These Slovak Lives: Helena Majerová

Continuing her series of profiles of rural Slovaks, Whitney Medved speaks with Helena Majerová, who lived through World War II and the Communist invasion.

Helena Marušková Majerová has witnessed the collision of two worlds — the one she knew as a little girl where, she says, “there weren’t a lot of jobs,” or rather it was people’s job to stay alive, and the modern world where people’s hands have grown soft and pale and we are detached from our actual means of living. Now, in the village that Helena has known for almost 82 years, old collapsing shanties lazily sag next to dingy gray Communist-style box houses, and new, wifi-equipped homes with Mediterranean architecture spring up behind those. On the freeway just across the Hron river cars whiz by going 100 kilometers an hour, while the starý most (“old bridge”) that Helena’s husband helped construct years ago quietly sits vacant except for loitering teenagers and the occasional pedestrian. Yet Helena can still frequently be found with an apron on up to her elbows in a bowl of batter or dough, humming a song she remembers from long ago. Not everything has changed.

helena01

Helena Majerová; photo by Martin Bury.

She’s just 4’9,’’ but Helena’s iron will and spunky personality makes her anything but small. She was born in the village Brehy, in Central Slovakia, on March 17th, 1928, just ten years before Hitler divided Czechoslovakia into the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the puppet-state of Slovakia. With the exception of a brief relocation during World War II, she has lived in the village her entire life. In fact, she has only ever resided in three houses. While severe osteoporosis in her hips has slowed her down considerably, it has by no means stopped her; Helena even continues to wear high heels. When she is unoccupied she backs herself into a corner with her crutches and scans the room until she can once again become useful, or eases herself into a chair and subconsciously proceeds to massage her gnarled arthritic hands, finger the prongs of a fork, or ever-so-delicately trace the pattern on the tablecloth. She simply can’t be idle.

Helena comes from a generation in which people had to “make a living” with their own sweat and manual labor, and she’s got the hands to prove it. Leathery and sun-spotted, they bulge with thick, knotted knuckles and her thumbs and fingers are permanently callused. They are an autobiography in themselves. With these hands Helena has sold pottery around Slovakia out of the back of a wagon, tended to horses and other animals, and kept gardens that fed a family year round, typically yielding peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, plenty of potatoes, pears, apples, plums, grapes, wheat, and more. She has stuffed countless pillows and blankets with down, woven beautiful carpets and rugs which still line the floors of her family’s home today, and scoured every inch of surface in homes and schools on her hands and knees. She has patiently kneaded, rolled, and prepared countless loaves of bread, batches of Christmas koláče and bountiful bowls of bryndzové halušky. For Helena, “making a living” literally means creating these life necessities, not performing abstract tasks and earning a wage to pay for them.

“Now people don’t know how to do anything,” says Helena after relaying the list of chores that once comprised her life. “They just buy everything,” she adds as she shakes her head.

Throughout our interviews Helena repeatedly remarked that while growing up no one in Brehy was rich, they all got by. They produced all their own goods, including food. That probably explains the Slovak propensity to fixate on food and obsess over whether guests or family members are sufficiently fed. Yet in an age of not only supermarkets but also hypermarkets, people no longer want for food. The conditions Helena remembers from before this current age of plenty might conjure a picture of an austere life, or just one of absolutely no excess or frivolity. It was rough, but it was rich.

Takto to bolo,” (“that’s how it was”) says Helena with a shrug and a nod of confirmation.

Takto To Bolo (How It Was)

Helena is an only child, though she was preceded by one sister who lived less than a year and died before Helena was even born. Infant mortality was common; as Helena says, “the healthcare wasn’t that good.” Aside from the lack of neonatal units, large families were not prevalent because it just wasn’t possible to produce enough resources to feed and clothe many family members. Therefore, ever since she was a little girl Helena helped her parents put bread on the table by performing a diverse set of chores and jobs including but not limited to the tasks mentioned before.

