Contributed by John J. Grabowski, Ph.D., Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, using resources from WRHS’s collections & archives.
Perhaps the most striking statue in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens, our city’s monument to its diversity, is that of an anonymous immigrant mother holding two children. It can be found in the lower level of the Croatian Garden. It challenges our concept of who should be honored in the history of our multicultural city. Certainly, there are other women, all famous, depicted within the Gardens, but no other monument binds us together as well as this – it is a reminder that migration and immigration are not simply the stories of famous men, nor is the history of women simply that of those whom we choose to see as agents of change. It also means that each of us may well have a story such as the one that follows. It is not one of an activist, but of an ordinary woman, whose brief life was built around and constrained by custom and tradition.
In 1906 Antonia Bohinc and John Vuk, her new husband left their home in what is now Slovenia to come to Cleveland. There they would join Michael, her brother-in-law. She was nineteen, the daughter of a charcoal burner from the town Kropa. John, likely an orphan, was from the nearby settlement of Kamna Gorica. John left little behind while Antonia left behind her parents and two brothers.
Kropa was a smoky town of iron forges; forges that long ago created the spikes that helped build Venice. But it was nestled in a green semi-rural, hilly area of the countryside. Today it is a stunning small village, almost frozen in time. The home she lived in still stands. And while she left for America, the culture and norms of Kropa shaped her life.
Antonia’s life in Cleveland would be far different in terms of environment. The couple settled on Lakecourt, a short street of small frame homes running westward from E. 55th Street just north of the Lake Shore & Michigan railroad tracks. She may have enjoyed the view of the lake to the north, but it was compromised by the continual din of trains and the coal smoke that they and the area factories, such as the one that John worked in, emitted. It was likely a wrenching change of scenery. And there she settled into the life expected of her at that time – cooking, keeping house, and having children. Like many women from abroad, she would eat only after her husband had been served.
She had her first child, Kate, in 1907; two years later a second child, Marie was born; followed in 1911 by Antonia (known as Rose) and in 1913, a fourth daughter, Frances. It was literally one pregnancy after another, each in a new world, and strange surroundings. One of her daughters recalled a bit of family lore that indicated that each of them had been delivered in the house by the tracks.
In slightly less than nine years after arriving in Cleveland she would come down with a common affliction in crowded American industrial cities. She had tuberculosis and on May 24th, 1915 she succumbed to it in the Cleveland City Hospital. She was only 28. Her husband spent an enormous sum of $72.50 on her funeral, the equivalent to over $1,800 today. He could not fully pay the bill. Her grave in Calvary Cemetery lacked a proper stone until one of her daughters, Marie, purchased one many years later. Nor could he care for his young daughters. One was sent to live with a friend, the two youngest spent some time in a Catholic orphanage. Eventually he would remarry.
Each of the four daughters would survive far longer than their mother. All would marry, but only one would have children – ironically, two boys. Each, through the foods they prepared, would carry part of the family heritage with them, but while they knew the language of their parents, they seldom used it. One daughter, rebellious in her own way, would be tempted to become a chorus girl, and then train as a
cosmetologist, only to later be prohibited by her second husband to practice her trade as he, the son of immigrants, insisted in being the breadwinner.
This story of one young immigrant woman, who brought four daughters into the world and then died at the age of 28 is tragic, but not unique. Nor are the lives of her daughters. Similar stories can be found throughout the world, both then and, indeed, now. Yet, in and of itself, the story indicates that in our celebration of Women’s History Month, our focus need not only be on those who have achieved a solid place in the history books or pushed the boundaries of women’s rights, but on every woman. It is, perhaps, the story of “every woman” that most truly resonates with most of our own experiences and given the diversity of our nation, best allows us to see our shared humanity.
(Photo: John and Antonia with their first daughter, Kate.)