In an earlier post, I wrote about my visit to a cluster of small villages in eastern Slovakia where my Slovak ancestors – the forebears of my maternal grandmother Anna Sabol – once lived.
On a beautiful fall day I set out from the eastern Slovak city of Košice for the villages of Trebejov and Kysak, where my great-grandparents Andrej Sabol (1872-1938) and Maria Daniel (1880-1968) were born. The two villages lay about 20 km north of the city, along a major train line. Through the use of cadastral maps dating back to 1868, I was able to see where Andrej Sabol and Maria Daniel lived with their families, before they emigrated to America in the 1890s. Again, see my earlier post for more on these first two stops on my trip.
By noon I was on my way to Obišovce, two kilometers east of Kysak. I know from my research that Obišovce was home to many generations of the Daniel family. But Obišovce was also a key stop on my tour because it was home to the Evangelical Lutheran church where most of my Slovak ancestors worshipped.
NOTE: You can find a complete gallery of photos from this trip, uploaded as full resolution images, on my SmugMug gallery page.
Obišovce sits on a rising crest of land to the east of the Hornad River. Also called Abos by the Hungarians who once controlled Slovakia, the village can be found on maps going back to 1289. It has a population of nearly 400 people, far less than its 1870 population of 689 (see the Magyar Census of 1869).
The Evangelical Lutheran church, dating back to 1789, is the first thing you notice as you enter the town. Sitting atop small bluff, it looked particularly nice against the backdrop of fall colors. To reach the church, you need to navigate some fairly steep steps. It was amazing to think of my ancestors walking up this same staircase to attend family baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Before my trip, I corresponded with a man named Daniel who administers the church’s Facebook page. He said the church would probably not be open on a weekday but that I should not hesitate to knock on the door of the parsonage and ask for Pastor Petro. So I did.
Although I was barely able to communicate with my limited Slovak, Pastor Petro very kindly opened up the church and allowed me to look inside. The interior was fairly simple, as befits a Lutheran church. There were signs on the wall crediting benefactors of the church from the time of its construction in 1789.
The pastor then took me into the rectory where he showed me a beautiful folk art statue of King David that hung over the original altar. And then, remarkably, he pulled out a large metrical book – the church’s ledger of births, marriages and deaths – dating from 1896.
Prior to 1896, churches and synagogues throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire kept official vital records for all citizens in books just like this. But starting in 1896, the Hungarian government moved to a modern civil registration system, setting up a state records office in Kysak. The old metrical books became property of the state, but churches were free to continue to keep their own records.
So together we leafed through the metrical book where I quickly found entries for the deaths of three great-great-grandparents – church versions of the “official” records I had just located at the Košice state archives.
It was wonderful to handle the giant ledger with my own two hands. And it was interesting to see the moment in 1919, with the end of World War I and the collapse of Austria-Hungary, where the records were recorded for the first time in Slovak. While the overwhelming majority of the population in this region spoke only Slovak, the Hungarians never recognized it for official purposes (unlike the Austrians who were far more liberal on language policy).
I wish I had more time to leaf through but I didn’t want to impose when the pastor had been so generous with his time.
So I said my goodbyes and set my course for the next and final stop on my tour: Žehňa. Around this time, I was beginning to regret that I did not pack a lunch. In my visit to three villages, I had not seen a single shop or restaurant.
On the way to Žehňa, about 17 km to the northeast, I passed through the town of Drienov, seat of the local Roman Catholic parish. Drienov, which sits off the main highway heading north from Košice, looked relatively prosperous. But as I headed up into the hills toward Žehňa, that prosperity faded away.
I wanted to visit Žehňa because my great-great-grandfather Andrej Daniel (Maria’s father) was born there in May 1834. Andrej’s father, also named Andrej, was born in Obišovce. For reasons unknown, he relocated to Žehňa which was home to another Evangelical Lutheran church. There, he married Alžbeta Fagulya, a local girl from the nearby town of Mirkovce, in January 1831. Alžbeta’s first husband Andrej Kacmarovszecz had died a month earlier and she was pregnant with Andrej’s posthumous daughter Barbara.
Alžbeta’s second marriage didn’t last long either. By February 1839, Andrej Daniel Sr. was also dead. Alžbeta moved to Obišovce with her young son (not sure what happened to Barbara) and the two of them lived with the Daniel family until Alžbeta’s death in 1854.
As I neared Žehňa, I saw a sign for Mirkovce. So I took a small detour to check out Alžbeta’s hometown. I found myself on a narrow, rutted road descending into a small valley. As I approached the village, a cluster of two dozen houses along that single road, the streets were clogged with Roma children who gawked as I drove by. Finding myself at a dead end, I did a U-turn and parted the crowd of children yet again.
Back on the main road, I soon reached Žehňa. There too I found Roma children wandering about. Two of them followed me from a discreet distance whispering to themselves.
But while I didn’t always feel comfortable there, Žehňa had a certain charm. It’s almost as old as Obišovce, dating back to 1330. The Hungarians called it Zsegnye. The town sits the near the top of the hill, which is dominated by the Evangelical Lutheran church. The church, with its small chapel, sits on a town green, surrounded by small, old houses. I haven’t been able to figure out how old the church is. Its folk architectural style suggests it may be even older than the church in Obišovce.
The town did not seem as prosperous as Trebejov, Kysak or Obišovce. But it also seemed less changed by modern life. Žehňa, I thought, probably looked a lot like this when my ancestors lived there in the mid-1800s.
I was not able to get inside the church, alas. I tried writing in advance but didn’t hear back. Maybe I should have been more persistent once I got there, but I was getting tired. It was probably too much to try to cram in four towns in a single day. It was still a day well spent. And now I have a reason to go back!