My grandson Jack is quite active in theater arts in high school, so much so that his senior superlative award deemed him the most likely to win an Academy Award. Ironically his life plan is to become a computer specialist and his intent is to put his acting days to rest while attending Texas A&M University, so the probability that he will fulfill the prediction regarding his thespian abilities appears to be slim to none, unless he uses his computer skills at Pixar one day.
Jack’s final role will be in an original one act play written by his teacher about a Slovakian, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, believed to have been one of the most prolific serial killers in history. In a twist of irony she lived in the very town, Cachtice Slovakia, where my grandfather, Pavel Uhrik, was born. As was common in that part of the world well into the twentieth century, the ruling class held sway over the peasants to such an extent that the common folk lived in dire want and virtual obscurity. If a woman living in a castle hired one of them to work for her and then that laborer disappeared few would have thought much of the incident, especially in medieval days. Life for the vast majority of Slovakians was a dreary affair with the quest for work and food always the main concern well into the twentieth century. Little wonder that my grandfather Pavel Uhrik ultimately chose to immigrate to America just before the outbreak of World War I.
When I study the history of Slovakia I begin to better understand Pavel and why he chose to live his life the way he did. He came from a highly stratified political culture in which landowners held sway over the majority of the population. While the wealthy owned vast areas of land, their workers were tenants subject to the whims of their masters who all but owned them. They often lived in small cramped huts without running water or electricity. Hunger stalked them like a marauder. Few had the time or the means to pursue education beyond the fifth grade so among them there was an exceedingly high rate of illiteracy. The very conditions that made their lives so miserable also made them targets of prejudice. Without opportunities for change they either resigned themselves to the hopelessness of their lives, or found a way to leave their dreary situations behind by becoming immigrants to places like the United States.
I never met my grandfather but I heard countless conflicting stories about him. He was proud to be Slovakian but even prouder to be an American. His children knew little about his past life because he tended to be secretive which is true of many immigrants. In retrospect it seems likely that his former life had been so harsh that he found little to boast about. He was a practical man who believed in moving forward rather than looking back. He would have had little reason to speak of a time when he lived in miserable and perhaps even humiliating conditions.
Pavel was also an exceedingly stoic man. He worked hard everyday to provide for his family and almost furiously rejected even acts of charity. Perhaps accepting gifts or money that he had not earned made him feel too much like owing something to another and he fiercely insisted on maintaining the freedom that he had secured in his new country. He paid cash for every item that he purchased and carefully saved from his small salary so that he might build a home for his family. He purchased land and livestock and boasted that in America he was a man of substance, something that might have been impossible to achieve in his old country.
He filled his home with books, a grand luxury and sign of his personal success. He insisted that his children take full advantage of the educational opportunities that were afforded them. On Sundays he often read to them from the many volumes that he collected. He insisted that their futures were to be found in learning and hard work. He noted that he was the master of his own destiny as they were as well, and that nobody makes it anywhere without effort.
He was not always treated well by his fellow Americans nor were his children. They endured taunts and were victimized by misunderstandings caused by their cultural and physical differences. He counseled his children to ignore the slights and to prove themselves with positive accomplishments. There would be no whining or self pity allowed in his home. They were to hold their heads high and be satisfied that they had a safe, if very small home, and food on the table every single day. While he never alluded to want in his native land, there was an understanding among his children that they were quite fortunate in the grand scheme of things.
All of the aspects of having made it that most probably had been missing in Pavel’s early life were found in his great adventure in America. He was eternally grateful to the country that had made his existence and that of his children so much better, even when its treatment of him lacked hospitality. He knew all too well how horrible the alternative would have been and so he counted his blessings rather than focusing on the imperfections. His children would follow his lead in this regard, urging all of us from the third generation of Americans to appreciate our good fortune and to abstain from comparing ourselves to others.
Our own children and grandchildren are now so distant from the realities of Pavel Uhrik that they are hardly able to imagine their great great grandparent’s worldview. The extended family has become so successful and so Americanized that few would think that a little over a hundred years ago the founder had sailed away from a life without prospects to one with ill defined but exciting promise. He had moved from a town in which a wealthy woman was free to murder almost six hundred innocent souls simply because nobody had enough energy to check on the nameless peasants whose lives had so little value that they easily faded into obscurity.
Now Pavel’s great great grandson Jack will play the part of a man determined to change the fate of the unwashed souls who were being so horrifically tossed aside in his ancestor’s old land, someone who stood up to a system that was so unfair. Because Pavel took a courageous risk, Jack is well on his way to fulfilling his own dreams. He has both benefited from and taken advantage of the opportunities that were a gift handed down through the generations from Pavel. In a twist of fate the circle of life begun so long ago has returned to it’s beginning and provided an opportunity for all the sons and daughters of Pavel to give thanks that we are exactly where he might have dreamed that we would one day be.