Part 9 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
- Morning errands
- Cousin Katherine and family
- Torysky Mayor Čarak
- Torysky cemetery
- Father Šturak
- Aunt Anna and Uncle Juraj
This Friday morning, we planned to drive to the town of Slovinky, which is southeast of Spišská Nová Ves [see map], to visit my Dad’s cousin Katherine Skorupkova, daughter of Aunt Anna and sister of Marta. Paula was late in meeting us, so we left a note for her to wait for us at the penzion, and went out to run a few quick errands around town. First we stopped at the Archives to pick up the document copies that my father had ordered on his last visit, then we went to the Post Office to see if we could get the automobile sticker required for travel on the highways. (See An encounter with the policia.)
My father sent me in on my own while he waited in the car. I almost managed to do it. I found the window where the tickets where sold, and I communicated what I wanted, but the clerk showed me two different tickets, at different prices, and I wasn’t sure which one I needed. I tried to indicate that we had a small car, and told her it was an Opel, but she kept pointing to the more expensive sticker and I didn’t think I really needed to pay the extra. I would have kept at it, but a line was building up behind me and I didn’t want to hold everyone up, so I bailed out and decided we would have to come back when we had Paula to help.
When we got back to the penzion, we were very surprised to find both Paula and Marta from Torysky standing outside and gabbing like old friends. Marta had apparently come into town on the bus and had encountered Paula by chance. They had been discussing our visit with Peter Turek (the ‘boss’ of the Levoča district). Both of them wanted to know how my father had become acquainted with Peter, so my father told them the story of his fortuitous meeting with Helena Liptakova on his first visit to Slovakia.
Then we said goodbye to Marta, and went off with Paula to try again at the Post Office. Paula found a sign posted on the bulletin board indicating that the difference between the two stickers was based on engine size. We had brought in the car’s handbook, which was in German, and I riffled through it to try to find the specifications for the engine size. Meanwhile, a man in line had taken pity on us and offered to help out. When we told him what kind of car we had, he assured us that the smaller sticker would be fine. He even waved us in ahead of him in line, and made sure we bought the right thing.
On the way to Slovinky, we drove by Spišsky Hrad, and Paula encouraged us to stop at a Roman Catholic cathedral and seminary called Spišska Kapitula that was located near the Hrad. This small walled town had been the ecclesiastical capital of the Spiš region for hundreds of years, until the communists took it over in 1950 and imprisoned the bishop. It has been back in church hands since 1990. We couldn’t stay very long; just took a quick look around and continued on our way.
We drove south on back roads through country villages on our way to Slovinky. Once we got caught behind a slow-moving truck piled high with hay which was shedding bits of hay as it lumbered along. In one village, we saw another gypsy settlement, this time in a cluster of gutted apartment buildings that looked like they’d been through a war, with big holes in the walls, and once again with garbage thrown all over the ground. We crossed a river valley with lush green grass, and then followed a stream up into a mountain valley and came to the small village of Slovinky, where we stopped to ask directions.
Katherine and her family lived in a big, bright, modern house, perched on the side of a hill. We visited in their kitchen, a sunny room with big windows looking out across the river valley to the green hills on the other side. Katherine was very happy to see us, and kept smiling and hugging us. Her daughter, Sylvia, went running off to call their other daughter Iveta, who lives in Switzerland, to tell her the news that we were there.
Iveta seems to have an exciting life. She works as a model, and her husband, who is part Indian, is a pilot and owns his own airplane. She recently visited the United States and called my father from Washington D.C., but since she doesn’t speak English, they could not talk very much. My father was hoping to fly to Slovakia via Geneva so he could stop and visit her, but it just didn’t work out this time. The younger sister, Sylvia lives at home, and has also worked as a model. Katherine’s son, Miroslav, lives in Bratislava and works as a bodyguard. He once spent a year in the United States.
Katherine asked us about our visit to her mother, our Aunt Anna, and we talked about her mother’s health. Katherine said that Anna stays with her during the winter, but prefers to live in the village where she grew up. Katherine said that she and Marta have a third sister, Anna Kollarova, who lives in Bratislava, whom we have not yet met. Anna is married to Rudolf Kvall, a customs officer who is the “major of the airport” in Bratislava. This was interesting, because my father worked for the U.S. Customs Department. He is hoping to visit Anna and Rudolf on some future visit and to bring Rudolf some mementoes of the U.S. Customs Dept.
