Gone!! It was gone!! I stood staring at a vacant lot, unbelieving; refusing to accept what my eyes told me. I turned to my companions. Maybe we were in the wrong spot, Wrong Street, wrong town. But I had to believe them as they pointed out the obvious. House #77 in Nedašovce, Slovakia, the same one we had discovered 3 years ago, the same one we walked through just last year, the same one full of history, MY family history – was now history itself. There was nothing left of the house in which Stefan Diviš, my grandfather, had lived before leaving this beautiful country. Nothing but the dirt it sat on. Not even a pile of rubble remained. No Ebenezer stones here. As my companions and I walked a little further up the road, reality began to sink in. I clung to the hope that something was wrong, surely Grandpa’s house would appear. Alas, I had to accept what my eyes told me. It was truly gone! Vanished.
This discovery came at the end of the day I had been anticipating for months. My plan had been to finish teaching and then linger in Slovakia a few more days, time enough to chase a few clues on the Diviš trail. The Krpelan family, with whom I have developed a special friendship, had helped me to discover evidence of my paternal grandfather’s life before he immigrated to the USA in 1910. Each time I have returned to Slovakia, I have uncovered more pieces of our family puzzle. And in preparation for this latest trip, I had targeted one particular area to dig deeper. I wrote to town hall, a local museum and state archives. An invitation to spend the weekend with Miloš, Iveta, Ivana Lýdia, Lenka & Papa Krpelan, was even more reason to look forward to the last few days of my trip. As planned, we drove from their house in Prievdská, to Partizánske. I suspected a potential cousin, a few times removed, might have worked there. A stop at city hall, a visit to the museum, and then on to the State Archive office. By late afternoon we were retracing our steps back to Prievidzská. Knowing my delight just being in Nedašovce, grandpa’s birthplace, Miloš asked me if I would like to make a quick stop, as we would be passing by. We first discovered my grandfather’s 100 year old house thanks to the help of local residents. Last summer we were able to go inside! What an unbelievable, unexpected surprise that was! Remembering the faded, broken interior, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised at its destruction. The house was in various stages of deterioration, though a few areas looked like a remodel was in progress. Among many signs of its age, I remembered a huge, gaping hole in one exterior wall. After letting us inside, the landlord offered to research its history. I wasn’t prepared for what I found today. We walked past the vacant lot again, heading back to our car, and I reflected on the journey that had brought me to the tiny village of Nedašovce.
I grew up in California, about 3,000 miles from the Divišh farm in Michigan. All I knew of Slovakia I could fit in one sentence: Grandpa Stefan Diviš(h) was born there and then came to the USA. Add to that one comment from my father: “We are Slovak – NOT Czech!” And that was the sum total of my family history. Until one day I ran into a friend in my little rural town of La Center, WA. “How’s your summer going?” I asked her. “Great”, she replied, “I just returned from Slovakia!” Her response sent me on a path I could never have dreamed – one that has included 4 trips to this beautiful country. My friend had been part of a team from New Heights Church, Vancouver, WA that journeys to the heart of Europe each summer to teach English. What a providential meeting that opened a door for me to join the 2015 team. Visiting the land of my grandfather became a reality I never thought possible. Learning more about my family has been the buried treasure I wasn’t expecting.
Each year our “Serving Slovakia” team teaches English as Foreign Language classes at the Lutheran Academy, Martin, Slovakia (LAMS) for all ages. This year marked 20 years since the Center for Christian Education (CCE) first offered an adult Bible course. In time, as God provided, a preschool was added, an elementary school and finally a bilingual high school. And now the high school’s first graduating class. Such a milestone called for a huge celebration, something the Slovaks take very seriously and do so with great enthusiasm. Having lived through such oppression during the communist regime, they have much to be thankful for.
Upon our arrival, we received a warm welcome from Bohdan Hroboň, CCE President/founder, staff, teachers, students and their families! With much to celebrate, we began three days of dinners and dancing. Arriving before us were representatives from several other American churches, who also support the CCE. Imagine a banquet for royalty, featuring classic Slovak cuisine, including Goulash (Gulášová polievka) and Koláč, baked sweet pastries for dessert. First we watched as our soon to be students performed traditional Slovak dancing, and then students became our instructors teaching us the steps!
