Part 4 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
- Sunday morning at church
- Marta’s tales of the people who left the village
- Mačanka and the wise old man
- Cousin Marie, then back to Katya and Juraj
On Sunday, we drove back to Torysky with Paula early enough to attend the church services. We met Katya in front of the church and she directed us to sit in the second pew on the left, while she and most of the older village women stayed together in the back of the church.
The interior of the church looked and felt very similar to our larger church in Bridgeport. There was the gilded screen in front of the altar with the same icons of the apostles and saints, and the same type of candles and banners and murals on the walls and ceiling. The service was conducted with the priest and deacon in brocaded white robes in celebration of the Easter season. Most of the service was sung, with a lay cantor leading the congregation from a wooden enclosure against the right-hand wall. During the service, the congregation alternately sat, stood, and kneeled, according to cues that have always escaped me, but I just followed along with what everyone else was doing. At one point, the deacon made a tour of the floor of the church swinging a censor giving off the smell of fragrant incense.
Paula sang lustily, and helped me follow the service by keeping her finger pointed to the right spot in her open prayer book. I couldn’t really join in, except for one Easter song that was very familiar to me, both from my childhood church experiences, and also from my mother’s funeral, which was held in April, during the Easter season. The words, in High Church Slavonik, are as follows:
Christos voskrese iz mertvych, smertiju smert’ poprav, i suščim vo hrobich život darovav.
In English, this translates to:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life.
If there is anything that makes me feel the awe and mystery of my grandfather’s religion, it’s this song.
Communion was the high point of the service, with mostly the young people and the old women partaking. The old women were all stout, many of them using canes to walk. They were all dressed in babushkas, black boots, skirts made out of material with light-colored patterns on a black background, colorful aprons with ribbons dangling down the back, and bulky sweaters because the church wasn’t heated. (It must be quite cold during the winter.) The sight of them all lined up would have made a great picture, but I felt it would have been an intrusion to take photographs during the service, so I saved my picture-taking for afterward.
The priest gave a sermon that seemed to mention Yugoslavia and bombs. Paula told us later that he spoke of peace, and how bombs can destroy in minutes what it took years to build, and how it is up to people to find peace in their own hearts.
After the service, we stepped out into the sunlight and my father spoke with the priest, whom he had met on his previous visit. He asked if he could visit again, and was invited to stop by later in the week.
Then Paula got into an intense conversation with Katya and Marta. When she emerged, she told us that we had two invitations to eat at the two different houses. My father said that we had promised Marta yesterday that we would eat at her house, so we would go there first, and then get back to Katya later. With that she had to be satisfied. (My Dad is a popular man with the ladies.)
So we went to Marta’s to meet her family, and to be regaled with warm run, cabbage and sausage soup, and big plates of pirohy. I ate my fill, and then was dismayed to find that was only the first course! It was followed by big platters of meat and potato salad. I did the best I could, but once again I disappointed by not eating as much as my hostess thought I should be eating.
After we ate, Marta told us some fascinating stories. She was a great story-teller, acting out the parts and making it all seem very real. This was where having Paula was invaluable; we would never have gotten these stories without her. (My father had difficulty understanding Marta’s Slovak because she was so enthusiastic and spoke so quickly.)
She started out by telling us about the new priest, and about the ceremony that had taken place when the old priest retired. There were tears in her eyes as she described the old priest telling the new priest to take good care of his flock. She described how the new priest was a great scholar, and she was obviously very proud of him.
Next, she described how as a little girl she used to lie under the bed (she showed us the bed), while the old women would get together to spin wool and talk into the night about the people who had left the village. She told us about my grandfather going to America. She showed us how his mother had wrapped up food in a napkin – sheep cheese and bacon, and flour and potatoes baked on the stove – and made a bag from white cloth for him to carry. She described how he wore pants woven from sheep’s wool, and how his mother cried, and walked with him part of the way, and then blessed him when they had to part. And about how he had to walk over the mountains to Poland, and from there all the way to the sea, to get a ship to go to America. He went in the spring, with some other men, including two Babeys and a Čarak.
My father added to the story, by telling how the men had been set upon by military police on the road, and had become separated in their panic. And about how frightened my grandfather had been, a 16-year-old boy alone in a strange country, until they managed to find each other again.
Then came the story of my great-uncle Michael, my grandfather’s younger brother, and his near-execution. Marta said that a number of young men from the village had been drafted into the Austrian army and forced to fight in Albania from 1915 to 1916. Conditions were bad; there was little to eat, lice were rampant, and many people died of malaria. In the end, only seven men came back. By this point, as she told it, they were reduced to eating wormy potato peels off the ground.
When they were back in the vicinity of Torysky, three of the men deserted from the army and came back to the village. As Marta tells it, they didn’t intend to desert permanently, but just to check on their families. One of the men was Michael Turek, and another of the three was Ondrej (Andrew) Kasper, who later married my great aunt Anna Turekova and was Marta’s father.
