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Sacrifice And Loss

 By Judy Bezjak

 

In December, 1908, my grandfather emigrated to this country from England arriving at New York harbor on the Lusitania.  At Ellis Island it was suggested that “Tony” would be the American version of his name, Anton.  He had fled Croatia, which was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to avoid mandatory conscription into their army.   Many Croatians went to areas were there was mining activity such as Pennsylvania and southern Illinois.  My grandfather went to southern Illinois to join his brother-in-law and other friends who were already making a life there.  My grandparents had parted as newlyweds.  After my grandfather’s departure for America my grandmother experienced the tragedy of losing their first baby, Tony, who suddenly became ill and died as an infant.   My grandmother made him a burial gown from her homemade lace wedding dress. 

 

After two and a half years my grandfather sent for my grandmother who was working in a bakery in Reijka on the border of Italy to help save money for her passage to America.  She crossed the ocean accompanied by her brother, Vala.  After living in a couple of smaller towns in mine company housing, my grandparents along with my grandmother’s brothers settled in an attractive two-story house on Grand Avenue in Johnson City, Illinois.  Soon my grandparents had another son, Rudy, who was a very intelligent little boy.  He was intrigued by the men sitting around the dining room table smoking cigars and lighting them with matches.  He also observed his mother using matches to light the cook stove in the kitchen.  Then one day when he was about 5 years old, he went up in the hayloft and played with matches he had taken from the kitchen and was suffocated in the smoke from the resulting fire.

 

My grandparents took in miners as renters to help with expenses and my grandmother had to cook, clean, and wash clothes for the household all without the help of modern conveniences.  Then in 1915 a third son, Louis, was born, followed by my mother, Rose, in 1918, Tony Jr. in 1919 and Rudy in 1925.  [The reader should keep in mind that these last two children were named after their previously deceased older siblings.] They were a very close-knit family. 

 

At that time and place, there was a great deal of resentment toward and unacceptance of the immigrants by the people living in that area of southern Illinois known as “Little Egypt.”  Work in the coal mines attracted many people from Kentucky and Tennessee to that area.   They did not accept and were suspicious of the immigrants with their foreign sounding names, languages, customs, and Catholic religion.  The deep resentment of some bordered on hatred for the immigrants that they referred to as "hunkies.”   My grandmother, who was often upset by the discrimination and unaccepting attitude of certain elements of the established populace, would refer to them in disgust in her broken English by one term: "Kentookers."  Then there was another group who opposed the immigrants:  the KKK.  This group had gained the trust and acceptance of the Protestant ministers in the area by promising to stamp out the illegal consumption of alcohol.  There would sometimes be terrifying night time raids by the KKK on the immigrants' homes.  They would also burst into wedding parties and take all the gifts and money that were intended for the bridal couple.  My grandfather played the button box concertina at weddings and Christenings to earn extra money.  He also liked to make homemade wine, as was the custom in his home village of Stari Laz.  When it became illegal with Prohibition, he made a secret trap door under my mother's bed to a hidden room in the cellar.  My grandfather often had to go to the county seat of Benton to the courthouse to bail out his friends who were apprehended for making alcoholic beverages during Prohibition but he was never caught.   My grandmother begged him not to have wine hidden in the cellar because of her fear of a raid or break in by the KKK but my grandfather said he couldn’t bear to see his wine be poured down the drain.  During this same time in southern Illinois there were also gangsters like Charlie Birger and the opposing Shelton gang who had armored cars, machine guns, and hideouts.  They were bootleggers who ran liquor from Florida to East St. Louis and supplied the speakeasies in the region.  One gang even bombed the hideout of an opposing gang by air.  After Charlie Birger was tried and found guilty of masterminding the murder of the mayor of West City, my uncle Louie who was 12 years old and my grandfather purchased tickets and attended the public hanging of Charlie Birger in the jailhouse courtyard at Benton on April 19, 1928.  At this time because of the lawlessness in the region S. Glenn Young who presented himself as a former FBI agent, was retained to clean up the area.   He set himself up as a para-military type dictator with sympathy for the KKK who brutalized people, especially immigrants, on liquor raids.  He confiscated the liquor and then sold it taking the profit for himself.  S. Glenn Young  was killed in January 1925 in a shootout in a cigar store.

