A Diary – Eastern Europe and My Search for Roots
by Eileen Backofen

I am the granddaughter of immigrants. My grandfather, a widower with 2 grown sons, married my grandmother, a widow with 4 children, in the USA. My mother was their only child. They lived in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania a destination of many immigrants drawn there to work in the coal mines.

When they left Europe in 1900 and 1907, their villages were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My grandfather died while visiting his son and grandchildren in his home town, which in 1935 was located in Czechoslovakia. So I never knew him or anything about him. I had never even seen his picture.

Gregory Dupkanic had 15 grandchildren. Fourteen of them, descendants of his first marriage, have always known each other. Finally I, grandchild #15, have set out to find them. My grandmother Katarina Korshnakova came from Sambron, a village near Stara Lubovna. I knew that there were no family members left there, but I wanted to see the landscape that she saw when she left for America alone at age 17.

I was born in 1947. By the time I was old enough to ask about my ancestry, my grandmother was already 75 years old. Although she had lived in the USA for nearly 60 years, she still spoke “broken” English as did her friends. Each ethnic group founded its own church. I remember separate Irish, Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak, Slovenian and “Russian” churches. My grandmother spoke Slovak, but attended the Greek Catholic “Russian” church. My family lived in Brooklyn, NY, but I spent many summers in Pennsylvania, where I learned to understand Slovak reasonably well.

Over the years I made several attempts to learn about my roots. Only recently did I fit all the pieces together, largely because of the Internet and the discovery of some family documents. I learned that my grandparents were Rusyn (Ruthenian) a separate ethnic group in Eastern Europe and that I have quite an extended family.

Once my husband and I decided to travel to the Slovak Republic, I bought a Slovak textbook and dictionary and undertook an intensive 10 week self study in the language. Then we combined my quest with a cruise on the Danube on Grand Circle Travel's River Aria and set off to find family, the villages of both grandparents and my grandfather’s grave.

Photos of our trip are posted at: www.brigs.us/Europe-2008
Roots specific photos are on the subpages labeled Bratislava, Medzilaborce-Habura, Sambron, and Stara Lubovna.

Day 1   Monday   7/21/08 (Travel)

We got to the airport 4 hours early.  We walked around, ate Auntie Annie’s pretzels and watched people.  There was a bird flying around.  We practiced our Slovak (i.e. I read out loud and Joe listened.) 

There were lots of families on our flight.  Just about everybody was in coach.  Doesn’t that make the plane tail heavy?  Maybe they stash the luggage in the front to balance things out?  Our seat-mate noticed an empty row and left, so we had extra room.  

The 6.5 hr flight was very pleasant.  I watched “The Other Bolyn Girl & Joe fell asleep during “Over Her Dead Body.”  The British Airways people were very nice.  We got wine and dinner and a breakfast snack.  We still had 3 little bottles of wine left when we got off the plane.

This was a very ‘short’ day because of the 5 hour time difference and the fact that our plane left Washington at 10 PM.  I must remember to ask GCT travel about that. 

Day 2  Tuesday 7/22/08 (Prague) 

Here we are in Heathrow Airport in London.  When we de-planed there was a long, long walk to the bus to change terminals, a long ride and another long walk.  No wonder Europeans are fit!

Immediately we encountered a security checkpoint where we were to dispose of all liquids – including our unopened wine!  So we sat down and drank it all at 10:30 am (5:30 EST).  This is the 1st time I had wine for breakfast.  With the resulting buzz I had to drink water and write this account. 

Heathrow airport is very spread out and they don’t tell you what gate your flight leaves from until about 1 hour before it leaves.  So you walk in what is really a huge, expensive shopping mall – at least in terminal 5.   I think they figure that if you stay long enough you will finally buy something.

We ate in a ‘natural foods’ take out place – nice sandwiches.  Finally our gate number was posted – guess what – it was far away – a 20 minute walk.  The flight was full with every seat occupied, at least in coach.

At the Prague airport we gathered with 16 of our cruise mates and boarded our bus to our hotel with our tour guide Madalena.  She’s Romanian.  We were the last group of the 164 travelers to arrive in Prague.

By now it was 8 pm and we joined our cruise mates for a buffet dinner – traditional Czech food, turkey, chicken, potatoes, vegetables, bread, fruit and the richest desserts.  I had 3!  I won’t do that again, but I wanted to try the fruit tarts and 2 kinds of chocolate cake.  Our room is very nice – amazing water pressure – like a fire hose. 

Day 3  Wednesday  7/23/08 (Prague) 

We began with our buffet breakfast, again traditional Czech.  I tried some of everything including some strange little berries (currants?) – very sour.

Our 162 cruise mates are almost all retired couples.  We met several of them today.  All are very nice and friendly.  One woman (Irene) has a Slovak heritage like me.  We exchanged memories & Slovak words.  They’re from Youngstown, Ohio.

We left on our Prague City tour at 8:45 beginning at the Prague Castle and St. Vitas Cathedral.  Unfortunately, the line to get inside was 40 min long so we postponed viewing the interior of the church.  Then we had a walking tour of old town (Stare Mesto) and the old Jewish Quarter and Synagogues. Our last stop was a crystal shop.

Here we were met by Joe’s friend Vladimir who has a condo and private museum of porcelain in Prague.  He also teaches at the University of Buffalo.

We went to a restaurant – a Gothic cellar – very traditional.  I had onion soup (cibulka polievka), chicken and even beer (pivo).  Czech beer is unique.  I like it and I never drink beer in the US.

We got a personal tour of the city including the Nelahozeves Castle (zemek) of the Lobkowicz family.  The prince is a friend of Vladimir’s.  The family has 10 castles dating to medieval times.  They were restituted in 93 after being confiscated by the Nazis.  It was like an art museum with incredible furnishings hundreds of years old.  The centerpiece on the 30 person table was all glass and about 10 ft long and 2-3 ft high.

