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My Cousin, the "Boss"

Part 7 of Leslie Turek's Journey to Slovakia

Return to the Levoča archives

After yesterday's rain, Wednesday dawned bright and clear. Today was the day that we were going to try once again to meet with Helena Liptakova and Peter Turek of Levoča (not to be confused with the Peter Turek of Košice whom we met yesterday, or the Peter Turek of Spišska Nova Ves whom we will meet later today). Since Helena spoke English and could translate for us, Paula would not be joining us today.

We breakfasted as usual in the Hotel Barbakan. By this time, the staff had noticed that we came for breakfast there every day, so they offered to treat us like hotel guests, letting us run a tab and eat from the standard guest buffet.

During breakfast, my father told me a little about my mother's parents' experience in coming to the United States. I hadn't realized that my mother's father, Michael Chuba (that's the American spelling - in Slovakia, it's Čuba), had travelled around quite a bit before settling in Bridgeport. He spent time in Pennsylvania and Colorado, then went to Granville, New York, where he worked in the stone quarries. He was married there to Elizabeth Šutyak, and then they moved to Bridgeport, where they lived on the East Side (an area long since demolished by urban renewal), and my grandfather worked at City Lumber. A sister of my grandmother lived with her for a while, then married a Dusenack, had 3 children, and moved back to Colorado, where her descendents live today.

This time we did find Helena at the archives. She was a slim, attractive woman, fashionably dressed, who spoke English very well. She explained that she had to take her dog, which she described as a red hunting dog, to Austria to be bred, and was sorry that she hadn't been able to meet us Monday. She said that Peter Turek was expecting to join us for lunch, and my father said that was great, and that he would spend the morning in the archives looking at the materials he had requested last time we were there.

Dad with map in Levoca archivesOne of the items that was waiting for us was a big roll of 19th-century maps of Torysky. These were beautifully-drawn, hand-colored maps with a legend in elegant Hungarian script. They included the village itself, plus all the surrounding farm lands, with all the fields designated with neatly-drawn tiny little numbers.

It was really hard to unroll and work with the maps because they were quite a bit larger than the narrow tables in the research area, and there were about 4 maps on very stiff paper all stacked and rolled up together. As with the records at the Presov archives, the edges were soiled and torn from handling, and it was hard to unroll them without adding to the damage, but we were as careful as we could be. We asked if we could get copies of the maps, and were told that was not possible. So I got the brilliant idea of trying to take a picture of one of them. I knew that we wouldn't be able to make out the detail, but at least we would have some record of what it looked like.

Old map of Torysky
I should have realized that getting up on a chair and taking a picture of the map would be frowned upon. I don't know what I was thinking. And sure enough, the attendant walked in on this activity and immediately became rather agitated. She clearly did not want to offend us, but she told us quite firmly that taking pictures was not allowed, and we would have to go talk to the director of the archives, who had an office a few doors away.

So my father took a deep breath and marched off to confront the director. I had visions of the director ripping open our cameras and confiscating our film, but it wasn't as bad as all that. In fact, by the time my father had finished talking to him, the director had agreed to try to make a xerographic copy of the main portion of the map for us. So in the end we did get an officially-approved copy which was much clearer to read than the snapshots I had taken.

Meanwhile, I was working on my assigned task of searching a microfilm for the marriage of Andreas Tabak (age 30) to Catharine Cserpak (age 17) in 1860, and sure enough I found it on November 12. These were my great-great-grandparents, and the marriage record gave us some names the might have been my great-great-great grandparents, although my father is not convinced of that, since it is not the practice to put the parents' names in the "Observations" column. This marriage record was from the village of Nežne Repaše, and was in a different format than my father were used to working with. In addition, it many of the words were in Latin, which will need to be translated. My father requested a hard copy of the marriage record so he could try to sort it all out when he got home. Since the marriage record gave their ages, I was also able to find Catharine Cserpak's birth record on Oct. 14, 1843.

Lunch with Helena and Peter

Lunch with Peter and HelenaAt noon, we went off to lunch at the Hotel Arcada with Helena. Peter had told her that he might be late, so we should go ahead and start without him. Considering the extensive menu, I asked Helena about the turkey with mushrooms, and she said, "That's what I was going to order!". The meal was excellent, but unfortunately, Peter did not manage to arrive until we were pretty much finished, so he only had a glass of Coke with us as we settled the bill.

