My maternal grandparents came from what is now known as Slovakia. I never had the pleasure of meeting my grandfather, Pavel Dusan Uhrik, who had changed his name to Paul D. Ulrich after arriving in America. Grandpa Ulrich died only months before I was born, but my mother often told me stories about him. What I gleaned from her memories was that he was a hard working man who was proud of his Slovakian heritage and the freedom that he had found in America.
My grandfather arrived at the port of Galveston, Texas shortly before the beginning of World War I. At that time Slovakia was not yet an independent country. The people there lived under the thumb of Hungary which was part of a vast empire known as Austria-Hungary. The Hungarian government believed that unifying all of the diverse regions would only occur if everyone officially spoke the same language and learned the same histories. That meant that my grandparents’ native language of Slovak was not allowed in schools or the public square. There was a determined effort to eliminate differences and even cultures.
My grandfather was fiercely opposed to such measures and he worked hard to earn passage to the United States and the freedoms for which he longed. Back then he only needed to show up in the USA and he was allowed to stay. He came first, without my grandmother, to find work and plan for her arrival as well. He quickly found employment doing hard labor on farms, in lumber forests, and wherever else there was work. A year after he came to America he had enough saved to send for my grandmother.
The two of them settled in Houston, Texas. They first lived in rented rooms, but my grandfather saved judiciously until he was able to purchase property just east of downtown. On that site he paid cash to build a home room by room until he and Grandma were able to move in with their rapidly growing family. Grandpa would find work at the Houston Packing Company, cleaning up the room where meat was butchered. He would work there for the remainder of his life, riding a bus each day wearing a suit with great dignity. Upon arrival at work he would change into overalls more suited for the back breaking labor that he performed.
Each Friday my grandfather stopped at a book store where he purchased books of all kinds written in English. He also visited a bakery to purchase bread for the family. He built a library filled with titles that spoke of his dreams of one day owning a farm in the country. Until then he purchased a cow and grew vegetables in his backyard.
On Sundays Grandpa required his children to listen to news programs and speeches from the President of the United States on the radio. Afterward he would instruct them on the challenges of remaining free and insist that they demonstrate gratitude for the lives they were able to have in America. They were poor, but they had opportunities that would have been denied to them in my grandfather’s homeland. Nonetheless, he loved the land of his birth and hoped that one day the people there would be independent and free to determine their own destinies and celebrate their unique culture. He made it clear that his children should always be proud to be Slovakians. He felt that joining his people with Czechs to form Czechoslovakia after World War was a mistake drawn from the belief that there was no difference between the differing people or their languages. He often emphasized to his children to remember that they were not Czechs as so many called them.
My mother often spoke of how sad my grandfather became when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. He wondered if he would ever see his country free like America. When World War II ended with victory for the allies he saw a thin line of hope, but that was soon dashed when Russia intervened and made that country part of its Soviet regime. My mother always believed that the bitter disappointment of watching his homeland being conquered once again brought on the stroke that killed him before he was even able to retire and create his farm.
I have often thought that my grandfather would have been quite happy had he lived to see the country of Slovakia eventually find its own identity and independence. In fact, he would have been pleased to see so many countries with a history of domination forming their own governments and celebrating their own languages and cultures. While he had totally devoted himself to being fully American, complete with insisting that his children speak English just as he did, he reveled in knowing that his way of living and believing had been his choice, not something forced on him by empire builders.
Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, I have thought constantly about my grandfather. I look at the map and I see Slovakia on the western border of Ukraine. I hear the voices of the Ukraine people insisting that they do not want to be a satellite of Russia. They boast of their freedom and their intent to protect it at all costs. In their voices I hear my grandfather’s voice. I viscerally understand how important it is to them to protect their country from ever again being nothing more than an annexation to another power. I realize how much it means to them to be free from a dictator who dreams of a glorious return of the USSR.
I have been greatly involved in following the war between Ukraine and Russia. I search the news as soon as I arise each morning. I check for updates all day long. I pray constantly for the people there. I think of my grandfather and feel that through him I have an idea of how important it is to the people of Ukraine to save their identities as free people. My heart crumbles at the sight of destruction, death and separation that has been forced on them by Putin. I stand with them knowing that there is so little that I might do to help them. Contributing money for medical and food supplies and praying seem to be the best I can do, but I can also use my voice to keep their plight in the forefront of our thoughts. With the story of my grandfather perhaps I can make what is happening there seem more real, more human, more important.
Pavel Dusan Uhrik sensed that he had to leave his country and the people that he loved. He spent decades hoping to see his motherland free from despots. He never got that chance but the dream of it never died. It lived on in my mother, his youngest child. She had seen his fervor, his love of freedom and she knew how much it meant to him and to all of the conquered people who labored under the yoke of the Soviet Union until the end of the twentieth century. She taught me those same lessons and I feel certain that none of those citizens who have been pawns for so much of history ever wish to be dominated again. It’s up to all good people across the globe to make whatever sacrifices needed to foster the cause of Ukraine and any place on our planet where people cry for freedom. It was my grandfather’s dream and now it is mine.