We returned to our hotel – slept for 2 hrs and walked down to the shopping center around 9 pm for some Czech fast food.

Heritage Discovery:  Vladimir said that I have excellent Slovak pronunciation.  He thought that some of my words (from Baba, my grandmother) are correct but he thought were archaic (like pravda).  Also, some of Baba’s pronunciation sounds Czech not Slovak (‘tso’ not cho, and jak not ako)  Irene from Youngstown said her grandma said tso and jak also.  Well there are 31 Slovak dialects so perhaps at least one of them has elements of Czech.

Day 4   Thursday   7/24/08 (Prague)

We ate breakfast with a couple from Connecticut.  Afterwards I made a call to my cousin Maria in Bratislava..  It was a wonderful conversation.  She understood my Slovak.  She said Šambron was a Rusyn village.  She even used words that Baba used – malučke žuke – for little girl.  These words are not in my dictionary.  She, her husband Vasil and a student who speaks English will meet us at our ship after lunch on Wednesday.

Joe & I & a couple from CA, Sally and Sam, took the subway and tram to the town center.  The public transportation system here is inexpensive and efficient and very clean.  However, Sally almost had her wallet stolen.  A Czech woman intervened and stopped the female thief who was reaching for the purse. She scolded her with – “That’s a shame to be doing that right in Prague!”  The potential thief quickly left the tram. 

We saw St. Vitas cathedral.  It was amazing!  The next stop was the Archbishop’s house.  We observed the changing of the guard at a distance after I asked a lady “co robia tam” (what are they doing there?)  I used my Slovak as much as possible.  We ate a lunch of Czech food.  Joe had potato dumplings.  We both had beer & finally strudel.  I had chicken with peaches and cream.

Then we saw another of the Lobkowicz’s palaces – Loreto – with “The Treasure of Loreto” – sacred sculpture, paintings, friezes on ceilings and lots of gold everywhere.  It included a very ornate church and immense organ.  Then we walked past restaurants, stores, and embassies to the church of Our Lady of Victory with the famous shrine to the Infant of Prague.  Then we saw the church of “Our Lady Under the Chains” with its Maltese cross (next to the Maltese Embassy).

Finally we arrived at the Charles Bridge – a historical pedestrian bridge over the Moldau (Ultava) River.  Among the famous statues is one paid for as penance for blasphemy in the late 17th century by a Jewish man named BACKOFEN.  Yes, Joe’s family name!

Then we walked through old town looking at all the shops and other sites.  I asked “kolko stoje” (how much does it cost?) several times.  This phrase is the same in Slovak and Czech.  I’ve been told that 90% of the words in Slovak and Czech are the same.  One shopkeeper said I looked Czech.

We took the subway back to the hotel, visited a mall, & bought snacks in a supermarket.   Joe’s bag broke smashing his beer bottle on the mall floor.  We ate Czech fast food.  We were the oldest people in the place.

Day 5  Friday  7/25/08 (Česky Krumlov & Linz)

After breakfast we checked out of our hotel and boarded buses to go to our ship.  We stopped midway at the town of Česky Krumlov where we ate lunch at local homes.  Our hostess was “Linka” and she served us the local liquor, soup, chicken, potatoes & blueberry cake.  She was very gracious.  Her home was a Soviet era apartment.  She had curtains draping the doorway between 2 rooms just like Baba did.

Afterwards we toured the town and the ‘free’ part of the castle.  There were 3 huge brown bears in the moat just like in olden times – a medieval protection system.  It was a lovely setting in a place where the river twists and lots of people were in rafts and canoes.

Then we all got back on the bus to Linz, Austria where we boarded our ship.  Our cabin is very nice, with a balcony.  After a welcome drink and obligatory safety talk they introduced the crew.  Two sailors and 3 of the wait staff are from Slovakia.  We made sure to sit in their area of the dining room.  I told them my story and they spoke to me in Slovak.  There were 4 really nice people at our table.  One couple from Columbus (part of a family group traveling together) actually knew Mrs. Chu from their neighborhood and a couple from MA.  

Day 6  Saturday   7/26/08 (Linz & Salzburg)

Today is Mom’s 86th birthday.  I know Jeanne is making a nice celebration for her while we’re away.

Early this morning I went to the little fitness center.  I thought I was running really well.  Then I realized it was km/hr not mi/hr.

Breakfast was very nice but we couldn’t linger since our bus to Salzburg left at 8:30.  On the way Madelena, our cruise director, gave us background of the area.  We stopped at a typical Austrian rest stop – an absolutely beautiful view with amazing food selection including pastry – the name of the area translates to “Moon Sea.”

Once in Salzburg a local guide took us on a walking tour of the city starting with the ___________  Gardens (got to look up the name).  This was the location of the Do, Re, Mi song from the “Sound of Music” movie.  Today was the opening of the annual music festival (the festival that was highlighted in the movie).  Musicians were all over the city.

We saw Mozart’s birthplace, several beautiful churches and even a wedding.  The castle on the hill dominates the whole scene.  Mid afternoon – cannons!  For about 15 minutes from 3 locations they continued firing.  This signaled the opening of the festival.

In an obscure area we found our first Greek Catholic Church (Ukraninian).  Joe bought a painting from a local painter.  We also had a terrific lunch at a local restaurant.

After the trip back to the boat, we had our talk about tomorrow’s destination and another lovely dinner.  They really put effort into this.  Nice table companions, including 2 from Texas and 2 from NJ.  More converstation with our Slovak crew members.  In the evening I watched the “Sound of Music” with new eyes.  The actual story of the Von Trapp family is somewhat different than in the movie, particularly the circumstances under which they left Austria.  It was explained that escape over the mountains to Switzerland would have been impossible, but it did make for a dramatic ending to the movie.