Graduation was the climax of 5 years of study at the high school. New Heights senior pastor Matt Hannan was the commencement speaker. He exhorted the graduates to grasp this opportunity, one which their fathers and grandfathers (including mine) could only have dreamed of. We Americans were honored to rejoice with the graduates, their families and guests. A verse from the Old Testament was chosen to reflect all God has done to bring the school to this day. The Hebrew word ebhen hā-‘ezer means stone of help. 1 Sam 7:12 “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us”. God had fought the battles and provided the blessings.
After ceremonies and celebrations and a church service on Sunday, I suspect the CCE staff was more than happy to see Monday arrive. It was the final week of classes for the undergrads, though most of the academics were behind them. The New Heights team had been asked to put on workshops for those students in various subject areas we were passionate about. While some of our team organized the workshops, the rest accompanied a small group of students in the activities. By the end of the week, we had dabbled in photography, finger printing, line dancing, acting, BUNCO assorted crafts and the ever popular WALK and TALK, more fondly known as “Zmrzlina” time! There is something irresistible about the ice cream sold at the small kiosks around town, not to mention habit forming. “How many cones have you had today?” We frequently teased one another. ONLY TWO?? And what does blue SMURF ice cream taste like, anyway??? Best deal in Europe, those .50 ϵ cones!
That was week one, yet to come was EFL! Our team needed to move from Motel Victoria on the west side of Martin, to the dorms at the school. With 180 Americans in town, the dorms could not house us all! We could only imagine the schematics needed by the CCE staff to plan for and execute this massive invasion of Americans! They had us spread out all over Martin! To add to the confusion, our arrival and departure dates were spread out as well! So with the departure of one group, we were next for the dorms!
I took advantage of this break in our classroom duties to do a bit of exploring on my own. Prior to the trip, I had contacted a new friend living in Slovakia who hosts a Bed & Breakfast for missionary families. A missionary kid, and former international teacher, Amber Stark saw the need to come along side of those serving around the globe and she hosts a place for them to rest and refresh. Wanting to know more about this endeavor, I planned a visit to her home in Vrbovce-Šance, located close to the NW Czech/Slovak border. My first challenge was buying a train ticket to the right destination! Piece of cake, er, Koláč! thanks to the help of one of my students, whom I chanced to meet as I walked to the station. The two hour ride required one transfer in Zilina. No problem, the two LDS missionaries I saw within minutes of departing the first train were eager to help. Grabbing my bags, they lead me to the right platform and I was good to go! Having made the connection, I was headed in the right direction and could relax, find a seat and enjoy the beautiful Slovak countryside our train passed through. I engaged in a surprising conversation with my seat mates, trying to explain that I was a visiting American, here to teach English and hunting for my Slovak Grandfather’s roots. One seat mate willingly translated my narrative to the others who wrote down the names of my family. I thought they were all traveling together, but they didn’t even know one another! They urged me to hurry to the doors, my stop was next!
My hostess found me waiting outside at the station and we drove to her “oasis” as LifeImpactministries.org calls their many retreat locations around the world. Leaving the city, we drove through fields, hills and beautiful rural landscapes. I relished experiencing new places and new faces.
Sunday morning Amber and I left her church family just as they were enjoying a meal together, so that I could catch my train back to Martin. A quick good bye and she pointed me to the right platform to await my ride. Changing trains at the Zilina station went smoothly, thanks to the ticket agent who left her office to point me to the right platform and I was on my way back to Martin. With a sigh of relief and sense of accomplishment, I had made it back safely, well, with some divine interventions! Walking back to the dorm, 10 minutes away, I found my roommates had moved into our new home for the upcoming week and had deposited my large suitcase in my upstairs dorm room. Déjà vu! Same room from 2015, my first visit! Let the English classes begin!
