Part 8 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
Paula arrived early this morning bearing all sorts of gifts – dried flowers from her garden neatly packed into a sturdy cardboard box for me to take back to the United States, some local area maps for us to borrow, and a few more English-language books for me to read in the evenings. She said that she would wait for us at the penzion while we ate breakfast and would work on translating a pamphlet on the history of Torysky that my father had asked her to translate for us a few days ago. So we had our usual quick buffet breakfast at the Barbakan and then set off with Paula towards Kyjov, which was the village of my mother’s parents.
Since we had visited Peter Turek yesterday, our thoughts were on politics, and so Paula described to us some of the major political parties in Slovakia. This was confusing, so I don’t claim to have gotten this all down correctly, but here is my understanding of the situation. This is based both on what Paula told us, and also some reading I’ve done since my return in an English-language Slovak newspaper called The Slovak Spectator.
The largest political party is called Movement for Democratic Slovakia, headed by Vladimir Mečiar. This party was in power and Meciar was Prime Minister until last fall’s parliamentary elections, when a new coalition party headed by Rudolph Schuster won a majority of seats. Schuster’s coalition, which Paula called Party of Democratic Coalition, but the newspaper refers to as the Party of Civic Reconciliation, includes the country’s second-largest party (the Slovak National party), along with the former Communist party (Party of Democratic Left), and the Magyar Democratic Coalition (the party of the Hungarian minority, which is strong in the southern part of the country). There are also many smaller independent parties, such as the right-wing Christian Democratic Movement, the Democratic Party, the Green Party, the Democratic Union, and the Social Democratic Party. (The fact that most of these parties use the word “Democratic” in their names doesn’t help me to keep them straight.)
In the western press, Mečiar is considered to be a bad guy – an authoritarian leader who ruled by force and intimidation – and the election of Schuster was hailed as a reform. Although Schuster was associated with the Communist party in the past, he now supports stronger ties with the west, such as membership in the European Union. However, Paula said that many people were unhappy with Schuster because he included communists in his coalition, and because he hadn’t done anything to improve the country’s economic situation in the short time he’d been in power. According to columns in the Slovak Spectator, he is seen as a power-hungry opportunist who formed the coalition just as a stepping stone to achieving political dominance.
(Shortly after we returned home, Slovakia held its first Presidential election. No candidate achieved a majority in the first balloting, so there was a runoff between Mečiar and Schuster. Schuster won by a 15% margin.)
Paula said that the major issues under discussion are the economy, taxes, and unemployment insurance. They are currently debating a 10% hike in the VAT (value-added tax, which functions like a sales tax). Unemployment insurance is funded by a tax on employers.
After we exhausted the political discussion, Paula got back to drilling me on the Slovak language, conjugating “to be” (“Ja som”, “ty si”, “on je”), and “to have” (“ja mam”, “ty maš” (informal), “vy mate” (formal), “on ma”).
At first we drove through mountainous land to the northeast of Levoča, passing through villages in the mountain valleys with names like Brežovicka, which means “little birch trees”. After a while, we emerged from the mountains, out into an area with lower hills and broad fertile fields where it was much greener. We saw people planting potatoes and spreading manure on the fields, and once a field being plowed with oxen. Paula and I got to talking about gardening, and I was so engrossed in describing rhubarb to her (a plant which I was sure they must grow here, and indeed, they did), that we missed a turn at Lipany and spent a little time driving in the wrong direction. But we figured it out pretty quickly and got to Kyjov, which was quite near the Polish border, in good time.
Although Kyjov was generally a neat little town, on the outskirts we passed a couple of houses that were in disrepair, with garbage scattered all over the yards. “Those are gypsies”, Paula stated contemptuously, and I had to admit that, based on appearances, she had some cause for feeling that way.
As we have seen with every other village we visited, Kyjov was built in a long narrow strip along both sides of a stream, or “potok”, that ran down the middle of the village. In Kyjov, the stream was quite deep and fenced off, but every so often there was a flight of concrete steps running down from the road to the edge of the stream.
On my father’s last visit, he had made a quick trip to Kyjov, but he arrived so late in the day that he didn’t have time to talk to many people. He did find and take a picture one very old man by the name of Šutyak (which was my maternal grandmother’s maiden name), but he wasn’t able to determine if he was any relation. On this visit, his plan was to first visit the mayor and see if he could help us find my mother’s relatives.
I don’t recall how we found the mayor’s office; I believe we found some signs leading us off the main street and onto a side road, where we found the concrete block administration building. The mayor, Juraj Chamila, greeted us warmly and led us into his modern office, lined with bookshelves and the glass-fronted shelves displaying glassware that I was beginning to realize that I would see everywhere. He had a desk, conference table, television, but no computer that I could see. In the corner of the room, there was a rack of electronic equipment, which my father guessed was part of a village public address system. We sat around the conference table and his secretary brought us tea, coffee, Pepsi, and plates of potato chips.
We described our purpose in coming, and the mayor was very eager to help. He called in his secretary, and we repeated our story, and she went back to the outer office, rummaged through the records, and kept returning with village records on little cards. Mayor Chamila told us that my grandmother’s sister Helena Šutyak, had married my grandfather’s brother, Stefan Čuba. They had 2 children, a boy and a girl who died recently. After referring to the cards a bit more, he said the girl, Anna, married George Mikita, and their descendents still lived in the village. This was all pretty interesting because my mother’s name was Helen, so she must have been named after her aunt Helena. My father believes that Helena Šutyak was the only member of my grandmother’s family who stayed behind when the rest of the family went to America, and he does not know the reason.
