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At the Archives

Part 5 of Leslie Turek's Journey to Slovakia

Levoča archives and around town

I slept a bit later this morning (Monday, April 12), but woke with a splitting headache, probably because of all the various alcoholic drinks I'd been plied with on the previous day. I decided that with all the food that we were getting on our visits to people, I'd better start eating more lightly when I was on my own. So breakfast was cornflakes and milk (whole milk, because skim was not available) and an orange.

Levoca Archives exteriorThe Levoča archives were just down the street from our penzion, in a dark-bronze-colored building facing the main square. My father had written to Helena Liptaková telling her that we would be coming on this day, and asking her if she could arrange a lunch meeting with Peter Turek (see Part 1 for how he had met the two of them on his previous visit). When we arrived at the archives, however, we found that Helena wasn't there. Another one of the archive personnel, who could speak English slowly but clearly, explained that Mrs. Liptaková was sorry that she couldn't be there, but she had found it necessary to go to Austria for a few days. This woman offered to arrange our visit with Peter Turek, but without Helena being with us to translate, that wouldn't have worked out very well. So we asked her to tell Peter that we would defer our visit until Helena was back on Wednesday.

My father had planned to spend the day working in the archives anyway, so we filled out the various permission forms and signed the visitor's book and got started. My father had previously shown me what the records looked like, since he had copies of microfilmed records from the Mormon depository library in the United States. They are all handwritten, of course, usually with the birth, death, and marriage records for each year kept in separate lists. Depending on the year of the record and who was running the country then, they might be in Latin, German, or Hungarian. So it takes a bit of practice to be able to read them and understand information in them.

The Mormon church has been very active in microfilming genealogical records from all over the world, since it is an important part of their religion to be able to identify one's ancestors. They usually work out some sort of deal with the people they're obtaining the records from, such as providing them with copies of the films, free microfilm readers, etc. And they operate many regional depositories all over the U. S. where these records are made available to the public at a nominal cost. So my father has actually been able to do quite a bit of basic research at home in Connecticut. But he was interested in visiting the various archives in Slovakia to learn what other types of records they have available.

I helped a little bit at first, scanning a microfilm to find the birth record of my great-great-grandmother Anna Čerpak (the one nicknamed Peroga that I mentioned earlier), but I was soon eager to get out and about. With all the sitting and eating we had been doing, I really needed to get some exercise, and I was interested to see if I could get around town on my own. I had never travelled to a non-English-speaking country before, and I was a little apprehensive. I figured the only way to get over that apprehension was to just plunge in. Besides, I had a number of errands I wanted to do, such as mail some postcards, exchange traveller's checks, etc. So we agreed to meet in the park across the street at 1pm, and I happily set off.

As many travellers have learned before me, it's really not all that hard to do the basic traveller's stuff without being able to speak the language, as long as you're willing to risk looking stupid now and then. I'd usually start out by apologizing for not speaking Slovak, so they wouldn't expect much. ("Prepačte, nehovorim po Slovensky.") At the bank, it was sufficient to hold up the traveller's check with a questioning look, and the clerk nodded and did stuff, and handed me a bunch of money and a receipt. I was easily able to buy postcards and a soda, since I had a rudimentary understanding of numbers. I sat in the park to write my first postcard, then went to the post office to buy stamps. With gestures and holding up fingers, the clerk explained that I needed two 5-crown stamps for each postcard, and I asked for enough for 10 postcards.

Being able to carry out these transactions was fine, but it was still frustrating not to be able to really talk to people. I wandered into a bookstore where I bought an English-language illustrated travel guide, but it was frustrating not to be able to chat with the college-age clerk about books. I tried to go to one of the town museums, and the person I encountered had to lead me outside and point to the sign to get across the idea that the museum was closed on Mondays. Even the woman at the tourist information store, where I bought a couple of t-shirts, didn't speak any English.

At one point, I was standing on the sidewalk looking through my phrase book and a little boy approached me and asked me what I was doing ("Čo robite?" a phrase I'd learned from my language tapes). I told him that I didn't speak Slovak, and pointed to my book and indicated that one side was Slovak and the other side was English. I'm not sure if he understood, and he answered with a spate of Slovak that I didn't understand at all, so I just shook my head sadly. It was depressing not to know enough to even be able to talk to a child.

Since I couldn't go to the museums, I finished my errands and headed over to the rendezvous spot a little early and was surprised to see that my father was already there. He had forgotten that the archives closed for lunch between noon and 1 pm, and he had gotten kicked out at 12:00. So we went to one of the hotels for lunch, and I got a nice mushroom soup and a chicken and vegetable dish served with rice.

