Finding Grandpa in Slovakia!

July 2015


I had always wanted to know more about where my family came from. Traveling with a church group this summer, I visited Slovakia, a beautiful country with acres of farmland, fields of sunflowers and rows of wheat. With the help of the generous people I met along the way, I was able to walk in my grandfather’s footsteps and meet a family member I didn’t know I had. For the rest of my story, please keep reading!

Traveling with a group from Vancouver, Washington, I spent two weeks, July 4-18, 2015, helping teach English at the Center for Christian Education, a Lutheran school in Martin, Slovakia. The school is in the heart of the city, next to a church hundreds of years old. I fell in love with Slovakia, a beautiful country with acres of farm land, fields of sunflowers and wheat. The houses are predominantly painted yellow, green or orange, all with red roofs. And in front of almost all the windows sat a flowerbox filled with red – not white, not pink – geraniums. In stark contrast were gray, sterile, institutional-looking apartments, remnants of the days of communist domination.

The people are humble, hardworking and big-hearted. By God’s grace and with the help of native Slovaks that I met at the school, I was able to not only visit my grandfather’s hometown, but also connect with a second cousin I had never met. Imagine doing all of that without being able to speak the language! This was the frosting on the cake – or as I explained to my students, the “bacon on the halusky,” a traditional Slovak dish, which was a word picture much more helpful to them!

Growing up in Southern California, where my parents moved in the mid-1950s, I had few memories of visits with extended family, mostly back in Michigan where I was born. I heard stories about immigrant grandparents who came through Ellis Island from “the old country.” With many miles and states separating us, our times together were few. I knew little of my ancestors’ journey to America. As time went by, and my own parents passed away, it became more important to me, an only child, to connect the dots and piece together my family history. But time and distance made this project a difficult one. My father, George Stephen Divish (1917-1980) was the oldest of 12 siblings, so I have many cousins in Michigan and beyond. Even pooling our facts didn’t give me much to go on about Grandpa Divish (Stefan J. Diviš, 1886-1975). In preparing for this trip, I reconnected with those cousins, aunts and uncles across the country and did my best to collect family lore and facts, though there were few to be had. Was it Divish or Diviš? Aunt Josie, my father’s closest sister in age, now in her 90s, didn’t remember a lot – she did say her father occasionally heard from his siblings as she grew up. No one had a record or address of those relatives. Reading the history of the Slovaks revealed that there were many who left their country in the early 1900s due to the hard economic conditions. However Grandpa managed it, he was a part of that wave of exiles to the United States.

What I did have were copies of documents of the milestones in Grandpa’s life, the ship manifest at Ellis Island, his citizenship papers, and a birth certificate in Slovak. These did not agree about the country of his origin; one recorded Austria, another Czech republic, another Slovakia, a reflection of the shifting borders of this country during the past 100 years. But they did agree on his birth town, Nedašovce. Might as well have been on the moon, I thought! I had about as much chance to go there as I did some remote little village on the other side of the world. But all of that changed when I learned of a church in my area that sends a team to Martin, Slovakia each year. It was time to find out if a trip to the moon, or more specifically, Slovakia, was doable. OK, so where was it? It lies is in the heart of Europe, surrounded by Germany, Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Ukraine. It was Czechoslovakia up until 1993, when the two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, separated. Dad always said we were “Slovak NOT Czech!” This trip could be an opportunity of a lifetime! It was no small feat to track down the team leader and apply to go, but two years later, through persistence and patience waiting for the right timing, I was on the team. Nedašovce, it just so happened, was in the middle of this small country, a little less than two hours west of Martin, Slovakia.

Armed with a list of my grandfather’s parents, his siblings, pictures, and his birth certificate, printed in Slovak, I was eager to embark on my journey. Nedašovce or not, at least I would get to Slovakia, land of my grandfather. That alone was miracle enough. Opening the door to Nedašovce would be a bonus that only God could provide. It is a 10-hour flight from Portland, Oregon to Amsterdam, and we then flew to Budapest. Ah, Hungary, I thought, possible homeland of Grandma Divish. Alas – that must wait for another time! On to Martin, via a four-hour bus ride. Can we say “jetlag?” The journey was long and tiring. The town and school staff was so happy to see us they threw a welcome party – quite literally, complete with fireworks – it was, after all, the Fourth of July. It was my first glimpse of a people who welcomed us with hearts and arms wide open.

Once in Martin, there was much to do to prepare for opening day at the school, and then classes five hours each day. One of the school staff, Hedwi (pronounced “Hed-v”) heard of my ambitious hunt, and picked up my plight with a passion. Hedwiga Tkáčová is a petite redhead with a bright smile and heavy accent when speaking English. She did some research on Slovak surnames and concluded my family’s name was most likely “Diviš” minus the “H,” a name not uncommon in Slovakia. Nedašovce, Hedwi discovered, is part of the online community with its own website, all in the Slovak language, mind you, with contact info for the village mayor. Don’t think “mayor” as in mayor of Chicago. Even the small villages in Slovakia have a paid position of mayor.

Hedwi emailed and called Mayor Elena, and explained my desire to visit and possibly discover traces of the Diviš family. Together Hedwi and I searched train and bus schedules to the little village. Though a reasonable drive in a car from Martin, nothing worked to travel there and back with public transportation in the short amount of time I had available after teaching. The first week of school over, the days were passing quickly, and with them, my hope of making this dream happen. I shared my story with the students in my class, a mix of youths and adults. I was amazed and overwhelmed when Miloš Krpelanov, one of my adult students, offered to drive me to Nedašovce. He lives west of Martin, and Nedašovce is an hour west of his village. Hedwi again called Mayor Elena to confirm a visit. And so we planned the adventure on the only afternoon I was free to wander, which, providentially, was the only day of the week the mayor’s office was open late enough for us to arrive before she closed the doors.

