Part 1 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
This is the story of a trip I took with my father to find my family roots in the hill villages of eastern Slovakia. As a child, I knew very little of my heritage. I knew that all four of my grandparents had emigrated from Slovakia (which was then part of Austria-Hungary) before the first World War. They ended up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where my grandfathers worked in the factories and were part of a good-sized Carpatho-Russian community centered around the Church of St. John the Baptist, built on a high hill overlooking the city. (You can still see its golden dome as you whiz by on the turnpike.)
My grandparents assimilated to American life pretty quickly, and by the time I came along, they seldom spoke Slovak in the home (except when they wanted to keep something secret from the children). We called our great aunt Ann “Teta” or “Tet”, but I only learned later that “teta” is the Slovak word for aunt. I knew nothing of the language – just a few odd words like “dobre” (“good”), “Boze moj” (“my God”), and “Christos voskrese” (“Christ is risen”), the latter spoken as a universal greeting at Easter time.
I remember Easter as an important celebration, when my grandmother made a beautiful basket of food to be blessed by the priest. She would line a basket with a fine linen napkin, and fill it with paska (Easter bread), ham, kielbasa, colored eggs, butter pressed into a bone china cup and inscribed with a cross, and salt in a crystal salt shaker. Everyone would bring their baskets to the church or to a local house to be blessed by the priest, and the food would then be eaten as the family’s Easter meal.
Other foods I remember (and I have no idea of the proper spelling of the Slovak words!) included homemade chicken noodle soup, pagachy (a type of thin bread stuffed with potato and onion or sauerkraut and bacon), halushky (a kind of noodle-like dumpling), jellied pig’s feet (yuch!), chedegy (a light and flaky deep-fried pastry sprinkled with powdered sugar), nut and poppyseed rolls, hurky (a type of sausage made with rice and eaten for breakfast), and my personal favorite, pirohy (a dumpling stuffed with potato and onion and cooked in butter flavored with onions).
Both of my grandfathers had extensive vegetable gardens, and even raised chickens in their backyards when I was very young, and my grandmothers and great aunt had traditional flower gardens with lilacs, peonies, and roses. I remember helping my grandfather dig potatoes, and Tet showing me how to save and replant the seeds from zinnias and marigolds. This love of gardening and connection to the land is one thing that has stayed with me throughout my life.
I remember elaborate crucifixes and religious pictures, usually of Jesus Christ, adorned with branches of pussy willow received at church on Palm Sunday.
I remember the church services – priests in ornate brocaded vestments whose colors changed with the church calendar, swinging censors of exotic-smelling incense, an elaborate gold filigree screen with icons of Christ, Mary, and the apostles and saints separating the altar from the congregation, and a service that was almost all in song, much of it sung by the congregation (although it seemed that only the older people knew the words).
The church was also a social center. There was a church hall, where there were bazaars and bake sales, and downstairs, a dark and dim basement with bowling lanes (back in the days when there were human “pinboys”, not automated pinsetters), and a crowded and smoky bar at the back corner. My mother bowled in the duckpin league, and played penny-ante poker with other women from the church. Weddings featured polka bands, and I loved to whirl around until I was panting and out of breath.
We sometimes visited my paternal grandfather’s younger brother, Michael, who lived in nearby New Britain, Connecticut with his family. He seemed to be a sad and gentle man, and the story was told that he came to America after escaping near-death from an Austrian army firing squad. My grandfather had come over earlier, in 1912 at the age of 16, to avoid getting drafted into the army himself (although he did fight in the U. S. Army in World War I).
But of Slovakia, I knew little. My father’s mother, who came to the U.S. with her family when she was 8 years old, told stories of “the old country” that drew a picture of a hard life – living in a small house in the hills with no plumbing or electricity, bitter winter cold, hard work of milking cows and digging potatoes, washing clothes in the stream, and never quite enough food. But beyond this I knew nothing. For most of my life, Slovakia wasn’t even a country, being lumped into Czechoslovakia, and I tended to think of myself as a generic “Eastern European peasant”. This was made worse by the fact that until the fall of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia was under communist rule, with travel restrictions and other limitations on information exchange. During the first part of my life, Slovakia seemed as far away as the moon.
This started to change in 1972, when my grandfather took his first and only trip back to his village of Torysky to visit the younger brothers and sisters he left behind. He went with my uncle Joe, and wanted to also bring my father, Walter, but my dad couldn’t get the time off from work. When my grandfather came back, I was able to see pictures of this village that had existed only in my imagination for so many years.
