A new home in New York City
In this second column, I am continuing to speak to the Rev. Jaroslav “Jerry” Mraz, former pastor of Holy Trinity Slovak Church in Northampton, who, with his mother, came to the United States from Czechoslovakia in 1939. With war clouds on the horizon, his father had arrived in New York in 1937 to work for his uncle.
Jerry recalls, “My father met us. At 6 years of age, I looked down the streets, and there were lights everywhere. I was excited. After a few weeks, we received a letter from my grandmother, saying, ‘You were lucky to leave. You were on the last train to leave because the Germans had seized control of the entire country.’ Our train ride had taken us to the port of Bremerhaven, Germany, where we boarded the passenger ship Europa.
“When the Europa arrived in New York City, the passengers left the ship,” Jerry said. “The Europa immediately sailed back to Germany empty. It was seized by the German government and converted into a troop ship. It would later be captured by the Allies and converted into a commercial ship in the post-war era.”
Jerry and his parents lived in an apartment house in New York City. His father walked many miles each day to work at his uncle’s cleaning shop. In this manner, he saved subway fare to help support his family. The fare was 5 or 10 cents each way. Remember, times were tough in the U.S. We were in the midst of the Great Depression.
Jerry was enrolled in P.S. 130, New York. One day, the teacher sent a note to his parents requesting them to come to school to discuss their son’s behavior.
Jerry recalls, “My mother could not speak English, so my aunt accompanied her to the school. They could not believe I was disrespectful. The teacher did not realize I could not speak English. In Czechoslovakia, we were taught in Hungarian, which was required in the schools. People today know me as Jerry, because the teacher had difficulty with my name. My aunt came up with the first name that came to mind. It was Jerry — and so it is.”
Many names were altered at Ellis Island and later because officials took the easy way out. If they couldn’t spell it, they used their own version.
“In P.S. 130, as other schools during the period, if you came from a foreign country, they used the immersion process. You learned English in the class — no extra teacher. By reading, writing and listening to the teacher, you gradually learned English. By doing my homework each night, I did quite a bit of repetition. My mother paid attention and also learned English. We spoke Slovak at home but always spoke English in public. My parents felt it was an obligation to learn the language of our new home, the United States of America.
“I really enjoyed school, where I ate my first graham cracker with a glass of milk at lunch,” he said.
From P.S. 130, Jerry progressed to P.S. 191, a junior high school in the German section of New York. The city was a great melting pot of America. In his residence on the lower east side, the neighborhood was filled with Slovak, Czech and Polish immigrants.
While in school, Jerry worked at a local drugstore for $2 a week. In those days, home deliveries were a service provided by drugstores.
Although the immigrants were now in the United States, many of their relatives remained in Europe to face the horrors of World War II. They hoped and prayed their relatives and former friends would survive.
The call in two weeks.