Katherine showed us some nice family pictures, including an excellent portrait of her mother, and when we admired them, told us to take them. She also showed us some professionally-produced photos of both of her daughters modeling. And of course she gave us food – a nice raspberry soft drink and kielbasa.
Katherine’s husband, Milan Skorupka, is a big, ruddy, friendly guy, who plays the accordion. He used to work in the copper mines, but he is now retired and on a pension. He said that he is related to the Tabaks (my maternal grandmother’s family), but he doesn’t know the details – we would have to talk to his sister, who keeps track of family relationships.
They told us that the next time we come to Slovakia, we should come and stay with them – they had plenty of extra room and all the modern conveniences. I used the bathroom when I was there, and it was very American – it was decorated with stickers of Walt Disney characters.
Before leaving Slovinky, I want to comment on the gate shown in the picture of the Skorupka house. Notice the interesting pattern formed by the metal bars. This type of fence was very common throughout the country, and there were many different designs used in these fences. The one shown here, vertical bars interspersed with 3 spokes radiating out from a circle, was one of the most common, but there were many other designs. Another popular one was a sunburst pattern, with a big half circle on the bottom with spokes radiating out from it. Another pattern was a completely random crazy quilt. Often different paint colors were used to highlight parts of the design. As we drove around, we started to make a game of trying to spot fence designs and variants that we hadn’t seen before.
We next drove to Torysky, taking some back roads we hadn’t tried before, going north from Spišsky Hrad over a steep ridge of hills, and then west to Torysky. It was a lovely drive, first passing through low rolling hills with fields and meadows separated by hedgerows, and then into a deep pine forest dotted with birch groves and carpeted with lovely wildflowers in purple, yellow, and white. We passed chalet-style dwellings, and collections of brightly-painted beehives, and higher in the mountains, a group of woodcutters. I noticed that the trees were cut selectively, leaving many trees still standing, and thus not destroying the forest as we often do with clear-cutting. The road got steeper, with lots of switchbacks and nice views, including some views of the Spišsky Hrad down in the valley. It was an “oooh” and “aaah” sort of drive.
As we drove up to the building housing the mayor’s office in Torysky, we found the mayor himself out supervising a crew of workmen who were laying interlocking pavers to surface the parking area. He remembered my father from his previous visit, and greeted us warmly, then led us into his office while he went off to wash up.
The mayor’s name was Čarak, and my father found this very interesting, since he knew some Charaks in America. They were friends of my grandparents and lived near us when I was growing up. So he had brought a photo of the American George Charak to show the mayor, along with a copy of the vessel passenger manifest which lists a Michael Čarak as an arrival at Ellis Island in 1912 with my grandfather. This Michael Čarak turned out to be the mayor’s uncle!
My father also gave the mayor a copy of the old map of the village he had gotten from the Levoča Archives, and the mayor gave my father a copy of a more recent map. The map had a red line marked on it, and the mayor explained that people were not allowed to build houses outside of the area marked by the red line; the remaining area was reserved for farming. He said that many people from the village had gone to the United States to earn money to buy land in the village. Many of them came back, but many of them also stayed overseas. Some property changed hands in America, so now there is some confusion over land ownership. This was made worse by the fact that some time ago the army took a large chunk of the Torysky farmland for a huge army reserve and won’t give it back.
We noticed that the mayor had a computer in his office, so we asked him if he had access to e-mail. He did not know what e-mail was, so we listened while Paula attempted to explain it to him. We told him that if he had e-mail, he could send messages to us in America that we would receive almost immediately.
The mayor said there would be a big celebration on May 23rd, which would be the 715th anniversary of the founding of the village. He gave us a folk music cassette which featured performers from the village to show us the type of entertainment they would have at the celebration.
After leaving the mayor, we drove down to the end of the village and visited the hillside cemetery. There many names on the headstones that were familiar to me from my childhood; besides my family names of Turek, Tabak, and Kašper, I recognized Bobko, Labaš, Kaščak, Yurošec, and Babej.