Our first day of EFL begins with testing. Each student, ranging from elementary school to adult professionals, completes a short exam that will enable us to place them in the correct class based on their language skills. We scramble to quickly correct and correlate them, forming four classes by age and skill. The students are a little nervous, so it’s our job to mingle as the process is completed, say hello to returning students, introducing ourselves to first timers. Eventually we settle into our classrooms. As a table leader in the advanced level, we have five to six students to interact with. The lead teacher gives instructions; table leaders engage the students with the assignment and conversation. Class room learning takes shape around movies, skits and grammar lessons. Somewhere in our day comes the favorite assignment “walk and talk”. Leaders and students stroll around the Martin city “square”, exploring the open air mall adjacent to the classrooms. Of course, first stop is to buy a cone of Zmrzlina, and then we can work on English! By the end of the week, we have developed friendships that extend beyond the class room. It is common for leaders to meet with former students from past years, catching up with their lives and meeting their families during our visits.
Year after year many of us are drawn back to this land, building special friendships with the warm hearted Slovaks. I’ve come with great anticipation of seeing friends again and making new ones as well. While I hope to discover more about my grandfather Stefan Diviš, I am learning that this is a slow process of sowing seeds and turning over a lot of Ebenezer stones, looking for clues. This is a unique opportunity to get to know the Slovak people – my people!
First the discovery of Grandpa’s house – thanks to the kind offer of Miloš, a student in my first class, to drive me to Nedašovce. That led to visiting the local village church and records of family baptisms. The following year there were more discoveries, records of marriages, clues about a shoe factory. And some friends in unexpected places who have helped to turn over even more stones.
Like Ladislav Holečka, clerk at the State Archive, Nitra. Birth, marriage, death and census records up to 1895 are stored there. Miloš suggested I write to this archive, requesting information about Grandpa Stefan’s parents, Augustine and Anna. One morning before class, Miloš helped me to compose a request for information. We made copies of Grandpa’s birth certificate and then mailed a copy to the archive as well as sending an email request. And then we waited. An email came back in a few days saying they were unable to read and process my request. We emailed another request. Miloš warned me that the wheels of Slovak Socialist bureaucracies turn slowly and impersonally. But Ladislav proved that wrong, and his next email took us by surprise. He had followed the link after my signature on my email, which took him to the CCE web page, to read my story (2015) and now – he wanted to help. Another gift! It would be weeks after my return home that I would reap his harvest. I received a registered letter in the mail from the archive; a payment was required before sending me the results of the Diviš search. An American check was neither an option, nor a credit card and the cost of a wire transfer was several times the bill of $22 Euro. Again Ladislav pushed through policies and regulations, and cut thru the snarl by emailing me an “unofficial” copy. And, finally, my treasure! Not only had he turned over a few stones, Ladislav had mined some precious gems as well – a new generation of the Diviš family – the grandparents, both paternal and maternal, of Stefan – which would be MY great great grandparents! This was news to me! And what a story came with the discovery! From Ladislav’s research:
Augustinus Diviš, (aka Gustav, Gustavus) father of Stefan, was born on 28th Aug 1856 in Oponice, to parents Jacobus Diviš and Eva Lanyi. August married Anna Navratil in Nedašovce on 9 Nov 1879. Augustinus/Gustavus lived in Velke Uherce at the time and worked as a seat manufacturer. He died on 24th Oct 1894, age 38, of tuberculosis and was buried in Oponice.
Anna Navratil Diviš, mother of Stefan, was born July 7, 1860 in Nedašovce to Martinus Navratil, shoemaker, and Veronica Nezhiba. Anna died August 29, 1937 at age 77.
Martinus Navratil, Anna’s father, Stefan’s maternal grandfather, was born around 1823, per 1869 census record. Birth location for both Martinus & Veronica was given in that record as an area now in the Czech Republic (Dad – we ARE part Czech!!) Our scribe, Ladislav, noted other information recorded on that census – Martinus could read and write, owned a piece of land and that the family owned two pigs! Ladislav found no record of Veronica’s death, probably because she died after 1895. Her birth date was estimated to be around 1830.
And here’s where it gets really interesting…..
Jacob/Jacobus, Stefan’s paternal grandfather, born in Austria, (perhaps a part of Slovakia governed by the Austrian Empire) worked as a hunter (forester, latin venator dominalis) in Nitra. He was married FOUR times! He was twice a widower when he married widow Eva Lanyi, who bore him four children, one of which was our Augustinus, Eva died on March 4, 1862 of “typhus”.
