1995 Trip to Slovakia

The following is an excerpt from my diary for two days in 1995 that changed my life, the days I was able to visit six of my family's ancestral villages in Slovakia and Hungary.

July 11, 1995

The most exciting day of my life had finally arrived. Many years before, when my father first pointed at my map of Slovakia and showed me where his father and mother had come from, I knew I would someday get to visit that village. That I would also be able to visit nearly all the birthplaces of my ancestors on the same trip, is something that I never could have imagined! From the day that I first saw the advertisement in Helene Cincebeaux's periodical, Slovakia, to this moment was a time of intense curiosity and frequent impatience, but I was finally really on my way to Nizna Mysla!

KosiceOur driver, Ladislav (or Laco, his nickname), and our interpreter, Hana (or Hanka, her nickname), met us at the front desk of the Hotel Saris in Presov about 8:30 AM. After we established our route, which had changed from what I originally thought it should be, we were on our way. It took about 15 minutes just to get out of Presov, but it was straight superhighway all the way to Kosice. The Slovaks use the same sign color (blue, mostly) as the Germans do on their autobahns, and the construction was essentially the same, which made me wonder if Germany had provided engineering expertise to them. The trip from Presov to Kosice was almost identical to the journey from Munich to Garmisch, except there were no Alps at the destination. Kosice is quite a large city (about 300,000) (see photo at left), and is quite clean compared to Bratislava. The numbers of communist-era high-rise apartment buildings surrounding the city is beyond belief. We had heard stories of how it is almost impossible to find anyone in the sea of high-rises because the streets and buildings are so poorly marked.

Gece Church Gece Church Interior We were in Kosice only long enough to get though it. After a couple wrong turns, we reached Valaliky, where we got off the main road and started village-hopping. In Geca, we struck paydirt -- we found the church where Joannes Ribar and Barbara Majoros were married in 1860. The church was locked, but a woman there spoke with one of the men (who we suspect was the priest) working on the construction of a new church, and he sent off someone to get the key. After what seemed like hours, the man returned with a woman, who opened up the church, turned off the alarm, and let Dot and me go inside. It was spectacular on the inside, painted exactly like all the churches in Bavaria. The master painter dated his work; I don't remember the date, but it was in the 1700s. I took quite a few pictures, and Dot and I each made a donation. At the exterior door, just inside, there was a gypsy woman kneeling on the floor. The Slovak women gestured for her to leave. She did not bother us, but I regret not giving her something -- it was mean-spirited of me.

The church cemetery is just outside town, and we stopped there for a short while, but we found nothing of significance.

Our next stop was Cana, where we thought Mary Molnarko's parents were married. We stopped to ask some townspeople if the church a few blocks off was the Roman Catholic church, and if it was there around 1930 when Mary's parents were married. They answered yes to both questions. Rather than head straight for the church, Laco led us across the street. At first, I was annoyed, because I thought he was trying to show us the main shopping area of town, which we had no interest in seeing, but I soon realized that he was leading us to a government building where regional records are kept. Laco pulled some strings and got the lady there to make a copy of the entry for the marriage of Mary's parents. Had I read the copy, I would have immediately seen that they were married in the next town, Zdana! But, I didn't read the document, and we went to the church in Cana to take some pictures for Mary. It had recently been renovated and completely modernized inside, but a local fellow said that it was really in need of repair when the renovations were made, and that apparently there was not much left to salvage of the original interior, and the frescos were painted over! The man took me to the rear of his house and gave me a drink of water from an outside spigot, and we filled up a bottle to take with us. It was very hot.

Nizna Mysla Nizna Mysla ChurchThe next stop was Nizna Mysla, and it all went by too fast for me. The church sits on a hill (picture at left), and there's a long set of steps leading up to it (pictured at right). At the base of the steps are the buildings that would seem to have belonged to the wealthy people in town. I am sorry that I did not take any pictures of them. The town is so hilly that it was not convenient to walk and take pictures. On the way up the stairs we met the groundskeeper, who said we could go inside the church. We were able to enter the church, but only into an alcove. Our way at that point was blocked by a set of locked inner doors. However, the same gentleman appeared with a set of keys and opened up the inner doors for us. What a spectacular church! It was even nicer than the one in Bruckmuhl, Germany, where Carolyn and I had lived for three years in the late 1980s. Obviously, the propertied class had a lot of money. The question that came to my mind was whether or not the peasants were allowed to use the church for baptisms, weddings, etc., and Helene assured me that the churches in feudal Slovakia were used by all the townspeople.

Nizna Mysla Church Interior Nizna Mysla CemeteryThe cemetery (pictured at right) is surprisingly far from the church, and it has the most gorgeous view of Vysna Mysla. Dot and I hunted for quite a long time, but we could find no Rybar or Ribar graves. I found the grave of the Maria Kozak who was the wife of Andrej Straka and was the woman who had purchased land from George Kozak in 1904 (I have the paperwork from the sale). From the looks of the headstone, the Strakas were apparently fairly well-off. The stone had no dates on it. We also found the grave of Jan Herpak (1888-1976) and his wife, Maria (1893-1972), probably cousins of Uncle Joe Herpak. There also were several Herpak graves that had wooden crosses on them (Anna, Jan, and Jozef), no dates.

