After 6 months, I finally convinced Dan to write another guest post for this blog. Well, I guess convinced isn’t the correct word because this story was really his to tell. This story is about not only his quest to seek out information, visit a tiny town in rural Slovakia, and bring to fruition all of his Grandfather’s research regarding their ancestry, but also to comprehend why it all mattered.
At first, I felt like this was Dan’s journey and I was lucky enough to be along for the ride and experience it all with him. I was happy to be the photographer. However, it turned into an extremely memorable experience for me as well. Slovakia is a truly lovely country and we quickly learned, so are its people. They are hospitable, kind, welcoming, and hardworking. And as it turns out, my husband happens to be one of them. I am so proud of what he accomplished and the amount of time and effort he put into tying the entire experience together.
Because I don’t want to give any more of the story and experience away, I will let Dan take it from here:
Deservedness. This topic is something that I have struggled with the duration of our nearly 8 month adventure. Put in the simplest way: what did I do to deserve this? This life of living out our dream, traveling around the world, experiencing something new every single day, creating memories together that will last a life time. This life where my only concern is, what incredible activity will we do tomorrow? How am I living this life, this dream of mine, while so many others are suffering? I’ve seen people suffering before in my life, but it never really affected me; that changed during our travels in South America. Seeing first hand the poverty that so many live in, having an endless amount of people approach you selling the same, nearly worthless goods, trying to scrape together a living, seeing an endless amount of stray dogs barely getting by, seeing first hand how people have no choice but to chop down the rainforest to feed their families, seeing young children who should be in school try to give your hiking boots a shoe shine for a quarter; it piled on day after day, to the point where I assumed that suffering was an integral part of being human. And yet, this is a small microcosm of the suffering seen through only my two eyes, when there is an entire world full of people suffering every day. While witnessing, experiencing, feeling, and thinking about all of this, I can’t shake the nagging question in my head: what did I do to deserve a life of living out my dreams, while so many others suffer to survive?
From this point, the quest into my ancestry began. Naively, I hoped to find some sort of answer to this question buried in my family’s past, a bridge to connect my current life with those that I see struggle every day. I formed this idea in my mind that my current situation is the culmination of the effort, sacrifice and life’s work of all those that have come before me. That my life’s trajectory had been put in motion by each successive generation, one on top of the other. That generation after generation of successes and failures, of suffering and achievement, of happiness and sorrow; all built upon each other in order to provide me the gift of my life’s starting point. What was the life of my ancestors like? Where are they from? What were their dreams? Did they struggle to achieve them and what challenges did they face? Did they actually sacrifice for the betterment of those that would come after them?
While Christie and I were planning the European leg of our adventure, these questions were burning a hole in my mind. Adding to this, I heard from various conversations that my Grandpa had put some effort into researching his genealogy. All that I could remember from this was the notion that some of our roots could be traced back to Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic; but I didn’t know for sure. All of these factors came together and drew me into pursuing a trip to central Europe in a search for answers. When I pitched the idea of an ancestry hunt to Christie during the planning phases of our Euro Trip; she couldn’t have been more supportive. This was a very personal journey, and being the great partner she is, fully supported the idea.
Once we were on the same page about pursuing my ancestry, I reached out to my Grandpa not knowing what information, if any, we would receive. When he responded, I couldn’t believe where this decision was going to take us. He typed up pages of information with pictures for us; a summary founded in a basis of years of research, hard work, and dedication. So much so that he was able to trace one line of his ancestry back 3 generations to a small town in Slovakia, Bajerovce. Said another way, my father’s (Jeff), father’s (Roland), mother’s (Marie), mother and father (Michael and Susanna) are from a town of 294 people in the Slovakian country side. I was speechless. I looked up Bajerovce on a map, and then the planning gears started grinding to figure out how we could incorporate a visit as part of our travels.
My Grandpa and I continued trading emails, asking questions, learning more history, gathering pictures, but most importantly he found a stateside contact with ties to Bajerovce, Kate. Kate was true blessing. She was able to coordinate a meeting with the mayor of Bajerovce, arranged for her brother, who lives in the region to be our guide and interpreter as neither Christie nor I spoke Rusyn or Slovak, and unbelievably was able to dig out and connect with two relatives who were actually still living in Bajerovce. I was speechless. What started so small as a thought, a question in my mind about ancestry, evolved into an in person reunion with relatives connected back 5 generations from myself, in a one road town, in a different country, on a different continent, where they never left, but my side did. The magnitude of what I was about to experience was lost on me. I couldn’t even begin to understand the enormity of what this incredible experience would entail. What did I do to deserve this?