Jacob went on to marry a fourth time and fathered a total of eleven children. Ladislav found a very interesting bio of Jacob. He shares: In the record, it is written that Jacob was the holder of the Austrian Silver cross for merit, a significant state award. Ladislav found documents in the Prime Minister’s Hungarian state Archives that said, on Nov 3, 1897, Divišch, Jakab the woodsman in county of earl Apponyi Lajos, was rewarded for long and loyal service.
Amazing! All of this thanks to Milos’s inspiration to write a letter and Ladislav’s willingness to dig. “Till now the Lord has helped us.” New stones to turn over – but where to find them!! These new clues about Jacob and his wives all pointed to the area of Slovakia where there was once a shoe factory – Partizánske. Further south, was Oponice, where Jacob and his wives had lived. Amazingly, my dear friends the Krplands also live 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Partizanske. So Miloš and I made a plan. When EFL class was finished, I would return to their home for the week end. And on the following Monday, July 9th, we would visit Partizánske.
The week went by quickly, with the end of class a bittersweet time. Goodbyes are exchanged tearfully, with promises to stay connected till the following summer. While this was the end of one adventure, I needed to grab my suitcase and get ready for the next chapter! The rest of my team were packing up to leave, but not until the following morning. After hasty good byes, see you back in the USA! I joined Miloš, sisters Lýdia and Lenka, and Cousin Emma. We were westward bound in a short time, driving through rural and city roads alike on our way to the Krpelan home where I would enjoy being one of their family until my return to America.
Though we’d left the classroom far behind, the language lessons did not stop, for the Krpelans or me! Miloš and his wife Iveta were more than eager to practice their English skills – as was I to tutor them! We laughed and laughed as they tried new English words on me, and then turned the tables on me and my pitiful attempts at Slovak. (My father, I’m sure, never imagined in his wildest dreams that I would be speaking – well, trying to speak-his native tongue!) I was so proud of them both, and saw much improvement over just a few days. Again, the tables were turned on me, as I became a student of Slovak cuisine. Iveta and her daughters bustled around their small kitchen, instructing me in making their traditional dishes… halušky (hah-loosh-kee), a potato dumplings with Bryndzové (sheep) cheese, and of course Koláče for dessert…. all from scratch and all delicious. If only I could figure a way to take home some of that Bryndzové, plentiful in the small market we walked to Saturday morning. Would be a pity to have to part with that going through customs!
Early Sunday morning July 7th, found Iveta busy in the kitchen rolling out dough. She put me to work cranking the handle on her pasta maker, catching the noodles that wiggled out of the spout and she set them on a pan to dry. The Proverbs 31 wife has nothing on Iveta! Kitchen chores done, it was time for church and an opportunity to hear Ivana play the organ to accompany the hymns. After the service, we drove toward the heart of Slovakia, making our way to the Historic Town of Banská Bystrica/Banská Štiavnica, the oldest mining town in Slovakia, established in the 13th century. It is located in the mountains of Štiavnické Vrchy, central Slovakia, where it sits in the middle of an immense caldera created by the collapse of an ancient volcano. As we walked up and down the hilly cobblestone streets we passed the mining academy “Banícka académia” which was established in 1762. This was the world’s first technical university, and it trained specialists in silver, gold and metallurgy for mining in the surrounding area. It had a chemistry department and in 1807 added forestry to its study programs. We passed the afternoon in this picturesque Renaissance town, a tribute to Slovak ingenuity and creativity! (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/618)
We finished Sunday with another wonderful meal from Iveta’s kitchen and some time in her garden. Monday morning was soon upon us, and my team set out to resume our investigation. Miloš, chauffeur, tour guide and concierge, Ivana, chief investigator, oldest sister and interpreter extraordinaire, and me – Slovak/American tourist and wannbe genealogist– set out to conqueror… or at least see, Partizánske. After a short drive, we located city hall. We were met by Lenka Ďuríčková, who had arranged for some of her colleagues to join us. One, an amateur historian, had read my story, but did not have any new ideas for us. Another was the director of the Bata Shoe Factory museum, curator PhDr. Vladimír Marko who came to give us a tour. But before joining him, we were taken to a small office of the records clerk, keeper of Slovak documents for this area, who searched by hand through an old metal file cabinet. She flipped through small, hand written cards, which looked like something out of a library card catalog index, circa 1970s USA. No electronic data bank here!