Day 7   Sunday  7/27/08 (Melk & Wachau Valley)

We docked in Melk, Austria.  The highlight of this town is the Abbey which dates from the middle ages.  We had a tour and bought a book with all the details.  One memorable room had a ceiling that was an optical illusion.  The columns on the fresco were painted so that the ceiling looked curved while it was really completely flat. 

We came to the church itself just as Mass was ending.  Afterwards we had a wine tasting and entertainment.  We also bought wine, some of which will be gifts (darček) for the relatives I will be meeting in Slovakia.

After lunch we sailed away down the Danube through the beautiful Wachau Valley, passing castles, churches and lovely villages.  There was a commentary from our tour directors so we understood what everything was.  Then we had a required safety drill where we had to return to our cabins, get our life jackets and meet in the lounge.  As we sat in our life jackets, they also introduced the fire safety crew.

As we continued down the river, we passed through locks and under bridges which were so low we had to lower the wheelhouse and the forward mast with the radar.  I sat in the lounge for awhile talking to people and reading the list of songs for Karaoke after dinner.

We ate dinner with a woman and her 85 year old mother.  She was very spry and interested in seeing the world.  She was slowed by an ear infection but was just taking her antibiotics and going on the tours anyway.

I also called Martina (Crazy Mex) from the runners’ forum and we made plans to meet in Vienna tomorrow afternoon.

After dinner there was karaoke in the lounge. Our tour directors got things going with a quartet leading the audience in "YMCA"

A male passenger with a very good voice went next – then me – “Those Were the Days.”  The audience joined in on the La, La choruses.  It was fun.  There was a nice mix of people and songs including one guy who sang “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”  As the crowd thinned toward 11 PM about a dozen of us kept on.  I did a duet to “Sweet Caroline” and then my signature cruise song “The Rose.”  I’m still a Bette Midler wannabe.                                                                                           

Day 8  Monday  7/28/08 (Vienna)

We docked in Vienna along with several other cruise ships – French, German & Ukrainian.  The German ship, Aurelia, is right next to us between us and the shore.  We walk through their lobby to disembark.

After breakfast we took the city tour.  It was very well done with a combination of bus and walking sight seeing – St Stephens’s Cathedral, The Hapsburgs Palace, Churches of St Peter & Paul and St Rupert, monument, Belvedere Palace and a stop for coffee & pastry at a café that had been a palace during the Industrial Revolution – very elegant.  Everywhere you go the buildings are decorated with medieval statues and architectural stuff.  So the streets themselves were an adventure.

After lunch back on the ship we got on the 1st shuttle back to Schwedenplatz where we met Martina.  She’s Austrian and Mexican.  We had ice cream sundaes & went sightseeing in more detail.  At St. Stephan’s Cathedral she pointed out some interesting features including an “05” etched on the wall.  This was a symbol of the resistance during WWII indicating where they were to meet.  She also gave me an email from Jeannie.  All is well at home.

After dinner we went up to the sun deck and watched as the German ship next to us unloaded dozens of empty beer kegs and restocked.  The ships were close enough that we could actually reach over and shake hands.  The passengers told us that on their ship all beer was free.  They ordered some and passed them over to our side. 

The movies in the cabin each day have something to do with the area we’re visiting.  I watched “Amadeus” with new eyes just like I did with the “Sound of Music” in Salzburg.

Day 9  Tuesday 7/29/08 (Vienna)

Today is free time in Vienna.  Since we didn’t have a tour leaving early, I ran about 3.5 miles along the Danube.  There were a lot of walkers, runners & cyclists out at 6:30 AM, even saw some Tai Chi.  Before today my daily ‘run/walk’ has been either on the treadmill in the tiny, stuffy fitness room or in 1/16 th mile circles up on the sun deck.

After breakfast we took the shuttle to Schwedenplatz & walked around seeing in more detail some of the sights that were shown to us on yesterday’s city tour.  We weren’t interested in going into museums on this beautiful day so we spent time outdoors including many beautiful gardens.

After lunch our Slovak waiter Peter was going to help me call my cousin Maria to firm up details of our meeting.  He’s Slovak and has a Romanian girlfriend.  We tried twice to call, but got no answer.

So we walked over to the church on the waterfront.  They were set up for a wedding.  There was also an interesting monument in Mexicoplatz about the Anschluss.  There is a monument here to Mexico since she was one of the countries that protested the German occupation of Austria.  But current thinking has revised the idea of Austria as “1st victim” to the view that the Austrian citizens did not resist because they actually welcomed the Germans.

Before dinner Peter, the Slovak waiter, came to our cabin and we were able to reach the relatives in Bratislava.  He gave them specific details about where the ship would be docked, where parking was available and that we were inviting them to lunch. 

In the cabin that evening we watched the movie “Forever My Love” about the Austrian Empress “Sissi” (Elizabeth) who was married to Franz Josef and much loved by the people.  That part may have been accurate, but according to the locals, it was an arranged marriage and she couldn’t stand him.  That’s why she traveled so much and got close to the people.  In the movie they were deeply in love.

Day 10  Wednesday  7/30/08 (Bratislava and Finding Family)

At about 1 am we docked in Bratislava, Slovakia – the destination of my “roots seeking” journey.  I was so anxious to get ashore, it seemed that breakfast was extra long.  Of course we ate as much as usual.  About mid week I stopped eating the eggs in favor of a made to order ‘white’ omelet.  The cook and his staff are wonderful.  I can’t imagine anything you would want to eat that’s not here.