Peter had been promoted since my father had been there last. Previously, he had been the city assessor. But since the fall elections, which had changed the party in power, Peter had been appointed to the very prestigious post of "Prednosta" of the Levoča district. We asked Helena what "prednosta" meant, and she said "boss". It's also listed in the dictionary as "chief", "head", or "director". The best I could tell, the job was something like being the governor of a small state, although it was appointive rather than elective.

Peter Turek's cardPeter was dapper and well-dressed, with a mustache and a slightly receding hairline. He was friendly, but he seemed to carefully consider his words before speaking, which was probably a useful habit for someone in a highly-visible position. He asked us where we were staying, and when he heard about the penzion, suggested that he could arrange for a nice place in the mountains. My father thanked him, but explained that we had paid for the penzion in advance.

Peter apologized for being late for lunch, and invited us to join him in his office for refreshments at the end of the working day, when he expected to be able to spend a bit more time with us. So we made arrangements to meet again at 4:00.

Spišsky Hrad

Spissky HradNow that we had a few hours free on such a gorgeous day, I really wanted to get outdoors. I was feeling pent up with all the visiting we had been doing, and I really craved some time in the open air. So the obvious place to go was the Spišsky Hrad (castle), which was just a few miles east of Levoča, on the Prešov road. That sounded fine to my father, and off we went.

It was good to get out into the countryside, which was looking greener every day as spring progressed. Spišsky Hrad stands on a high hill above the village of Spišsky Podhradie and dominates the surrounding area for miles around. According to the guidebooks, it is one of the largest ruined castles in Europe. The current castle dates from the 13th century, although there is evidence of earlier fortified settlements on that location dating back to the Stone Age.

Spissky HradWe drove into the village looking for a road to the castle, but had no success. We finally stopped and talked to a couple of old men, who seemed to be quite pleased to help us out, and who directed to go along the main road another few kilometers, where we would find a turnoff for the castle.

Following the turnoff, we reached a parking area that was part way up the hill, but still considerably below the castle itself. My father didn't think he could manage the hike up the hill, but he saw that I was eager to go up, so he told me to go ahead and he would wait in the car while I explored.

Spissky HradI just couldn't resist. It was bright and sunny, dry and breezy - just a perfect day by my reckoning - and it felt great to exert myself a bit. And the higher I went, the view of the surrounding area got better and better.

After passing through the first few gateways into the main courtyard, I noticed a ticket booth off to the side, so stopped in to find out what the admission fee was. The attendant spoke only Slovak and German, so he wrote down the fee, which was 20 crowns (about 50 cents). I was a little confused when he gave me two receipt slips marked 10 crowns each - I thought he was giving me tickets for two people. But holding his hand palm down around his waist, he indicated that a single slip was for children (using the German word, kind), and an adult needed two slips. (I found it very confusing that people kept speaking to me in German whenever they determined that I didn't know Slovak.)

Spissky HradThe castle itself looked very much like castles I had seen in Scotland. (I guess castle design is pretty similar the world over.) I happily explored a maze of staircases, keeps, into walls, and towers until I thought I'd managed to go just about everywhere. I noticed some restoration work going on in a couple of areas. There was a museum of weaponry and archeological finds in one part of the castle, but I decided to skip that so as not to keep my father waiting too long.

From the very topmost section, I was able to get a glimpse of the snow-covered High Tatras just poking up over the surrounding hills and gleaming brightly in the sun. (The picture below was taken using the zoom lens on my father's camera.)

High Tatras in distance

Peter in his office

Back in Levoča, we met Helena at the Archives and crossed the street to a government building in the central square, where she led us to Peter Turek's office. After passing through an outer office with several secretarial stations, we were led into Peter's large and luxurious corner office with desk, conference table, and a comfortable sitting area with leather-covered couches and a glass coffee table decorated with a vase of forsythia.

We sat down for a comfortable chat, while Peter's secretary brought us slivovitz and coffee. We talked about politics a little, and Peter gave us a brochure (in Slovak) that described the governmental system and listed all of the political parties and the number of representatives each of them had elected to the parliament. We mentioned the unfinished tunnel to Prešov, and Peter said that yes, it was difficult to find funding for major public works projects these days. We also asked about the ticket needed for travel on the highways, and Peter said we could get one at the local Post Office.