Vysna Mysla We left the cemetery and tried to get to Vysna Mysla (picture at right, as seen from Nizna Mysla), but the road led only to the train station. We doubled back and eventually found the right road. The church in Vysna Mysla does not stick out in my mind at all. The cemetery was directly behind the church, so Dot and I did a cursory check through it. We found the graves of several more Herpaks: Augustin, born in 1935, and Ladislav, born in 1925. Nothing about the place struck us as special, so we gave up. It was really starting to get warm, and we were all getting a little tired.

We left Vysna Mysla and drove again through Nizna Mysla. Our destination was Paca. Along the way, we passed the great steel mills of Velka Ida that I had read about many times in literature about this area. Since we were getting hungry, we stopped at Motorest Dubky, where Dot and I had soup with chunks of smoked ham, and an entree of pork and boiled and buttered potatoes. We also had lots of mineral water because the temperature had climbed to about 90 degrees.

Krasna Horka SmolnikThe trip to Paca was essentially uneventful, but I was constantly reminded of Duncan Gardiner's article about his train trip through this area. The tracks parallel the road, so our journeys were along the same route. Just before the turnoff for Paca, the castle of Krasna Horka popped into view. A beautiful and extremely well-preserved medieval fortress, Krasna Horka dominates the entire region (see picture above). This was obviously an important trade route at one time. Mathias Mihalik left his village of Paca sometime around 1818, probably passing underneath the fortress walls, as he journeyed to Smolnik over the mountains. We made the same journey on this day, only in a VW Rabbit with a Beatles tape playing in the car's cassette player! The view from the top of the mountains looking down toward Uhorna (pictured above) was absolutely breathtaking, and the pictures of the scene completely failed to capture the Alpine beauty and serenity. Sheep were grazing down near the town. From Uhorna to Smolnik, the elevation gradually dropped. Just outside Smolnik we found the cemetery. A fairly careful search turned up very little: Ludovit Mihalik, born 21 May 1909; Jan Mihalik, born 17 June 1903; and Jozef Lovasz, born 27 February 1880. Dot and I did not search very extensively, because we were running out of time, and we still had several more stops on our itinerary.

Smolnik was not at all what I expected. It is a beautiful Alpine town with large numbers of people of German descent. The buildings are quite nice, and very German-looking. The next town down the hill is Smolnicka Huta, which means Smolnik Forge, so it is probable that Smolnik had the German artisans, as well as an area that housed the ore miners, and Smolnicka Huta had the forge that produced the iron, and probably also the tools this area was famous for.

ZakarovceThe next stop on our journey was Zakarovce, a very picturesque and rugged town that, like Paca (and Opatka too, for that matter), is built up the valley along a stream, making it very long and narrow. This layout is very common in Slovakia, and I presume it was done to allow for the maximum use of the surrounding land for farming. Zakarovce is the place of birth of Matthew Lelak, thus still kind of a mystery, and not much more than a genealogical stopping place right now until I can research it further through the LDS Family History Center records. We were short of time, but we went up to look at the church (pictured at left). There was a Mass being said to a packed house, but we didn't realize that until we looked inside, because the congregation had all arrived on foot and there were no cars parked in the street. The cemetery lies above the church on the hillside, and it is quite large. I hope to return some day to go through it. At the base of the stairs from the church was a plaque to the Soviet Army for liberating Zakarovce, but I did not take a picture.

Opatka Church Oravetz Grave Marker, OpatkaI gave the driver the option of returning to Presov or going on to Opatka, where the Oravec side of the family lived for generations. He said the roads were not too good, so he planned to go past the road to Opatka anyway, so why not stop in? Boy, was I glad that we did! Opatka sits at the end of a 5- kilometer lane through beautiful pine forests. The church sits in the middle of town on a small rise (see picture at left), and is as peaceful and serene a spot as any I have ever seen. After several tries, we located the cemetery and Dot discovered the grave of Ferenc Oravec and Maria Kordovaner, our great-grandparents (see marker at right). The grave is marked by an iron cross with a metal plaque. We had a very hard time reading the plaque and tried to make a rubbing, but we didn't have a pencil. I did the best I could with a film canister, but I'm afraid the results are not very good. Had I been more alert, I would have taken care to write down the inscription, so I really screwed up. The horseflies were everywhere, and they made us wonder if Grandpa left Opatka because of them!

Opatka has two cemeteries. The one located where the road enters town, is well cared-for and is obviously the newer of the two; the one which has my great-grandparents' grave is older and appears to have been only recently re-opened. A young man on a motorcross motorcycle had to show us the road to the older cemetery, and the driver scraped bottom several times as we drove along it. Most of the graves in the older cemetery are unmarked, and nearly every one is very old. The Slovaks do not seem to preserve graves beyond a certain age, presumably because no-one pays for the upkeep. I fear that my great- grandparents' grave will suffer the same fate if our family does not do something. I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that the only reason the cemetery still had the grave markers was because it had been abandoned for decades. Now that it is being re-used, who knows what will happen to the existing markers?