We packed our bag of family research documents, the CD of Jeanne singing and a bottle of wine from the Abbey at Melk.  As soon as our city tour ended, we were scheduled to meet the family as we arranged by phone.

Bratislava is a much smaller city than the other capitals we’ve visited.  We didn’t even need a bus to see the old town (Stare Mesto).  A bus couldn’t have made it through the streets anyway.  I took lots of photos & Joe bought me a souvenir cap.

After the tour we went outside to wait for my cousins.  I was concerned we might miss each other.  Joe stood under a tree at the entrance to the parking lot and I paced the walkway in front of the ship.  Somehow they got on the ship without our seeing them, but since everyone onboard knew my story and roots quest, Marika, our waitress from Slovakia, pointed us out.  In fact as we met, one of the cruise directors photographed the meeting.  She will email me the pictures.

Five family members came to meet us - Maria (1st cousin) and her husband Vasil, her sister Pelagia, Maria’s son, Sergei, who drove, and Maria’s granddaughter Martina (daughter of Tanya) who spoke excellent English.  She lived in the US for 10 months (Bowling Green, Kentucky) about 8 years ago.  Tanya was currently in Munich on vacation. I understood enough Slovak to hear them say that I looked young.

The first thing we did was visit a bookstore and buy a more comprehensive English/Slovak dictionary.  Then we took them to lunch at a restaurant in old town.  I hardly remember the meal since we were talking so much.  My Slovak improved constantly throughout the conversation.  For more complex stuff we depended heavily on Martina to translate.  Afterwards we went to their house.

I gave them the documents – birth, death, marriage certificates, Ellis Island records, obituaries, photos etc.

They gave us a book of Ruthenian history (The People from Nowhere) and one of literature/poetry written by Vasil.  He is a prolific author and professor of History and Literature.  He had also been a diplomat to countries in Africa and their home had many objects of African art.   They also gave us an etched cup of Slovakia which is what family members would be given when they left for America.

They did ask why no one had contacted them before and I explained that we didn’t know where they were and included details of my research.

I learned that Gregory (our grandfather) had 2 sons (Stephan and Michael).  His wife died while he was living & working in the US when Michael, their father, was 6 years old.  Michael stayed in Habura living with his grandparents.  Stephen, who was 7 years older joined Gregory, his father, in the US when he was 17 years old.  Michael didn’t come because someone was to stay and live in the family home.

Julia still lives in the family home in Habura.  The original house burned to the ground.  Michael saved the only photo of his father when he ran from the house.  I took a picture of the photo.  So now I know what my grandfather looked like.  It was taken in the US and he looks to be about 30.

They had already researched Šambron, my grandmother’s village, for us.  Maria had a friend from there.  She said that there were several families of Koršňaks.  One went to America.  She was interested in learning about my grandmother and my mother.

We drank 4 different kinds of alcohol – toasts all around.  We played Jeannie’s CD.  They were very impressed and pleased to hear that Gregory’s music gene continued through our branch of the family also.  They are all wonderful singers.

We also spoke to Pavel, the cousin in Medzilaborce, by phone and arranged to call him when we arrived in the town.

They drove us back to the boat in time for our 5:30 departure.  Once back at the ship, I was able to report a very successful, wonderful day to everyone who was aware of my story.

After dinner the crew put on their traditional performance of sketches.  It was a lot of fun all around.

Day 11   Thursday  7/31/08 (Budapest)

I went up to the sun deck to run, only to discover that we were approaching Budapest.  The scenery was spectacular, so I decided to spend the time taking pictures.  What’s a few miles less anyway?

After breakfast we had our city tour – a combination of bus and walking.  Our guide was very knowledgeable and entertaining.  However, her historical perspective was unique and reflected her own nationalism.  She described Hungary’s occupation by Turks, Austrians, Nazis and Soviets as unfortunate and difficult for the people, but then she described the post World War I era as a time when Hungary lost ˝ of THEIR territory.  That meant Slovakia!  Things sure look different from the other side.

This is a very beautiful city with a remarkable history and architecture.  We took lots of pictures.

After lunch we went off walking on our own across the “Green Bridge.”  There on the ‘Buda’ side of the river (the hilly side) we explored the ‘Cave Church’ which was originally a monastery hewn out of the rocky cliffside.  Thirty monks still live there.

We walked past the Turkish Baths and returned to the “Pest” (flat) side of the city on the “White Bridge.”  We walked through the shops district and had a coke in McDonald’s!  All the way to Hungary to eat in McD’s, but it was different with a typical eastern menu of rich desserts along with the familiar Big Macs.

We shopped a bit and bought a little drawing at an underground shopping area.  It was a lot cooler there – a good idea.  This was our hottest day so far – 36 degrees Centigrade which is high 90s F.  We saw the historical synagogue a short distance away and a Greek Catholic church right among the stores.  In the middle of a weekday they were having Mass and the church was about ˝ full.

Then back to the ship.  I spent time in the lounge talking to people.  We had the Captain’s “farewell drink” followed by a dinner with what seemed like an endless number of courses.

Then it was time to pack for tomorrow’s disembarkation.

Day 12  Friday   8/1/08 (Budapest to Prešov)

Departures began at 3 am.  We were the last to leave the ship since we were going off on our own.

We went to the car rental office by taxi, filled out the paperwork, and went over the car with the guy noting every ding, dent & scratch.  They were all tiny, but that’s the procedure here.  We even took pictures to confirm the condition of the car when we took possession.

