Finding lost relatives in Slovakia often depends on careful genealogical research as well as a hardy dose of good luck.
When Ken Petrus signed on to this past September’s Slovakia Heritage Tour in July he knew there wasn’t much time for a full search for his mother’s and father’s families. Preliminary research failed to show up any living relatives in Smilno, a small town near Bardejov, that his father, Joseph, left in 1921 to work in the mines and steel mills of western Pennsylvania. Joseph was the only one of six brothers who emigrated to the United States. One of Joseph’s two sisters, Susan (Baran), emigrated later. His family had lost contact with the Smilno family when Ken’s mother died in 2000 soon followed by the death of his aunt.
Ken started the Slovakia Heritage Tour knowing that he would visit his cousins, the children of his mother’s sisters, in Hazin (Zemplin region) whom the researcher had located. He had little hope of finding his father’s relatives but planned to take a couple of hours to visit the village, church, and cemetery, and pay his respects to the family graves.
This is where luck intervened. Slovakia Heritage Tours arranged for Ken and his wife Sue to have a driver/translator take him to Smilno while the rest of the group visited Bardejov sites. I volunteered to go along so I was there as the late afternoon sun sent a golden light across the valley to the cemetery hill and a small miracle happened.
Ken and Sue quickly found the graves of Ken’s great-grandfather, grandparents, and two uncles. All of this would have been enough for Ken but as the afternoon light faded, our good fortune brightened….”
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Reconnecting with family on the 2014 Slovakia Heritage Tour meant more than returning to family villages and finding relatives who still live in Slovakia. For Dana Gerberi, her father Mike and Uncle Larry, as well as cousins Marian Pezdek and Margie Gipson it was a chance to rediscover their own family ties and memories.
As the September tour traveled from the plains of Bratislava to the mountains of Eastern Slovakia, Dana, a health sciences librarian, heard many new family stories about her father and uncle growing up in a close Slovak community in Chicago, where lives were dominated by the United States Steel mill. Their grandfather and father worked there, as they did too, as teenagers, before going on to college and careers in medicine and computers.
For Mike and Larry, separated for many years by jobs in different parts of the United States, it was a time to catch up and remember their Slovak grandmother and extended family. They often rode their bicycles to her house after school to discover their favorite Slovak foods waiting for them on the porch.
On the September Slovakia Heritage Tour, they bonded over stuffed cabbage, halušky, koláč, struedel, pierogi, and all the other traditional foods that brought out even more childhood stories. Dana was surprised to find out that her uncle cooks many of the traditional dishes that she‘s known her father to take on the holidays.
In addition to visiting their family villages in the Zemplín region, south of Michalovce, where Mike and Larry’s grandparents and father were born, they also explored the rich pottery heritage for which the villages in this area are known…”
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Slovakia Heritage Tour – Founder & Organizer: Judith Northup-Bennett
Visit www.slovakiaheritage.com or call directly at 978-544-5144
Dan Handzo and Deb Nagle joined the 2013 Slovakia Heritage Tour this past September to travel into the heartland of Slovakia and experience Slovakia life today and in the past.
Like so many Slovak-American families, Dan’s family had lost contact with their relatives in Hanušovce Nad Topľou (near Presov) after his mother died in 1972. From Wilkes Barre, PA, Dan remained close to his Slovak-American culture, but, over the years, he continued to wonder about his Mom’s Pivovarnik family and his Dad’s Handzo family in Eastern Slovakia.
When he reconnected with his mother’s family on this September’s Slovakia Heritage Tour, he was pleased to find that the family in Hanušovce had not forgotten the sister and aunt who left for America so long ago. Dan, with his friend Deb Nagle, was warmly welcomed back to the family….”
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Beautiful weather, lively wine festivals, and an unusually bountiful apple, plum, and grape harvest set the stage for last September’s Slovakia Heritage Tour. The 2012 tour group was an interesting and amiable combination of people tracing their family roots, and others, with no Slovak heritage, drawn to the history, culture, and mountains of Slovakia.
“I was surprised as inquiries came in for the 2012 tour to realize that people with no Slovak heritage were drawn to this small, relaxed-pace tour as a way to immerse themselves in Slovakia’s fascinating history,” said tour organizer, Judith Northup-Bennett.
