From July 4 to 18, 2011, Gloria and I were on a 2 week tour of Slovakia. For me it was the realization of a lifelong dream. Between our regular Sunday visits to Mutual to my mother’s parents where Slovak language was commonplace around the kitchen table to living next door to my grandparents where I heard so many stories of growing up with Slovak traditions and working in the mines of Pennsylvania I had looked forward to this trip since my childhood. We made the decision to go in January and waited the long cold winter months for our departure.
Overall, the trip was a 2 week group tour planned by the Youngstown Sister Cities organization and Adventure International Travel. Starting in Bratislava we made a large clockwise loop of the country. We went to at least the following towns or villages: Trnava, Modra, Piešťany, Trenčín, Casto, Žilina, Tatranska Lomnica, Levoča, Košice, Banská Bystrica and Sliač. We saw lots of churches and castles and a few museums. The major focus and Youngstown’s sister city was Spišská Nová Ves. As this was the home area of both the Sofranko and Uhrin families it seemed to be the right time to go.
The towns of Hursov and Velbach (in the Ves District and Spis region) or some spellings similar to those are where we have always understood to be home to our ancestors. It turns out that Hrusov has had well over 20 commonly used names depending upon who controlled it at the time. The official name in 1892 when Imrich and Maria Sofranko emigrated was Körtvélyes which is Hungarian. But the official Slovak name of the town is Spišský Hrušov. On the other hand, Velbach is the German name of the town from where our Uhrin ancestors came and is now known as Bystrany. I will continue to use the current town names throughout this review.
We got to Bratislava very tired but trudged through the first day activities. Not knowing what to expect but hoping to see a lot of traditional activities we were fortunate to find a festival going on with music, dancing and home made food on our first walk through the city. It was the National Holiday for Sts Cyril and Methodius. Unfortunately, it was late in the day and most of the food was sold out. We only had a few pastries but also our first taste of Slovak beer. A good start.
On Thursday the 7th we checked in to our Piestany hotel then took the bus to Trenčin. We took a boat ride on the Váh River which in and of itself was only ordinary. But a Slovak host on the boat was Jozef Duraci. We were told that he provided the home made wine that we were enjoying at the time. Afterward we made our way to a local community center were we expected some folk group to entertain. Words cannot express the range of emotion this set off in me, Gloria and nearly everyone else in our tour group. As we arrived the group (ranging in age from 8 to 18) was playing a traditional Slovak song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHLNMA1QHLI). Again, I can’t express how powerful this was. Tears were flowing everywhere. They had a tray of Slivovica (plum brandy) poured to pass out with slices of bread to wash it down. It sounds like that is reversed but until you have some Slivovica you might not understand. There was also a tray of cold cuts and cheese. For dinner we had homemade gulaš and more homemade wine. Throughout dinner the Kornička (www.kornicka.sk) group performed more song and dance. Jozef is one of the leaders of the group. Go to www.sofranko.org for links to video on youtube and their own website. This was the first indication of how truly amazing this trip would be.
After this, we looked forward even more to Tuesday the 12th and the guide taking us to cemeteries in Spišský Hrušov and Bystrany.
As it turns out, July 12th was just about more than I could have expected from this trip. What a wonderful experience!
We arranged to have an English speaking guide to take us to Spišska Nova Ves. But looking into it, as detailed earlier, we really aren't from SNV. The Sofrankos are from Spišský Hrušov and the Uhrins are from Bystrany.
At Spišský Hrušov we first stopped at the cemetery. I took a bunch of pictures of Sofranko headstones. It was pretty obvious that this was our "old country" home.
From there we went to the Town Hall. Tony, our guide, told us we could register there as looking for relatives. He looked into a room where a woman asked if she could help him. When he said we were looking for information on Sofrankos she said that she was a Sofranko. Not only that, she (Elena) is the Mayor of the town. We had the Sofranko book that Sandy Schimizzi made and showed her some pictures. When she saw the 1983 picture of Dolly and Uncle Andy with two other Spišský Hrušov relatives in front of “Emery Sofranko’s Home” she immediately stopped and said that was her family’s ancestral home.
Our great grandfather Imrich had a brother Jan and Elena is descended from him. She said the house isn’t there anymore but she took us to where it used to be. She got the attention of a young woman who lives in the house next to a garden where the home place stood. Elena wanted to know if another relative who lives there was home. She was told that the other person was home but was sleeping. Unfortunately, I was so overwhelmed from this point on that I neglected to ask enough questions or think of the right one. For this reason I don’t have all the names and information I could have possibly gotten. Another reason for this is we only planned to have Tony for half a day. Going in I had little expectation and agreed this would be enough time. I was wrong and could easily have spent a full day or more.
Standing on the road her sister Maria walked by. We think Elena may have called here and told her we were there (remember, all of this is happening through a translator who himself is trying to determine if our history matches). We took a few pictures and they invited us to coffee. It turns out they own a penzion in town (http://www.slovenskyraj.sk/sypanec.html). A penzion is a café or tavern usually with a guesthouse. The inside was all stone with a bar and couches, tables and a ping pong table. Outside was a small courtyard with grill, picnic table and foosball (yes, foosball). Apparently a local gathering place. Gloria had coffee and I had tea. We started looking through the Sofranko book and Maria came in with a couple of picture albums. We talked and discussed where and how we were related. They had pictures of the same home place from the same and different angles. It looks much different there now but we were able to determine that the house across the road matches the foundation work of the house in the 1983 picture.
Is it too dramatic to say that I was in shock by this time?
After a while Maria's husband Stefan came by. As we talked more, Stefan said he knew the Uhrin's as he is a teacher and is from Bystrany. So we wrapped it up and went to Bystrany. As we got to Tony’s van the older woman from the house next to the home place came walking up the street. She was easily in her 80s and looked the picture of a “stará baba.” She had a picture album which we looked at hastily on the street. Again, I did not get her or her companion’s name. Relatives, I’m sure, but still nameless. But we were on our way to Bystrany and had to leave.
We drove straight to a house in Bystrany. The gate was locked but a woman addressed us the door. She came down and we talked (via Tony) and started looking at the Sofranko book. When we got to the picture of Big Uncle Andy Uhrin she said that it was her Grandfather. So, another cousin!! Figuring this out she invited us in, offered us Hrušovica (pear brandy), cookies and anything we could want. She brought out a box of pictures and we found common pictures of people we were related to at different times in their lives. Her name is Emilie. Eventually her daughter Miriam came home.
At one point, Tony was talking to Emilie, stopped suddenly and turned to me asking if I knew the whole story of how Emilie was related. He only had to say this and I knew that this was a granddaughter of the wife who Big Uncle Andy had abandoned. Even still, she was totally gracious to both Gloria and me.
She gave a tour of her home and grounds. She was very proud of her home and noted it was new and pointed out where the original home was (basically, where the driveway is now).
An interesting point here is how impeccably neat and clean both places were that we visited. It is easy to see why our mother’s kept such neat homes when we share this bloodline. We also went on one of our tour mates (who was travelling alone) home visit to Pol’ov and the home there was also impeccably neat.
I can't begin to tell you how emotional I am from this experience. It was amazing. Imagine. Someone descended from a family who emigrated 119 years ago knocks on your door. Within 5 minutes you are accepted as though you have lived across the street your entire life. That is the description of a very moving experience. That is family.