Slovakia, or, as the Slovaks say: “Slovensko,” is a small country in the heart of Europe, about the size of Mississippi in the United States. It is often confused with “Slovenia,” its neighbor to the southwest, or “Czechoslovakia,” a union of Slovakia and the Czech Republic that was dissolved almost 30 years ago. Slovakia has a lengthy history of foreign occupation and dominance, but enjoys independence now. Who would guess that I would be visiting the country of my grandfather’s birth, not once, but twice? What started as a search for my DNA has turned into a matter of my heart. This little country beckons me back with its beautiful fields of sunflowers, captivating castles and warm, gracious people. Here also lie the unsolved mysteries of my paternal grandfather’s early life. Holding my hands wide open, I acknowledged again that this adventure was not in my control, but would be by the grace of God.
Before I left for my second visit to Nedašovce, where my grandpa Štefan Diviš (I knew him as Steven J. Divish 1886-1975) was born, I sent an email message to the mayor of the town. Prior to hitting “send,” I first asked my friends in Slovakia to translate my words. I didn’t want to risk using “Google Translate,” and my friends graciously obliged. In the message, I advised Mayor Elena of my upcoming visit and said I would like to meet with her. I received her response just in time, on the morning of my departure. Connecting to the airport’s wireless network, I eagerly watched emails and waited for my friends to translate and comment on her response. By the time I arrived in Slovakia on July 9, 2016, I had a date with the mayor!
Putting this excitement aside, I needed to focus on the bigger picture. Chasing my family roots was actually a smaller piece of a mission trip to Slovakia. I was part of a team from New Heights Church, in Vancouver, WA, in the United States. Our agenda was to conduct a two-week school in conversational English for the residents of Martin, Slovakia, and surrounding communities. While I hoped I would be able to discover more of my family’s genealogy during the trip, that project was really a bonus. My first responsibility was helping residents improve their English.
I was committed to the “Serving Slovakia” team working at the Center for Christian Education in Martin. My role was to assist one of the professional teachers on our team by leading a small group of students, assisting with vocabulary and grammar, and engaging them in social conversations. Some of these students were young adults; others were professionals, even some university professors. All were eager to practice and improve their English language skills. Many traveled some distance to attend one, if not both weeks of the school, and some took time off work to make that possible. They were eager and motivated pupils, working hard and were thankful for this opportunity.
Miloš Krpelan was one of the students who took time off work to attend. I met him during my first visit to Martin in 2015. He and his daughter, Lydia, were in my class. When I spoke of my dream to visit Nedašovce, Miloš volunteered to help me. He, Lydia and her sister, Ivana, were happy to transport and translate for me, making the impossible, possible! To read about my first visit, click here.
I treasured their friendship and looked forward to seeing them again. Were they up for a second adventure, I asked? Absolutely! Having helped me with the emails to the mayor, they were already planning my visit. The meeting was to be on a school day, and the required travel time would make it necessary to leave school before the end of class. I appreciated their willingness to make that sacrifice. Their agenda for the day, I was surprised to discover, was bigger than just a road trip. It included an invitation to spend the evening with the rest of their family! How could I resist?
Thursday, July 14, was our date with the mayor! I came to school that morning pulling my overnight bag with me. We left in the early afternoon and drove an hour from Martin to Nedašovce. Once again as we approached the tiny village, I beheld the beautiful countryside and felt the excitement of “landing on the moon.” There I was, in Nedašovce for a second time! Before my first visit, it was just a name on the map – a town listed on my grandfather’s birth certificate, but as remote as the moon. What mysteries would I unlock on this trip, I wondered?
As we drove past old houses and an abandoned store, Mayor Elena’s office and the adjoining post office came into view. I anticipated seeing her again, and meeting Mrs. Alžbeta Hudecová. The mayor invited Alžbeta to join us to share memories and history of Nedašovce. I hoped to take a picture of the beautiful painting hanging on the wall in the mayor’s office – an aerial view of Nedašovce, colors ablaze with fields and flowers and buildings. The artist who painted it was commissioned to capture the town by Elena’s father. Overwhelmed as I was by the events and emotions of that first meeting, it didn’t occur to me to ask to take a picture of it.
Imagine the surprise when we arrived in Nedašovce, only to find the office of the mayor locked up tight with no one in sight. Now what, we thought? Miloš made a call to the office assistant who graciously drove to meet us. The mayor, he was sad to say, had been called out of town to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, hours away. She would not be back any time soon. He made some calls, but no one else was available. We would miss the opportunity to talk to Mrs. Hudecova.
Oh, I was so close, but the door slammed shut! To say “disappointed” would not begin to describe our feelings! Was there some way to redeem this trip? Miloš, Lydia, Ivana and I stood in the parking lot and pondered our dilemma. All we could think of was to walk around the town, and take a look at “THE HOUSE.” On our previous visit, Lydia & Ivana had translated as an elderly resident of the village shared his early memories of Nedašovce that included my Grandpa’s family. He had directed us to the house, now empty, that my family had lived in. It was an incredible discovery.