Finally at 11:20 we set off in Hungarian traffic in our Ford Focus looking for road M3 to Slovakia.  There are separate speed limits in each lane of the highways (in kilometers) and these are much higher than in the US.  There were lots of gas stations with “Minute Mart like” resources.  We stopped in a larger city Mikolc for lunch.  We wanted to spend our last Hungarian money (Forinths) & did that at McDonalds on the equivalent of the dollar menu.  Parking is difficult in these towns.  You pay a guy 100 Forinths when you park and he gives you a receipt for the McD’s clerk.  Then that amount is deducted from your bill.  I never expected to find validated parking at a McDonald’s.

We could see the mountains of Slovakia in the distance.  Hungary is flat, at least this part of Hungary.. 

There was no one at the border crossing so we drove on through.  There were nice little towns every few miles with little churches.  As my book said, each town had a cross or sometimes a shrine at the entrance.

We drove right through Košice, the 2nd largest city in the country and reached Prešov at 3:15.  Our hotel, the Hotel Senator, was supposed to be in the center of town near the Cathedral.  Since I didn’t have the exact address, I got out of the car and started asking people where it was.  I had to depend on my Slovak since no one I met spoke much English.

It was a lovely local hotel.  The only drawback was climbing 47 steps with our luggage. There was no elevator.  We had a whole little apartment with a big bedroom, bath, kitchen and a small bedroom.  The café and restaurant were downstairs.  We had pirohy and halusky and beer for dinner – all for $10.  No wonder some Americans of Slovak descent are retiring here

One huge coincidence!  As we approached the Cathedral, we heard Mass (Divine Liturgy) in progress, so we just peeked inside so as not to disturb the service.  Outside we saw a nun leaving a building.  I took a chance and called out “Sister Stefania?’  She turned around.  She was the nun that I had been corresponding with by email.  She gave us a tour of their liturgical treasures, the chair Pope John Paul II sat in, their private chapel with a secret window to the altar of the Cathedral below, photos of the wooden churches in the countryside and brochures describing it all. 

Then we sat in the square and watched a performance of folk musicians and dancers, a wonderful group of young people in local folk dress.

Day 13  Saturday  8/2/08 (Prešov to Medzilaborce and Meeting Family)

Bells, bells, bells!!  At 5 AM from the Cathedral they rang and rang.  We had no choice but to get up.  We watched some Slovak TV and wandered around the town for 2 hours.  The 2 churches were full, but the restaurants and stores didn’t open til 8.  At 8:00 sharp we had breakfast in our hotel café – their “English Breakfast” of bacon, eggs and toast.  I also got to use the Internet for free, posted on the running and Slovensko forums and PM’d Jeanne.  I couldn’t get into hotmail since the keyboard was strange to me.  Several keys had 4 characters assigned to them.

Then we went shopping and bought 3 crosses in a jewelry store and a portable hair dryer in TESCO (like a European WalMart).  Local hotels don’t provide hair dryers as a rule.

We checked out of our hotel and drove off toward Medzilaborce.  We kept stopping to photograph churches and scenery.  We found the Hotel Laborec easily.  The desk clerk said that my cousin Pavel had already called to see if we had arrived.  I called him and he said he would be right over.

He arrived with his 2 grandsons who spoke English (Tomaš and Pavel).  We followed them to his house which only took a few minutes.  We met his wife Stefania, his daughter Jana and granddaughter Janka (age 15).  Pavel and Janka are in Gymnasium (High School) and Tomaš is a university student studying Computer Science.

We talked all day and evening both inside and outside the house in the garden.  We exchanged family history, photos and documents.  I now have a copy of our grandfather Gregory’s passport.  We also ate lots of food and drank assorted alcohol.  I did very well with Slovak, but as in Bratislava I was very grateful for the bilingual grandchildren.  Jana, their mother, had excellent English skills as well.

My grandmother was indeed Rusyn.  Pavel checked that her 1st husband Michael Mechock (Mečok) was also from Šambron.  We discussed the possible family relationship of Julia Suchy and Gregory.  They definitely were not siblings.  Gregory was an only child.

Pavel’s sisters Helena and Irena and Irena’s husband also came over to visit.  Joe thinks Irena and I share a family resemblance.  I noticed that granddaughter Janka and I both have a dimple.  Jana (Janka) is Jeanne in Rusyn - quite a coincidence there too.  Finally, we it was time to leave and return to our hotel.  The vodka bottle was empty.  We decided that I not Joe would be the one to drive.

At the hotel I needed help explaining 6 am wake up call to the desk clerk.   Fortunately one of the other visitors spoke English and Slovak and took care of it.  There was a large group of Jewish visitors at the hotel having some kind of reunion.  I learned that Medzilaborce was once 30% Jewish, but after the war there were just about none left.  Now the town is only the site of pilgrimages.

Day 14   Sunday  8/3/08 (Medzilaborce & Habura to Svidnik to Bardejov Kupele)

Waking up at 6 am we were once again 1st to the restaurant when it opened at 7:00.  I had an interesting omelet with mushrooms and peas.  Pavel and family met us at 8:15 and we went to Habura where we picked up his sister Julia who lives in the family home in Habura.

First we visited the church cemetery and I finally saw the grave of my grandfather.  It was right up front next to that of a priest and his wife.  Priests in the Greek Catholic church in Europe are still allowed to marry.  We also saw other family graves including the Suchy family.  Julia remembered when the 2 Suchy daughters (Helen and ?) came to visit Habura.  I remember it also.  I was a teenager in Forest City at the time and I remember asking Helen Suchy Yeskatales about the trip.  She told me that when I was older I could make the trip myself, but didn’t give me any details.  It took nearly 50 years and a lot of research on my part, but it finally happened.

The priest came to talk to us before Mass. Pavel explained who we were.  We also met a Mrs. Sheptak.  I told her that I used to play penny bingo with Baba, “StranaSuchy, Mrs Sheptak and Mrs Onufrak.  They recognized these names from Habura.

