Polish, Ukrainian, Russian? In Search of the Billick Family Ethnicity

Determining the ethnicity of Louis Billick (Lukas Bilyk) is a challenging endeavor. Early twentieth-century records reflect the chaotic geopolitical milieu of Central Europe at that time. Modern-day Poland and Ukraine and Hungary did not exist as political entities: these ethnic peoples were bound by the borders of Russia and Austria-Hungary. But, first, the most obvious ethnic artifact we have: Louis’s surname. It is an extremely common Ukrainian (or Rusyn, see below) surname (there are tens of thousands of “Bilyk” persons in the Ancestry.com database).

The S.S. Amerika Arriving Passenger List

The existing documentary records for Louis Billick offer hints of his origins but also contribute to a clouded picture.

We assume that the Arriving Passenger list for April 1, 1906, that references Lukas Bilyk is our Louis Billick. He was born in 1878, is married and headed for McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He is listed as a citizen of Austria, of the Ruthenian race.

There are several interesting details on this passenger list. There were only a handful of travelers (fewer than fifty) listed as “Ruthenian” among the estimated 2500 souls on board the Hamburg America Line S.S. Amerika. Louis’s last known residence is transcribed as “Toraorsang.” There are no towns or villages in Austria, Poland, Ukraine (or anywhere else) that are even close to this name. It appears the initial letter (at least) of the transcription is incorrect: it may well be a “G.” In any event, I’ve been unable to link the word clearly to any city in the region. The place of origin of the other “Ruthenian” passengers do not look anything like the entry associated with Louis and thus offer no additional hint about his native city. Perusing this register further, many of the recorded locales are nearly indecipherable and the corresponding transcriptions are clearly error-filled.


As discussed earlier, Louis’s surname, “Bilyk,” is almost certainly Ukrainian. Tekla’s “Holowka” surname was very common among both Polish and Ukrainian populations and is frequently found today in ethnic communities in the U.S. and Canada. Equally relevant here is the fact that a number of “Holowka” emigres listed in other Arriving Passenger Lists around 1905-1910, record their ethnicity as “Ruthenian”; with a few reporting their birthplace as “Galizia.”

Other Document Hints

Here are the subsequent documents that provide a birthplace/country of origin and native language:

Document Fact
1910 Census Birthplace: “Aus Slovak”

Native language: “Slovak”

1920 Census Birthplace: “Slavonia
Native Language: “Russia” [sic]
1930 Census Birthplace: “Poland”
Native Language: “Ukranian” [sic]
1940 Census Birthplace: “Poland”
1950 Census Birthplace: “Poland”
Anna Billick’s 1907 birth certificate Anna’s birthplace: “Austria”
Anna Billick’s 1907 birth certificate issued in 1944 Anna’s birthplace: “Zloczew, Poland.”
Louis Billick’s WWI draft registration form Citizen of: “Poland”
Louis Billick’s WWII draft registration form Birthplace: “Pomeran, Gallicia, Austria”
Michael Billick’s WWII draft registration form Michael’s birthplace: “Pomorin, Austria”

Złoczew, Poland and Pomerania

What to make of Anna’s 1944-issued birth certificate indicating Louis was born in Złoczew, Poland? Why not just accept this at face value? It seems possible, even likely, that “Złoczew” here refers to the Ukrainian city of Zolochiv which for a time before WWII was called Złoczów and thus could easily be confused with Złoczew, 300 miles to the west in Poland. It wouldn’t be surprising if even Louis and Tekla’s children, writing decades later, were unaware of this possible confusion let alone a clerk in a public records office filling out a form.

Likewise, the references to Pomerania (“Pomeran,” and “Pomorin”) are perplexing. Located along the shores of the Baltic Sea at the northern edges of modern-day Germany and Poland, this is quite distant from the locales suggested elsewhere. In addition, there is no geographical overlap between the region of “Galicia” and Pomerania. A final observation about these Draft Card forms: they were completed (as was Paul Billick’s) on the same day by the same registrar. It is not hard to imagine a misunderstanding or miscommunication in a probably chaotic office. Also, Louis scarcely spoke nor understood English. And accuracy in this detail was probably not top-most in anyone’s mind.