[The tunnel was eventually finished and we drove through it on a later visit. Very impressive it was, I must say - one of the longest tunnels I've ever driven through.]

We also talked a little about our progress in tracking down relatives. Peter told us a little about the various nicknames we might encounter. He said that he had grown up in the village, and I speculated on how he must feel to have made such a big jump in his circumstances. We asked him if he knew the story of the men who were saved from execution. He said that he had heard the story of someone from the village being saved, but he hadn't realized that they were his relatives.

It was clear that Peter had a pretty high-pressure job, because every so often he would get drawn aside for a short conference with an aide. Helena did not translate these discussions, and I didn't want to ask, but I was quite curious to know what issues he was dealing with.

My father asked Peter if we could go to visit his uncles in Spišska Nova Ves, so Peter gave them a call and set it up. He said that he would drive us, and we arranged to meet in front of the penzion in a few minutes time.

My father and I sat on a park bench and talked while we were waiting. He had a lot of sympathy for Peter's position, since he's held a lot of high-pressure administrative jobs himself. He told me the story of the time he was appointed to be head of customs in Milwaukee with literally no warning. He was living in Louisville and was head of the field office there, with the title of Customs Appraiser of Merchandise. He had thought he was going to Milwaukee on a business trip, and only after he arrived in Milwaukee was he told that he was being appointed District Director there and would be taking over immediately! I was away at college at the time, so I missed the upheaval that put my family into, as they had to sell their home in Louisville and try to find a place to live in Milwaukee, while my father was grappling with the sudden descent of new and unexpected responsibilities.

Then we wandered over to the penzion and waited out front on the sidewalk. As we stood there, a man walked up to us and asked if we were from California. My father said we were from America but not California, and told him that we have relatives in Torysky. The man said that my father looked like his uncle, who had gone to California. (Do you notice a theme here. I would bet that nearly everyone we met who we talked to for longer than 10 seconds turned out to have a relative in the United States!) I tried to ask him his name, but I said it wrong. I'd learned the phrase for "What is his name?" ("Ako sa vola?") and so the man thought I was asking the name of the town, and replied Levoča. So I told him my name, and then he got the idea and told me his, which I didn't recognize. But he recognized ours. "Are you related to Peter Turek?", he asked, and we said that we were. It was nice to know that our relative was so well-known in the town. Then the man's bus came and we said goodbye.

Peter's uncles

Just then Peter and Helena drove up. The two of them had changed into more casual clothes, and looked a lot more relaxed. We had a very pleasant drive through the greening countryside, past a small village with a lovely onion dome church, to the outskirts of Spišska Nova Ves.

Peter Turek's uncles' housesPeter's two uncles, Stefan and Peter, live in side-by-side houses, each with a big garden in the back. That's Stefan's house on the left and Peter's on the right. Their two vegetable plots are separated by a strip of grass with a double row of dwarf fruit trees. Closer to the house, there are sitting areas with perennial flowers like peonies, iris, and roses. Both men lost their wives within the last few years and now live alone.

We parked in the back, and were immediately greeted by Stefan and Peter, who were both very warm and welcoming, although Stefan was more outgoing and did nearly all of the talking. We entered Stefan's house through the basement, then up a spacious front stairwell, which was decorated with Stefan's own scenic paintings and the skulls and horns of animals Stefan had hunted. This time, when I noticed the array of shoes by the door, I remembered to take mine off. Stefan led us into a pleasant sunroom with a view of the garden, and set out a tray of little crystal glasses and bottles of slivovitz and a pineapple soft drink. "Did they offer you anything to drink in Torysky?" he asked. We just laughed.

Peter Turek and his uncles, Stefan and PeterHere is my father, Stefan, Peter (of Spišska Nova Ves), and Peter (of Levoča). Helena is out of the picture to the left, but she was essential to the conversation, since none of the men we were visiting spoke any English, and Helena translated everything for us.

My father had learned on the last visit that Stefan was a beekeeper, so he asked how his bees were doing. It was too soon to tell, he said - he would know in May how well they got through the winter. You can also see in the picture that Stefan has a lot of books - he used to be a teacher.

