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Andy Warhol: From Nowhere to Up There

an oral history of Andy Warhol's early years

by Gary Comenas

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page three

Rudo Prekop: Andy's Júlia Varcholova (born 1892)... was the sixth of the fourteen children of Andrej and Justina Zavacký. (The twins Peter and Vasiľ died the day after birth. Paraska three days after birth and Zuzana, born in 1895, died 10 days after birth.) Zuzana (born in 1901) died in 1904. (RU33)

Michal Varchola (son of Warhol's aunt): The Zavacký family was moderately affluent by the standards of the place and time. They farmed around 5-6 hectares, but it was rare for the land to yield enough to support them. Extra earnings had to be found, usually though different sorts of agricultural labour in the 'low land,' but the family always managed to plough its own land and make money elsewhere. This 'elsewhere' meant both at home in the 'old country' and from the end of the 19th century overseas in faraway America. (RU31)

Michal Bezek (son of the sister of Andy Warhol's mother): We had more than some. We weren't among the  richest people in the village. Somewhere in the middle. We worked hard for it. And we had to give the state everything they demanded. We had to supply the quota. In years when the harvest wasn't good we were left with just a third, maybe. Those were the hard times. I had difficulties at school because of it. Things were made unpleasant for me. The 1950s - that was the worst period. (NRM164)

Michal Varchola: The relatives on the side of Andy's mother, Júlia Varcholová-Zavacká, were talented in music. Like Júlia herself, other members of the family sang the local folksongs as well, but Andy's two male cousins went further, being members of music bands in which they performed as soloists. That was a rarity in Miková.

Júlia was so gifted that as a young woman she knew the whole liturgy and other services by heart and sang in the church choir, which was usually reserved for men or teachers at the local church school. When the local Greek Catholic church was being renovated at the beginning of the 20th century, Júlia reportedly got a job helping the painters who were adorning the church interior with paintings on scriptural themes. She helped them to mix the paints and was enraptured by their ability to create pictures of people on the walls of the church. (RU31)

Helena Chomová (Andy Warhol's grandmother's neice): Uľa [Júlia] Varcholová, Andy's mother, was the first to paint cottages. My mother showed me how she did it. There was still no money even for lime, and so she dug out a little reddish clay, dissolved it and painted the walls with it. Then, when they had lime, she 'daubed' roses on with a brush. At the bottom there was a socle and above it they painted something like chicken feet. They did the feet in a different colour so it would stand out. They also did the socle in a different colour. So, say, when the all was painted red, they found some blue clay by the water and painted the socle blue. They painted most of it in white and blue and put white flowers on a blue background. They did three teeth, chicken feet with a brush and we did them in white.

I heard when they were building our church Uľa was with the painters and learned all kinds of things there too. (RU161)

Vasiľ Bezek: I knew Uľa (Júlia) Varcholová, the mother of Andy Warhol the painter, from the age of fourteen. She and her sister Jevka (Eva) and me were driven out [as refugees] as far as Budapest. After the war we went back to Miková. It's from then I remember Uľa going to church and singing. She didn't need a singing teacher. She sang in Old Slavonic, as the people still sing in the church in our parts. She could sing Ruthenian folksongs very nicely too... When my wife was in America, Uľa gave fifty dollars to our church. She was very devout, and her son Andy was too. When he came back from work he always used to say to his mother, 'Mom, let's go and pray.' He spoke our language too, as his mother had taught him. (NRV147)

Rudo Prekop: After the departure of her husband Andrej to the USA Júlia gave birth to a daughter... in [c.] 1911... but the child died as a result of wartime privations (the family were driven from their homes and fled from front-line soldiers in the Carpathians). In the last year of the war (1918), when Júlia was twenty-six, her mother Justina Zavacká died. The orphaned Júlia (her father had died in 1909) was left alone to look after her younger siblings, above all Eva, fourteen years younger (born 1906). She did not follow her husband Andrej to America until 1921 after [c.] nine terrible years of separation. She left for the United States as a citizen of the Czechoslovak Republic.  

Of Júlia's siblings, another five successively emigrated to America, while three stayed and lived in Czechoslovakia. (RU33)

Michal Varchola: A change in the emigration laws meant that after 1918 it was usually only people who already had a relative who had already emigrated that could leave for the USA. Andy Warhol's mother, Júlia Zavacká, was one of these. Her future husband Andrej Varchola had first gone to America at the beginning of the century, but in 1909 he returned so as to marry Júlia in the Greek-Catholic church in Miková. After the marriage he returned to the USA, planning to make enough money there to pay his young brid's passage, but he had not made enough by the outbreak of the First World War and so she was unable to follow him to America until 1921, after the end of the First World War and the establishment of the CSR [Czech Socialist Republic]... (RU31)

Anna Warhola (wife of Paul Warhola): Júlia didn't have enough money for the journey to America, where she wanted to go to join her husband. So she went to the priest in Miková and asked him to lend her the money. The priest said, 'Very well, but we'll make an agreement. I'll only lend you the money if you christen your first son Konstantin.' This was because he was called Konstantin, and his father before him, and the name had been handed down in the family from generation to generation. Except that this last priest had no son. Júlia made the agreement with him.

When Júlia reached America she sent the priest all the money she had borrowed for the journey. After a couple of years she had her first son. 'We have to call him Konstantin,' she told her husband, but he wouldn't hear of such a thing and gave him the name Paul. Then John was born and then Andy. Even though each time Júlia tried to persuade her husband, he refused to give any of his sons the name Konstantin.