Historical Note about Złoczew, Poland

Whether Louis and Tekla were born in Złoczew, Poland is debatable in my mind. But here is a bit of historical background on the city.

It seems that Złoczew was a tiny town at the time Louis and Tekla were born.

Beginning in 1864 the town of Złoczew ceased to be a private town and became an administrative town. In 1865, there were 1890 residents in Złoczew, and among them 718 were of Polish nationality, 1164 were Jewish, and 8 were German. Among 306 families, there were 138 Polish families, 160 Jewish families and 2 German families. In 1870, Złoczew was downgraded to a municipal settlement. In 1874, a substantial part of the settlement burned down, which severely impoverished the population. It was not until May 16, 1916, that Złoczew again became a town.[1]

In 1871, Złoczew became a stop on the Galician Railroad. The railroad linked Kraków and Lwów and had connections to major European cities like Warsaw, Vienna and Berlin. The rail line is interesting in the context of Louis and Tekla in two ways. One, Polish peasants likely had a role in constructing the rail line and may be where Louis acquired his mechanical, metal-working skills. Secondly, it became a primary route for emigrants to begin their long journey to America.[2] One wonders if lingering effects of 1874 conflagration might have played a role in Louis and Tekla’s ultimate trek out of Europe a couple of decades later.

So it is that official records for Louis and Tekla and their children reference an incoherent array of potential nationalities, ethnicities and countries, region and cities of birth.

Who Are “Ruthenians”?

The “Ruthenian” designation is of particular interest. Exactly what “Slovak,” “Austrian,” “Polish,’” “German,” etc., meant in the decades immediately prior to WWI was in great flux, especially on documents authored by immigration agents who may have had limited fluency with the languages and accents of the arrivees. “Ruthenia” was not a formal nation but a region occupied by the Rusyn people along the borderland of Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Ukraine. Thus a person of Ruthenian ethnicity might have been a citizen of any of these modern nations and they or the processing agents could have indicated their origins based on one of these ill-defined geo-political labels. Although not so well-known today, “Ruthenian” and “Rusyn” were commonly-used, established ethnic designations at the turn of the century, referencing peoples of the territory of what is today Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and eastern Slovakia. The phonetic similarity between “Rusyn” and “Russian” could well explain the occasional appearance of “Russian” on documents referring to the Bilyk’s native language or country of origin.

The terms “Ruthenia and Ruthenians are often used during the times of the Austrian Empire (and in modern writings about the Austrian Empire) to mean Ukraine and Ukrainians found within the empire (specifically in its province of Galicia).  You’ll often see the terms Ruthenia and Ruthenians to mean what we now know as Ukraine and Ukrainians in popular genealogical resources such as Naturalization Papers, Immigration records, Passenger Lists, and Census returns.” [From: http://halgal.com/ruthenian.html]

Ruthenian Catholic immigrants formed a large group in the environs of Pittsburgh, with over 200,000 immigrants moving to the United States between 1870 and the outbreak of WWI. A large number eventually congregated around two distinct sub-groups:  one for those originating from Galicia (in modern-day Ukraine) with its See in Philadelphia, and the other for those who were from the Carpathian Mountain region (in modern-day Ukraine and Slovakia), as well as those from Hungary and Croatia. In time, the two groups would come to be known as Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics, respectively” [Wikipedia]. This second group eventually established its seat in the St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in a Pittsburgh suburb, the same church where Anna Billick was baptized in 1907, then called St. John the Baptist Little Russian Church.

After moving to Ohio, Tekla Billick and her daughters often attended services at Saint Michael Ukranian Greek Catholic Church in Rossford Ohio. Rossford was a typical mid-west melting pot city, especially for Ukranian immigrants who settled there attracted by plentiful laborer jobs at the Ford and Libbey Owens Glass Company factories.

What/Where is “Galicia”?