The Diviš family bloodline runs through this region, as Ladislav would later confirm with Jacob. Grandpa Stefan was becoming a naturalized citizen in the USA about the time of his niece Emilia’s birth. It was Emilia that I hoped to find a trace of in this area. Searching marriage records last year (2016) in Rybany, a small town 12km/7 miles from Partizánske, we found the record of Emilia Alzbeta Diviš ’s marriage to Stefan Haucko. Emilia was born Aug 13, 1929 in Nedašovce. She was the fifth child of Josef and Maria Jedlicka Diviš. Stefan was born March 14, 1923 In Badovny. Emilia’s occupation was listed as “worker in shoe factory” and Stefan’s was “manager in shoe factory”. Their wedding date was July 5, 1948. A gentleman by the name of Rudolf Tlsty was their witness. All of this pointed to the Bata shoe factory. But without a date establishing Emilia or her husband’s death, the clerk couldn’t locate information about either of them. We learned no secrets from those cards, but it was an interesting glimpse into the Slovak record filing systems here in Partizánske! (And at this time in our adventure, we didn’t know about Jacob and his wives from nearby Oponice.) It was time to join PhDr. Marko to visit the museum.
Batovany, as Partizánske was originally named, was once the sight of the Bata Shoe Factory. First built in the Czech Republic by brothers Jan Antonin & Tomáš Bata, the business expanded to Slovakia in 1938-39. It was a welcomed employment opportunity for the town residents and surrounding area, quite possibly Emilia and her Stefan. Unfortunately, many records and artifacts of the Bata shoe factory were destroyed by the Communists, Phdr. Marko told us. The museum was a tribute to the shoe production facility, and many of the artifacts were donated by local residents who had rescued and preserved part of the operation. This included sewing machines, leather working machines and items collected by the Bata family, reflecting the history of the enterprise and its impact on the area. The Partizánske town crests bear the image of a shoe and in the town square is a 4 ft. heeled slipper, shaped out of foliage and greenery. The name Partizánske means “resistance “and was named for anti-Nazi resistance fighters called ‘partisans”.
After viewing dozens of shoe samples made through the years, we finished our tour. Signing the guest book, we bid the director “ďakujem” & “dovidenia” and began our walk back to city hall, thanking Lenka for her help. Where next? Miloš suggested we visit the town of Topol’čany, 20km/13 miles from Partizánske to visit the state archive office. In Topol’čany archive, records date from, 1895 – 1905. Miloš called the office to verify someone would be there to talk with us. That’s all we needed to hear – we were on our way!
We passed green corn fields and yellow wheat fields as we made our way east on this sunny afternoon. Combines could be seen crisscrossing the wheat fields. Big rounds of hay dotted many fields; others had yet to be cut. But, alas, no sunflowers, my iconic picture of Slovakia! There were also fields of sugar beets and hops. I remembered Grandpa Stefan’s farm in Michigan raising sugar beets and my own father talking about life on the farm. I see how it got into our blood! Topol’čany, Miloš told me, is known for its beer brewing with locally grown hops.
Arriving at Topol’čany, we found the Archive office to be a small nondescript building in a modest, somewhat run down part of town. The sign on its wall read:
- Ministerstvo vnútra Slovenskej republiky
- Štátny archív v Nitre so sídlom v Ivanke pri Nitre
- Pracovisko Archív Topol’čany
The door was locked, so we rang the buzzer to announce our arrival. A receptionist greeted us and took us to the office of Mgr. Lucia Macalíková. We explained our search and showed her the documents I brought. She asked for my grandfather’s death certificate to authenticate my legal connection to him and right to see his documents. I had a copy of his birth certificate, but did not bring his death certificate. Examining my passport, Lucia decided to initiate my search. I filled out numerous forms. She copied my documents and family information. I gave her a copy of the story of last year’s visit, in Slovak. We left feeling satisfied that we had spread paperwork near and far in the office and turned over as many stones as possible! Lucia would later confirm in an email to me what Ladislav had uncovered about the grandfather of Stefan (my Great Great grandfather!!) Jakub Diviš died on August 8, 1899 in the city of Oponice 27 km/17 miles from Partizánske. Nedašovce, Rybany, Batanvy, Partizánske, Oponice….all in the same region of Slovakia, and all connected to my family. What a miracle God dropped a student named Miloš into my class 4 years ago, who just happened to live in this same area. I wondered….are we related??? By heart if not by blood! “Till now the Lord has helped us.”
