Finding My People: A Journey Back to Slovakia

The bus left Bratislava, and the landscape quickly shifted: communist bloc after communist bloc. A bleak reminder of darker times in Slovakia. Hues warmed as we rolled through the countryside, and the bus came to a halt in the tiny village of Slepčany. This was my stop.

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A woman waited expectantly. The nun was in her late seventies, her broad face etched with expression. I was surprised by the cheekiness in her eyes that contrasted with her religious garb. Her laughing smile was interrupted by cryptic words, tears tumbling as she pulled me into a tight embrace.

I felt everything and nothing all at once.

Tears teased the edges of my lashes. In the pit of my stomach, I felt a sense of belonging, yet also a deep perplexity. I had no words. It was lucky I didn’t speak the language.

*****

I’d always been utterly enchanted by my Grandfather. He was tall, tanned, and roguishly good looking, with a lilting Slavic accent that fifty years in Ozzie hadn’t tamed.

The glimmer in his eye attested not only to three wives, but a life of mystery. He had a contagious grin, yet also a fiery temper that even had the neighborhood Rottweilers cowering.

To him, I was always “darling”. “Darrrrrrling”.

I remember my mum giving me my first ice cream, and him in a state of rage. “What is this rubbish?! No, give her the real thing.” The ice cream was whisked away, and he picked a juicy peach off his tree.

Yes, Augustine Koprda was an enigma. Rumor had it he’d evaded Czechoslovakia during the communist reign, narrowly escaping being shot as he swam the Danube into Austria. He’d been an illegal poet, a philosopher, an almost priest.

These stories were poetry to my ears and young imagination. Friends of his who also wrote against the regime had mysteriously disappeared. For thirty years, the family presumed he was dead. One day, their telephone rang.

Photo credit: Kesha Robertson

Maria, the nun, and her sister Etka were the Great Aunts I was named after. They were beautiful souls; In the way that only someone who is content with such a simple life can be. I searched the faces of the women in the family, but I didn’t really see myself.

The real moment of revelation was when I met Grandpa’s brothers.

My green eyes and dark, unruly eyebrows had always been my most distinguishable features. They’d been the subject of many a compliment, yet before big brows were in vogue, no girl ever dreamt of having thick, straight eyebrows.

This all changed when I looked into the face of Grandpa’s brothers and their sons. I saw myself in their lineage. My features were mirrored in the men of the family. Everyone found it hilarious. It was a surreal moment.

One brother in particular, Jan, made quite the impression. Me being there was the symbol of a lost connection – time stolen that he’d mourned. He cried and cried. Tears of appreciation. Tears for the brother he’d lost.

Growing up in New Zealand, I feel like men are taught not to cry or express their feelings. But seeing a man so free, so raw, touched me profoundly. Thinking of him now still brings a surging rush of feelings.

In rural Slovakia, the word “family“ has broad borders. People traveled from all the surrounding villages and towns to meet me. They brought translators with them. I was inundated with gifts, photos, and stories, despite them being third or even further-removed cousins.

One cousin took quite the liking to me. Keen to keep the bloodline strong, he showered me in roses and chocolates. This was one of those times I was happy to feign ignorance and not speak the language.

It seems my appreciation of good food and wine runs in the family. Their generosity knew no limits – I have never eaten more in my life. When we left, we were gifted with so much local produce and homemade wine, we couldn’t fit it all in our brimming backpacks.

One by one, my Grandpa and his siblings are leaving this world. My last memory of Maria was of her delightfully throwing rose petals in the air as we drove off.

As for my Grandpa, I visited him shortly before he passed away. I showed him a film I created for his birthday with footage from my time in Slovakia. I never saw him cry before – I guess the Australian culture must have had some impact.

Heritage is something that’s passed down from generation to generation. It’s not something that time, nor distance, can separate. It’s in our cells, our DNA: the very fiber of our being.

Finding your people on the other side of the world is a remarkable moment of magic.

At that moment, being there with him back under his peach tree, it felt like the story had come full circle.

I felt I’d gone where I’d needed to go, and it’s a tale I’ll tell the future generations of Koprdas.

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7 Comments

  • Agueda Palacios said

    Beautiful story.

  • Dawn said

    What a wonderful experience! I hope to trace my heritage back to the doukhobor people in Russia one day!

  • James Wilkinson said

    I have a similar attraction to Bratislava, though I do not know why. As far as I know, none of my ancestors hail from that area, but it has been a possible 'bucket list' item for a long, long time. I am happy you got to be with your people. It fills an important space in your spirit.

  • Leslie Peace Lawrence said

    I felt an immediate connection with these descriptions, both of her emotions and her recognizing those physical attributes she shares with her Czech family!

  • Walt K said

    I too was lucky enough to travel to Slovakia and my Grandmother 's village of Dlhe nad Cirochou. My daughter and I had the trip of a lifetime, met with family, and saw the home where my Grandmother was born. There are no words to express the emotion we felt...it was amazing!

  • James Kasper said

    I will also visit my relatives in a small village in Slovakia called Zborov one day. I can only hope it is as pleasant as your own. Thanks for sharing. Leslie, the author never once mentioned Czech, she is Slovak, two distinctly different peoples.

  • Kellie Smith said

    What a beautiful article, well written and feeling all your feels here! My closest rellies are in Ukraine, I hope to get there one day too!

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