Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel. Day 6: Part II. Finally, Osturňa!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

During the drive to Osturňa, I got to see some pretty spectacular views of Slovakia’s countryside, especially the magnificent Tatra mountains. My guide took the route that enabled me to see a number of places, including the historic town of  Levoča, that sits in the center of the Spiš region of north-east Slovakia bordering on Poland.  The roads began to narrow the closer we got to Osturňa, and we were winding our way along hills and valleys, passing through many villages along the way.  I was so excited to see the sign welcoming me to the place where my grandfather was born.  I had finally made it. We stopped so I could take a picture by the sign.

Lisa Alzo in front of Osturňa, Slovakia sign.
Road to Osturňa.

For me this was a BIG deal because I had previously missed two opportunities (one in 1996 and the other a few years later) to visit Osturňa with a group of others who descended from inhabitants of this Carpatho-Rusyn village.  

View of Osturňa with St. Michael’s church in the background.

I couldn’t go on those trips because I was serving as primary caregiver for my parents who had battled their share of illnesses.  After seeing so many photographs and hearing all of the wonderful stories about the “Osturňa Odyssey,” I vowed that one day I too would get to have the experience.  Today was that day!

As I understand it, Osturňa is one of the few places in Slovakia that has preserved the historic wooden architecture of its homes.  We passed many of these homes on our way to the Penzion (Pension) where I would be staying.  My friend, Thom Kolton, made the arrangements, and I was looking forward to seeing him.

Photos by Lisa Alzo
Copyright, 2012, Lisa A. Alzo
All rights reserved

Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel. Day 6: Part I: Presov Archives

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I didn’t sleep very well.  It was just too hot and humid so I got up early, took a shower, dressed and went downstairs to the restaurant to enjoy my complimentary breakfast.  I ordered coffee and the “pancakes,” which were really crepes filled with jam and topped with whipped cream.  The pancakes were delicious, but the serving size was too much for me (I typically don’t eat a big breakfast), but I enjoyed as much as I could as I waited for my researcher/guide/translator, Michal, to pick me up for the trip to Osturna.  

Once he arrived I went upstairs to get my luggage and then checked out of Saris Park.  The first stop, however, was the Presov Archives.  When we arrived, we were greeted by Milan Belej, whom I met at the 2009 Czechoslovakia Genealogical Society International Conference in Cleveland, Ohio.  

Lisa Alzo in front of the Presov Archives

We looked through some records on microfilm, and then Milan gave us a personal tour–showing us some charters, manuscripts and other interesting books dating back many centuries.  The archives are housed in a former monastery and I also got to see the room where they would send the monks who were disobedient.  You could feel the history oozing out of the walls!  [Note: Pictures were not permitted].

After our tour, Michal and I went to have lunch at a cafe.  We found a table in the shade and enjoyed a delicious lunch.  I had a chicken cutlet served with potatoes and a salad and diet coke with ice!  Then it was time to set off for the 1-1/2 hour drive to Osturna.

Photos by Lisa A. Alzo
Copyright 2012, Lisa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel: Day 5: Research in the Archives and Cemetery

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It was time to depart Vranov and begin the second half of my trip.  My guide/translator, Michal Razus, drove to Vranov to pick me up and drive me to Presov.

After saying farewell to my cousins, Robert and Renata, Michal and I headed to the archives in Vranov. I was on a mission to see if I could find a birth record for my grandmother’s brother, Mihaly Fenscak.  We spent about two hours there without any luck.  I did find a register of birth for my Grandpap Alzo’s brother, Michal.  The archive staff was a bit challenging to deal with.  There were a ton of forms to complete and sign.  I had to show them my passport.  We had to buy stamps to pay the fee to look at the records and for the copy that I requested.  They asked that I stay there while Michal went to the post office to get the stamps. I guess they thought we might not pay.  I thought I might be asked to leave a DNA sample next (kidding).  Once we finished there we drove to Nizny Hrabovec to visit the town clerk to get a few more certificates for some of my Alzo ancestors.  In contrast, the secretary there was extremely nice and helpful.  

For anyone hoping to do your own research in Slovak archives, you must be prepared–every place has different rules and you may be disappointed.  It GREATLY helps to have a researcher with you who speaks the language and knows the practices and policies of the archives.  Michal Razus did a wonderful job of helping me look for and obtain records as well as communicating with the staff.  