I was particularly struck by a photo that showed my grandfather and his brother inside a house, and in the background there was a picture of my parent’s 1944 wedding, with my father in his military uniform, and my mother with her long satin dress. Not only was this a real place with real people, but they were people who were related to my father and me, and who cared about us, even though they had never met us.
For the first time, it occurred to me that I might be able to go there and see it for myself. But it still seemed pretty remote. The country was still under communist rule, and for a long time I held a security clearance at work which would have made it difficult to travel to a communist country. Plus, I didn’t know the language at all. But there was beginning to be a thought in the back of my mind that I would like to go there someday.
Then last fall, much to my surprise, my father decided to go. For the last several years he had been doing genealogical research on the family, and he’d assembled a lot of information. He also was in touch with some other people from our church community who had made the trip, and he felt that he remembered enough of the language from his childhood that he would be able to make his way around.
So he went on his own, and had a wonderful time. After he returned, my brother and I descended on his house in Connecticut to hear all about it. He had flown to Vienna, spent the first night in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which is only about 30 miles from Vienna, and then driven the 200 or so miles to the town of Levoča, a medium-sized town about 12 miles from my grandfather’s village of Torysky. At Levoča, he went into the Archives to do some genealogical research, and met one of the curators, Helena Liptaková, who not only spoke English, but who turned out to be good friends with a Peter Turek, the town assessor, who appeared to be a relation we had not previously known about.
That evening, Peter and Helena drove him down to the nearby town of Spišska Nova Ves, where he met two of Peter’s uncles and some other family, including an adorable little girl who was dressed up in a Slovak peasant costume. They plied him with food and Slivovitz (plum brandy, a popular local drink), and somewhere along the line he gave up on his genealogical charts and never did figure out exactly how we were related to Peter.
The next day he went up into the hills to the village of Torysky and visited with his uncle Juraj (George) and his wife Katya, his aunt Anna, and Anna’s daughter Marta, who takes care of her. He also learned about more of his cousins on the Turek side, and visited two of Juraj and Katya’s children who lived in the large industrial town of Kosice.
They invited him to come back in February for their daughter’s wedding, but he got involved in some medical tests, so he couldn’t return then. This turned out to be a good thing for a couple of reasons. For one thing, on the day before the wedding, a record snowstorm hit the area and travel was nearly impossible. So my father would probably have missed the wedding anyway. And the second reason this turned out to be a good thing was that I got laid off from my job at the end of February, so was free to go with him when he scheduled his return trip in April.
I had a few weeks to prepare for the trip, so I bought a phrasebook and a language tape and made some attempt to learn some Slovak words and phrases. I am rather slow at learning languages, though, so by the time we left my entire repertoire consisted of the following phrases:
Yes, No, Please, Thank you, Excuse me, Hello, Goodbye, One, Two, Three, How are you?, I am fine, My name is …, I am an American, I don’t speak Slovak, Do you speak English?
Not a lot to go on, but it was the best I could do.
The Slovak language uses many diacritical marks to indicate variations in pronunciation of vowels and consonants. Since these marks are not used in English, many Slovak names are written differently in English. For example, the letter č in Slovak is pronounced like “ch” in English. So my mother’s family, which is written Čuba in Slovak, was written as Chuba in English so people would pronounce it properly. Similarly, the town Levoča is pronounced “Levocha”.
Here are a few other Slovak pronunciation notes:
- “c” is pronounced as “ts” as in “lots”
- “č” is pronounced as “ch” as in “change”
- “ch” is pronounced as “ch” as in “loch”
- “j” is pronounced as “y” as in “yes”
- “š” is prounounced as “sh” as in “shell”
- “ž” is pronounced as “zh”
We made our reservations to leave on Thursday, April 8, so we would arrive in time, we thought, to celebrate Greek Catholic Easter. (In the U.S., the church celebrates Easter according to the Julian calendar, which was April 11 this year.) Shortly before we left, however, we heard rumors that most of the village churches had shifted to the Gregorian calendar in recent years. But it was too late to change the reservations.
The other ominous news just before our trip was the bombing of Yugoslavia. Slovakia does not actually border Yugoslavia (Hungary lies between) so we weren’t going to be anywhere near the actual fighting, but I was a little concerned that there might be some anti-American sentiment. But the State Department hadn’t issued any travel advisories for the area, so there was no reason to change our plans.
We had tried to fly out of Boston (to avoid dealing with the hassle of New York), but the fares were much cheaper out of New York. So we ended up booking a direct flight from New York to Vienna. I drove down to my father’s house in Stratford, Connecticut, the day before, enjoying the weather that was just on the verge of spring, with the afternoon sun backlighting the red maples with a rosy glow.