While walking around, we encountered an old lady in traditional dress, so we introduced ourselves. She said her name was Maria Čerpakova and her husband was Michael Yurošec. She told us that her father had been in the U.S. from 1920 to 1929 and had made a deed with a Tabak there. Her father wanted her mother to go, but her mother refused to leave her home, so her father came back. She said that my grandfather’s younger brother, Michael, who went to the U.S., and his wife, nicknamed Baronika, were her husband’s godmother and godfather. Another small world moment.
After we had talked for a while, she asked Paula in amazement how did she come to speak Slovak so well? She had thought Paula had come from America with us. We explained that Paula was a local girl who was translating for us.
Our next visit was to the village priest, Father Peter Šturak, in his house across the stream from the church. We entered via a spacious entry hall decorated with singing birds in cages and illuminated icons on the walls. We were led into a large room that appeared to serve as a schoolroom for the Sunday school, with chairs around a central table and bookshelves along the walls. Windows with lace curtains looked out onto a grassy hill in back, where there was a grove of fruit trees and a flock of chickens. When we arrived, a young boy was practicing the accordion. Before he left, he entertained us with a few tunes.
When my father had visited before, he had learned that the priest’s wife, Gabriella, was studying English, so gave her a gift of an English dictionary.
Before I describe the discussion we had with the priest, this might be a good time to explain the three major religions of this part of Slovakia. There is the Roman Catholic church and the Greek Orthodox church (called Pravoslavny, which means “Orthodox”), but the church of Torysky is a Greek Catholic church. Sometime in the 12th century, a group of Greek Orthodox bishops transferred their allegiance from the patriarch in Constantinople to the pope in Rome. They were given an arrangement, however, where they were allowed to keep the rites and traditions of their Greek Orthodox faith, including married priests. This was called the Uniat church, and is now referred to as Greek Catholic.
Father Šturak told us that the Greek Catholic church had been suppressed by the communists, starting in 1950. The priests were told to become Greek Orthodox, and those who did not sign the paper were taken away, sometimes with violence and torture. During that period, the people went to Roman Catholic services, but couldn’t be baptized or married in the Greek Catholic church. The priests were allowed to return in 1968 due to the influence of Dubček, who was a Slovak.
My father asked how work was going on the book of the history and customs of Torysky, that the priest had been working on during his last visit. Father Šturak said he had been diverted from that because he had contributed some writing to another book, which he showed to us. This was a coffee-table book about the Prešov Greek Catholic diocese, with gorgeous pictures of the people, landscape, and churches of the region. I noted the publication information, and resolved to look for the book before we left Slovakia.
Then Father Šturak asked about our church in America, and that started quite a tale. My father explained that when the Greek Catholics had come to the United States, back in the teens and twenties, and the Greek Catholics found themselves in a minority in a Roman Catholic church that did not understand or sympathize with the Uniat rite. There was a lot of pressure on the church to conform to Roman Catholic practices, which they resisted. Eventually the pope ruled that they had to conform, so many of the Greek Catholic churches in the U.S. seceded from the Catholic church and joined up with the Russian or Greek Orthodox churches, which allowed them to preserve their traditions.
Our church in Bridgeport had a particularly difficult time because they lost their church buildings in the process. The issue went all the way to the Supreme Court, but it was ruled that the deed was in the name of the Roman Catholic bishop, so the Roman Catholic church got to keep the buildings, and our church had to raise money to build their own new church.
My father explained all this to Father Šturak, via Paula, who was translating, and who was quite fascinated by this whole story, since she had just assumed that our church in the U.S. was Greek Catholic. My father then made the point that our church in America, even though we have changed allegiance, is still more true to the old traditions than the church in Slovakia, which is starting to pick up Roman Catholic influences. As an example, he cited the change in date of Easter observance, and the appearance of stations of the cross. “I came to Slovakia to find the religion of my father”, he said, “and I find that we in America have held to the traditions while you have changed.”
The priest nodded, and agreed that was true, and we talked about the reasons a little bit. He said that it was very complicated, and in fact, he teaches a whole course on the recent history of the church. I suggested that the years of communist repression must have had an influence, since many people went to Roman Catholic churches during that time and became accustomed to their customs, and he agreed that was true.
During this serious talk, the priest’s wife came in with some refreshments, orange drink, rolled cakes and cookies, and some artfully arranged open-faced sandwiches with butter, pickles, egg, scallions, red peppers, and cheese.
