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Slovaks reconnect with their heritage

No area of the United States is home to more Slovaks than the Pittsburgh region where descendants of Slovak immigrants are eager to learn a language and legacy once the target of prejudice and scorn

Sunday, May 20, 2001

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Martin Tucek and seven colleagues crossed a continent and an ocean to visit U.S. Steel's world headquarters and take what they learned about capitalism back to their homeland.

But in a social club on a dead-end street on the South Side, Tucek was greeted by an enclave of Pittsburghers speaking in his native tongue, singing native folk songs and serving up dishes of sausage, noodles and cabbage, doughy turnovers and nut rolls.

"It feels like home," the 33-year-old Tucek, a resident of Kosice, Slovakia, said with saucer-eyed delight.

Debbie Hovanec Rieber of Mount Oliver, whose grandparents emigrated from Slovakia, and her husband, Ray Rieber, right, get in touch with their heritage through social and cultural events at the Kollar Club on the South Side. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette

The scene that bridged a chasm of 4,500 miles and turned back time occurred in the John Kollar Slovak Literary and Library Society, commonly known as the Kollar Club, on Jane Street in an secluded neighborhood called The Hollow.

The club is where, a century or so ago, Slovak immigrants came to learn their first words of English so they could get jobs in Pittsburgh's dirty and dangerous mines and mills.

Today, their offspring, seeking to reconnect with or strengthen their links to the past, gather in the same club to learn Slovak.

It was left to Albina Senko, a transplanted Slovakian who now lives in Pittsburgh, to explain the parallel worlds to the eight visitors -- all of them middle managers from the VSZ steel mill in Kosice, which U.S. Steel recently purchased, and all of them new members of the Kollar Club.

"Those who came to America kept the flame alive. They're tough people. They hung on for over 100 years, even when it wasn't fashionable. You have to give them credit," said Senko, secretary of the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association.

Like a circle coming to completion, the old and new worlds merged like long-lost family.

The visiting Slovaks knew tens of thousands of their countrymen had emigrated to America -- 52,368 of them in 1905 alone. But they had no idea of their legacy: the language classes at the Kollar Club (named for a 19th-century Slovak poet) and the more formal Slovak language classes at the University of Pittsburgh; the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Radio Hour on WPIT; the dance troupe the Pittsburgh Slovakians; the honorary consulate the Slovak Embassy opened here; the Slovak flag that flies in the Allegheny County Courthouse; and other bits of culture that survived despite the pressures of homogenization.

The bond between Western Pennsylvania and Slovakia, a tiny country of 5 million inhabitants in the heart of Europe, is largely invisible. But now more than ever, those ties are as strong as reinforced steel.

No area of the United States is home to more Slovaks, who as a group learned to survive outside the spotlight and who have endured for a millennium under the thumb of bigger powers.

The Slovak Heritage Christmas Show at Prince of Peace Parish keeps alive traditions of the homeland for Anna Nicolella, 87, of the South Side. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

According to U.S. Census figures in 1990, about 1.8 million Americans are of Slovak descent. Of that total, about 450,000 live in Pennsylvania, and a quarter million of them live in the Pittsburgh area.

Their homeland is largely off the world's radar screen.

In its latest incarnation, Slovakia has existed as an independent country for eight years, even though it has a thousand years of history. It split from the Czech Republic in the 1993 Velvet Divorce after Czechoslovakia -- which came into existence in 1918 with an agreement signed in Pittsburgh -- threw off the shackles of communism in the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Even the high and mighty have trouble untangling its history.

As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush once told a Slovak interviewer: "The only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned from your foreign minister, who came to Texas." The trouble was, his meeting was with the prime minister of Slovenia, which was once part of Yugoslavia.

Slovakia is a largely rural land between the Danube River and the High Tatra Mountains. No matter who tried to assimilate it -- the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Germans, the Soviets -- the Slovak identity was never extinguished.

Not that it wasn't sorely tested.

