A look at early twentieth-century life in Bila (Polish: Biała), a village bordering Ternopil in eastern Galicia. The description is from the autobiography of Katherine Rychly Pylitiuk, who was born in Bila in 1904, grew up there, and immigrated to the United States in 1922. This post is taken from Pauline Noznick’s blog Rooted in Eastern Europe.
The people who lived in the village of Bila handled most conflicts on their own. Katherine Rychly describes in her autobiography how the people of the village dealt with issues of morality, petty crime, and debt.
There were 350 houses in the village of Bila. Katherine explained that most of her family members lived in the village, her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Each person was aware of everything that you did, as a child or as an adult. If you did wrong, you hurt your entire family—that was the biggest hurt of all—it followed you for the rest of your life. This encouraged children to behave, and made them aware that their actions represented not only themselves, but their parents and extended family as well. However, this did not stop crime in the village. Katherine said, “We had to keep an eye on everything because the village had known thieves, and we had no recourse to justice. If you caught the thief red-handed, you took the matter into your own hands at that moment and beat the living daylights out of him/her. Stealing was a part of everyday life.” So were beatings, which sounds so horrible to us today, but corporal punishment was the way to deal with wrongdoing.
‘Our Easter Dinner Vanished!’
The week before Easter was a busy one in Bila, with everyone preparing for the holy day with a family dinner after church services. On the day before Easter, everything was prepared for the big celebratory dinner the next day. Katherine’s mother put all the food in a small storage room, adjacent to the kitchen and locked the door. Katherine tells the story, “The next morning, we found that during the night, someone had cut a hole in the wall of the storage room from the outside and took all the food. Why didn’t we hear anything?” Katherine wondered, “Someone was always home.” Everybody in the village had a wonderful dinner, but they had nothing.
Every village in Eastern Galicia had a “viyt” (“wójt” in Polish). He was the village headman, somewhat like a mayor. His duties included collecting taxes and mediating disputes, he served as both judge and jury.
Taxes Not Paid? We Have a Solution for That
Before World War I, when Bila and Ternopil were a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, there was a tax on each house in the village. The viyt was in charge of tax collection, which was a big job, seeing that there were 350 houses in the village. If the tax wasn’t paid, the viyt came to the house and took something of value as a payment. Most items were acceptable: chickens, lambs or just about anything that had value. A person was able to buy the article back, plus interest. The Rychly’s were poor, and depended on their farm and on their father, Sylvester, who was working in the United States for support. The viyt came to their house to collect the back taxes, and since there was no cash, he took Katherine’s mother’s fur lined coat. It didn’t matter if it was winter time and cold, and that she had nothing warm to wear—the coat was valuable, so he took it.
Don’t Mess with Mother’s Coat
The Rychly children did not have many toys, and what they had was home-made. Katherine had a doll made from corn husks. One day, she decided to make her doll look nicer, so she cut a leather braided fastener off her mother’s coat. Katherine thought that it would make nice hair for the doll. When her mother saw what had happened to her coat, Katherine got a beating, and the doll lost her braid. It was quickly sewn back on the coat.
Katherine Is Sued
Stephen Langish lived next door to the Rychly family and recently planted five fruit trees in his yard. Katherine was seven years old, and wanted them in her yard, so she dug them up and replanted them outside the Rychly’s house. When this was discovered, Langish sued. Mother went to the viyt with Katherine’s younger sister, Helen, who was just five years old. Mother knew that Katherine was the culprit, but she thought that a younger child would elicit more sympathy from the viyt. Helen didn’t cooperate, and when asked by the viyt if she took the trees, she answered “No, Kasha (Katherine) did!” The viyt didn’t believe her. He thought that she was afraid to own up to the crime, but that she actually did it. He took pity on her. His verdict: return the trees and replant them. Mother dealt with Katherine in the usual way later.
Just Give Me the Change, Please
In 1922, Katherine and Helen were ready to immigrate to the United States. Their father Sylvester saved enough money to pay for their passage from Bila to Minneapolis, Minnesota. In order to immigrate, they had to get their birth certificates so they could apply for passports. In Poland, vital records were kept by the religious organizations of the community, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Catholic Church or the Jewish Synagogue. Since Katherine was the older sister, she was responsible for getting the documents for the trip. She went to the village priest and requested her birth certificate and one for sister Helen. The charge for both was 500 markas (the Polish currency at that time). Mother gave Katherine a 1000 marka note and expected her to get a 500 markas in change.
The priest did not have change that day and asked Katherine to come back later and he would give her the 500 markas. She came back several times, he did not give her the change. Mother was annoyed, so she decided to take care of the matter herself. She went to the priest and asked for the 500 markas that he owed her daughter. His response was to beat her with his cane. The villagers working in the priest’s garden heard the commotion and ran to get help from Mother’s children. Katherine and the others came quickly, but she couldn’t remember what the outcome was. She and Helen did leave Bila, so the matter must have been resolved.
Pauline Noznick, “Living in Ukraine 100 Years Ago: Crime and Punishment,” Rooted in Eastern Europe (blog) July 12, 2015, http://eeroots.blogspot.com/2015/07/living-in-ukraine-100-years-ago-crime.html
Katherine Pylatiuk and Julia Pylatiuk Lawryk, “Katerina: Kashka. Autobiography by Katherine Pylatiuk Lamar as told to her daughter, Julie in 1988.” Copyright 1988.