The house of Swentko: the name-changers

by Jenne M. (guest blogger)

There is an old family picture of my great-grandmother Victoria Swentko. In high boots and a long dress, she sits under the fronds of a willow-like tree in Eastern Europe. Her face is sharp, set off by her nearly black hair. Her eyes stare at the viewer, dark and intelligent – my mother’s eyes.

Born in 1899 to immigrant parents, Victoria was a lifelong resident of Perth Amboy, although she apparently visited her parents’ homeland at some point or another. She died in 1970, two years before her husband; they only had the twins, rather than the large families typical of the day. She humorously referred to my dark-haired mother as “Blackie,” ironic considering that she had been quite dark herself.

She was the daughter of John and Rozalija Svjontko, or Sviontko, or Swenko, or Swanko. John was one of three brothers, and each took a different variant of their surname when they reached the shores of Perth Amboy. A picture shows one of his brothers in the 1910s – a smart suit, a slight and balding man – in the City of Elmira, not far from where I live now and once the home of Mark Twain. Interestingly, one of Marie Kocun Bazsika’s earliest memories concerned a train trip to Elmira when she was four years old – likely to visit one of her Swenko uncles who lived there.

I don’t know where John and Rozalija come from, or even the true variant of their name – but I caught tantalizing hints on their tombstone in Perth Amboy. John long outlived his wife, dying at the age of 87 while she died three decades earlier. Their joint tombstone, paid for by a friend, bears inscriptions in the Slovak tongue and the name Svjontko.

The name “Sviatko” seems to be more common in Slovak-speaking nations these days, and could be related – or not – to this family’s surname. “Ko” is a diminutive suffix. Part of me wonders whether the name essentially means “Little Sven,” after some Germanic ancestor. Interestingly, the word svenko means “holiday” in the Rom language.

Could the family have both Rom and Slovak origins? It certainly is possible, considering that the Rom dwelt extensively in Eastern Europe, including Slovak-speaking areas. And I turn again to that picture of Victoria Swentko, with her black hair and clever face. Where did a Slav come across such dark hair? The name may be the hidden indication: Romany roots. Or it may not; there’s no way of knowing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.