As our bus crossed the invisible line dividing Austria from Slovakia, I had to look quickly to notice the official buildings on both sides of the highway — the only clue that we had left one country and entered another. It also marked the abrupt end of the huge, steel-towered windmills, which stood at attention, in random formation, over much of Austria, but not Slovakia. My eyes swept over the rural landscape ahead and relished the feeling of returning to Grandpa Stefan Divis’ homeland. I gazed out over the rolling hills and farmlands, and waited to see what has become the symbol of Slovakia to me — acres and acres of sunflower heads all tilted at the same angle, in as tight a formation as soldiers, tracking the sun. Steel tower monster windmills as opposed to graceful sunflowers: the first of many contrasts I have encountered in my trips to Slovakia. This is the place I love to come back to! Grandpa, on the other hand, made a very brave decision to leave this land in 1910, never to return. I wonder what he would think of my journey.
I came with a large group from the New Heights Church, Vancouver, Washington, USA, to teach and tutor students in English as a second language. I was as eager to learn about them and their country as they were to learn about me and mine. They are quick to learn English, more so than I will ever be to learn Slovak. Oh, that my father, Stephen George Divish, first born of Stefan, had taught me the language he learned as a child living in the home of immigrants in Michigan. My students are eager to see and experience beyond the borders of their small war torn country. They are curious why I would want in, when many of them — as did my Grandfather — want out.
While the younger generation has studied the history of their country, their parents and grandparents have lived through hard times as surrounding empires trampled over and controlled the Slovaks. Rick Steves said it well in his travel guide “Vienna Salzburg & Tirol” “…brutally disfigured by the Communist… Slovakia has spent most of its history as someone else’s backyard. “ Dominating powers crushed the Slovaks, renamed villages and towns, and imposed the conqueror’s language on the area.
Case in point, Grandpa Stefan’s birth certificate lists the village of Nedašovce. I obtained a copy of that document during the reign of the “Ceskoslovenska socialisticka republika,” so it bears the seal of Czechoslovakia. When Stefan booked passage in Hamburg, Germany, to sail to the USA, he listed “Nystravapa, Hungary,” as his home, which reflected the controlling dynasty of the Magyars of Hungary. Perhaps it was from this that Grandpa fled, along with hundreds of thousands of other Slovaks in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The harsh economic conditions could have been a factor as well. American industries, coal and steel manufacturers, were looking for cheap labor and were willing to pay the passage of potential workers to cross the Atlantic. Whether Grandpa had any part of that deal remains a mystery. However he managed to fund it, Stefan booked passage on the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria for October 12, 1910. Online searches reveal the Kaiserin arrived at Ellis Island, New York, on October 29, 1910. The ship’s manifest records an entry for “Istvan Devis” with Grandpa’s birthdate, nationality and mother’s name, Anna Diviš (or possibly Devis). Interestingly, errors on names and spelling likely happened while registering to depart, in contrast to the popular picture of someone scribbling the name they thought they heard from the newly arrived pilgrim. Stefan Diviš became Istvan Devis. Grandpa’s timing, perhaps intentional, took him safely out of harm’s way, as WWI and then WWII devastated his homeland, and soon to follow, Communist occupation. The more I have learned of Slovakia’s past, the more compassion I have for my people, and realize why they are not trusting of strangers.