She is a Jill of many trades, well-versed in the arts of staying alive. But her area of expertise is the kitchen. All her life Helena has been a skilled cook, gratifying the bellies of her family members with delicious Christmas koláče (cakes), homemade bread, noodles for polievka (soups), and of course the token traditional Slovak dish, bryndzové halušky. It’s a hearty staple for Slovaks made from the boiled batter of flour, potato, egg and water, then slathered in bryndza cheese. With a consistency like that of gnocchi, the creamy white bryndza cheese reminds most Americans of macaroni and cheese.

She has also offered her culinary services to others. While families were largely self-sufficient, the whole community would often pitch in to help each other out for events like weddings. There were no catering fees and Helena did not even barter another service or good in exchange for her own cooking. The family of the bride and bridegroom provided the ingredients or foodstuff, and Helena with some of her fellow village women would prepare the banquet feast.

Instead of keeping a strict “nine-to-five” (or even “five-to-nine” as I’ve heard people recently comment on absurd working hours), Helena’s schedule was more like “five-to-whenever our work for the day is done.” That could mean a quick morning out in the field or the forest to fell wood, then being home for a good lunch and an afternoon of leisure; or it could mean being out and tending crops or animals well past sunset. The season or time of year factored into the equation, as did the success or failure of the year’s crops, how many or what kind of animals the family had, or any number of other variables. While the objective and tasks remained largely the same, no two days were identical. People who work outside of the controlled atmosphere of an office or establishment know that that a clean-cut “schedule” does not exist, and that just like the flow from one season to the next, the load and rhythm of work is anything but static.

helena04

Helena Majerová (left) participating in paracky — stuffing pillows and blankets with down; photo courtesy of Majer and Bury families.

In order to pass the time while working Helena and her fellow villagers had a broad repertoire of songs to sing. Returning from long arduous days, Helena recalls singing a song to the sun. The direct address calls on the big ball of light in the sky to set a little faster, appealing to its conscience by saying that if it knew how hard it was to labor away, it would hurry up and go down more quickly. As she sings me the cathartic, simple melody I imagine the tune keeping time for the villagers as they plodded along carrying tools or leading animals back to their modest homes after a long day of work—one foot in front of the other, back and forth, back and forth, just keep walking. As she hits the repetitive deep notes of the refrain I hear and feel a heavy tiredness even though she is speaking a language I do not fully understand.

Waiting Out World War II

World War II disrupted the regular rhythm of life when Brehy, neighboring Nova Bana, and the surrounding villages became occupied by floods of both Russian and German soldiers. These military men routinely pillaged the towns and deprived the locals of the few resources they had such as food, supplies, tools, or animals. If they demanded goods, there was little a person could do but acquiesce, no matter how reluctantly.

Helena recalls how on one such occasion German soldiers approached the Maruška cabin and, with threats of death for noncompliance, demanded their horse. The animal was handed over with little to no protest. Yet, as her dejected father returned to the house to retrieve the reins, a feisty seventeen year-old Helena boldly yelled in Slovak, “Don’t give him the reins, he didn’t ask for them.” The soldier must have been Slovak or understood the language because he then jammed a gun at her chest and angrily barked something at her in German. It seems odd, even unbelievable, that today Helena sits in a modern house with heated floors and a bottle of Coca-Cola behind her, and taps on the same chest that years ago was held at gun-point in the midst of poverty and war. I wonder if exerting pressure on that particular part of her body gives her an odd physical sense of déjà vu, or if was so long ago and the world is so different now that it all feels like a movie or a dream.

In January of 1945, Russian and German soldiers fought in the village itself, and the only survivor from either side was a single German soldier. In order to stay alive he had feigned death and buried himself under the corpses of his fallen comrades. After the smoke cleared he escaped back to headquarters where he reported the battle to his higher-ups, though according to Helena he did make it a point to say that the Russian military and not the citizens of Brehy were the culprits. Regardless of responsibility, the German commanders were angry and wanted to raze the whole village, so the citizens were all evacuated to Hliník nad Hronom where they remained for three months. Despite my questions Helena did not elaborate much on what life there was like, possibly because she viewed it almost as a break, a timeout from reality. Brehy was her home, Brehy was where she lived and worked and existed.