My father showed him the picture he had taken of Jan Šutyak on his previous visit, and the mayor said that he was also related to Helena Šutyak.
A friend of my father’s (and possibly a relative of mine) in the U.S. had asked him to find out if there were still any of her Previzhnyak relatives in the village. The mayor had no information about this.
My father also asked about visiting the priest, but the mayor told us he was not in the village that day.
At this point, I got up to see if I could find a W.C., and the mayor noticed right away and courteously directed me down the hall to the right. I used the opportunity to look around a little bit, and noticed large room that appeared to be a meeting room/rec room for large village events, and a smaller room formally set up for town council meetings. In the main entrance hallway, several women were washing the floor on the hands and knees, using buckets and scrub brushes.
When I returned, Mayor Chamila was asking my father what information he had about Chamilas in the U.S.A. My father told him that many people from Kyjov had gone to our home town of Bridgeport, and at one time there was an organization called the JKW Society, for people from the three villages of Jastreb (now Šarišske Jastrabie), Kyjov, and Vislanka. He was sure he’d heard the name, Chamila, and could inquire to see if he could find any connections. The secretary, also, had a relative in Bridgeport by the name of Andre Gernat.
The mayor told us that three women had visited in Kyjov 1974 from Colorado. (These must have been my mother’s cousins, the Dusenacks.) It was surprising to me that visits are so infrequent that he would remember a visit from more than 25 years ago. He showed us a handwritten bound book that was the village chronicle and told us that he would make an entry about our visit today. He gave us a sheet of paper and asked us to write a message that he would place in the book. So I wrote, “Greetings to the people of Kyjov. I am very happy to see the beautiful country of my grandfather Michael Čuba and my grandmother Elizabeth Šutak.” And then my father and I both signed and dated it.
As we were getting up to leave, I took a close look at an excellent relief map of Slovakia on his wall, that very clearly showed the mountain ranges and river valleys. He saw that I was interested, so gave me a printed copy of the map to take with me. He also gave us a set of color photographs of the village, and then directed us to the house of the Mikita family. I think he also must have called them on the telephone after we left because they seemed to be expecting us.
We had no trouble finding the home of the Mikita family, which was on the main village street. Women working the fields across from the house stopped their work and watched as we drove up and the Mikitas came out to greet us. I could smell typical village smells like smoke from wood stoves and baking bread as they hugged us and ushered us into their house. We were seated around the kitchen table and offered peach vodka, chocolate and poppy-seed rolled cakes, bread, meat, and boiled eggs for refreshments. Through the lace curtains on the window, I could see the women in the fields go back to their hoeing.
The old man pictured below is George Mikita, and the two women are his daughters, Helen (standing) and Maria (sitting). Helen never married, but Maria did, and those are her children in the next two pictures. Maria and Helen are daughters of George and Anna Mikita and granddaughters of Helena Šutyak, thus my double second cousins. (Thanks to Kay Hicks, one of the Dusenack cousins, for helping me identify these photos. By the time we got to Kyjov, my note-taking abilities had gone to pot.)
At the Mikita house, we also met Zuzana Hovancova, whose maiden name was Petrik, and whose mother was Sussana Previzhnyak, daughter of Stefan Previzhnyak. This was the family that my father’s friend was interested in hearing about, and she is also possibly a relative of mine, since I have direct ancestors with Petrik and Previzhnyak names. My father did write down a lot of genealogical information on his charts, but it became very confusing, with everybody talking at once, and he is going to need some time to digest it and eventually understand it all. (And, I suspect, another visit to try to verify things.)
We started out, as usual, by passing around pictures. My father had brought a picture of my mother’s parents and their three grown sons. The Mikitas showed us letters they had received from Anna and Katherine Dusenack in the U.S., and also showed us pictures of their mother, Anna, including and pictures of her corpse taken during the funeral, which had been this past winter. (Taking pictures of dead people must be a custom here; it’s something I’ve never seen before.) One of the children, the youngest boy, wandered in and out of the kitchen playing with a small electronic game device. When I got a close-up view, I was not surprised to learn that it was Tetris (a game that originated in the Soviet Union).
After a while, another couple dropped in. I believe this was Juraj Čuba and his sister Zuzana, relatives Stefan Čuba. Behind them in the picture, you can see a good example of the standard type of wood stove we saw in these village houses. My father asked if we could buy some samples of traditional handicraft work in the village, but was told that there was nothing available. (I don’t think they get many tourists!)
After we left the Mikita house, my father drove slowly through the village while I walked alongside the car and snapped a lot of pictures of typical village log architecture. That house on the right was actually painted a very pretty shade of blue, the same color used on many of the foundations, including our Uncle Juraj’s house in Torysky. My father said he was trying to image my mother growing up here, but couldn’t quite do it. I couldn’t quite do it, either.
Finally we drove up to the church that stood on a hill overlooking the village, and walked through the cemetery. It was a beautiful day, brisk and breezy, and we got a good view of the village and the patchwork of cultivated fields on the surrounding hillsides. The cemetery reminded me of our church’s cemetery in Connecticut, which is also high on a hill. Many of the graves were decorated with flowers and candles, and daffodils and wildflowers grew amid the grass. My father looked for early Previzhnyak graves, but had no success. Before we left the churchyard, he took a scoop of Kyjov soil in a jar to take home.
It was still gorgeous when we dropped Paula off back in Poprad, giving us another great view of the snow-covered High Tatras rising steeply above the city.