We next drove to Aunt Anna’s house, and were very pleased to find her sitting up and watching out the window to see us coming. Before we entered the house, Marta came bounding out and said that she would show us how she washes clothes. She went down to the stream and crossed it on a rough plank bridge. Then she dipped a piece of clothing into the water and got it totally wet. Then she took it over to a sort of shelf made from a wood plank hung between a couple of tree stumps, and she started whacking the clothing with a wood paddle. She’d whack it a few times, then turn it over like kneading bread and whack it some more. I couldn’t tell if she was using some sort of soap, or just the water from the stream.
We then went in to see Anna, and I gave her one of my Harvard cups and Paula explained what it was. She was looking much better than on our previous visit, and explained that she likes to be home. We told her of our adventures and all the people we visited in the last few days.
I told Marta, through Paula, “You are everywhere! We saw you this morning in Levoča, and then you were here in Torysky when we got here. I am surprised we didn’t see you in Slovinky!” Marta smiled and flapped her arms, as if to say, “If I only had wings, I would be there!”
We talked about my father’s cousins, figuring out how many he had. We counted 19 children in my father’s generation, of which 5 were in the United States and 14 in Slovakia. In the U.S., my grandfather Peter had two children, my father and Uncle Joe, and his brother Michael had 3 children, two girls and a boy. In Slovakia, Martha had 5 (we’d met one – Maria in Torysky), Anne had 3 daughters (we’d met two – Marta in Torysky and Katherine in Slovinky), and Juraj had 6, one boy and 5 girls (we’d met two – Katherine and Peter in Kosice). So of the 14 Slovak first cousins, we’d met 5 and had 9 to go. (We weren’t going to see them all on this trip, but my father did eventually meet all 14 of them.)
And these were only the first cousin’s on my father’s father’s side. Remember that cousin Martha has 99 descendents, and we haven’t even counted the other second and third cousins, not to mention my other relatives through my mother and my father’s mother. My father had realized on his first trip that we have a huge family in Slovakia – much bigger than our family in the U.S!
Marta fed us again, of course, with sausages, cookies, hot rum, and oranges. We thought maybe we should leave because it was getting late. And Anna said she was worried about us driving the road to Levoča in the dark. But just then things started getting interesting so we stayed a little longer.
Marta told us that when Anna was younger, she “wrote songs that made us cry”. Anna had polio when she was young, and thought she would never have children. But her mother said, “God will make a miracle and give you children to care for you when you get old”. And she did eventually marry Ondre Kašper, who was a widower with 6 children, in 1940, when she was 25 and he was 43. (Remember that Ondre Kašper was one of the men who faced the firing squad in Marta’s tale.)
Ondre’s youngest child was 6 years old at the time, while the oldest were already married. Marta said that Anna was a good stepmother to his four younger boys. (Only the youngest boy still lives, in the Czech Republic.) Then Anna had three girls of her own. “We all lived in this house – 12 years we lived together”, said Marta. The oldest half brother and his wife and four children lived in the small room we were in, and Anna, Ondre, their three girls, and for a time the four boys from his previous marriage, all lived in the big room. This was a total 11 to 15 people in one little house.
It was really getting late now, so we had to leave. It was 7 pm by the time we got to Katya and Juraj’s house. Juraj hugged my dad, happy to see him, but angry that he took so long to get there. I greeted him as Striko (Uncle), and told him about all the people we visited today. There was more genealogy talk, but I’m afraid I was pretty tired at that point and didn’t absorb very much of it. It was so late that Katya did not serve us any food, thank goodness, but she did show us some decorated Easter eggs, called kraslice, that she had made. It was so late that we couldn’t stay long, but we promised to return one more time before leaving the country.
On the way back to Poprad, we asked Paula to call Jan Babej in Levoča tomorrow to see if it would be okay to visit him in the afternoon. My father had met Jan on his last visit, as he is related to Martha Babey in the United States, and is also a relative of ours. Jan has done some genealogical work of his own, so my father planned to trade charts and records with him. We told Paula that we would take the morning off to rest, but we’d like her to join us at the penzion in the afternoon to go with us to visit Jan.
At the penzion, we relaxed by watching a little bit of TV (a dubbed version of “Scarlet”, which gave me the amusing opportunity to see Colm Meany speaking in Slovak), and talking about the day, particular the situation with the church, which my father was very sad about.