to stay at home.”
Unfortunately, the 1918 flu was even deadlier than COVID-19. In Philly, 17,500+ people died in the first six months. One of them was my great-grandmother, Pauline. She was a Ukrainian immigrant and seven months pregnant.
She was just 22 years old when she passed, leaving behind my great-grandfather John and her daughter Olga, who was just a year old. Like John, Pauline did not speak English very well, as she had only immigrated to the United States two or three years before her death.
For the brief time she lived in Philadelphia, it was in the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood, just north of the city. John and Pauline lived in a now-demolished rowhouse close to the Wayne Junction Station, as well as Midvale Steel, where John worked. She had a brother, Theodore, who also lived in Philadelphia.
That is all I know about her life.
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When I was little, my grandmother Olga liked to teach me things. During her visits, which typically lasted for weeks or months at a time, she brought me through a daily morning regiment, instructing me on how to properly brush my teeth and comb my hair. We’d make beds. She’d make oatmeal or cook scrambled eggs for breakfast, and she’d make me watch. On more than one occasion, she sat me down and taught me how to sew a button. Like many women of her time, she felt that the basics of cooking and cleaning were necessary for a young girl to know.
Nearly every night, she would wash and dry dishes by hand, often enlisting my help. I would politely remind her that there was a dishwasher, hoping to get out of sink duty, but she insisted that I do it anyway. She’d rinse the dishes and I would stand there with the towel, watching as she left every plate, bowl, and cup spotless.
Of course, I would attempt to escape these tedious lessons whenever I could, feigning illness or running away to my room. I was rarely successful. I’d crawl up the stairs on all fours, hoping to gain speed, only to have her grab my ankle at the last second and make me come back downstairs. I swear she’d wait until I reached the top step to give me a false sense of hope before yanking me down the stairs.
As it turned out, the lessons had a lasting effect. Although today, I use the dishwasher and rarely wash by hand, I hear her voice whenever I set the temperature for the stovetop (not too hot, it’ll cook too quickly) or put sugar into my tea (not too much, sugar is bad for you.)
The other thing about my grandmother that never left me was her commitment to family history. In addition to cooking and cleaning, my grandmother also felt it was her responsibility to educate me about where we came from. We sang Happy Birthday in Ukrainian and went to Christmas bazaars at the Ukrainian cathedral in Philadelphia, where I was also baptized.
On my crazier days, she called me malpa, which means monkey in Ukrainian. Until this past fall, it was one of the only Ukrainian words I knew.
She also kept me up at night with stories. She told me how much she missed my grandfather, who passed a few months before I was born, about how her entire family came over from Galicia (now modern-day Poland and Ukraine), and the various names, ages, and locations of family members.
I didn’t appreciate it then, but now, I know what she was doing. It was an oral history. There was no way she could ever anticipate blogging, Ancestry.com, and Facebook, things that would later help preserve and pass down family history through generations. The only thing she could do was tell me, my mom, and my siblings all she knew. And over the years, she felt a strong urgency to do it.
My grandmother died in 2001. I only remember a handful of things she told me and I wish that I had the resources and knowledge I have now when she was alive. But I have what I have: a few hazy memories, my Mom’s personal accounts, and a Pauline (Tur) Halko folder with newspaper clippings and publicly accessible documents.
In my spare time during the pandemic, I work on putting the pieces of Pauline’s story together. I obsessively collect ship manifest records from Ellis Island, make maps with Galician-era towns noted and marked off, and trace the names and family histories of people I share DNA with on 23andMe.
I also research what it was like for Ukrainians and other immigrants to live in Philadelphia in the early 1900s. I speculate how my great-grandparents responded to the pandemic.
I only recently considered that my Ukrainian-speaking great-grandparents did not know about the severity of the flu. With their limited English, it would have been challenging to read the paper and comprehend how serious it was. And with them also fleeing Galicia for America at that time, it’s also very likely that they were poor, and looking to build themselves a better life, so missing work wasn’t an option.
Even if John knew how serious the flu was, it was extremely likely that he could not afford to stay home. He had a wife and a child to support, with another on the way. In one of my ancestry searches, I also found his WWI draft card, which identified his wife, mother, and father as the family members he supported financially. With the livelihood of his entire family on his shoulders, he could not risk losing his job.
I accept that I will never learn the entire story of my Ukrainian great-grandparents, but I know how important family history was to my grandmother. For me, the link between the two pandemics is sad, but meaningful. I now feel, as the family writer and traveler, it’s my self-assigned duty, to uncover the rest of Pauline’s short life story.
I want to find exactly where she came from and who she left behind. I want to be sure that she cannot be forgotten, just one of the many immigrants who came to this country, just one of many people who died of that flu. I feel I owe it to her and her daughter, my Mom-Mom, to do so.
“I like what you do for work,” Mom-Mom had once said to me in a vivid dream, long after her death. “What you do online. Keep doing it.”
— — —
Americans of all ages have contracted COVID-19. Some have recovered, many did not and will not. Upon publishing this story, over 230,000 Americans have died.*
(*I don’t believe this number includes the people who have died from other conditions aggravated by the disease.)
For many, this number is merely that. A number. And there are COVID numbers everywhere. There are the numbers comparing the mortality rate of COVID with the common cold, flu season, and car accidents. There are the number of cases and deaths in a respective town or city, that people use to dispute how deadly COVID actually is or to encourage their friends and family to wear masks.
Before 2020 and COVID-19, I did not think about the 1918 pandemic. I had faint memories of it from history class and on one or two occasions, it was included in the plot of a historical film or television show. But now, I think about COVID-19 and the 1918 pandemic often. Like many other people have discovered during this pandemic, sometimes, the only number that matters is one.
One person lost to an uncontrolled virus.
I am grateful that as of now, I have not known anyone personally that has died of COVID. But I have felt the ripples that Pauline’s death left behind. There’s a daughter that never knew her mother, and her daughter who never knew her grandmother. A young woman who moved to a foreign country hoping to find a more prosperous life, only to lose hers.
I’ve played what if game with myself about Pauline, wondering what would have happened if she stayed in Ukraine longer, immigrating after 1920. It’s hard to do, because I understand the likelihood that my great-grandparents still would have suffered greatly under the circumstances in that region. For a very long time in what is now Ukraine, people starved to death, were forced out of their homes, and were killed.
Obviously, there are no satisfactory answers, only the events that unfolded. All I have is an awareness that I owe my very existence to Pauline.
— — -
Like many of the people in 1918, whether or not someone survives or is greatly impacted by COVID depends on their occupation, financial security, and their social class. One would think that in the United States today, many of these circumstances would have changed. In this country, we have the testing, the advances in medicine, and the up-to-date information about the spread of the disease necessary to curb a pandemic. Additionally, our country, despite its debts, has a tremendous amount of wealth and resources which in my opinion, are often politicized.
Unfortunately, even with all of these advantages, we have an abundance of selfish people. The people and the politicians who refuse to wear masks and scoff at people who do. The people who don’t care if they spread disease to essential workers. The people who spread disinformation. The ones that insist the virus isn’t as bad as the media makes it seem, because the virus has not impacted anything in their lives except the ability to eat out at The Olive Garden.
The people who have long-forgotten the sacrifices of their immigrant ancestors, because the sacrifices that their families made worked. They really did give their children and grandchildren the prosperous future they hoped for.
The only number that matters to this kind of person is one.
The “one” of course, being themselves.
Olga Halko Roshko lived in the Philadelphia area for the rest of her very long life. She married in 1947 and had two daughters, my aunt Linda and my mother, Joan. John Halko remarried after Pauline’s death. He passed away in January 1977.