Dot told a story about friends of Grandma and Grandpa Oravetz who use to visit Barnesboro from Homer City. The family, whose last name was Kalafus (spelling uncertain), were probably friends from Pereces, Hungary, where Grandma was born and raised. The newer cemetery in Opatka had many Kalafus names, and I know from my genealogical research that some Kalafus men had emigrated to Pereces at about the same time as Grandpa. This friendship undoubtedly went back a long way.

July 12, 1995

We were met in the hotel lobby at 8:30 AM by Laco and Hana. Although Hana's English language skills were rusty, and it sometimes was stressful trying to communicate with her, she was indispensable to us, and she got our point across every time we needed her help. Laco lived in Pezinok, just outside Bratislava, but he had an unerring knack for finding the right road everywhere we went. But on this day, the way was straightforward -- the main highway straight south to Miskolc, Hungary.

We crossed the border south of Kosice. Laco again had to pull some strings to get us across (I don't want to give details here), apparently because Dot and I were crossing the border with two Slovak nationals and were not with our tour group. I exchanged $20 on the Hungarian side for about 2200 Forints, and the fellow examined every bill (a $10, a $5 and five $1s) on both sides to make sure they were not counterfeit. It was another scorcher of a day.

We reached Miskolc about noon, but it was not obvious which direction would get us to Diosgyor and Pereces, which are outside of town. Laco got lost a couple time, but his sense of direction came through again. We finally located the Diosgyor Catholic church and took some pictures. A very helpful off-duty policeman helped us find the cemetery. No luck on finding any Mihaliks. Most of the graves are fairly recent. As near as I have been able to determine, the Mihaliks lived in Pereces, but the Pereces church was part of the Diosgyor Diocese, and the latter town played a role in the lives of several of my ancestors.

From the cemetery, Laco was able to find the road to Pereces very easily. We went straight to the church, which is no longer an operational church, but the cemetery is booming. Plaques near the front door indicated that a Jozsef Mihalik died in WWI, and a Janos Oravecz died in WWII. There were also three Gedl men who died in WWII (one of my female ancestors was a Gedl).

The man working in the cemetery tried to be helpful, but we couldn't convince him that we were searching for Mihaliks and Lelaks, not Matyases. My great-grandfather was Matyas Lelak, but his name in Hungarian would have been rendered as Lelak Matyas, as they give the last name first. The situation got so mixed up that I finally got testy, and I think I hurt the worker's feelings. The Hungarians also don't seem to preserve markers on graves beyond a certain length of time, and Dot and I were unable to find any ancestors' graves. The older section of the cemetery lies on the hillside, and I searched through nearly every one without much success. Without markers, any such search is pretty fruitless. It is impossible to say if the graves were re-used or just neglected, but it is obvious from the mounds of earth that there are plenty of people buried there. It was enough of a thrill for me to actually be in Pereces, so the trip was worth every penny it cost just for this moment. I wish we could have seen more of Miskolc, an obviously very beautiful and old city, but our timetable did now allow it -- Laco offered to stop in town, but we were too hot and exhausted to take him up on the offer.

Dot told a story one night during this trip that I had not hear before. She said that great-grandma Josepha (Mihalik) Lelak was washing laundry in a stream and lifted a heavy load of carpets and ruptured her stomach muscles. She died not long after that. I couldn't help wondering if the stream in Pereces that I saw from the car was the same stream where she hurt herself.

On the way back into Miskolc, we stopped in probably Diosgyor to eat. Laco asked someone (I don't remember who) to recommend a place to eat, and we found a great restaurant. It was a beautiful wood-paneled pub, and was totally deserted. Laco talked with the waitress forever to explain that we wanted some authentic Hungarian food. At least that is what seemed to be going on -- my experience to this point was that Hungarians talk a great deal to say very little. As I write this 6 months later, I don't recall what lunch consisted of, but I remember it was a tad greasy, and I also recall that what Laco was eating looked better to us. Hana is a vegetarian, and I think her food also looked better to us!

The mystery of Pereces only deepened with our visit there. Grandpa Joseph Oravetz went to work there around the turn of the century, probably staying with his brother John. I am guessing that Joseph must have lived close to the Lelak house, because it was in Pereces that he met Mary Lelak, my grandmother. The scenario I have created is that Joseph's and John's brother, Alex, also went there to work. It was Alex who was the first to emigrate to America, and when Joseph emigrated later (in January 1907), he stayed with Alex in the small coal town of Graceton, Pennsylvania. When Grandma emigrated in October 1908, she and Grandpa stayed with Alex and his wife for a couple months before moving to Barnesboro. Ahem, Mom was conceived during this time, and Grandpa and Grandma did not get married until they moved to Barnesboro.

Last Updated: April 28, 2010