We started off with the standard genealogical conversation, where my father brought out his charts and started filling things in. We soon figured out that Stefan and Peter's father was a first cousin of my grandfather, so Stefan and Peter are second cousins to my father, and the younger Peter is my third cousin. It was good to get that straightened out! At one point, I got a little overwhelmed by the discussion and Helena must have noticed, because she commented, "With Greek Catholics, it's always like this", which I took to mean that there is always much discussion about family connections.

Stefan then brought out the deed to his house, which was purchased from emigrants to the U.S., so the deed was signed in Washington, D.C. For some reason, he seemed very proud of this fact.

He then brought out some sausages for us, and I ate a little, but also explained to Helena about how I couldn't eat too much because I was trying to lose weight. She understood and said that I was smart. He also served some coffee, which I didn't take because I'm not a coffee drinker. "It's weak", Stefan insisted, but it was quite clear that it was no such thing - it was as thick and dark as any coffee I'd seen this trip. Stefan said that Slovakia has the highest consumption of sugar per person in Europe - something like 39 kilos per person per year!

Peter the younger asked about my job, and I told him a little about it. I told him that my job was very high-pressure, too, and I was really happy to have some time off and to be able to do things like going on this trip. Peter said that he envied me. I asked him if he had access to e-mail. He said not at this time, but he might have it in the near future. So I gave him my father's and my e-mail addresses. My father later told me that he looked at Helena and asked, "They both have e-mail?" (He may not have realized that we lived in different cities.)

Stefan told us that I have another third cousin in Canada, a Michael Turek, born in 1959. He himself almost went to Canada when the Russians took over, but he changed his mind and stayed on. He now feels that the country was much better off under the communists, but Peter the younger did not agree. Someone mentioned that there is a saying, "Don't touch politics or electricity", so I decided to try to change the subject.

"You have a very beautiful country," I told Stefan. That encouraged him to talk about the miracles of nature and the beauty of the forest. "The next time I come, I would like to go to the forest with you", I told him.

As we were getting ready to leave he took us around to show us the house and the garden. The living room was decorated with a very bright sunflower fabric used in both the curtains and the slipcovers, and many of his paintings were displayed on the walls. As we passed the bedroom, he told me via gestures more eloquent than any words that his wife had died recently, and he missed her very much.

Marina and John Casper

Earlier, my father had mentioned to Peter that there was someone else we needed to briefly visit in Spišska Nova Ves, and could he help us find the address? The person was Marina Casper, who is the first cousin (on their mother's side) of the two daughters (Mary and Irene) of my grandfather's younger brother Michael (the one saved from the firing squad). Mary and Irene live in Connecticut and asked my father to bring a letter for Marina and her husband, John, and to bring back a picture of them. To help track them down, we had a letter they'd sent to Mary and Irene, which had their return address.

Peter studied the return address, and discussed it with Helena, and we went zipping off to a nice residential section that he thought was the right place. Just as we stopped, he got a cell phone call, so we paused for a few minutes to let him complete the call. Then we approached the house number he thought was the right one. There was an older couple there, and we showed them the letter, and they exclaimed that was from them, so we knew we'd found the right place.

They ushered us into their house, which had a pleasant flower garden in the front and side, and a nice little pet cat sitting on the steps. And everyone descended into the usual ferment of talk about relationships, with miscellaneous relationship words popping out of the broth, until finally there was a big sigh of relief as everyone understood how everyone was connected to everybody else.

My father gave them the letter and reported on the health of the Turek sisters in Connecticut. We also took the picture of Marina and John to bring back, but wouldn't you know, it was the only picture of all the ones we took that was out of focus. That was too bad.

Marina also served us rum and sausage, this time a very gristly type of cold sausage that I just couldn't eat, so I apologized and asked Helena to explain that I'd eaten at the previous house.

We didn't want to take up too much of Peter's time, so we tried to keep our visit here short, and we all drove back to Levoča at sunset. As he dropped us off at the penzion, Peter told us that if we needed anything we should come and see him. My father said he would visit him in his office the next time he returned to Slovakia, and Peter muttered darkly, "...if I'm still there." My father took this to mean that he was nervous about whether he would be retaining his position, given the uncertain political situation.

Up in the penzion, my father and I spent some time watching TV, which was showing an excellent program featuring great European singers like Edith Piaf and Lotte Lenya. We talked and talked about history, and time travel, and places from our past, and enjoying life. It was a very pleasant finish to a good day.

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