About 20 percent of Slovakia's population fled in the latter half of the 19th century to escape grinding poverty, epidemics and crop failures. At the time, their Hungarian overlords wanted to absorb the country. Under a program called Magyarization, which was not unlike ethnic cleansing, Slovak schools were closed, and the Slovak language was banned.

A flood of Slovaks, carrying their courage and faith and culture but little else, settled here and went to work. Like other ethnic groups, they found the jobs in the mines and mills to be backbreaking and poor-paying but they leaned on each other to work their way up from the bottom. The women toiled, raising children, cleaning houses, taking in boarders and coaxing vegetable gardens out of scrabbly ground.

One of history's ironies is that Slovaks, like other Slavic peoples, were blanketed with the derisive label of hunkies, a corruption of Hungarian, a nationality forced on them in the Old World. The label was usually proceeded by the word "dumb," because they didn't speak English.

Pressures were immense to abandon the old ways, change their names and become Americanized. Speaking Slovak in school could lead to a beating or being sent home. Being an immigrant could mean being pelted with stones or names.

But those first Slovaks planted their roots and gave their offspring wings.

One can only imagine what they would have thought of the scene in the Kollar Club: small-business owners, health-care providers, students, teachers, journalists, engineers with doctorate degrees, all Slovak, all free, both here and abroad.

A Slovak legend describes its language as the most beautiful in the world: "like the singing of angels, as beautiful as the dew shining in the sun, as pleasant as a breeze in May, as nice as the smile of an innocent child."

Bozena Fox, who teaches a Slovak language class at the Kollar Club, understands the trend to reconnect with family roots: "The third and fourth generations, they want to go back, to see where their ancestors came from, and they want to speak at least a couple of words in Slovak." (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

For those unschooled in it, the vowel-challenged words look like tongue-twisters and jaw-breakers. It has sounds and syntax not found in English, and only about 40,000 Americans speak it fluently.

But the language, related to but distinct from Czech, is safeguarded through a nationally renowned program at the University of Pittsburgh. Created 15 years ago, the Slovak Studies Program is the only one of its kind because it is endowed through a $500,000 fund paid for by Slovak-Americans.

The old priests used to say that the only time Slovaks stand together is during the Gospel. But to preserve the language, unity of purpose came in the form of money from the Ladies Pennsylvania Slovak Catholic Union, Slovak Catholic Sokol, First Catholic Ladies Association of the USA, First Catholic Slovak Union and the National Slovak Society, which was founded in 1890 in Pittsburgh and now has its headquarters in Canonsburg.

Without the donations, the university would be unable to support such a program. The final $25,000 installment was presented in November at Pitt's annual Slovak Heritage Festival, which features ethnic displays, lectures, films, music and food.

The class is taught by Martin Vortuba, a native Slovak. It attracts a variety of students, including some who sit in without receiving credits and others who have used it as a springboard to get jobs at the Pentagon and Radio Free Europe.

"It is a very difficult language to learn," Vortuba said. "One of my students said he got a better appreciation of what his grandparents went through in trying to learn a whole new language in America."

Suzie Ondrejco, a sophomore at Duquesne University, cross-registered at Pitt to study Slovak because she needed a foreign-language credit and wanted to know the language better.

Her parents, Rudy and Sue, are co-hosts of the weekly Slovak Radio Hour, which offers music and community news in both Slovak and English.

Trained in jazz, tap and ballet, Suzie also is a member of the Pittsburgh Slovakians dance troupe, which performed four years ago in the Slovak village where her father was born.

The spectacle of Americans dancing in native costume brought Slovak ladies in the audience to tears.

"They were sitting there crying because we have preserved how things were before. We preserved the old ways," Ondrejco said. "For me, Slovakia is like my second home. It's like going to Grandma's house."

The language classes at the Kollar Club are more casual, but the students are no less motivated. The class, sponsored by the National Slovak Society, runs 10 weeks and costs $60.

Many students want to be able to converse when they travel back to the old country, while others want to preserve roots that are as deep as teeth.