So, now we walked down the road and around the corner – and there it was, this house full of secrets and mysteries. It appeared the same as the last time we had seen it; old, tired and neglected. I wondered: Did my grandfather actually live in it, or just his family, after Grandpa left for America? How long did the Diviš family live there? Did they own it? Rent it? How old was it? So many questions, and too few answers. How could I ever solve these mysteries?
As we approached the house we observed a man in the yard. Surely he saw us, but he did not acknowledge us nor show any signs of interest in our presence. We kept our distance, daring to take a few pictures but moving on. In the yard was a pile of debris, filled with wooden objects, perhaps cabinets or furniture, likely from within the house. These had not been there last year. Was this the owner of the house and, if so, what were his intentions? Repair, remodel, or tear it down? Perhaps it will be gone if and when I visit again. We knew the way to the cemetery, so we continued walking in that direction. It was a discovery we had made last year, thanks to that same elderly gentleman’s directions. During our visit with him in Mayor Elena’s office, he had told us that Jošef Diviš, youngest brother of Grandpa Štefan was buried there. On this second visit, we spent considerable time wandering up and down the rows between large headstones and markers, but found nothing new, so we walked back to the car.
I didn’t want to leave; we had come all this way only to meet a dead end. I welcomed Miloš’ suggestion that we visit the Catholic Church of Vysočany. We drove a few miles away from town, and found the church. There were cars parked nearby and we took that as a sign that mass might be in progress. It wasn’t long before people began to come out. Miloš went in to look for the priest, and soon reappeared with him. The sisters and I watched from the car as the two men walked to a house nearby and disappeared. We waited, and waited, and waited. Tired of doing nothing, I coaxed Lydia out of the car to explore the area. We walked toward the house and a nearby chicken coop. A small flock of white chickens roamed around a grassy area. I was very tempted to climb the steps to the house and knock on the door, but Lydia wasn’t convinced we should bother them, so instead we continued down the road.
We walked a few blocks around the nearby neighborhood, seeing old abandoned houses, but no villagers. Finally we saw the Krpelans’ car approaching us, with Miloš and Ivana inside. We were anxious to hear what the priest had to say and what had caused the delay. Much to my surprise, Miloš produced a sheet of paper with a long list of names and dates he had written down – baptism dates for my grandfather and his family members! The priest had a book recording these events and dates, going back to 1860 –what a stroke of genius, Miloš! He had taken the time to painstakingly copy it because, he told us, we would not be allowed to photograph it!
This new treasure that I held in my hand recorded the names of Štefan and his siblings (at least four of them), along with dates of baptisms and deaths. It was an amazing discovery–, but also created more questions! Were these all of Grandpa’s siblings? And what became of them? I remembered a family story that Grandpa’s sister had become a nun. How could I trace that? More church records? (Written in Slovak, remember!) One entry from 1888 on this record showed the death of Stefan’s younger brother, 4-year-old Augustin, named after their father. In 1890 another son was born, again named Augustin. (Miloš would later tell me that that was the custom: to use the deceased’s name again in the family). Did we miss a grave marker for young Augustin in the cemetery in Nedašovce?
Interestingly, of all of Grandpa’s siblings listed, only Jozef’s offspring were recorded. Was that a clue that he was the remaining Diviš living in this parish (quite possible as he was the youngest sibling)? Miloš had written “Solčany” as the birthplace of Jozef, not Nedašovce. Was that significant? Did the other Diviš siblings scatter, or leave Slovakia as my Grandfather had? (Grandpa Štefan had 12 heirs, but all in America!) Jozef’s wife, Maria, bore him seven children, and possibly three were still living. In 2015, we found his younger daughter, Anna, in a care facility in Partizánske, thanks to an address our visitor in the mayor’s office shared. Anna had given us the address of her youngest sister, Margita, who lived in Nováky. Both of these women were advanced in years. I had sent both a letter before this visit, but neither had responded. How could I connect with any grandchildren of Jozef, who would be my third cousins?
I paused to take all of this in – and practice some mental gymnastics in reason and logic. If this church had original records of the Diviš family, then it seemed reasonable to conclude that Grandpa and his siblings attended this very church in their youth, AND lived in THE HOUSE, which would make that house more than 100 years old! How old was this church? I wish I had gone inside the church and taken pictures! (Note to self: Do it next year!) How long had the priest been there? Perhaps there were people in this parish who remembered the Diviš family! The first notation Miloš made was the marriage of Augustin Diviš (1860-1937) and Anna Navratilova (Martinkovits) in 1879. Did they move into THE HOUSE after their wedding? And if indeed, Maria Diviš, Grandpa’s older sister (born 1884?) gave her life to church service, would that be recorded in the parish records, too? Miloš would not have known to ask about that, but his inspiration to visit this church was providential. It opened up many possible roads to explore, along with many more mysteries!