By the time we finished with lunch, Dad had only another hour to spend in the archives, since they closed for the day at 3 in the afternoon. This light schedule, which seemed to be observed by many businesses as well as government offices, seems to me to be a holdover from the communist era, when there wasn't much pressure to be efficient. I suspect that's going to have to change if Slovakia is to be competitive in the modern world. He did make some progress, however, finding a few birth records, and putting in requests to see the land records and some maps of Torysky, which he would return to look at later.

At 3:00, we met again and tried to find a cold drink in one of the hotel bars. I did notice that there was an ice cream shop at one corner of the square that appeared to be pretty popular among the younger people, but somehow I managed to resist the temptation.

Then we got out the car and went for a drive up a narrow, winding forest road to the church on the hill, the Kostel Marie Katedrala, which had a really great view of the city and the surrounding countryside. Paula had told us that a few years earlier the Pope come to the yearly pilgrimage that is held at that church, and the whole hillside below it was totally packed with people who had come to see him.

This picture was taken with my Dad's panoramic camera looking south. You can see the walled old town in the center, with the church steeple marking the central square. More modern houses are on the outskirts to the left, and some communist apartment blocks in a valley on the right, where they are hidden from view from the old town. The road going off to the right is going to Poprad, the one going straight ahead to the south goes to Spisska Nova Ves, and there is another road to the left going to Presov (where we will be heading tomorrow). The village of Torysky is in the hills behind us.
View of Levoca

Returning to town, we drove around the east side and through the apartment blocks. To my eye, they looked like very dreary places to live - made of crumbling concrete, surrounded by parking lots, and with no landscaping to speak of.

Next we drove south to Spišska Nova Ves, to take a look around, since we'd only seen it in the dark on Saturday night. Spišska Nova Ves (Spis New Town) was selected as a regional capital by the Hapsburgs in 1772, a move which brought about the decline of Levoča (and helped preserve its historical character). Spišska Nova Ves had a similar central city, arranged around a long square containing a Gothic church and a museum. But the shops and hotels were somewhat more modern and offered a bit more of a selection.

We enjoyed strolling along the square and window-shopping (since most of the stores were already closed). At one bookstore, I noticed a copy of The Hobbit, but the bookstore was closed, so I wasn't able to check it out. At another bookstore, I got a copy of Rozum a Cit ("Sense and Sensibility") by "Jane Austenová". Books in Slovakia appeared to be quite cheap - this hardcover was 139 crowns (about $3.50). I noticed a lot of American bestsellers in translation, such as John Grisham, and also a fairly large selection of romance novels of the bodice-ripper variety.

We took a slightly-roundabout route back to Levoca, and saw some lovely countryside, as the sun had finally come out. We had dinner at the most upscale hotel restaurant in town, and I continued my healthy theme, ordering grilled trout and a cucumber salad.

Prešov archives

On Tuesday we joined up with Paula again. In the evening, we were committed to dinner with one of Uncle Juraj's children, Martha, who lived with her husband Peter Budzinak in Kosice, a large city to the south east. But on the way, my father wanted to stop in Prešov, to the east, to investigate their archives, which would cover the region that includes my mother's village, Kyjov.

The day dawned rainy and gloomy. We had our usual breakfast at the Barbakon Hotel, then met with Paula at the penzion. Paula had brought me an English-language book to lend me: Heart Mountain, by Gretel Ehrlich, a story of the Japanese prison camps in the U.S. during WWII, and I gave her the John Grisham novel (The Street Lawyer) that I had been reading on the flight over.

As we walked out to the car, Paula gave us a warning to watch out for gypsies, which, she said, could not be trusted and would take any chance to steal our money.

On the drive, she started drilling me in counting, working on all the numbers from 1 to 100, and relationship words: father (otecs), mother (matka), grandfather (stary otecs, literally "old father"), son (sin), daughter (dcera), brother (brat), sister (sestra), aunt (teta), uncle (stryko), and cousin (bratanec or sesternica, depending on the sex). After listening to all the family talk during the past few days, I'd actually learned most of these already.

A short way out of Levoča, we passed on our right the Spišsky Hrad, one of the most picturesque castles in Slovakia. (More on this later, when we got a chance to visit it more closely.) Then we had to climb a steep range of hills via a two-lane road with many switchbacks and hairpin turns. Paula told us that the communist government had started building a tunnel through the hills, but construction had been halted with only 300 meters to go due to lack of funds. On the other side of the hills, we appeared to be at a lower elevation. The trees were greener, and there were more forsythia and flowering trees in bloom.

Paula mentioned that she had tried to read Shakespeare, but she had found it very difficult. We assured her that Shakespeare is difficult even for native English-speakers. She explained that Slovak had many dialects, and that the modern Slovak language had only been established as recently as 1948. The version that my father learned is actually the Torysky village dialect dating from when my grandparents emigrated at the beginning of the century, so it is quite old-fashioned. He said that sometimes people laughed at the way he talked, and now he understood why.

