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.