The term “Galicia” only appears once or twice in the Billick family documents but it’s an intriguing tidbit in the context of other location, ethnic and language references. Galicia was the Polish part of Austro-Hungary. Annexed by Austria in 1772, at end of the 19th century it was occupied by both Polish and Ukranian people. It was eventually “restored to Poland but was later divided between Poland and the Soviet Union” [Britannica]. Although an ethnic morass, the population of Galicia was dominated by Poles (mostly in West Galicia, today near Poland and Hungary) and Ruthenians (in East Galicia, nowadays Russia and Ukraine). Writing in 1919, one historian remarked, “The Ruthenians of eastern Galicia have commonly been classed as Poles, but there is a great difference between the two nationalities as if they were living on different hemispheres” (Falk 1919, p. 326). This end-of-the-century ethnic medley helps explain, I think, the apparent miscellany of names assigned to the Billick family’s place of origin.

The migration patterns from Galicia are also germane here. More than 50% of Austria-Hungary immigrants for 1901-1910, were from the province of Galicia (nearly half a million); 1905 being one of the peak years (Praszałowicz 2003, p. 73). Louis landed in New York in 1906.

The Billick’s Were Probably Ruthenian/Ukrainian

This long thread of connections from Louis Billick’s Ellis Island arrival document, the various birthplace and native language assignment, and the family’s association with the Ukranian churches in McKeesport and Toledo, are strongly suggestive of their Ukranian ethnicity. The “Bilyk” surname by itself, is telling evidence of the family’s Ukrainian origins (see the earlier commentary on Louis’s surname).

Beyond the documentary evidence, there’s another compelling indication of that Ukranian heritage: in Tekla Billick’s kitchen. Growing up, I had no idea that foods like “kapusta” (cabbage soup), “borscht” (beet soup), “paska” (Easter bread), “pierogies,” “holubsti” (stuffed cabbage roles), “deruny” (a kind of potato pancake), were traditional Ukranian dishes. I recall that at least one of these was nearly always on grandma’s stovetop, especially the kapusta, beet soup and pierogies.

What DNA Says

I’ve done the 23 And Me DNA analysis and it confirms the Ukrainian origins suggested by traditional genealogical investigations. The results say I’m 68% of “eastern European” heritage: a little vague given the geo-political morass of the late 19th century. The accompanying maps, show the most likely DNA matches in areas of modern-day Eastern Poland and Western Ukraine, especially the region of Lviv-Oblast on the Western-most edge of Ukraine. Interestingly, in light of the details noted above, Wikipedia states that the city of Lviv “was founded by Daniel of Galicia, the King of Ruthenia.” Note that the above-discussed Zolochiv is located in the very center of the Ukrainian Province of Lviv Oblast.

Thus, DNA evidence, anthroponomy (i.e., surnames), culinary traditions, and documentary records converge in supporting the Billick’s Ukrainian origins. For completeness, it’s worth remembering that there’s a scintilla of Ukrainian DNA way back in the (maternal) Jackson line via Henri Capet’s (1008-1060) wife, Anna Yaroslavna (1036-1075), native of Kiev (described in “French Connections” section of “Part One: In the Beginning“).

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[1] ” Złoczew.” Virtual Shtetl. Museum of the History of Polish Jews, n.d. Accessed Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
[2] Re the Galician Railroad, see http://www.ipgs.us/iwonad/artdirectory/galicianrailroad.html


Eastern European Immigration.” In Encyclopedia.com.

Falk, B. (1919). “Ruthenians Versus Poles in Galicia.” Current History (1916-1940), 9(2), 326–329. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45328695

Galicia (Eastern Europe).” In Wikipedia.com.

Galicia, Historical Region Eastern Europe.” Britannica.

Pekacz, Jolanta T. “Galicia, Revolution.” In Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions.

Pomerania.” In Wikipedia.com.

Praszałowicz, D. (2003). “Overseas Migration from Partitioned Poland: Poznania and Eastern Galicia as Case Studies.” Polish American Studies, 60(2), 59–81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20148670

Procko, B. P. (1975). “The Establishment of the Ruthenian Church in the United States, 1884-1907.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 42(2), 136–154. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27772270

Ruthenia.” In Wikipedia.com.

Ruthenians.” In Wikipedia.com.

Ukrainian Ohioans.” In Ohio History Central.

An Understanding of the Terms ‘Ruthenia’ and ‘Ruthenians’.” In Genealogy of Halychyna/Eastern Galicia.

{last updated: 11-March-2023}