Gregory’s inscription was in Cyrillic lettering.  This is because he was a “Rusyn Patriot” who was involved in a demonstration in March 1935 when 100 people were arrested by the Czech authorities.  There’s a painting of it in Julia’s house.

We sat in the first pew for Mass right behind the priest’s wife and 2 year old son.  At communion the little boy ran up to be 1st in line for his father’s blessing.  There seem to be many young priests and nuns in Slovakia.

Joe got to be one of 6 men to hold a candle before the altar.  He followed the lead of the others.  I recognized almost the entire Mass.  The chant was so familiar although the melody of Oče Naš was different.

After Mass we went to the priest’s house where he showed us old Liturgical books and records.  We had coffee & cookies and left a bottle of the Melk Abbey wine that we’ve been giving to everyone.  I sure hope it’s as good as the Abbey folks said it would be.

During WWII Habura was destroyed except for the church which only suffered damage to the tower.  Pavel described how they lived in a bunker for a week and in the forest for over a month while the Germans and Russians fought for control of the area.

Afterwards we went to the Greek Orthodox Church.  Pavel knows everyone and a curator took us inside and explained all the paintings which covered the walls and domed ceiling.  We have 2 booklets of this.

We stopped at a “Skanzen” a replica of a Rusyn village and also photographed the Andy Warhol Museum.

Back home at Pavel’s house it was time to eat and drink again and of course talk.  The women are excellent cooks.  They gave us a memorial cup and plate from Medzilaborce and a book about the Prešov area. As we discussed the morning’s Mass, I explained that I remembered most of it, but the melody of  Oče Naš  was different from the one I learned as a child.  I started to sing the version I knew and the women joined in with me.  That’s the melody that is used in the church in Medzilaborce.  Afterwards we went to Irena’s house and received even more gifts. 

Finally it was time for good byes.  It was an absolutely wonderful reunion – really a 1st meeting.  They are kind, gracious, friendly people and I wish it hadn’t taken so long for me to find them.

The Greek Catholic service brought back many memories.  On the lighter side, I got to hear the words ‘bortok,’ ‘jeden hunsut,’ and ‘bodajte’ again after 50 years (at home, not in church!).

When we got on the road again, we drove toward Svidnik.  Here was the Dukla Pass – the site of a bloody WWII battle.  We toured the “Udolie Smrti  (Valley of Death) where nearly 100,000 Russians and an unknown number of Germans died.  There are German and Russian tanks and guns throughout the hillside.  We turned around at the Polish border, the site of the memorial.

We also saw some of the famous historical wooden churches, built entirely without nails.

Our stop for the night was Bardejov Kupele, a popular health spa and spring.  We had a nice dinner in an outdoor café and watched people.

Another coincidence:  The desk clerk asked about our plans and told me that she has a ‘kamaratka’ (girl friend) in Šambron.  Her family name is Koršňakova!!

This is a true Soviet era hotel.  I’m glad to have the experience but only for 1 night.  The sink is located IN the shower, something new for westerners.  It only cost 30 Euros (about $45) and I specifically wanted to stay in local hotels.  There are lots of families here and couples of all ages.  The walls are very thin.  I bet Joe’s snoring is disturbing people several rooms away.

Other thoughts: 

  • Pavel and his sisters are remarkably sturdy and energetic.  They were born 1926 – 1945.  None have trouble walking. 
  • I asked the priest if he was part of the Habura website which was online for awhile and then disappeared.  I thought I saw his picture online blessing a site near Habura.   Yes, it was he!
  • Pavel never received the introductory letter I sent him.  He figured that since I addressed it as Slovakia (as Msgr Russell told me) and not Slovak Republic, the post office person most likely used the code for Slovenia by mistake.  When I wrote to Maria in Bratislava, I used Slovak Republic in the address and that letter arrived promptly.

Day 15  Monday  8/4/08 (Bardejov to Stara Lubovna)

Buffet breakfast Slovak style – lots of meat, cheese and bread - vegetables too, but I can’t get used to that.  Then we walked around the kupele area some more taking photos.  The main spigots of the mineral spring didn’t look inviting to me, but everyone else kept filling their water bottles.  Judging from the general fitness of the people, they must be doing something right.

The weather was lovely again.  We checked out and drove toward Stara Lubovna.  In the distance we could see the High Tatras – VERY high mountains.  We stopped briefly at castle ruins.  These are all over the country.  Our road was following the Lubotin River which was quite high after recent rain.

We detoured into the village of Hromos which has a back road into Šambron, but reconsidered and went on to Plavniča with a larger road to Šambron.  It was early afternoon and we just drove through to get a feel for the place with the intention of returning later.

We found our hotel located in the factory/warehouse district near the bus station.  I wondered why they put it there.  Well, the hotel owner also owned the factory that made stainless steel chimneys and next door was the logical place for him to put his hotel.  He has traveled all over the world doing his work – China, Arabia, Russia, Romania, Serbia and the USA.  Everything in the hotel was made of stainless steel – the kitchen, stairs, pool, sauna, the desk – just all of it.  The rooms were all done in decorative pine wood – walls, doors, floor and furniture.  From our window we could see the Stara Lubovna castle.

When we arrived, our room wasn’t ready yet and the lady suggested we visit the castle restaurant.  She, like most people we’ve met, spoke no (or very little) English.  My Slovak got a workout again.  The food at the castle was quite good and we gathered background information.  An early occupant was a Bourbon noble.  It then fell into disrepair and was partially renovated in 1883 by the Zabowsky family.  My grandmother would have been 1 year old at that time. 

We began the trek up to and around the castle.  On the plain below there was another of the national expositions – a Skanzen.  These exist throughout the country.  This one was a Ruthenian village.  We decided to see the village and skip the castle.  After all, I’m descended from villagers not nobility.

