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.

A poem by a friend regarding her mother’s line

[Each of us who love genealogy have our own reasons for researching. I have been working with a young woman whose reasons for becoming involved with genealogy include really getting to know her ancestors and their stories. In knowing where she comes from, she can better know herself.  But also, by knowing her ancestors, they become the inspiration, the imbus, for creative work. Jenne is also an excellent poet. Her genealogical research inspired this poem of family tragedy. Next week I’ll post her background story, the story that inspired this work. I look forward to more of Jenne’s amazing work.  – Don Taylor]

My Mother’s Line

by Jenne M. (guest blogger)

Hell
is a pale house
on
Iron Ore Road.
The
fan belt hung on
the
hook, awaiting
him.
Can you hear it?
Rumbling,
sputtering
up
the pitted drive.
His
hard hand waiting
and
Ree’s run off again.
On
Iron Ore Road
chickens
wait in their
mansion.
And see Ree
with
her kerchief, her
shovel,
hip-deep in
their
shit. Her baby
day-old
and still she
shovels.
Can you hear?
Hell
is a pale house –
and
he tells the nun
At
night, I can smell
my
flesh, burnt, charring.”
He
tells his sister
I’ll
make them beat
each
other!” The words
a
wonder in him.
On
Iron Ore road
a
wonder in him –
to
see them, one pressed
against
the pale wall –
the
other, beating with
the
belt. Like this, see?
Harder.
Can you hear
the
wet sound of flesh?
The
smack of the word
on
Iron Ore Road.
Silent,
they shadow –
stevedores,
small hands
carry
his candy,
forbidden
a piece.
Carry
his majesty’s
burdens
from the car.
Chickens
and cars call
from
Iron Ore Road.
Deaf
children grunting
but
never a laugh
and
never a doll
but
the scrape of the
shovel,
the hiss of
the
belt through the air.
Hell
is a pale house
and
Ree has run off.
A
boy lies waiting –
a
thin girl, watching.
Can
you hear, can you?
Rumbling,
sputtering
up
the pitted drive.
His
boots on the ground.
He
draws to his height
on
Iron Ore Road.
Backlit
shotgun blast –
the
blood from his mouth –
the
waiting boy runs.
The
monolith falls.
Ree,
suddenly there,
screams
but not with fear.
Freedom
is new paint
on
Iron Ore Road,
and
Ree is back now,
the
waiting boy chained.
Laughter
echoes in
the
parlor. “I don’t
have
time to tell it”
she
chirps to the cop, then

turns
back to her brush

[Jenne M. is a Guest Blogger.  If you wish to contact her, please use the comments form below and I will forward your request to her. – Don Taylor]