We arrived in Košice, Slovakia which is about a 2 hour drive from Bajerovce, and began to prepare for our visit. I anxiously re-read, highlighted, and studied all the materials and family trees my Grandpa sent over. I compiled a list of questions, and tried to mentally prepare myself in some way, shape or form. The day was finally upon us, and our drive there was setting the stage for the day. Each turn led us further and further away from modern civilization, feeling like we were stepping back in time. The Slovak countryside is a collection of beautiful rolling grassy hills with evergreen topped peaks. You could have driven past Bajerovce and not even notice. It is made up of two parallel roads with houses scattered between them, and these roads intersect the main road maybe 200 feet apart.
We met Matthew, our interpreter, at this junction, exchanged introductions and headed down the road to meet the mayor. Mayor Sekerak met us with a firm handshake, a smile, and a language where the extent of my knowledge was hello. In his office we munched on food and talked about all things Bajerovce. From my Grandpa’s research, he figured out that Michael and Susanna left Bajerovce in 1900 and journeyed to the US through Bremen and Antwerp, respectively. But why did they leave? Mayor Sekerak explained that life in Bajerovce during the turn of the century was tough. It was a life of subsistence farming, or as he called it, hand to mouth living. The residents wanted better for themselves, but he stressed more importantly for their children. There was no school, no money to support one, and along with looking for work, providing a better education was the largest reason for people leaving the village. Not even an hour into our visit, the entire premise driving my quest had been brought up and answered. My ancestors left Bajerovce to pursue a better life, to provide a better life for their children, and I am a direct beneficiary of that decision. That choice changed the trajectory of their lineage, and helped put me in the position I am today; visiting a town where part of me began 116 years ago.
After our debriefing with the Mayor, we met Michal and Marie. They are the living relatives I am connected with, with Marie living in Bajerovce and Michal living in Kosiče, a short drive away. My Grandpa’s connection back to Bajerovce, as mentioned before, is through Michael and Susanna. Michael had a brother, Steve, and Steve had two children, Anna and Michael. Anna married Juraj and had 5 children, two of them being Michal and Marie, whom we were fortunate enough to meet. I still have a hard time in my mind keeping the how and through whom we are related straight, so I always had my family tree in hand during our visit. I believe (but could be totally wrong on the terminology) that they are the second cousins of my Grandpa.
To meet living relatives, albeit with a distant and diluted connection, was an incredible experience. Michael left Bajerovce, while his brother Steve didn’t. What if it was the other way around? To imagine how different everything could have been is dizzying. We toured the town as a group, visiting graves, drinking from a natural spring that the residents have been drinking from since the town was founded, seeing an abandoned school, and the church in town. After we had seen everything, Marie and her daughter welcomed us for a hearty lunch, followed by coffee and homemade pastries. We shared pictures and stories. Everyone was so welcoming, warm, and generous; especially to people who were complete strangers just a few hours before. As the day wound down, we exchanged contact information in an attempt to not let the connections formed to fade. We said our goodbyes, and you could see on everyone’s face the joy of the intimate experience we all shared in.
As we sat in our rental car on the edge of town ready to head back to reality, I couldn’t help the overwhelming emotions from coming to the surface. I sat there, looking back at this tiny dot on the map, trying to imagine my relatives back 5 generations living here. Trying to feel what they went through, trying to comprehend what they must have sacrificed for their future. Finding out their motivation was related to a better future for themselves and their children, really brought me full circle. It tied together the reasoning for my quest in the first place, but at the same time revealing that so much more goes into determining why I deserve the life I have. All of those before me, from my own parents, back to my connections in Bajerovce, to an infinite amount of other variables collided to give me the starting point that was my life. But most importantly, it is up to me to decide what to do with and make the most of what was given to me. In trying to envision what conversations Michael and Susanna had leading them to leave everything behind in Bajerovce in order to seek out a better life, I felt a connection. A connection across time; while different in many ways, I also left home, left friends, left a well paying job, left family behind to wander the world. My decisions had brought me back here, to seek them out, the ones who picked up everything and left, the ones I could relate to. If I could meet them, I would have hugged and thanked them for everything they had done. They would deserve it.