Well, they didn’t make it, but were captured by Hussars on the outskirts of the village, thrown into prison, and condemned to death for desertion. A public execution was arranged in the center of some big town. Thousands of people were in attendance. There was a priest there, they had to kiss their wives and children goodbye, and then were blindfolded and asked their last wish.
In the meantime, as Marta tells the story, my grandfather, in the U.S., had written to President Wilson to try to save their lives. And President Wilson had written to the Emperor of Austria. Neither my father nor I believed this part; not that my grandfather didn’t try to save them, but it was hard to see why heads of state would concern themselves with three random deserters. There must be some other explanation for what happened.
And what happened was pretty dramatic, as Marta acted it out. There was an execution squad of 12 soldiers with guns, and the commander was giving a slow count, “Jeden (One)… Dva (Two)…”, and before he could get to “Tri”, a messenger came galloping in on horseback with a reprieve. The horse was foaming at the mouth, and when the messenger dismounted, the horse fell over dead. “This horse died for you”, the messenger told the prisoners (or so Marta said).
They were not completely freed, however; their sentence was commuted to 12 years of hard labor, of which they actually ending up serving 17 months. She says they were not allowed to lie down, but had to sleep sitting up, and could only eat and drink once a day. When they were finally released, it was as if they had come back from the dead. Marta said that her father, for all the rest of his life, never wasted any food, and was never able to sing or dance. When he was close to death, after having a leg amputated at the age of 84, he said it was his second death, and after he died his dog went to look for him at the cemetary every day.
At this point Marta asked about us – what we did, where we lived, etc. So I went out to the car and brought in a couple of gifts I had brought. One was a picture book of Boston, so we were able to show them pictures of Harvard University, where I had gone to school, and the Customs House Tower, where my father had gotten his customs training. I also gave them a Harvard University mug, which was successful because one member of the family had actually heard of Harvard, and a tin of maple syrup, which was a bit more confusing because they had nothing like that there. I had carefully selected a tin that had a picture of collecting maple sap, however, so I was able to explain the process, which they found interesting.
For our next visit, Marta took us off to a nearby village to visit a man called Mačanka, who was an in-law of the Tabak family, and who might know something of my father’s mother. Mr. Mačanka was elderly and hard of hearing, so it was a little confusing to talk with him. A daughter who lived with him helped a little with the communications.
He told us that my grandmother’s father had travelled to America several times, going back and forth, before finally deciding to move his whole family over. He also helped clear up a mystery about my father’s great grandmother. He had found information about her on an 1867 Austrian census, but she had been listed there as “Peroga”, when other information gave her name as “Čerpak”. Mr. Mačanka claimed that Čerpak was her family name, and Peroga was her nickname. (As we later learned, nicknames, for both individuals and family branches, are very common in Slovakia, since families are so large and certain surnames are so widespread.)
We showed them one of my grandfather’s pictures that had been tentatively identified as three Klotz sisters, and they also helped identify the picture. Paula told us that the daughter kept asking over and over where the picture had come from, even after she had explained it to her. It must be disconcerting to have a bunch of strangers from a foreign contry show up on your doorstep with a picture of your relatives.
Driving back to Torysky, I asked Paula the name for forsythia, which I had been seeing everywhere. Forsythia has always been one of my favorite flowers, and I was happy to see something so familiar. She told me that it was called zlaty dazd’, which means “gold rain”.
My dad mentioned that he was in need of a W.C., and was taken aback when Marta directed him to pull over near a car barn and announced that we would use the “natural W.C.” – that is, the outdoors. “Men to the right, ladies to the left”, Paula joked, and sent my father off behind a fence, while leading Marta and myself down a dirt road that curved behind the cow barn.
Next, Marta brought us to a man in Torysky that she referred to as a “wise old man with a good memory”, to continue our quest for my grandmother’s relatives. Mr. Kopnicky lived in a snug little village house across from the church with his wife and an orange and white cat, which was the first housepet I had noticed so far on our trip. He did have quite a good memory, and was happy to tell us what he knew, while his wife served us glasses of slivovitz (a strong brandy made from plums).
He pointed out the house where the Tabaks had lived, and confirmed that the Tabak currently in the village was not connected to the Tabaks who went to America. He said that a sister of Andreas (thus my grandmother’s aunt) had stayed behind in Torysky. She had not married, but had a son, now in his 70’s, who is a clockmaker and lives in Levoča. His last name is Tabak, but he wasn’t sure of his first name. (This was a thread that we didn’t have time to follow up on this trip – on some future trip, my father hopes to try to track him down.)
They also left behind a sister of my grandmother’s mother because she was extremely short and they were apparently afraid that she would not be allowed to enter the United States. This woman, a Klotz, was born in 1888 and was adopted by a teacher by the name of Hodinka who lived in Kežmarok (a town north of Poprad). Her name was Marta, but she was called Martuška, and she never married.
