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Similar circumstances, different times: Remembering my paternal grandfathers during COVID-19

Updated: Apr 17



Growing up, I remember hearing that my grandpa Steve had a difficult childhood—most of the time, it was the answer I was given to "why is grandpa so cranky?".


But all kidding aside, grandpa Steve was the only son of seven living children in 1918 when his dad passed away at six-years old. I was told his dad, Mike, was a Pennsylvania miner and that he had to grow up quickly to help care for his mother and sisters. A sombering fact to say the least when you're hearing this at a similar age. And, while that was the extent I knew about my grandpa's family for most of my life, it was far from the entire story.


For many years, I just assumed great grandpa Mike had succumbed to some circumstance of his dangerous occupation. Let's face it, mining is a difficult job no matter what century you live in. However, after diving into my family's past, that wasn't the case at all.


Mike was born in Austria-Hungary in 1880 to Stephen and Anna. He immigrated to the United States in 1901 on the vessel Barbarossa at 21 years of age—settling into the small mining town of Windber, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Windber is what they called a "company town", founded by the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company in 1897, where workers were housed near its neighboring "Eureka" mines.[1] On a side note, for those that like curious facts of fate, this generations old company still exists today and once owned majority shares in a company I worked for in 2002.[2] Many Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles and other nationalities were part of the work-force in Windber, so it seems natural this was a community he could feel comfortable in at a time the coal industry provided a steady source of income.[3]


It was there that Mike met and married Anna in January 1906; she was also from Austria-Hungary. Anna gave birth to twins Mike and Anna in October, with Mike Jr. sadly passing away that November. Life went on for the couple, however, having Mary in 1909, Helen in 1910, and then my grandfather Steve in 1912. Verna followed in 1914, and Katherine in April 1918.


Across the world, a deadly virus swept through Europe. As hundreds of thousands of troops were deployed overseas for World War I, the illness soon appeared on the homefront in the spring of 1918. Since there were no vaccines or treatments at the time, the new influenza virus created a major public health crisis, exploiting the vulnerability of healthy young adults—causing at least 50 million deaths worldwide, with 675,000 in the U.S. alone. Striking in waves, the peak of the epidemic came between September and November 1918, with New York City's Board of Health requiring all flu cases to be isolated at home or in a city hospital.[4]


Nonetheless, Mike and family perservered—albeit a life I am sure more difficult than we could imagine—filing his declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen on 30 September 1918. Anna was also pregnant, expecting their eighth child later that year.


Although the worst of it seemed over, a third wave of the virus followed the end of World War I as people celebrated and soldiers demobilized. In San Francisco, 1800 flu cases are reported in January, along with 706 in New York City.[5] Back in Pennsylvania—one of the states hit the hardest with over 60,000 deaths—my great grandfather could not escape it, passing away from influenza and pneumonia on New Year's Eve 1918.[6] His daughter, Susan, born just five days later.


Now ranked as one of the deadliest epidemics in history, the 1918 strain of H1N1 influenza is an ancestral version of ones still prevalent today. For decades, many have debated where the pandemic started. With 80% of the population in Spain affected in 1918, it was widely called the "Spanish Influenza" at the time. In 2014, however, a historian from Canada's Memorial University of Newfoundland, unearthed evidence that the actual source of the virus may have came from China.[7]


The many similarities of the COVID-19 virus and the 1918 outbreak are hard to ignore. And while we struggle with the current crisis, I'm sure many find it difficult to focus. It's at these times I try to remember my ancestors—struggling through comparable circumstances and grappling with an unknown future. It's true that history has a way of repeating itself. We can get through this. It's in times like these that we learn, educate and adapt. It's also where we persevere—where family gets a little closer, friends and neighbors cooperate and life is taken a little less for granted.


It's in our past we can find hope. And, in their memory, I thank them for pressing on.

1 "Windber [Bituminous Coal] Historial Marker," database with images, ExplorePAhistory.com (https://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-2D2 : accessed 27 March 2020).

2 For history, see Berwind, "History," website (https://www.berwind.com/history.htm : accessed 27 March 2020). For

3 For nationalities see, Windber Borough, "History," website (https://windberboro.com/sample-page/history/ : accessed 27 March 2020).

4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline," database with images (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-timeline-1918.htm : accessed 25 March 2020), pandemic influenza, past pandemics, 1918 pandemic.

5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline," pandemic influenza, past pandemics, 1918 pandemic.

6 For Pennsylvania statistics see, Mira Shetty, "Penn and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic," online exhibits, Penn University Archives & Records Center (https://archives.upenn.edu/exhibits/penn-history/flu : accessed 29 March 2020), Penn history.

7 Dan Vergano, "1918 Flu Pandemic That Killed 50 Million Originated in China, Historians Say," database with images, National Geographic (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/1/140123-spanish-flu-1918-china-origins-pandemic-science-health/ : accessed 27 March 2020).

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