Next, Michal drove me back to Michalovce so I could visit the burial place of Dr. Jan Mastiliak because we did not have time to do so on Monday.  We had no trouble finding the cemetery.  Once there, Michal asked one of the workers if he knew what section the grave was located in and he took us there and I took some photographs.

Then it was time for Michal to drive me to Presov and Saris Park where I would be staying that night.  The hot and humid weather continued.  I had dinner in the Saris Park restaurant with the Vavrek family (our gracious hosts during the 2010 trip).  It was great to see them again and I got to have pirohy (cottage cheese ones like my grandma used to make!).  It was a wonderful evening.  After a long day, I was pretty tired so headed up to my room and put the lights out early.  The next day I would be heading to the Carpathian mountains and to my grandfather’s village!  It was very hot in my room despite the fan (again, no AC) and I was excited about the next day so wasn’t sure I’d get much sleep….

Photos by Lisa A. Alzo
Copyright 2012, Lisa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel: Day 4, Part II: More Family Time

Monday, June 18, 2012

The heat and humidity continued, but we were able to take a nice break to visit our cousins, Helena and Mike.  We sat on a picnic bench under the shade in their yard and they brought out food and drink for us to enjoy. 

Homemade pickles on the left! On the right is peppers and paprika bacon
Meat and sauerkraut, and bread

I took some video with my smartphone and also used my audio recorder to capture some of the stories Helena was telling.  Helena and Mike are two of the nicest people I have ever met and they have been married for over 60 years.  Being able to talk to family who can shed light on the “why?” questions was better than any roll of microfilm or database entry I could find.  

One of the highlights was some homemade wine (I believe it was made from black currants? or it may have been another type of berry) and Mike told us it is supposed to be good for the red blood cells.  It was thick, and sweet, with just enough tart in it.  Of course, there was beer and Hruska (pear liquor) as well.  

Homemade wine

We then took some photographs (out of respect for my cousins’ privacy, I am not posting any here).  After we bid farewell to our cousins, we drove back to the hotel in Vranov so Jack and Shirley could gather their bags and prepare to depart.  Our cab driver, Erik, was picking them up that evening and taking them to their hotel in Kosice because they were leaving Tuesday morning for Paris.  I was sorry to see them go.  

Photos by Lisa A. Alzo

Copyright 2012, Lisa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel: Day 4, Part I: Finding Family History in a Michalovce Monastery

After a brief hiatus, I’m back to writing about my trip to Slovakia.  I literally and figuratively covered a lot of ground on this journey–so thank you, readers, for your patience.

Monday, June 18, 2012

On Monday, we visited the Redemptorist Vydavetel’stvo Misionar in Michalovce and learned about the history of the monastery and about Jan Mastiliak, rector of the theological institute, who, in 1950, was accused of spying for the Vatican, organizing arms caches, and preparing  a coup d’etat, and then was tried, arrested and received a life sentence.  He spent 15 years in prison, and after an amnesty was put under house arrest in Presov, until 1968 when he was released due to the Prague Spring.  He was a leader, scholar, and teacher. The Redemptorists have opened a cause for Beatification for Fr. Mastiliak.   

Jan Mastiliak was born in 1911 in Nizny Hrabovec in Eastern Slovakia. He is a cousin on my great grandmother, Borbala Manovsky’s side.  It was really fascinating to tour the monastery and learn about Fr. Mastiliak.  In 1916, my grandfather, John Alzo, received the body of Jan’s father, Nicholas, who died a tragic death while visiting the North side of Pittsburgh (I wrote an article about this story back in 2008). So sad that the elder Mastiliak would never live to see his son achieve such greatness.

After the more than two hour visit to the monastery, we actually went to Nizny Hrabovec on our way to visit my cousin, Helena.  We stopped at the statue that honors Dr. Mastiliak.

Statue of Jan Mastiliak in Nizny Hrabovec

I plan to write more about the Mastiliak family in the future.

All photos by Lisa A. Alzo

Copyright, 2012, Lisa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel. Day 3: A Special Sunday: Part IV

Sunday, June 17, 2012

We continued along in our “immersion genealogy” experience with a tour of Kučín. My cousin Jack was getting the tour I received back in 2010 and it was great to join him as we walked in our grandfather’s footsteps.  Our tour included the Roman Catholic church, the cemetery, the mayor’s office, and the home of another Alzo cousin (Jan’s brother Stefan).

