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Breaker Boy – The Separation of John Papnick

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Breaker boy” is what Jonas Pupininkas was called. The name was given to the hundreds of young boys from Lithuania who were lured into the coal mines of Pennsylvania by a promise of employment. Separation ghosted him all his life.

Separation by breaker boys
The job of a Breaker boy was to separate by hand the shale from the valuable coal.

Breaker boys were confined to the mines for long hours. Their job was to break and separate by hand the shale from the valuable coal. The exploitative handiwork of countless breaker boys fired capitalists to unimaginable wealth and fueled the destiny of America’s Industrial Age.

Jonas Pupininkas also was called a lugan. The derogatory slur attached to foreigners from Lithuania who were separated from their families and everything they had known. Lugans in America had no family. For the most part, lugans owned nothing and had nothing. In America, lugans were detestable people, isolated and not easily assimilable.

Separation of coal by breaker boys
Breaker boys worked in a haze of coal dust always under an ever-present overseer.

Upon his entry to the United States, the U.S. Government separated Jonas Pupininkas from his birth name. The boy was divorced from his past. America branded Jonas Pupininkas with the new name of John Papnick. What young John Papnick could make of his new identity, absent any specific direction, was left entirely to him.

As America erased the past of Jonas Pupininkas, America baited John Papnick with what lay before him. To the immigrant boy, and all breaker boys like him, John’s unfolding in America at first appeared like the countless shards of broken black slate he sifted through his hands. The valuable coal enriched no one John knew. Certainly not him. From the shards he held, John only could imagine a slate chalkboard upon which he might write the future he imagined for himself.


Separation in the Old County

His Nation Partitioned

John Papnick is presumed to have been born near Vilnius, Lithuania, maybe Kaunas. His ancient homeland was a country often divided.

Lithuania was a superpower, for a longer time than the United States. When Baltic people fought the Vikings and the Romans, it was only a small tribe of Lithuanians around Vilnius who could consolidate the bellicose factions. In 1253, the Pope conferred a crown upon the pagan Duchy of Lithuania. In return, the duchy abandoned its pagan origins and embraced Catholicism. Centuries of fighting against Teutonic knights ensued. St. George was Lithuania’s patron saint to protect Christians. When Lithuania forged an alliance with Poland, the Teutonic threat was extinguished. The complex politics of this “noble democracy” resulted in many lost wars.

There were many reasons to leave Lithuania. Between 1772 and 1795, John’s ancient homeland was completely partitioned and annexed by Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Speaking the Lithuanian language was banned. Catholicism was suppressed and churches were confiscated. In 1831 and 1863 a nationalist movement sought to make Lithuania independent of both Poland and Russia.  The crumbling of the Russian Empire after World War I gave Lithuania a temporary period of respite. However, World War II saw Lithuania occupied by Nazi Germany and twice again by Russia. The genocide of Lithuanian Jews prevailed. Only 5% of Jews in Lithuania survived. Of Jews in Kaunas, even less survived.


His Family Divided

It is not known if the Pupininkas family of Jonas Pupininkas is of Jewish ancestry. As research continues, what is known is that Toronto, Canada became home to a large family of immigrant Jews who bear the name of Papernich. Toronto also is home to a number of families named Papnick, like John. Russia exiled Lithuanian Jews to Siberia. Germany sent Jews to the ovens of concentration camps.

Only one family survives in Lithuania today who bear the ancestral surname of Pupininkas. No genealogical or historical records for the name Pupininkas can be found in Lithuania.

Family of Gintares and Diana Pupininkas
Family of Gintares Pupininkas, daughter Agne, son Lucas, wife Diana, 2015. Gintares runs a company that manufactures wooden doors. Among a small number of relatives, this is the only Pupininkas family surviving in Lithuania today.

Following the Civil War in America and the revolt in Lithuania of 1863 to restore its alliance with Poland, advertisements solicited young Lithuanian boys to work in the coal mines of America, rather than be conscripted into the Russian army. The passage of the boys was paid by mining companies. An indenture was created in effect, similar to those used in the 19th and early 20th centuries for immigrants from England and Ireland.

Parents of Jonas Pupininkas. They are believed to be Pranas Pupininkas, called Francysszek, and Regina Mazetye. The image is believed to be their marriage photo.
Immigration manual offered to Lithuanian immigrants

By the 1880s, Pennsylvania coal and railroad interests sent their agents to Eastern Europe to lure poor immigrants. Between 1899 and 1914, some 250,000 Lithuanians adopted the United States as their new home.

A manual of 290 pages was provided by immigrant agents in the U.S. The booklet advised prospective immigrants of what to expect. The best travel to the U.S. and Canada was in spring. The manual described U.S. cities as hot in summer. Lithuanians are not accustomed to such heat. Travel to the U.S. in winter was uncomfortable and to be avoided. People were out of work in winter and suffered from want. In the U. S., factories slowed down in winter. A winter arrival dragged the arriving immigrant into poverty and exacerbated the hardship of fellow immigrants.

Time To Move Forward

The last photographic image of the Pupininkas family prior to the departure of Jonas Pupininkas (center) for America and his destination in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

Around 1902, the Pupininkas family gathered for a final photograph to document the imminent departure of their eldest son Jonas to America. Observing the sad separation, his father removed his pocket watch from the vest of the suit that he wore in his wedding photo. He then threaded the treasured valuable through the vest of his eldest son. Jonas Pupininkas, now 15-years-old, was his own man.

Jonas Pupininkas left his family and Lithuanian homeland forever. He was bound for Antwerp to board the S.S. Friesland for his transport to coal country in America. Once gone from Lithuania, the boy never would see or hear of his family again.


S.S. Friesland in the North Sea. Star Line. Antwerp.

Passage Isolation

The saloon on the top promenade deck of the S.S. Friesland.

Class distinction was clear aboard the S.S. Friesland. Its spacious promenade top deck provided first and second class passengers ample fresh air. An enclosed saloon on the promenade deck offered protection from inclement weather. Refreshments from the saloon’s bar could be taken below to private compartments on the second deck.

Typical steerage compartment in the bottom hold of a ship.

Below the promenade deck and second deck, in the stuffy hold of the ship, was third class, also called steerage class. Here is where Jonas made his passage. Fore and aft steerage compartments abutted the ship’s mechanical equipment and cargo holds. Though confined, steerage passengers could roam at will. The sleeping accommodation for a third class passenger was a shared compartment where steerage passengers slept dormitory-style.

The three decks of the S.S. Friesland. The S.S. Friesland was launched on August 15, 1899. On December 7, she made her maiden voyage from Antwerp to New York, under the Belgian flag. First-class accommodated 226 passengers, with 102 passengers in second class. The third class accommodated 600 steerage passengers. A steerage class ticket cost 82 rubles.

Under the immigration policies of the time, minors like Jonas were required to be accompanied by sponsors, if not by their parents. More often, a relative or trusted family friend, or even a paid sponsor was solicited or employed. One document shows Jonas Pupininkas arrived in America with his mother. It is more likely this woman was not his mother in fact, but only another passenger said to be his mother. Following their ocean passage, nothing more is learned of this woman who accompanied Jonas Pupininkas.

In late 1902, Jonas Pupininkas was among the final passengers of the aging S.S. Friesland. In January of 1903, the ship was sold to the American Line to sail under the flag of the United States. The ship was refitted to carry 300 second-class passengers in addition to the 600 in steerage. She sailed from Liverpool, England to Philadelphia. Her final voyage was in 1911, after which the S.S. Friesland was sold to an Italian company and reduced to scrap the following year.

Separation in America