In January 1920, central Europe was a place of great uncertainty. For much of the previous half decade, war had ravaged the region. Empires had fallen. Ideologies were being tested.
To the north and west, Germany was carved up by the Treaty of Versailles, which took effect that month, with control of territories transferring to six other countries, including Czechoslovakia and Poland.
To the east, Lenin’s Red Army was fighting the latter stages of a civil war to assert Bolshevik socialism over capitalism, and defining a new political entity, which would become the Soviet Union.
Fear and instability
It was too soon after the Great War to expect that a second war of even more vast devastation loomed less than two decades in the future. But amidst the stark treatment by the victors over the vanquished were the seeds of resentment, fear and instability that would soon wreak havoc again over the continent.
Yet from the rubble of central Europe, a democratic republic came to life and gave reason for hope. Czechoslovakia was a multi-national amalgam of languages, religions, histories and traditions, brought together through determined diplomacy. It was not a military power, but with 13 million people, a mid-sized European country capable of standing on its own.
Into this context, a girl was born on January 13, 1920, in the village of Čeklís (now known as Bernolákovo), 15 kilometres from Bratislava. Her mother’s maiden name was German and her father’s name was Hungarian; not an unusual combination for a Slovak child of the time.
A diligent student
Little Etela would hang around her father’s blacksmith shop, fetch water from the village pump, and chase the family’s chickens. As she grew, she became a diligent student. Taking to heart her father’s lesson: “The number of languages you learn, that many times you are a person,” she became capable in Slovak, Hungarian and German. She also developed a knack for numbers and, as a young graduate, earned herself a job at the National Bank. There, she met a man with a Czech name, who came from a farming family in Slovakia’s agricultural heartland around Nitra.
Soon after the war ended, the Communist Party took control of the country and collectivised many farms, including that of Ján’s family. It was a major blow to the family’s spirits, but they kept working.
Etela and Ján fell in love and decided to marry while the priest Jozef Tiso was governing Slovakia as a war-time Nazi puppet state. When Ján’s Lutheran family refused to attend the wedding in a Catholic church, Etela stuck to her traditions and planned a very modest ceremony with a few witnesses in a side chapel of St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava.
Etela bore two children, a son and a daughter. She and Ján raised them to be good citizens, to work hard, live modestly, pay taxes and to vote, but otherwise stay clear of politics. They never joined any political party, despite the Communists’ efforts to recruit them.
By the time Alexander Dubček initiated the Prague Spring and “Socialism with a Human Face”, Etela’s son was a university student. Excited by the new openness, he ventured for short educational stays in western Europe. He was in Norway when the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968. Faced with a life-defining choice, he decided to not return home. Instead, he finished his studies in Germany, married an American woman and started a family.
The Communist “normalisation” of the 1970s and 1980s
Etela and Ján were saddened, but nonetheless reconciled with these decisions. There were, however, consequences. Etela and Ján faced bureaucratic questioning, surveillance and were forced by the regime to move from their spacious apartment in central Bratislava to the eighth-floor of a panelák at the end of the tram line on the city’s outer limits.
The one-bedroom flat was tiny, but Etela’s tidy efficiency maximised every centimeter of it. Plus, their new building’s central heating meant they no longer had to haul and burn coal. They liked that they could walk through fields and forests just beyond their building, picking rose hips and herbs. Etela would dry them in the apartment before pressing them into sweet wine and medicinal concoctions. They did not have a car or, for years, a phone. When they received a letter from Etela’s sister, who still lived near Bernolákovo, saying she expected them for Christmas dinner three days later, they had little choice but to catch the train and show up at the appointed hour.
In this way, they endured under Gustáv Husák‘s Communist “normalisation” of the 1970s and 1980s.
Then came 1989. Václav Havel, Dubček and others led a bloodless revolution to topple the regime. Everything changed for Etela and Ján and everyone they knew. Within weeks, their teenage grandson was visiting them in Bratislava. When he did, Etela took him shopping to spend the Czechoslovak korunas she had been saving for him on a fur coat. But they warned him against mentioning it on the phone to his father. “You never know who is listening,” Etela told her grandson.
Three short years later, Etela was among the most enthusiastic “babky demokratky” cheering Slovakia’s negotiated split from the Czech lands. Privately, she believed Slovakia’s time to shine had finally come. But she wouldn’t be caught stirring things up publicly. In fact, when her grandson sought to cover the newly independent state as a journalist, she begged him to steer clear of controversy and take a job as an English teacher. He didn’t take her advice, but did tolerate her dinner table admonitions. Her halušky and palacinky were just too irresistible.
Etela eventually took up yoga to stay fit. She was doing headstands in her apartment into her eighties. “I’m going to live to 100,” she would say.
She did live to see Slovakia join the European Union, a crowning achievement for her country whose history — like her own family’s history — is so intertwined with its neighbours. But she passed away before she could see Slovakia elect its first woman president, another achievement she would have been proud of.
Etela Nagyová Zedníková, my grandmother, would have been 100 years old this week. Her story was the story of Slovakia over the past century. She was a woman of paradoxes. They were what made her so human. And so Slovak.
Rick Zedník was a co-founder of The Slovak Spectator. He is a Slovak-American dual citizen who lives in Brussels with his British-Canadian wife and their two daughters. He still craves his grandmother’s halušky and palacinky.
(Title picture: Etela at age 95 with her grandson Rick)