Two years ago, I developed a hang-up on old people, in particular old Slovak people. I’m enamored with their gnarled, arthritic hands; their swollen ankles; faces creased with years of hard work and blunt realities; and their tough-as-nails, all-business demeanors. That’s why I’m spending almost a year hanging out with them in Tisovec, Slovak Republic, writing about them.
At this point, you may be wondering what one of my campers this past summer asked so eloquently: “But why don’t you write about something—interesting?”
This honest boy was just vocalizing a commonly shared sentiment in our society. We live in a culture that does not value old fogies. Since there is no longer room for them in our mostly nuclear family households, once ol’ gram and gramps are incapable of taking care of themselves, they are to be packed up and sent off to assisted living places with names like, Sunrise Knolls, Splendid Autumn, or some other euphemism that masks the harsh reality of walkers, meds, and general getting old-ness with pleasant seasonal imagery and metaphors. We visit every now and again, collect checks on birthdays and holidays, and maybe let our grandmothers grab our cheeks or wipe a little schmutz from our faces from time to time.
But rarely does it ever occur to us that grandma Mabel might have some crazy stories up her sleeve. What if I told you that your grandmother had offered asylum to a deserter who was evading the occupying Russian army, or that your grandfather and great uncle spent time dressing as women and diving into haystacks to accomplish the same feat? Have you ever asked how exactly those knobby, familiar hands became so perfectly gnarled or wondered how many quilts were stitched, spools of thread spun, loafs of bread kneaded or clay pots were thrown? How often do we really consider the source of the physical and psychological wear-and-tear on our grandparents (the older generations)?
In 2007, during a brief stay in my late grandfather’s village of Brehy, I learned that what I had long considered my unique Slovak heritage is actually shared by many Americans. The exodus of people from Slovakia to the United States began around the 1880s and helped fuel Iron Belt industrial towns like Pittsburg and Detroit for decades. Iron and steel mills, as well as automobile plants (like the ones my grandfather and great-grandfather worked in), employed many of these immigrants. The work was physically taxing, oftentimes mentally numbing, and it chewed up and spit out many of the laborers like the scrap metal they were producing. The culturally stripping process of American assimilation also robbed many Slovaks and their offspring of cultural identity and pride.
The fact that people were willing to travel across an ocean for such a bleak and arduous existence shows how destitute the region was, and how desperate its inhabitants were to make a better life—and, who can blame them? Modernization lagged behind the surrounding territories (what is today the Czech Republic or Hungary), living conditions remained peasant-like even in industrial areas, and most productive workers went elsewhere to try and make a better living. Many villages were left populated mainly by women, children, and the elderly. Society was floundering. There used to be as saying about the picturesque Slovak mountains, the High Tatras—they’re beautiful, but you can’t eat ‘em.
Politically speaking regime changes in Slovakia seemed to shift more than the seasons—in the last two-hundred years alone Slovaks have experienced repression under the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a big reason people left in the first place), seen the creation and dismantling of Czechoslovakia (including Slovakia’s brief stint as an independent state from 1939-1945), not to mention the coming and going of Communist rule — this November 17 Marks the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. While a history book might summarize those transitions in a few consecutive paragraphs or chapters, people spent entire lifetimes witnessing the unfurling of these drastic socio-political fluxes and their repercussions. But no matter what institution wielded political power, life continued. People were born, they died, weddings were celebrated and gardens were harvested. Everyday life turned out to be the greatest preserver of traditions, customs, and culture, which is why I am so determined to collect accounts of it first-hand.
I never asked my Slovak immigrant grandparents about their lives in the Old Country while they were alive; we lived so far apart, and I was young. Maybe it is the fact that I am getting older myself, or perhaps it’s the inherently American need to be able to identify with something, and trace roots back more than a few hundred years to a more primal origin. It definitely comes from a small dose of “Slovak guilt,” which constantly forces me to question how I got such a lucky break in life when only two generations ago (and really only one…), my family was toiling away in factories and on assembly lines to advance their quality of life (another family saying engrained in me since youth is, “Medveds don’t quit”). Whatever the reason, I feel an incredible sense of urgency to collect as many stories as I can in hopes of preserving these threads of history. I need to do it now, because every year that passes takes with it more of these incredible lives and stories, simply erasing them.
Growing up, I thought Czechoslovakia was just an impossibly long word to spell and reserved for use only in “Where my Family is From” school projects, that it was a secret club that only a few people were in on. Despite my ignorance, I still took pride in my heritage, and always felt like it was a little bit special. Now, I understand that it is incredibly special, and I feel indebted to the older generations of Slovaks.
There is no way for me to go back and lighten their load, or retrospectively try to shoulder some of the burden. But I can remember and acknowledge the strenuous lives of these people and be grateful. I can share their stories with you so that, together, we can celebrate them as survivors, fighters, and keepers of precious traditions. I can assign more meaning to my heritage than, “Medved means ‘bear’ in Slovak.” We can all better understand a culture that, just twenty years ago, was still trudging along a path towards that nebulous goal of “freedom,” and a kind of life many of us take for granted.