Visitation of the Virgin Mary Church  (original church dates to 1300) This photo was taken by Andy Rabatin in 2010.

One of the main highlights was taking this photograph with my cousin (who is also my godfather) in front of the baptismal font in the church where our grandfather, Jan was baptized in 1894!  This was particularly meaningful as it was father’s day.  I was missing my father (it was the seventh father’s day since he passed away) and so I was glad to be able to share the day with my godfather in my grandfather’s church!

Jan Alzo’s grandchildren, John (Jack Berta) and Lisa Alzo pose in front of the baptismal font in Kucin

Below is a picture of our great-grandmother’s burial place in the cemetery.

Cross marking the grave of Borbala Alzo 

Another highlight was our visit to the Mayor’s office (where else would a mayor come to open an office up on a Sunday???).  In 2010, I signed a page marking my visit.  My cousin, Renata, translated what I wrote into Slovak and framed the document along with my photo This document and photo will be displayed on the wall in the Mayor’s office (such an honor!).  My cousin, Jack and I got to take photos and write new pages for the current visit.

Lisa Alzo writing her comments on 17 June 2012

While I never got to meet my grandfather, I feel close to him.  The second visit to his birthplace was just as special as the first.  During my first visit in 2010 I was so overwhelmed with emotion; this time I still had some “lump in my throat” moments, but I was able to really think about the significance of each key place we visited. As a genealogist, you can search as many documents as you can find, cite all the sources accurately and completely, gather a long list of names and dates, but truly, nothing compares to physically being in fields where your ancestors walked, worked and played, or stepping inside the buildings where your ancestors lived and worshipped.  For me, it’s all about “connection,” and I am grateful for the opportunity I had to see first-hand those places where the people from my past experienced the good, the bad, and the in-between of their lives.  

Photos by Lisa A. Alzo (except where otherwise noted)

Copyright 2012, Lisa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel. Day 3. A Special Sunday: Part III

 Sunday, June 17, 2012

This post is going to be short and sweet… We had a fantastic lunch at the home of my cousins, Jan and Emilia.  Emilia’s cooking is outstanding.  Here are some pics of some of the delicious Slovak specialities we enjoyed.
Milkine Vyprazane Rezne  Milka’s “Fried Steaks” (Chicken), Potatoes, Cucumbers. Recipe for the chicken can be found in my book Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Recipes, 2nd Ed.
Chicken Soup

Holubky/Halupki (stuffed cabbage)

Nut & Poppyseed Rolls

Part of my “immersion genealogy” experience. Family history is SO MUCH MORE than just names, dates, and places, or boxes, lines, and charts.  It was wonderful to experience the traditional foods and customs of my Slovak heritage.

Photos by Lisa A. Alzo

Copyright 2012, Lisa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel. Day 3: A Special Sunday: Part II

Sunday, June 17, 2012

In October 1910, my grandfather Jan (John) Alyzso (Alzo), left his family and home in Kučín, Slovakia (then Hungary) for America. At 16, he may have traveled to a new life in a new world, but he never forgot about his parents or siblings.

Sign for Kučín, Slovakia (Photo by Lisa Alzo, 2010)

I never knew my grandfather (he died 2-1/2 years before I was born). But through genealogy I learned a lot about him.  One of the things that struck me the most was his sense of duty and responsibility to those he cared about.   He was a “go-to” type of guy and just seemed to always be taking care of someone. Whether it was helping out his sister, Mary, who came to America after her husband died with her two-year-old daughter, doing odd jobs for his friends and neighbors (he was the neighborhood “handy man” and could fix just about anything), or arranging for the burial of his cousin who was murdered in Pittsburgh in 1916 (more on this story in another blog post), “Pap” was someone you could count on.

Jan Alzo (1915)

What does this have to do with my trip to Slovakia?  Quite a bit, actually.  About a month or so before the trip, my cousin Jack (who made the journey with me), found some old papers that he inherited from his mother.  One item was an International Money Order my grandfather sent in 1912 to his mother and father in Slovakia.  During my trip in 2010, I learned about the Alzo family homestead and how they acquired their land.  Not only had my great-grandfather (Janos) traveled to America several times to work and earn money to buy land,  I was told that my grandfather had sent money from America (from his salary he earned as a steelworker in Duquesne, Pennsylvania) to help with the purchase as well. (For those not familiar with Eastern European research–after centuries of serfdom/having to work for the nobility of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, being able to own one’s own farm/land was a BIG deal).