 

In the mid to late 1920's there was strife between miners and the mine owners which resulted in mine strikes.   In one case the mine owner could not resist shipping coal which was at a premium during the strike to keep from losing his new mine.  He foolishly decided to hire non-union workers called “scabs.”  In an infamous incident at Herrin, Illinois which has come to be known as “The Herrin Massacre” many of these scabs were massacred by union miners who looked upon the scabs as interlopers who were taking away their livelihood.  There were also several mine explosions due to the dangerous working conditions in the mines.   On January 24, 1924 there was an explosion at the East Mine that killed Peter Kik and his son, Joseph.  Over two years after the explosion on April 21, 1926, unable to come to terms with her loss and grief, Josephine, the wife and mother of the men who perished, threw herself into a cistern and drowned. 

 

With all the danger surrounding the coal mining industry and labor vs. management  related strife coupled with the other violence in the area of Williamson County which caused it to be known as “Bloody Williamson”, my grandfather decided farming might be a safer way to make a living.  So in 1929, he purchased 78 acres of land in the next county, Franklin, in a tiny farming community called Plumfield.  There was a ramshackle house on the property where a family that had died during the “Great Tornado of 1925” had lived.  There was no inside plumbing in the house and rural electrification was far in the future.  There was a small wooden structure next to the house and Louis asked his father what the little building was for with the old ripped up Sears Roebuck catalog in it.  His dad told him, “That Sears and Roebuck catalog is gonna come in mighty handy for what you do in there but you better watch out when you get to those "slicky pages!"  My grandmother refused to move into the house with it being located so far from the road, so the house was moved, jacked up on cinder blocks, so that it was closer to the road.  However, the storm cellar was at the original site, and when a violent storm rolled in, everyone would be soaked and the storm mostly over by the time they ran across the fields and the storm cellar was reached.  My grandfather intended to fix up the house and was renting out their previous home in Johnston City so that he could generate some income to help establish the farm.  Then one day in October of that year uncle Vala drove up in a state of agitation and said "All the banks have closed; you can't get your money." 

 

During the height of the Depression in 1934 my mother, Rose, left for Chicago where her cousins had moved to work as a nanny in the home of a prominent Jewish doctor.  She had never experienced being parted from her family and was extremely homesick.  In 1937 Louis left the farm for Detroit with some friends to work at a gas station.  Within less than two months he returned home to become a truck driver for a local freight company but due to lack of business that job ended within a month.  He then returned to Detroit where he found employment as a millwright helper at a steel company.  Tony went away to C.C.C. camp.  By the late 1930's Louis was well liked by the owner of the company where he was working. When the owner decided to relocate his company to Oakland, California, he took Louis with him.  Later Tony joined his sister, Rose, in Chicago where he was trained as a tool and die maker by a relative.  They shared an apartment together and Tony found employment at Verson All-Steel and met his girlfriend, Freda, who lived in the same apartment building.  Little Rudy was a big help to his father on the farm operating all the big farm machinery from the age of twelve.  By 1941 Tony was making a good salary in Chicago and purchased a used car for Rudy so that he could more easily travel to Zeigler, the next town, to attend high school.  At high school, Rudy met his sweetheart, Helen. 

 

With the declaration of war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Louis was drafted in early 1942 and served with the Army Corps of Engineers in the construction of the Al-Can Highway.  After that assignment ended he volunteered for dangerous and hazardous duty.  As a result he was sent to Washington, D.C. to become a member of the O.S.S.  Later he was sent to jump school to train as a paratrooper and was ultimately sent to Burma to become a member of O.S.S. Detachment 101.  Then in early 1944 Tony received his draft notice.  After basic training he was sent to a replacement depot in Herny, France where he was assigned to the 317th Infantry Regiment of the 80th Infantry Division.  When Rudy received his draft notice just after his high school graduation, his father went to the draft board to register his protest.  He asked for a deferment on the grounds that Rudy was needed to work on the farm and two sons were already in military service.  His request for a deferment for Rudy was rudely denied.  My grandfather accompanied Rudy to the train to see him off for Army basic training.  Rudy was assigned to the 71st Infantry Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division."  With all three brothers in military service, Rose returned to the farm from Chicago to be with her parents.

 

After the telegram arrived stating that Tony was missing in action during the Battle of the Bulge, it was a living Hell waiting for the next telegram.  A car coming down the road would invoke fear.  When it was confirmed that Tony was KIA on Christmas Day, 1944, the news hit his father, mother, and sister like a sledge hammer.  All were deeply affected, but Tony’s father, especially, became very withdrawn and quiet and was not the same man.