At this Paula got all excited and amazed, exclaiming “Ooooh! I knew this woman!”. It turns out that when Paula was a child she had lived across the hall from Martuška, and had been friendly with her. Gosh, what a small world!
Next, Mr. Kopnicky went on to tell us the story of the 3 soldiers sentenced to death that we had previously heard from Marta, but without quite as much embellishment as Marta had provided.
He also told us about how after the war there were 14 marriages in one day. This had occured when Martha Babey was still in the village, and she remembered this also. It was fairly common to have group marriages in the village because the weddings had to be held in the winter or early spring, when they weren’t busy working on the farms. There wasn’t a very long courtship period, but in spite of that, nobody ever got divorced. But apparently the post-war wedding was the biggest of them all. According to Mr. Kopnicky, it lasted for 7 days. Everyone ate from one big communal dish and drank spirits boiled with butter. There was a big cake with coins baked inside. And there were many christenings 9 months later.
He went on to tell us stories of life in the village in the old days, when there was no meat to eat all winter, only potatoes and cabbage. They ate meat only on Easter and Christmas. In his house, 3 families slept in one room, with the mother-in-law, too. The houses had dirt floors. When it got very cold in the winter, they would bring the calf into the house to keep it warm, and put the little lambs under the bed.
I asked about electricity, and he said they had gotten electricity 40 years ago. Now everyone has a telephone; after the war, there were only 2 people in the village with a telephone and everyone else would use the telephone at the Post Office.
Mr. Kopnicky also had a big family in the United States, but the children don’t speak Slovak and are out of touch. Also, they were warned not to come and visit during the the Communist era because having American relatives might cause trouble for people.
Next we went to visit one of Dad’s cousins that he hadn’t seen on his last visit. Born Marie Bobková, she was the daughter of a deceased aunt Martha (sister of my grandfather Peter), and is now married to Peter Babey. Her house was in a slightly newer section of the village, where the houses were made out of concrete block, rather than logs, and as we entered, we noticed that they were working on an addition to the house in back. Marta stopped in with us for a while, and then headed on home, after reminding us that we had promised to visit Katya today.
Aunt Martha has a large family, with 5 children, and many, many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, so it took some time to write everything down. We gave it a start, but then one of my second cousins kindly worked on expanding my father’s charts while we talked and ate. We were served little open-faced sandwiches with butter, ham, egg, and pickle, a rich cake with whipped cream topping, and yet more whisky. (After we got home, and my father entered all the data into his genealogy database, he found that Martha has a total of 99 descendents to date!)
We were sorry to learn that Marie had full-blown diabetes, with complications of the feet and eyes, which was being treated with insulin.
As our last visit, we went back to Katya, who had been waiting impatiently for us to return ever since the morning church service. I gave Katya and Juraj the same gifts I had given Marta – the Boston picture book, the Harvard mug, and the maple syrup, and we talked about them, and also about our jobs in the U.S. Juraj asked me what he could give me, and I told him that he didn’t need to give me anything, that his brother, my grandfather had been very good to me and I had loved him very much.
Shortly after we arrived, Marta called to check up on us. Katya also wanted to know when we would be visiting her daughter in Košice, and we made arrangements for us to go there on Tuesday evening.
Katya also mentioned the village tradition of mass weddings, and said that there had been 12 couples when they were married, and they are the last ones left of the 12.
Katya said that she had a sister, Marta Pirhala, in the U.S., and asked my father’s help in looking her up. She went to Bridgeport, her husband’s name is Ano, and she had two sets of twins. My father said he knew some Pirhalas in Bridgeport and he would try to find her.
It was getting late, so we soon headed back to Levoča. We realized we were low on gas, so we stopped at the gas station we’d stopped at on Friday night. They had just closed, but the attendent recognized my father and decided to open up just for us.
While talking, he mentioned that his father had been born in the U.S., and asked for advice about how he could gain entry. My father had been asked this question a lot on his last visit and had done some research on the question. Unless you have a high-demand skill (like computer programming), or a really close relative (parent or spouse) that is a U.S. citizen, the only way to get in is through a visitor’s visa (which doesn’t allow you to work) or a via the green card lottery (which does allow you to work). But there are problems with both approaches.
Theoretically, a visitor’s visa should be available to just about anyone who applies. But, according to Paula, “Johnson in Bratislava” (the American ambassador?) is very stingy with visitor’s visas and will only give them to people with family or property ensuring their intent to return to Slovakia. The problem with the green card lottery is simply the odds – each year some 6 to 7 million people apply and only 50,000 actually get a green card. But you are allowed to re-apply to the lottery every year, so if you keep at it, there is a reasonable chance that you will eventually get it.
We took Paula back to Poprad and told her that she could have a day off tomorrow, since we hoped to meet Helena Liptakova from the Levoča archives. On our way back, we found the spot where we made the wrong turn the night before. Even knowing that the road curved left, it was really hard to see in the dark. In general, the roads in Slovakia are pretty good, but in this one spot, for some reason, there were no white lines painted on the road and the lighting was pretty poor.