These buildings are not recreations but actual houses, workshops, out buildings and a church moved from real villages.  Each had a complete historic description of the building and authentic furnishings and tools.  Joe took my picture in front of one house that had been owned by the Sheptak family, a name familiar to me from Habura as well as Forest City, PA.

We returned to the hotel, checked in and drove off to Šambron.  I took some pictures, but couldn’t enter the church.  It was being repaired as I was advised by Father Krajnak in an email.  A nice lady stopped to talk to us.  I explained our presence (in Rusyn) and she told us to Mass which was going to be held in a private house at 6:00.  My language skills weren't good enough to determine exactly where that was. We drove up the hill to visit the cemetery.  Suddenly a thunderstorm (burka) appeared on the horizon.  We waited out the heaviest rain and wind in the car and finally returned to our hotel.  We had a nice dinner there prepared especially for us – the first stuffed cabbage I’ve had in 50 years.  At this point we were the only guests.

Then the owner Miki arrived and proudly showed us his entire complex devoted to his Ruthenian heritage & his world travels.  I told him that my cousin Pavel stayed there once and he remembered that he attended a festival.    There’s a folk festival this Saturday, but we’ll be back in the USA by then.

Day 16  Tuesday   8/5/08 (Stara Lubovna, Šambron, Proprad, High Tatras)

We were up early for 7 am breakfast – traditional meat, cheese, bread & soft butter with cheese.  Workers from the stainless steel plant were eating in the restaurant too. 

Afterwards we returned to Šambron.  As I took photos throughout the town, we attracted several ladies of varying ages.  One of the oldest women was most interested.  We all talked and talked in Slovak (Rusyn)  It was like I was “channeling” Baba.  The words were just tumbling out of my mouth.  They confirmed that the Mechock’s lived in Šambron.  In fact, their house was one of the few to survive Red Army bombardment.  I showed them Baba’s Baptismal certificate and they discussed the Koršňak and Duľa (Dulya) families.  I also took a picture of house #108 (Baba’s address).  It was the same location, but a new post war building.

As we were leaving, the nice old Baba went to her house and returned with 2 crocheted chickens that she had made herself.  These were a present for us.  They’re used on top of the decorative colored eggs that are placed in the food basket at Easter and taken to the church to be blessed.  I was so touched by that lovely gesture.  Joe gave her a package of “Mozart” chocolate candy from Salzburg.  Now we can remember each other.

We then drove the short distance to the cemetery and I took pictures of gravestones of names that I recognized – Mečok (Mechock), Koršňak (Korshnak), Duľa, (Dulya), Bialko (Bilko), and Petrus. The women’s names all have “ova” added on.  Then a lady that we had been talking with came walking up the hill. She had gone to the town office (police official), and found the record of Katerina Duľa Koršňakova and her brother Stephan.  This was the record of their leaving the town for America.  She then guided us through the oldest part of the cemetery.

Unfortunately, I was unable to meet with Father Krajnak who had been so helpful to me in our email exchanges. I couldn't understand everything that was being said and I know my Slovak skills need improvement, but I didn't know where to find him. I understood (incorrectly) that he was not at home.

Finally we said goodbye and drove to the nearby village of Bajerovce which was the 1st I ever found on the web mentioning Šambron.  The next village on the road was Krasna Luka (beautiful meadow), the ancestral village of the priest from the Ohio Shrine of Our Lady of Levoča.  He and I had talked by phone when I was planning our trip.

After changing clothes back at the hotel, we set off for Proprad – the gateway to the High Tatras.  Proprad had a very nice Centrum – pedestrians only with shops and kiosks.  We bought some presents for family and set off for the mountains.

The Tatras are a popular tourist destination and here we encountered the most traffic.  Since we weren’t hiking, biking or mountain climbing, we just drove around and admired the rugged peaks. 

On our way back to Stara Lubovna we stopped to see a 15th-16th century castle – a small one – Kastiel Stašky – next to a church of the same era.  Our final stop was the city of Kezmarok.  In the center of town we followed the historical path of churches and other buildings.  This was our first Protestant (Lutheran) church – cathedral next to a Protestant wooden church and a very modern Greek Catholic church.  This was a very unusual trio compared to what we’ve seen so far.

Lunch and dinner were in the Gorel Motorest – a chain of roadside traveler places adapted to each region. The Gorel region has an identifiable folk dress and dialect. Imagine a U.S. Interstate rest stop chain, but with GOOD local food and waitresses in folk costumes – also lots of alcohol available.  This is very interesting since the country has zero tolerance for DUI.  I ordered pirohy with each meal even though the waitress advised me to get the Americky Zemiaky as a side dish.  American potatoes look like French fries.  I assured her I really WANTED priohy.

We fell asleep watching an American movie dubbed in Slovak. I actually understood a lot of it.

Day 17  Wednesday  8/6/08 (Levoča)

Breakfast was kolach, bread, butter, jam and salami & ham.  They had lots of coffee available since yesterday they realized how many cups we drank.  Today they were ready for us.

When paying our bill we found out that they didn’t accept credit cards – oops.  This was the 1st hotel with this policy.  We managed to count out enough crowns and euros so Joe & I didn’t have to work off our debt in the chimney factory.  Slovakia’s currency is the crown, but they adopt the euro beginning in January.

We set off driving toward Levoča by a different route than we traveled yesterday.  This took us through different towns, none of which were likely to attract tourists, but each with its own church and individuality.