"It's a must. If your language dies, your nationality dies," said Dick Petrulak, a self-employed businessman from Glassport who was among a dozen students in the weekly class.

The teacher is Bozena Fox, who earned degrees in physical education and Russian literature in her native Slovakia. Here, she teaches at Carlow College and Allegheny County Community College. She also is a personal trainer at the Duquesne Club.

Suzie Ondrejco shares stories of Slovak history and culture with Rachel Collins, 6, of West View; Joseph Lako, 6, of Ross; and other children during a weekly dance class in Homestead. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Pittsburgh's hills and rivers remind her much of home, and she was both pleased and surprised to find so many Slovaks living here and keeping up their links to the past.

"The first generation was laughed at and called names if they spoke Slovak. There was still a stigma attached to the second generation, which learned only English. But the third and fourth generations, they want to go back, to see where their ancestors came from, and they want to speak at least a couple of words in Slovak," said Fox, who met her American husband through the language classes.

"The first ones made it through the hard times, and they stressed the importance of education to their children. The more you learn, the easier you'll have it in life," she added.

The words printed on a paper pad perched atop a tripod had special meaning for Pete Zemanick, 69, of Upper St. Clair. He has a doctorate in engineering and has studied French, Greek, Latin and German.

When Slovak is spoken, Zemanick said, "I hear my grandmother talking."

In his grandparents' days in America, the best jobs and the nicest homes went to those who spoke English. Slovak faded out, but he decided to learn it after chronicling his father's life.

"I had roots I disconnected from," Zemanick said. "It's been a challenge, but the culture and language seem to be staying alive."

He also spoke of those who made the voyage, willing to make a new start in a strange land so they and their children would have it better.

"The courage of those people astounds me. Talk about guts. They had no idea what they were getting into. It's a little Darwinian. The bravest ones did it," he said.

Most of the world saw it as a business deal, but Slovaks saw it as the circle of life when U.S. Steel, now a unit of USX Corp., acquired VSZ for $450 million last year. The steel mill, built in the 1960s, is located in Kosice, a city of cathedrals and universities and 300,000 residents.

Slovakia, with an unemployment rate of about 20 percent, is still struggling with the transition to capitalism. But its bid to join the European Union has been enhanced by U.S. Steel's presence, which is hoped will attract other industry.

The Kosice mill, with its continuous casters and three blast furnaces, is the country's largest enterprise. Its 17,000 workers average $2 an hour compared to the $35 to $40 hourly wages paid to U.S. steelworkers.

The man running the plant is John Goodish, or Gojdic, as his Slovak ancestors spelled it. Both of his grandfathers worked at H.C. Frick coal mines in Fayette County. His father worked as a miner, a mine foreman and then as a cost analyst for U.S. Steel.

Goodish was general manager of U.S. Steel's Mon Valley Works and the Gary Works in Indiana before moving to Slovakia.

"People came to America to find opportunity, and there was opportunity if you were willing to work. Now Americans are coming back to their roots in Slovakia. It is, indeed, a small world," Goodish said in a phone interview from Kosice.

U.S. Steel has 25 full-time people, many with families, living in Slovakia. Their children attend Slovak schools, although two American teachers with Slovak ties were hired to help with some classes. The adults are taking Berlitz classes in Slovak to help with the transition.

Soon after the business deal was complete, Goodish spoke to all the VSZ plant workers to lay out goals and objectives.

Although he used an interpreter for most of the speech, he said, "I spoke two sentences in Slovak, and the crowd went wild."

The two cultures are getting closer in other ways, although the transplanted Pittsburghers had to go to the Internet to keep up on Steelers games. Kosice restaurants now have English words on the menu. And at Thanksgiving, the Americans flew in some pumpkin pie filling. For all the rich variety of Slovak desserts, many of the natives had never tasted pumpkin pie.

"These people have opened up their homes, opened up their arms. They made me feel very much at home, not like a stranger," Goodish said. "All we have to do now is make money."

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