Prešov is the cultural center of the Carpatho-Rusyn community in eastern Slovakia (the ethnic group to which my family belongs). The town center is reputed to be a square similar to those in Levoča and Spišska Nova Ves, but we never got to see it because it was closed off to traffic. We were shunted off to the side, where we drove until we could find a place to park, and then set off to try to find out where the archives were located. Prešov looked like an interesting, bustling place, however, and looked like it would be worth visiting if we'd had more free time.

Government buildingWe went into the first government building we could find, and after much confusion, someone there directed us to another government complex on the outskirts of the town. We drove to the place directed, and found two gray and imposing government edifices that, from their appearance, must have dated from the Communist era. If you look carefully at the picture below, you may be able to make out the faint outline of a hammer and sickle superimposed on the diagonal stripes. It looks like the hammer and sickle was removed, leaving only a short stub of the hammer's handle. We also noticed a red star as part of the design in the steel fence surrounding the parking lot, although Paula insisted jokingly that was an American star, because, after all, the stars belong to everyone (gesturing at the sky).

Government buildingWe went into the larger building, consulted the directory and found something listed as archives, and made our way to the office indicated. The people in the office explained that they were the more recent archives, and were closed to visitors on Tuesday and Wednesday, but that the older records had been moved to a nearby town called Študjna Duba. So it was back into the car and, consulting the map, off to Študjna Duba, which was sort of a residential suburb of Prešov. On the way, we spotted yet another remnant of Communist rule, a cluster of derelict MIG airplanes in a MIG graveyard. My father commented that this represented millions of dollars of aircraft, just rotting away.

MIG graveyard

Presov ArchivesThe archives building was easy to find, because we had been told it was next to the church, and we could see the church steeple from everywhere in the small country town. So we made our way to the church, and found the archives in an attached building that was formerly some sort of manor house or monastary.

On the way in, we noticed several houses with little fenced-in flower gardens, and Paula and I got into an intense discussion about flowers. The great thing about gardening, is that if you know the latin names for the plants, you can communicate in a common language with anyone. So we chattered happily about paeonia, narcissus, phlox, lilium, rosa, tulipa, muscari, scilla, viola, and sedum. Paula was very excited to learn that I was a gardener.

At the entrance, we signed in, and were assigned little booties to cover our shoes and protect the manor house's marble floors. The guard told us that they get many American visitors during the summer. We found our way to Room 54, a small white room with a vaulted ceiling, two deep-set windows, a microfilm machine, some framed illuminated documents, and a wall of books. The white-coated attendant directed us to a locker for our raincoats, then helped us to sign in and locate the records we were looking for.

Paula and Dad at Presov ArchivesMy father was looking for birth and marriage records for my great-great-great grandparents on my mother's side: Michael Petrik and Anna Mikita, parents of Andrew Petrik, born in 1874, and Andreas Previsznyak and Anna Dusenyak, parents of Christina Previsznyak, also born in 1874. We divided up the work, and I was assigned a volume that was somewhat later than the target years of 1844-1854, so I didn't find any relevant birth or marriage records. But I did find a sad litany of life in that period. In the household of Andreas Previsznyak, I found the following death records:
Date of death Name Age
Sept. 6, 1861 Georgius 1 yr 10 months
Sept. 20, 1865 Andreas 17 months
Aug. 10, 1866 Christina 3 weeks
Dec. 2, 1867 Basilius 3 1/2 months
April 28, 1870 Mathias 1 1/2 years

The odd thing about these archives was that they didn't use the microfilm records, but gave us access to the original documents. This seemed like a mistake, since when people handle such records, they inevitably do damage to them. You could see where the lower left corner of each page had been darkened from handling, for example. So I tried to touch them as little as possible, and to turn the pages as carefully as I could. It was awesome to see these original hand-written documents, but I would have felt more comfortable working with microfilm instead.

The staff at the archives were very helpful. They had someone on staff who spoke Hungarian and who helped my father with translations of some common Hungarian words that turn up in the records. They also explained that they do have some records dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, that could be accessed for special research. Each region keeps its own archives at a center such as this, except for the southern part of the country, whose records are still kept in Hungary.

We were lucky that this archive didn't close for lunch, since we'd gotten there so late, but they made up for it by closing for the day at 2:30 (!) They extended the day for a few minutes to let us finish up, but eventually we had to get out of there.

Paula had very kindly brought us a picnic lunch of cold meat, bread, scallions, pickles, and hard-boiled eggs, which given the bad weather, we had to eat in the car, sitting across from a small park near a stream with a statue of a national hero.

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