On the morning of our flight we made a visit to a friend of my father, Martha Babey, who had lived in Torysky for a time. Although born in the U. S., her parents had gone back for a visit and had been trapped by the outbreak of the World War II. She wanted my father to bring a letter and a gift to one of her cousins who had been kind to her during her stay there.
Then we took a limousine and a shuttle bus that eventually got us to JFK airport after several tedious stops at various towns along the way. The flight was rather uneventful, which was fine. My father listened to Strauss waltzes through the headphone and followed the flight’s progress via maps and data displayed on the TV monitors from time to time. I watched the movie (Stepmom), read John Grisham’s latest bestseller (The Street Lawyer), and made some attempt to sleep, which failed miserably, in spite of taking 3 mg of melatonin. In the morning we flew over England and a good part of Europe, but there was a pretty solid cloud cover and I wasn’t able to see anything until we descended. I did get a quick glimpse of the Danube as we came in for a landing.
Customs at the Vienna airport was non-existent, although I did feel a bit nervous when I handed my passport over to a grim uniformed immigration official speaking in German (I guess I’ve seen too many World War II movies). We bought a couple of sandwiches and bottled water with some Austrian cash I’d picked up at BayBank before leaving Boston, and headed out into the parking lot to track down our rental car. We found the car, then spent several minutes figuring out how to unlock the trunk and how to shift into reverse, and finally made our way out of the airport and south along the Danube to Bratislava.[Click here to see a map of Slovakia]
Driving to Levoča
The day was still lightly overcast, but the air felt fresh and springlike. The season was further along then it had been in Boston; the grass was lush and the trees and shrubs had just a light blush of spring green as the buds were starting to open. Yellow forsythia and some sort of white-flowering wild cherry or almond were in full bloom everywhere. As we drove, we passed neat little villages of tan stucco houses with red tile roofs, separated by cultivated fields and the occasional soccer field.
Crossing the border was like going through two toll booths on the highway; the first with Austrian and the second with Slovakian customs. We passed through with no trouble, and then crossed the Danube into Bratislava, a rather industrial city dominated by a castle on a hilltop called the Bratislavsky Hrad. We didn’t drive through downtown Bratislava, where I understand there is a nicely preserved historic district, but we edged around the outer perimeter, getting blasted with truck exhaust fumes (they don’t seem to have auto emission controls here) and passing billboards that one might find in any modern city, complete with web addresses on some.
My father tuned the radio to something that sounded like local folk songs and we headed north along the Vah river valley. He had decided that he didn’t need to spend a night in Bratislava, but could just drive straight through to Levoča. I don’t know how he did it, because after sitting up all night on the plane, I was ready to sleep for about 10 hours straight, but he seemed fully alert and able to drive okay.
We had a pretty good road most of the way north. It was a 4-lane divided highway most of the way, with some places where the second half of the highway hadn’t been completed, so both directions of traffic shared one side of the highway as if it were a two-lane road. This kept changing back and forth, which was very confusing, especially since there were a lot of people who drove very fast.
The terrain was a broad river valley with high hills on both sides, the hills on our left marking the border with the Czech republic. As in Austria, there were isolated towns and villages separated by cultivated fields. Many of the towns had picturesque ruined castles on the cliffs above them. Every so often, there would be some more modern development: a factory complex, a group of Communist-era apartment blocks (usually made of concrete and pretty ugly), and once we passed what seemed to be a fairly large nuclear power plant.
The villages were modest – not quite as tidy as in Austria, but they fit in well with their surroundings. The houses were mostly earth-tone shades of stucco or wood with wood or tile roofs, and nearly every house had a vegetable garden and/or a little grove of fruit trees. We could see people working in the gardens, tilling in piles of manure, or digging trenches for planting potatoes. All of this work was being done by hand. Later we sometimes saw horse- or oxen-drawn plows, and once a plow being pulled by two men, but very little mechanized agricultural machinery.
After going north nearly the length of the country, the highway turned sharply to the right and worked its way through the eastern range of hills via a series of spectacular passes and hairpin turns, passing yet another ruined castle, until we came out onto flatter land. We could see an even taller range of jagged snowy mountains (the High Tatras) looming ahead. When we got to a large artificial lake called the Liptovska Mara, we pulled off at an overlook to take some photos. Up here, it was noticeably cooler, and the trees weren’t so far advanced. I spotted a couple of large spectacularly-colored black and white birds – maybe magpies?