While finding my family hometowns in Germany filled me with plenty of stirring emotions, as I gained a deeper understanding about my European ancestors. My eyes had been set on Slovakia for a long time. My family from Slovakia has always been closer to my heart for several reasons. Most of my family’s traditions that I practice today stemmed from the Slovakian side of the family. Our holiday celebrations have always been influenced by those traditions that my relatives brought from the country in the early 1900s. I also felt closer to this side of my family as I am only three generations removed from those that made the journey across the Atlantic. My grandmother, and both my parents knew my Great Grandmother very well, as I would here stories about her from time to time, which gave me a deeper understanding of Anna and her life in Slovakia. As for my family in Germany, I have never felt close to our heritage from there. This side of the family immigrated to the United States earlier, in the late 1800s, and I lacked the connection needed to create intimate memories of the people and places from where they came from. My journey through Eastern Slovakia would be more wholesome and close to the heart. It was closer to the people I knew and loved the most.
Achieving the American Dream
While many would say the American Dream is more of an ideal than a reality, for my family, it ended up being something they could actually grasp and hold on to. In Slovakia, my family came from small tiny villages, living a basic life as a peasant farmer. It seems my family originally left their homeland in order to take advantage of the Homestead Act in the United States that was being advertised throughout the world at the time. My Great Great Grandfather headed over to the US first in order to establish a farm in Montana before the rest of his family arrived, but mysteriously died from a shooting incident. To this day, no one really knows what happened out there and it seems it will stay that way forever.
Now without a husband or a farm in the US, my Great Great Grandmother still decided to take her family and leave for the United States. My Great Grandmother was only nine years old when she, her sister, and Grandmother got on a boat for the United States to be reunited with my Great Great Grandmother in 1908 (it was their second attempt to enter the US). Their decision to leave for the United States could not have had more of an impact on our family as they would take full advantage of the amount of opportunity the US possessed back in the early 20th century. Within one generation my family would go from being once peasant farmers working in America’s factories to successful businessmen as my Great Grandmother’s son would eventually work his way up from the bottom of a company to become its Vice President of Sales in North America. Looking back, it always baffles me how the decisions made by someone over 100 years ago has led to who my family and myself are today.
Eastern Slovakia: Frozen in Time
While over a hundred years have past since my family has ventured into the region, eastern Slovakia has not changed much since they last left. The area of surrounding hills and valleys is dotted with small villages connected by the slow, local roads that web between them. While many of the buildings have changed and cars now line the streets, the layout and way of life here remains very much the same. Families still gather every weekend, religion is the center of each village, and everyone seems to know each other in these small towns. A drive through the region is peaceful, slow, and calming to the heart and mind.
Presov: A Home base for the Region
No matter what takes you out to this part of the country, Presov is where you should make your home base. Serving as the capital and major city in the region, there is not much more in the way of major towns outside of Presov. You will be able to find hotels, airbnb, and car rentals in the city and its central location makes it great for taking day trips to the surrounding countryside and villages. The city itself has enough to keep tourits entertained for a day, with its cute and colorful old town.
As the area is very rural, renting a car is a must. There are some buses that go to many of the villages, but the number of buses is scarce and the times are very inconvenient for tourists looking to get back to Presov within the same day. Having a car gives you the freedom to stop where you want and the ability to explore more than one place per day.
Vysoka was the village that was most trapped in time that we visited in Eastern Slovakia. The village is beautifully situated in a valley where many of the buildings appear to date back to the 19th century. These buildings are in various states of decay as the town slowly has built new ones in their place. This town was the closest to my heart as this is where my Great Grandmother had come from. I would hear stories about her keeping an eye on the ducks by the stream here and it was truly special to be where she grew up as a child.
The town was the most intimate experience we had as we ended up meeting some of the local villagers who tried to help us find out more about our family ties to the town. We were invited into their home for a while to have coffee even though their family was gather for Sunday lunch. In the end, we found out that we might be distantly related but would need more information in order to confirm, which we were sadly unable to find. Despite this, the level of hospitality we were shown as strangers was truly humbling and has kept this small town dear to our hearts.
Lutina is where my Great Great Grandfather, who was shot in Montana, came from. Mystery has always shrouded this character and the story of his life had always intrigued me because of it. This ended up being the larger of the towns we visited, with an important regional Orthodox church prominently in the center of the village. Roaming through the graveyards, we found countless tombstones that bore the same name as my Great Great Grandfather. In many villages in Slovakia, certain family names are found only in that area, and this was not an exception with my Great Great Grandfather’s name. Despite all of this, I was unable to find his name anywhere in the church records, although these records have serious gaps and can be unreliable.
The other side of my Grandmother’s family came from the very far east of Slovakia from two nearby towns. These towns held a very similar vibe to Lutina, where most of the old buildings had been replaced but the villages overall layout remained unchanged. It ended up being a very wet, snowy day. Heading down to the river for a cold few minutes of meditation was the highlight of stopping here.
This village was more like a hamlet that offered nice views into a valley below it. I wish it hadn’t been so rainy and foggy when we traveled here as I’m sure the views would have been great.
Eastern Slovakia is littered with ancient castles perched on top of hills throughout the region. Throughout our travels in the region, we ended up losing count of how many castles we saw. We decided to stop at one that was between Hecovce and Ondavske Matiasovce. The castles are in various states of preservation, making it a great place for castle lovers to come explore. This one was destroyed during a revolt in the early 1800s and has remained in this state since.
Family Research is a Headache in Slovakia
In Germany, Family research was a breeze. Records were kept by the state in a very standard procedure (how German) for much of history and were preserved well. Slovakia’s archives… were the complete opposite of Germany. Rather than run by the state, most old records were recorded by each individual church. Each church has their own methods, and many of the records have been lost over time. In addition to this, town names have changed several times over the years so the town name your ancestors used might not match the town names of today. Before researching, You need to research these towns to see what their names are today so that you can find the reference books needed to start your research.
Getting access to the archives can also be a problem. Despite opening hours being posted, the archives was closed for no reason when we first arrived in Presov. We ended up having to wait several days until it reopened. On the day we did arrive, the only worker who could translate had to leave at noon, only leaving me with an hour to do research with her. Due to these factors, it is very important to leave yourself enough time if you want to get a lot of research done.
In the end, I was able to find absolutely no information on my family from the archives. While this dampened my mood, after venturing all the way out to the eastern half of the country, I was still blown away with the fact that I had gone to the villages where my family had come from. Ever since I was a child, I have dreamed of where my family came from? What did it look like? Why did they come? Now, much of those questions have been answered as I have established a connection with my family’s past. It was an incredible experience and roaming around these quiet little farming villages will never leave me.