“The bigger tour operators skirt Slovakia and don’t go into the heartland. People like the balance of delving into history, experiencing the Slavic culture, meeting people, and having time for short hikes through the dramatic landscape…”
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When you go back to your heritage after a couple of generations, you don’t know what you’ll find. Will it be a strange land and culture? Or, will you feel at home in your ancestral land?
For everyone on the 2011 Slovakia Heritage small-group tour this September, the answer was a surprising comfort level and feeling at home in Slovakia.
Everyone made contact with family members whether they were newly-discovered cousins, the family they had met before, or relatives because the families were Kresnis (godparents) many years before. For all, the search to piece together the stories of their Slovak family trees and roots will continue.
“In the villages, they’re still living simply and family is very important,” said Dolores Pace of Newtown, CT, who spent an afternoon with her mother’s godparents’ family, and visited the small village of her grandparents. “The language is difficult. I thought I would pick it up better…”
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(Private Tour for Peter G. who was hiding himself during WW2 in Slovakia)
Survival: “Rezacka Na Secku”…The Machine for Cutting Something
Olga Marko turned the crank on the Rezacka Na Secku…the machine that cut hay. That day, it also cut off the tip of my dad’s right index finger – the one that was positioned just below the sharp blade.
The year was 1944. The place was a small farmhouse just down the mountain from the famous and massive Slovakian monument known as the Bradlo. This farmhouse, one of 10 in the settlement, is located in a region called Kopanitza.
The family, Stefan and Suzannah Marko and their two children, Olga and Jan, risked their lives to save the lives of my father, Peter, his brother, Fred, and their mother, Antonia. 66 years later we met Olga; we stepped inside the farmhouse and straight into my father’s shoes and lived a half-century ago.
The Monkey Bar
The story begins in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and my dad’s birthplace. He was raised in Trnava, a small town not far from Bratislava. His father, Leo Gershanov, was a successful winemaker who, along with his business partner, Mr. Wertheimer, owned a winery named “Veritas.” Their motto was “In vino veritas” (in wine there is truth). Trnava, known as the “Rome” of Slovakia for its many Catholic and Lutheran churches, was also home to two synagogues, a cobblestone town square and the narrow streets and alleyways that define old European cities.
Fast forward to April 2010. My parents, my sister, and her family, and my family stepped back in history as we unearthed more than 60 years of my father’s past. Together we strolled Trnava’s town square with its modern pizzerias, cell phone stores, and collectibles shops. My dad described how the teenage boys in Trnava would pour water on the cobblestone street in the winter, let it freeze, and then get a running start as they slid across the ice. These days we’d probably ensure our kids wore helmets and wrist guards before taking such a risk on the ice. We searched for his childhood home and found the street, but no home. It had been replaced by a non-descript Communist-era apartment building and a paved playground.
Then we hunted for remnants of Veritas. We found the town hall lacked adequate records and was of no help. So our guides Peter and Dagmar started asking questions of people who looked to be the right age. They found the equivalent of the “village elder,” and he led us directly to the winery. Now called the “Monkey Bar,” Veritas was long gone. But the courtyard this bar occupies remains unchanged from my father’s youth. And the moment my dad stepped into an adjacent courtyard, he could practically taste the wine. He pointed to a dumpster obscuring a padlocked door and announced this was the entrance to the Veritas wine cellar, dug in Roman times. The Monkey Bar’s owner pushed aside the dumpster and unlocked the door…
Once open, 12 of us descended through the pitch-black down two flights of stone stairs. We saw where the wine had been stored. We heard about the case of very dear Tokaj wine my grandfather had put aside for my dad’s bar mitzvah…the bar mitzvah he never had and the wine that was confiscated by the Nazis. We learned about the Arizator, a non-Jew who was assigned to take over a business without providing any compensation to the Jewish owners. Mr. Bzduch was the Arizator assigned to Veritas and he actually provided my grandmother with some money after he took over the company.
And there was more. Mr. Wertheimer, the business partner, and his wife survived the war by hiding in a crypt in the local cemetery. Their twin daughters were taken from them, probably sent to Auschwitz, and perished. After the war, the Wertheimers converted to Catholicism and had another child, Sona Valentova. Today she is a famous Slovak actress who lives in Bratislava, ironically down the street from our guide, Dagmar.