Sending one or two family members to work abroad for months or years at a time was common in Slovakia ever since the 1880’s. Be it from poor agricultural conditions, slow modernization, war, or a blatant lack of resources, adverse living conditions were nothing new. There is even an old end-times joke about Brehy which multiple aged residents, including Helena, have told me. The joke asks, “When will the last days be?” and the answer, that day that’s never really going to come is, “when everyone from Brehy is home,” (i.e. not working abroad).

With that dark, though remarkably still intact, sense of humor, the Slovaks had gotten pretty comfortable with relocating individuals, sending solitary members out into the unknown to seek out more forgiving living conditions. But relocating entire families, and even worse entire towns, wasn’t simple. Families lived in villages and homes for generations. Their fields and land were their livelihood and means of survival; they couldn’t simply be converted into cash and wired to a far and distant land. There was no uprooting and “starting over” somewhere else, unless it was for keeps. That is why despite the violence and plundering of the soldiers, the Slovaks who had not decided to emigrate just had to do what they had always done, gird their loins and bear it. What else were they supposed to do?

Built to Last: The Reality of Romance

Upon returning to Brehy, Helena started dating fellow Brehy native, Ján Majer. As is common in most small villages the pair already knew each other from before the war, but were not closely acquainted. Jan, like many Slovak young men, had been conscripted to fight for the German army. However, despite where his political allegiance was supposed to lie, Jan actually did a lot more evading than aiding the German war effort. He was even arrested for deserting a few times, such as when he was caught in the town Žarnovica. Somehow he always managed to weasel his way out of custody and run. His eventual homecoming to Brehy in early May 1945 would have been happy, except that his mother had died just a month earlier. Since he had been on the run, there was no way to contact him.

Helena’s two year courtship with Ján was anything but wildly passionate. Even the proposal was bereft of any vestige of romance or flair — all the creativity her boyfriend at the time could muster was to ask, almost as an after though, “so, you want to get married?” Helena almost didn’t even remember him popping the question — it’s such a silly triviality to her. After being together for about two years, she says, getting married is just what people did back then. I pried for details about the courtship — what did you do together, whose house did you spend time at more regularly, did you go for little walks in the fields, and did he bring you homemade presents or fresh picked wildflowers? I was calling on anything even remotely pastoral I had ever read or seen, and a little bit of my own imagination and creativity, to try to paint a picture of this young love budding in the hills of the Slovak Country side out of the ashes of World War II.

“No,” she replies, after no deliberation, “we just got married. We were married for 56 years and we never bought each other presents. Now people buy each other all kinds of presents, but then get divorced after a year!”

While her dating experience may have been less then memorable, it is apparent from the onset of the story she remembers her wedding like yesterday. It was February 9th, 1947, and there was so much snow (she illustrates with her hand as a bench mark about two feet off the ground). Her eyes brighten and a girlish smile spreads across as her face. Suddenly, her son-in-law chimes in from another room, saying, “It was very cold!” as if he were there, proving that this story is comfortable and well worn from years of use at the dinner table or other family gatherings.

helena05

Helena and Jan Majerová; photo courtesy of Majer and Bury families.

The Maruška house was up the road a ways from the centrally located Church and her future home, the Majer abode. As the wedding party processed from her childhood home, everyone had to tromp through deep snow drifts on their way to the Church. Trudging through snow is hard enough, but trudging through snow while precariously trying to balance a giant wedding cake can be pretty challenging. Helena demonstrates with outstretched arms the thankless task of one of her companions, then pantomimes dropping the cake do snehu, (into the snow). She giggles and leans forward with an incredulous look on her face.

Since this seemed like the climax of the story I asked whether they considered the cake a total loss. “No,” she replies, as if the idea of wasting a perfectly good (albeit a little wet…) cake was the most preposterous thing she’d heard in a while, “we just picked it up again… there wasn’t a lot of food.”

After the wedding ceremony every one danced until midnight, and as she tells me this once again there is a youthful glimmer in her eye accompanied by a coy smile. That night was the first time she slept at her new husband’s home. About three days after the wedding her parents and extended family once again paraded towards her new residence — this time with her bed and dowry — joyously singing all the way about the recent passage of their one and only daughter to a new home, a new family, and womanhood.