 

The family did not want Rudy, the youngest in the family, who was an infantryman with the 71st Infantry Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division in Europe, to know about his older brother's death, but somehow he found out.”  Their father, my grandfather, had told friends and relatives that he didn't know what he would do if his youngest son was also killed.  VE day was declared on May 8, 1945, and a few days later, on Friday May 11, my grandfather was in the yard negotiating the sale of a team of mules.  My mother and grandmother were Spring-cleaning the house, readying it for Rudy's return. (A third son, Louis, was with the OSS in Burma).  My grandmother was working in her garden when a car made its way up the long country road approaching the farm, raising a cloud of dust.  When the car pulled up in the driveway adjacent to the garden, my grandmother approached it only to have the driver hand her a yellow Western Union envelope.  From previous experience she knew what kind of news could be contained in this document.  The telegram related that Rudy had been killed May 2, 1945.   His unit was engaged in one of the last battles of the war at Fern Pass, Austria.  He was killed while trying to save a buddy from being taken prisoner during an all-night battle against fanatical SS troops in the “last redoubt” high in a mountain pass.  Perhaps his best buddy being taken prisoner by the army who had killed his beloved brother coupled with the seemingly never ending battle caused him to snap.  He stormed a German garrison with his rifle blazing in an effort to rescue his friend who survived the war and wrote Rudy’s sister, Rose, after the war to relate what had happened.

 

In all the commotion that ensued after the telegram arrived telling of Rudy’s death, friends and family who had gathered at the farmhouse noticed that my grandfather was missing.  People started searching the 78-acre farm for my grandfather.  A nephew found his shoes and socks on the flooded bank of the Big Muddy River, in back of my grandfather’s orchard.  The authorities were summoned and my grandfather was found drowned in the river.  Oscar, the family dog that accompanied my grandfather wherever he went on the farm was seen on the front porch whimpering during my grandfather’s wake but soon disappeared.   The dog was never found and never returned.

 

My mother and grandmother found themselves in a state of total shock and loss with 110 acres of wheat and another 20 acres of alfalfa in the fields, a herd of 20 dairy cows, pigs, chickens and an orchard full of fruit trees all with no one left to care for the farm.  In the beginning, the neighbors pitched in to help where they could but they had their own farms to care for.  This dire situation caused my mother to write President Harry S. Truman to plead for the release of her only remaining brother, Louis, from military service.  She hoped that he was still alive because no correspondence had been received from him in his remote location in the jungles of Burma in a very long time.  In a little over a week a response was received from President Truman’s male secretary.  The letter from the White House stated that President Truman extended his sincere sympathy regarding the great losses experienced by the Ruzich family and stated that the President had also been a farmer.   The letter also related that the Presidential order to find Corporal Louis Ruzich had been issued.  As a result, the Red Cross was contacted and sent telegrams to the OSS headquarters in Calcutta, India.  A month later my uncle was located at a remote base in Burma from which he participated in supplying guerilla fighters in the jungle by air drops.  It was there that he was advised by his commander of the deaths of his two brothers and was told that his mother and sister were ill, under a doctor’s care, and unable to take care of the farm.  He applied for an emergency furlough and went to OSS headquarters in Calcutta where he was informed of the death of his father.  Even with the involvement of the White House, the Army was reluctant to issue a dependency discharge during wartime and much paperwork had to be filled out with affidavits provided by people at home who were affected by the death of my grandfather who used his farm machinery on other farms.  My uncle had a good job awaiting him in Oakland, California but due to the circumstances, his life had to take a different turn.  He had to tell his greatly disappointed former employer that he had to return home to the farm in Illinois to be with his mother and sister to become a farmer. 

 

One night in early August, 1945, headlights could be seen coming up the long country road approaching the farm at the road’s end in Plumfield.  My mother and grandmother were very alone and no longer even had Oscar in the yard to warn them of a stranger’s approach or to protect them.  They were filled with apprehension as the car pulled into the dark yard.  The dim outline of someone could be seen exiting the car and hoisting something over one shoulder.   As the figure, backlit by the car’s headlights, approached the back door, it became apparent that it was a soldier.  There were many tears at the back door that night as Louie returned home from the war to what remained of his family which had been devastated by war.    All three people embraced and clung to one another there at the back door for a long time, but the intense emotions linked to the sacrifice and loss were never dimmed by the passage of time.

 

 

Pvt. Tony Ruzich-"a sparkling personality, and could get along with anyone."

 

 

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