Clutching my cache of pictures and documents, Miloš, his daughter Lydia and I piled into their car shortly after our class finished, at about 2:45 p.m., on Wednesday, July 15. We made a quick stop at his village, where we met his wife and daughter, Ivana, who joined our search team, and followed his wife as she biked to their home. Waving goodbye to her, we continued on the back country roads, in search of Nedašovce. The roads were narrow and winding, and we drove through the beautiful rural countryside.

It wasn’t long before we turned down a dirt road and came upon a sign which read: “Nedašovce.” I had, indeed, arrived on the moon, or so I felt! Driving down the main street, City Hall wasn’t hard to find. We parked and entered the building; a clerk detained us while he informed the mayor we had arrived. Mayor Elena greeted us and welcomed us into her office. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but Miloš and his daughters translated for me. Elena called a longtime local resident, who quickly joined us. The elderly man, dressed in camouflage pants, talked and talked, and the girls translated. How could there be so many Slovak words and so few English ones in the translation?! I sat silently, watching and listening, understanding nothing! As I watched, Lydia’s face lit up. I hoped for good news. The Diviš family, our new friend remembered, had lived nearby, Lydia translated. Their house was empty now, but during their time, it was well kept and they were good people. Our historian shared that Jozef, (1892-1960) a younger brother of my Grandfather, made shoes for a living. Jozef’s marker was in the local cemetery. Lydia reached for my hand in excitement. While he talked on, the mayor left our group and began making more phone calls. By now it was well past 5 p.m., and our historian finished sharing his memories. We prepared to leave, eager to find this house. The mayor locked the door and joined us for the short expedition.

After pausing for a few photos with the mayor in front of her office, we walked down the main road, turned a corner and soon found the house. The postal clerk in me looked for an address, but saw none. The house looked like a small duplex. It indeed had seen better days, but considering the home’s age of more than 100 years, it was in reasonable condition. The local historian, who did not join us, had mentioned that there had been two families living in this house at the same time. After taking pictures, we walked a few more blocks, past the local school to the village cemetery. One of Elena’s phone calls had been to an acquaintance for help locating Jozef’s headstone, which we quickly discovered. Although we searched for more Diviš markers, Jozef’s was the only one we found.

Before our historian had ended his visit and before I repeatedly spoke the only word I knew to say to him (“Ďakujem, Ďakujem, ĎAKUJEM!” – Thank you, Thank you, THANK YOU!), he had given us the name and address of Anna, Jozef’s daughter. Anna would be my father’s first cousin, hence, my second cousin; as Jozef, brother of my grandfather, was my great-uncle. By that time, it was nearly 6 p.m., and the mayor needed to head home. Before we said goodbye (dovidenia zbohom) the time had come for me to share the Slovak words I had been practicing with Hedwi, with my students in class AND in the car driving to Nedašovce: “Dakujem za váš čas” (Thank you for your time), I said to the mayor slowly, with great care. She smiled and nodded acknowledgement of my efforts to thank her in her own tongue. Having invested so much into this treasure hunt, my team and I could not give up now, so we left in search of a nearby town called Partizánske, to find Anna. In no time, we were there; however, she was not. My second cousin was not living at the facility that our historian mentioned, but another one close by, so we drove to the second location and convinced the nurses to take us to her room. Anna, spry and alert, in her 80s, was surprised to see us. Talkative (all in Slovak, remember!) and eager to show us family pictures, she said she didn’t remember much of her father’s history except that an uncle had moved to the U.S. I saw a lot of family resemblance, especially in the picture of her daughter Zuzanna, who lives in Bratislava. Though I would have liked to visit more with her, our adventure was now in its fourth hour. We needed to catch up with my American team, who were visiting the Bojnice Castle so that I could return to Martin on the bus with them, and Miloš and his daughters could finally get to their own home. I left my name and information with Anna in hopes that her daughter would use it to contact me. Anna told us she was one of five sisters and gave Miloš the phone number of Margita, who lives in Nováky.

Returning to Miloš’ car, his daughters and I waited while he called Margita. A very long conversation, all those Slovak words again, and I was beginning to get discouraged when Miloš paused to ask me where Jozef’s brother had lived in the U.S., Michigan? YES! He finished the conversation with Margita getting her address. It sounded like a match to me! By now we were running out of time to catch my group in Bojnice, so we retraced our steps driving east toward Martin, all the while congratulating each other on what a great job of sleuthing we had done. What an amazing afternoon, beyond my wildest expectations. And we arrived at the castle in Bojnice just as my group was finishing its tour, so I bid my team “Dovidenia” and boarded the bus to return to Martin, anxious to share my discoveries. Wait until Hedwi heard about this! I could not have found any of my family history on my own, and I thanked Miloš, Lydia and Ivana repeatedly. Without Hedwi, Miloš and his family, none of this would have been possible.

End of story? I hope not. There were a couple of loose ends that Mayor Elena had offered. She knew, she told my translators, of another village member who might have more history, but who was out of town during my visit. She also spoke of a senior member of their village who was ill and had been hospitalized. Perhaps these people might be able to contribute more information about the Diviš family. Like all that had happened, this too was in God’s hands, and I will leave it there. I left the mayor with all of my contact information. Will I again travel to Slovakia? I hope so! But for now – I am enjoying the bacon on my halusky!

Marie Diviš Coffey

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