What a discovery and there we were, about to leave “Ground Zero” with more questions than answers. I pondered all of this as Lydia and I climbed back into the car with Miloš and Ivana and headed to their home in Prievdzska, 30 minutes away. As we drove, we shared our thoughts, playing detective, speculating about how these new puzzle pieces might fit together. We remembered the Nedašovce village member we met last year, and the wealth of memories he shared, and how instrumental his help had been.
Our conversation made me think of something else that gentleman had told us. Brother Jozef had been a shoemaker by trade. Miloš now remembered that years ago there was a shoe manufacturing company near Nedašovce that employed many workers. Miloš added that this manufacturing business housed their employees – did the company own THE HOUSE, then or now? Where could I find out more about this shoe business? Perhaps Jozef, or his father, Augustin, or Štefan, or maybe other siblings had worked there. But Grandpa raised his 12 children on an 80-acre farm in Michigan, back in the States. Thinking back to THE HOUSE: It was in the heart of the village, with houses all around, and maybe a small garden plot, but no acreage for a farm. Had Grandpa been in the shoe business early in his life, and then after leaving Slovakia in 1909, turned to farming? More mysteries, few answers, and all of them in Slovak!
This discussion continued into the dinner hour at the Krpelan home. Miloš wife, Iveta, served us traditional Slovak savory and sweet dishes, a delicious soup and potato-squash pancakes. Iveta and I enjoy many similar interests, among them sewing and cooking. Telling Iveta that she needed a “crockpot” for her wonderful soups was a challenge, but her daughters were more than happy to translate for their mother. She enjoyed sharing pictures of the cakes she has decorated. The evening ended with a music recital from Lenka, who is 8 years old, on the piano, followed by Lydia, who is accomplished on the accordion as well as the piano. Breakfast the following morning was the traditional Slovak plate of cold cut meats, rolled “rose bud” fashion, tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden. Pictures, hugs and goodbyes preceded the ride back to school. While the Diviš family remained elusive, this special family that God had blessed me with had taken me into their home and hearts, and my Slovak trip was all the richer and memorable, thanks to them.
Back in the classroom, it was time to refocus on my students and our studies. Though the first week was ending, the language school was only half over. There were many more lessons to learn, and conversations to have! A favorite part of each day was the “walk and talk,” when teachers and students headed outside to the mall area next to the school. Discussion topics included building, statues, traditions, countries and our lives. Those times were enjoyable for all, and frequently included a visit to the ice cream kiosk, where 50 cents Euro bought one scoop of the best ice cream! It was a favorite and frequent stop! On one occasion, we visited the local library. My students translated for me as the director, Ms. Vandlikom, gave us a tour of the facility.
I wasn’t the only one wrestling with mysteries. My students were puzzled over American idioms such as “losing your marbles,” while I pondered one of theirs: “falling off the strawberry.” Phrasal verbs and other forms of grammar were a challenge as well. It was gratifying to watch them work hard to gain mastery of my language, almost as amazing as it was for me to learn theirs – well, all six words that I can say, so far!
The last day of school was a bittersweet celebration of the work finished and the friendships we forged. The goodbyes were hard. It was not uncommon for the students to bring the teachers small tokens of appreciation on the last day, but the bag Lydia handed me was not small. Imagine my surprise when I looked inside and pulled out a painted canvas. Artist Ivana’s choice of subject might have been a mystery to any other observer– it was just an old house– but to me, it was THE HOUSE. Grandpa’s. Tears came to my eyes as I recognized it. This would be my prized treasure to remind me of “Serving Slovakia 2016
Marie Diviš Coffey
– July 2016 –
Post Script: Much research awaits in my quest to “Find Grandpa” and to “Solve Grandpa’s Mysteries.” However, there’s no reason to wait to honor his memory. The CCE staff members have purchased and are in the process of restoring a building that once housed printing presses used by the Communist regime. By God’s grace, where propaganda was once printed, there are now classrooms that honor God and teach young Slovaks about freedom in Christ. On the wall of the entrance, there will be a list of names of those who have contributed, as well as individuals honored. It is my vision to see Grandpa Stefan’s name there. Will you join me in giving to this endeavor in Grandpa’s name? To do so, send a check or money order (no electronic options currently available) made out to “New Heights Foundation.” In the memo line, write “CCE/Stefan Diviš.” Mail your check to: New Heights Foundation, 7913 NE 58th Ave., Vancouver, WA 98665, USA. Be sure to include your address to receive a receipt in the mail. New Heights Foundation is a 501(c)3 organization, and your donation will be tax deductible. I hope you will prayerfully consider being a part of Grandpa’s legacy.