International Money Order (1912) 

On the Sunday we visited Kučín, my cousin Jan (his father was Andrej–my grandfather’s youngest brother who was born after my grandfather left for America), showed us the fields where the Alzo families had worked and the land he currently farms.  

Andrej Alzo’s tombstone, Kučín, Slovakia (Photo by Lisa Alzo, 2010)

We saw with our own eyes what my grandfather helped his family acquire.  My cousin, Jack (who was fortunate to actually know and spend time with my grandfather, and who is also my godfather) teared up several times.  I did too.  It was quite an emotional moment for the two of us.

Alzo land in Kučín, Slovakia (Photos by Lisa A. Alzo, 2012)

After our tour, it was time to head to the Alzo home for lunch.

Copyright, 2012, by LIsa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel. Day 3: A Special Sunday: Part I

Sunday, June 17, 2012

After another breakfast at the hotel, the six of us walked to the main area of Vranov to attend Roman Catholic mass at 11:00 a.m. at the Bazilika Narodenia Panny Márie vo Vranove nad Toplou.

We arrived a bit late so had to stand outside to hear the mass.  It wasn’t so bad–a little humid but there was a breeze and we could hear just fine.  We went inside to take communion.  After the mass, we went back inside to take photographs.  What a beautiful church!

We then stopped for some zmrzlina (ice cream–actually it was more like gelato–but it’s one of the few Slovak words I remembered from my last trip–and, I admit, my favorite Slovak word–listen to the pronunciation here).  I bought the ice cream for us–I wanted to treat Robert and Jack as it was Father’s Day. We walked backed to the hotel to change and wait for Renata’s father to come pick us up because we were going to her parents’ house for the afternoon and then for a tour of Kučín so my cousin could see our grandfather’s birthplace for the first time.  I couldn’t wait to go back to the village again.

Photos by Lisa A. Alzo

Copyright, 2012, LIsa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

Sojourn in Slovakia: The Sequel. Day 2–Party Time!

June 16, 2012
I woke up rather early. The sun was bright coming through the window and it was already very warm.  After I showered and dressed I sorted out the gifts I had brought for my family.  Soon, I could hear some very loud (American) pop music outside of my window—turns out my room faced a soccer field and they were getting ready for some sort of event. 
We received breakfast tickets when we checked in to the hotel, so we went to the breakfast room around 8:30.   In Slovakia the continental breakfast consisted of meats and cheeses, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, pastries.  There were a few hot foods (hard cooked eggs and sausage and some others I can’t remember), coffee, tea, juice.  There was no toaster available, but you could ask them to toast it for you.  I’m not much of a meat eater and don’t usually do cold-cuts for breakfast, so I opted for the toasted bread and some yogurt, and coffee, lots of coffee!
The family party (to celebrate baby A’s first birthday) was schedule to start around 11:00 a.m.  Many of my Alzo relatives would be there along with some new cousins I had not met during my previous trip in 2010 (including Renata’s brother, Joszef, who so resembles my father! Same eyes and same smile).  We had plenty of food and drink, and birthday cake.  The food was served in various courses throughout the day.

I took advantage of the opportunity interview my cousin, Helena, who is the oldest of the clan.  Thanks to my iPad, the Wi-Fi, and my Evernote App, I was able to record snippets of the interview and type notes as my cousin Renata translated Helena’s answers to the questions I asked.  I learned some interesting things about my Alzo ancestors and was able to obtain dates, and details about family relationships that I can follow up with record searches.  The family also brought some old photographs that I planned to borrow and scan with the Flip-Pal mobile scanner I brought along.

It was wonderful to visit with everyone, and we took many pictures.  [Out of respect for my family’s privacy I am not posting any of the group photos here].  But I took this photo of the candle on our table.  I was told that you are not supposed to blow out the candle, but let it go out on its own.  It symbolizes the light of the family that always burns.  

There was a wedding reception being held at the hotel.  We watched as the bride and groom arrived and got to see a few traditional customs such as the “kidnapping of the bride” and others.  We had hoped to watch the traditional Redovy (dollar dance) but we waited until 1:00 a.m. and they were still not ready to start, so we finally decided to call it a day. 

All photos by Lisa A. Alzo

Copyright 2012, Lisa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

[Note:  I am not being compensated by any of the companies that produce the commercial products mentioned in this post].