When my first son Paul was born, Júlia came to see me in the maternity hospital. 'Ann,' she said, 'I want to ask you a favour. I know you've given your son the name Paul, but couldn't you give him the second Christian name of Konstantin?' I agreed, and we officially informed the hospital. Then we got the birth certificate, which said Paul C. Warhola, with a C for Constantin. 'But it should be a K,' Júlia complained quietly. (RU78)

Paul Warhola: Mom had 3 brothers and 3 sisters in America. One brother and two sisters stayed at home in the 'kraj' (old land). Many of our people were homesick, many of them then went back to the 'kraj.' Mom didn't feel the pull of home so much, because almost the whole 'familia' was in America...

Mother had a hard time because she came over to this country from Europe and couldn't speak English... When I had to go to school they wanted to send me to the Ruthenian/Rusyn school... It was a a must to go there because they prepared us for our first communion there. The teacher taught us Ruthenian in Azbuka (Cyrillic) and that disturbed me because it was a problem for me to go to school, learn English and in addition have to pick up Russian (Ruthenian) words. (RU38/70)

Victor Bockris: Because of the terrible treatment the Ruthenians had received at the hands of their neighbours the Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Moldavians and Slovaks, they had become isolated and suspicious, kept to their own people and their own language, Po nasemu (‘in our own manner’), a mixture of Hungarian and Ukrainian.

Paul, John and Andy were brought up speaking Po nasemu. Mr. Warhola read American newspapers daily and could speak English passably, but Julia stubbornly refused to learn it, and at home the family spoke only the native tongue. (VB15-16/20)

Elaine Rusinko: ... the Warholas would have said that they spoke po-nashomu (in our way), without, perhaps even recognizing their speech as a distinct language. The Rusyn language was codified in Slovakia only as recently as 1995. In the early twentieth century the vernacular of Miková would have had admixtures of the Šariš and Zemplén dialects of Slovak, and because the area was part of the Hungarian kingdom, Warhol's parents were educated in schools that used the Latin alphabet in Hungarian transcription... Family members claim that until her death, Andy spoke with his mother in Rusyn... acquaintances remember him communicating with his mother in her language, which they called 'Czech'... In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol... Andy refers to his mother's 'thick Czechoslovakian accent' and the 'Czech' ghetto' where he lived. However, at the end of his life, when he came face to face with the real Czech language, Warhol came to question his life-long identification as Czech. In 1986, Andy met the Czech model Paulina Porizkova (Pavlína Pořízková) and her mother. He commented in his diary, 'I guess I'm not really Czech, because I didn't understand it when they were talking.' (ER16-17)

Paul Warhola: The emigrants from Eastern Europe, known as 'Hunkies' were in the lowest class in the social hierarchy. Ukranians, Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, Moldavians, Slovaks and Ruthenians were shut off in their ghettos from their non-Slavic surroundings by a wall of prejudices... When Andy went to school he learned English very fast and well. It was hardest for me because I was the eldest. Andy spoke English well, but at home with mom we prayed and talked 'in our way' you know. Even later in New York mom still talked 'in our way.' (RU38/122)

Elaine Rusinko: ...second generation Americans were eager to relinquish their old-world background for a more prestigious classification as American. For Warhol, it was natural to be embarrassed and ashamed of his 'bohunk' background, where Rusyns occupied the lowest rung of immigrant society, even among Slavs. At least the Poles and Slovaks knew who they were; Rusyns had no name and no country.

Even their Byzantine Catholic religious identification situated as it was between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, could be cause for embarrassment. In his diary entry for Easter 1984, which he spent with friends, Warhol says, 'Oh, and on Easter services, they got up at 4:30 to go, but I couldn't go. I didn’t' want to go because I would feel too peculiar in a church where they might see me praying and kneeling and crossing myself because I cross the wrong way. I cross the Orthodox way. And they would be looking.'

... In the last decades of his life, he [Warhol] attended St. Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church daily. In the documentary film, Vies et Morts d'Andy Warhol, Father Damian McCarthy points out the pew in the back of the church where Warhol would sit, 'very modest' and 'out of the way,' where he likely felt free to cross himself 'the wrong way.' (ER17/19)

John Warhola: We went to church in the Rusyn Valley. There was an Orthodox Chruch there. But mother used to say God was everywhere. (RU45)

Paul Warhola: Mother often talked about the relatives in Miková. She used to tell stories about her grandparents, life in Europe. She came to America to join her husband several years after he arrived. Her mother had died, the children were orphans and so she had to look after them and her daughter, who later died. The war intervened. Júlia had to postpone the journey to America right up to 1921.

At home we used to celebrate Orthodox Chirstmas, which fell on January 7. We were a bit ashamed of that. Everyone celebrateed Christmas on December 25, and we didn't until weeks later. At school we had to make up all kinds of excuses to get us out of attending on that day. Once in the thirties, when Dad didn't have any work, we didn't get any gifts for Christmas. We all cried. In the end Mother managed to find some tiny thing and discretely put it in our Christmas stockings. We never got toys. Mostly it was something to eat, fruit or nuts, and some small change...

Mother often corresponded with her two sisters - my aunts Eva (Jerka) and Helena (Ilja). I'd guess that Jevka often wrote too. Mother was always assuring them she hadn't forgotten them, and posting them money. I remember how as a boy of six and seven I used to sell newspapers on the tram; sometime I came home with 25, 30 cents in my pocket and mother would put it away and then ask me: 'Paul, what are you going to do with this money? You'd better send it over the ocean to my sisters, they need it very much.' They weren't rich, you know. It was during the great crisis. Everything I earned Mother would send to the sisters back then. As soon as she had saved something, she tried to send it home to the sisters and also the old people she knew at home. She was sensitive and never forgot those people back home. Mother kept the family by making things at home. Dad only found work occasionally. (RU53/68-69)

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