Our main destination was the Špis Castle, a UN heritage site, located just east of Levoča.  This is a big tourist attraction even a few English speaking tourists. Before this there was only an Irish tour group at the Skanzen at Stara Lubovna, a Polish guy who invited us to explore Poland and the Jewish guy in Medzilaborce.  Here we met a family from Australia seeing the sites as they escorted their daughter to college in Germany and some guys from Pittsburg and Ohio here to set up a steel plant.  They were visiting the sites with a local company employee who understood my Slovak just fine.

The castle complex is HUGE!  Lots of walking…up…up…up over bumpy stone walkways.  I must have taken 100 pictures.  There was a tour group there with their teachers – Franciscan nuns.  The students were dressed in period (medieval) costumes carrying a banner of St. Francis of Assisi.

We ate lunch at the castle snack bar – the world’s largest hamburgers width wise.  They covered the entire Kaiser roll.  We spent 3 hours exploring the castle.

Finally we drove toward our day’s destination – the medieval city of Levoča and the Hotel U Leva (House of the Lion).  It was right on the town square so we walked around before dinner.  The town square is named after Master Pavol.  While sitting in an outside café having ice cream, I heard a couple speaking English.  He’s from California.  She’s Slovak.  They met and married in Madrid and live there now.  He’s a travel agent.  She told her husband that I spoke better Slovak than he did.

This was the 1st hotel where the staff spoke excellent English.  Still I used my Slovak even though I didn’t have to.  After dinner we sat in the square for awhile and tried to use an ATM.  Joe couldn’t remember his pin number.

It had been a busy day so we just went back to our toom and watched Slovak TV.  It was their version of “Deal or No Deal” with a few adaptations.  There were only 2 girls not 26.  It was called “Čierny alebo Biely” (Black or White).  A Jeopardy-like board was displayed with various amounts of money from small to large.  Four people chosen from the audience are given folded signs.  When revealed, 3 say 5000 (crowns) and 1 says “HRA” which means he (or she) plays.  Then this lucky person chooses 1 of 2 choices and half of the amounts randomly disappear.  This goes on for 6 rounds until only 2 squares are left.  At each juncture the contestant is given an offer of cash to quit.  A 2nd MC talks to a relative who offers advice as to what to do.  On tonight’s show the lady ended up with only 200 sk - $10.

Day 18   Thursday   8/7/08 (Levoča to Budapest)

As usual we were 1st to the restaurant for breakfast.  Then we went shopping on the square and found some nice gifts.

We exchanged some money at the bank and I conversed in Slovak with the tellers.  I’m getting quite good at this.  I remembered Joe’s pin number and we got more crowns from the ATM.  I had more Slovak conversation in the stores.  I got directions to the Shrine of our Lady of Levoča (Mary on the Mountain to the locals).  Joe wanted to be sure so we got them in English at the hotel.  I was correct interpreting the Slovak version.

After checking out we drove up, up, up the mountain to the church at the top.  This is where Pope John Paul prayed for the fall of communism.  Many people come here asking (praying) for special requests.

A group of school children were visiting and Joe took a group picture for them.  They tried out their English on us and I surprised them with my Slovak.  They were from Prešov.

Then we met 2 men speaking English.  One was from Cleveland who was here with his family seeking ancestral roots.  Although Slovak was his 1st language, he remembers nothing and had a Slovak guide.  They both work for Dupont.  They were impressed with all we were able to do without a guide.  The Slovak guy said that my pronunciation was “Eastern Slovakian” but that was just fine.  They gave me their business cards and we gave them our email addresses.

Now we were off to Hungary.  We drove toward Budapest stopping at TESCO to buy snacks and ate at a rest stop for lunch.  It took us awhile to find our hotel even with a map since the streets in Budapest aren’t well marked.  Fortunately, we’re near the airport and won’t be going out anywhere.  We ate goulaš in the hotel and relaxed in the room watching BBC.  Also, we have to pack really well for tomorrow’s flight.

Day 19  Friday  8/8/08 (Budapest and travel home)

Today the Olympics began in Beijing and we began our marathon flight home.  No church bells woke us up this morning.  The railroad train that ran by our hotel served that purpose.  There were 4 bus load groups of European tourists at our hotel.  At least 1 group was Russian.  We met at breakfast and one family stuffed 5 big rolls in their bag – “for later” I suppose.

We packed up and walked through the neighborhood.  Since we wanted a hotel near the airport and the train goes to the airport frequently, it’s not surprising that we had train noise.  Fortunately we once lived by the “EL” in Queens, NY so we quickly adapted.

A few blocks away we came upon a street which answered another of my ancestry questions.  We found Gergely Utca (Street).  Gergely was the 1st name on my grandfather Gregory’s Ellis Island record.  Since he traveled with Hungarian documents, he must have said Gregory; they wrote Gergely which is actually Hungarian for George & that explains how Gregory Dupkanič became George Dupkanich in the USA.  We know that there was also a 5 yr error in his date of birth.  Ellis Island and subsequent documents list 1873 when it was actually 1878.

Finally we checked out, drove to Gergely St to take a picture of the sign and church on the corner (which had its bells ringing) and drove to the airport.

We returned the car without problem as far as we know, went through security and waited for our flight.  We had only 410 forinths left which isn’t even enough to buy a tiny bottle of water.  Fortunately, we had 1 bottle left and drank this along with eating our TESCO cookie stash before going through security.

The flight to London was uneventful.  We repeated the terminal marathon in the opposite direction, navigated security, and after a 2 hour wait, boarded the flight home to the USA.  Again British Airways provided excellent service with lots of wine.  This was the 1st time I remember having a female pilot.  We watched movies, fell asleep for a few hours and landed at 8:30.  After customs and baggage claim we got a taxi and reached our house about 9:30 pm.  Of course, it felt like 3:30 am to us.

We’ve had quite an adventure and we were fortunate that everything turned out so well.