Unfortunately, I was never able to meet her late husband, Ján. He died January 10, 2003, leaving Helena as the matriarch of the Majer family. From the sounds of it, Ján had a magnanimous personality. He remembered many old songs and had a reputation as quite the storyteller. A woodsman and carpenter by trade, his grandsons recall walks through the forest with him, where he could identify anything and everything that grew outdoors. Together Ján and Helena had two daughters. Elenka Majerová was born January 12, 1950 and Jana Majerová Buryová was born March 27, 1963.

helena06

Jana Buryova, Jan Majer, Helena Majerová, Elenka Majerová; courtesy of by Majer and Bury families.

Today Helena’s two grandsons, Andrej and Martin Bury, tower over her physically, but her incredibly involved role in raising them means that they still look up to her. Unlike Helena, both of her daughters come from a generation that worked outside of the home, so “starká” and “starký” (grandma and grandpa) are virtually synonymous with mom and dad for these boys.

helena07

Andrej Bury (left), Helena Majerová, Martin Bury (right); photo by Whitney Medved.

“The Worker”

While Helena has worked her entire life she did not get her first paid “job” until she was 30 years old, and she worked there for the next 30 years. Even though getting paid for work was a new concept for her, the cooking and cleaning she did at the local kindergarten — just across the street and three doors down from her own house — was not. Aside from general housekeeping she also helped fill in and watch the little ones if the teacher had to step out, or took the children for walks. She never attended any pedagogical training, but having two daughters of her own, helping raise her two grandsons, and growing up in the extended community environment of a village was certification enough.

Under Communism however, all workers were required to attend training on party doctrine. She was supposed to study Communist theory and even take a written test. I got a wonderful mental image of Helena staring at a book with one eyebrow cocked and her lower lip jutting out, trying to absorb theories about the “worker”—as though her own lifelong experience working was moot—with a hand on her hip and a cleaning rag wound between her fingers, a pot of halušky bubbling away on the stove, or little children racing around her feet while she asked herself why she was doing this again? I asked her if she remembered even one shard of information or doctrine, but with the swat of her hand she shakes her head and exhales, saying, “It went in one ear, and out the other,” as she gestures towards her head.

The Communists imposed more than just ideology on Helena and her family. In the 1950s, all property and businesses were nationalized, and this is a big problem for people whose livelihoods literally sprung from their own fields. The new policy turned self-sufficiency on its head. Suddenly owners of factories found themselves managers of their former businesses, and farmers might find themselves harvesting the state’s potatoes on land which used to belong to them.

When it came time for the Majer family to sign over their fields, Helena’s husband refused. With an obstinacy reminiscent of seventeen-year-old Helena and the horse reins, her husband flat out denied to sign the property over. It didn’t take long for him to lose his job at the aluminum factory in nearby Žiar nad Hronom. He remained unemployed for an entire year, during which time he was repeatedly arrested in attempts at bullying him into signing. After the year though, the family’s need to survive outweighed the principle or even possibility of protest. All of the Majer family land was nationalized, with the exception of a small garden where the family still has a modest chata (like a shack). That garden continues to grow apples, pears, grapes, sunflowers, and a whole panoply of vegetables today.

Takto To Je (How It Is)

Helena has seen a lot, and while she’s acclimated rather well to the conveniences of the modern world—cooking with gas instead of over an old fashioned wood-burning stove, asking one of her grandsons to look something up on the internet without batting an eye — she maintains a firm grasp on the culture which formed her. She still laboriously hand rolls long, fine noodles for polievka that could easily be purchased at a supermarket. She continues to preside over Christmas dinner, upholding the pre-meal rituals and formalities as the matriarch of the family. And until very recently, when the debilitating osteoporosis in her hips finally got the last word, she persisted in attending Mass every Sunday in the same church where she said, “ano” (I do) on that snowy February day so many years ago.

helena08

Whitney Medved, Helena Majerová, and Jana Buryova.

Whitney Medved is currently living in the hills of Central Slovakia on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship grant, "teaching some English and hanging out with old people." Word on the street is students refer to her as "the Hurricane."