With the afternoon quickly fading, we began to our retrace our steps back to the Krpelans home. Nedašovce wasn’t far off our path, and there was still time for a quick stop. Miloš asked me if I would like to see Grandpa’s house “one more time?” Of course I would! It had become my treasure moment on each trip to Slovakia, a visual reminder and thrill to return to Grandpa’s village and feast my eyes on his house. It reminded me of how far he had journeyed and how far I had come!
And now – here we stood – and the house was GONE!
Miloš interrupted my thoughts with an inquiry. The amateur historian back in Partizánske had given us a copy of the only Diviš records he could find. I had thanked him and stuck the papers in my folder before we walked to the museum. It wasn’t news to us – this copy of the baptism record of Hermina, Grandpa’s older sister. Miloš had recorded that information from the church near Nedašovce on our visit two years ago. Family lore was she became a Nun, but we haven’t found any other clues about her. Why would Miloš want to look at that record again….and why now? I retrieved it for him.
“House # 23” Miloš read, or did it say “#123”? He examined the baptism record. I looked blankly at Miloš. Was he suggesting we had been visiting the wrong house all along?? Or, Miloš suggested, did the village change or update its house numbering system sometime in the past since the Diviš family lived there? Or did the family move frequently?
So we drove around the small village following numbers. As a retired postal carrier/clerk, I know addresses!! But NOT in Slovakia! It was just the day before that Miloš was trying to explain house numbers to me in Banská. Smaller villages do not have street names. Only houses have numbers. Some houses have two sets of numbers. It had shed some light on a very mysterious addressing system! But not much!
Now we set off looking for #23…or #123. We found #23 – and the persistent dog in the yard barking at us caused the owner to investigate. Upon questioning, she shared that her father built the house 50 years ago. Too new to be a Diviš residence. Around the block again. Ah-ha – an older looking house – addressed 21-22-23, but vacant. The next door neighbors watched us with curiosity from their yard, and suggested we inquire at the pub across the street. We did, but to no avail.
Now we had a new riddle. Grandpa’s house…..no longer standing….BUT – was it really Grandpa’s?? Have we been looking at the wrong house? No, our friend ING Anton Kajaba the local senior resident of Nedašovce pointed us to it in 2015. But what of the different addresses on the document – did the family move – before…or after Herminia’s birth? I would later examine all of the baptism records Milos copied that day to discover that there were indeed multiple house numbers recorded in the church book. Five different addresses in fact! Through the 10 years in Nedašovce, in which eight children were born to Augustin and Anna Diviš, they lived at house # 9, 23, 25 & 26. And finally #77/78, which was no longer standing! Always more questions and mysteries than answers…and they would have to wait. Tomorrow I boarded my plane in Krakow to return to the USA.
As for the Ebenezer stones, God intended them to be a reminder of what He has done. In God’s provision for my amazing journey to understand my grandfather and his land, there is much to be thankful for, even though the mysteries remain. That I would come to Slovakia, not once but four times! I would never have dreamed it possible! Seeing for myself where my family lived. To learn the history of this beautiful land, to say nothing of its people whom I have come to cherish, whom I have to thank for all of these blessings. I hugged the Krpelan family tightly and climbed into the van that would take me past the Tartar Mountains, through more rural countryside of Slovakia, this time the NE corner and across the border into Poland. I looked at their smiling faces through the window; they were having as hard a time with this “Dovidenia” as I was. As the van pulled away, and I began my journey home, I realized I will never be the same, as I have left pieces of my heart in Slovakia. Oh Grandpa, that I could share this adventure with you and thank you for your legacy. And now this story becomes another stone reminding me what God has done!