So for those of you who don’t know, Who Do You Think You Are is a TV show where celebrities meet up with genealogists to find out about their family history, and then usually travel to the place where they’re from to see how their ancestors lived. I’m not a celebrity, so I’m not eligible for the show, but luckily I don’t need a fancy show to learn about my family history; my grandma has been ahead of the game for years, and has an incredibly organized and complete set of research done on our ancestors.
Before leaving for Slovakia, I sat down with Grandma and went over some of her research. We went over maps and family trees and lists of descendants and old photos – by the end of it I felt semi-prepared to fly across the world and visit some of the places where my family lived.
There were two sides of the family from two different towns in Eastern Slovakia that I learned about, but I decided to focus on the Tomecko line from Bijacovce, a small village about an hour away from where I am in Kosice. The town was easy to find, situated right underneath the massive and beautiful Spis Castle – one of the biggest castles in Eastern Europe. The whole area was stunningly beautiful with rolling green hills with wild flowers and bright green trees.
We drove up into Bijacovce in plain view of the castle. The town is essentially one big Main Street leading up to a beautiful church, with a few streets leading off on either side. It’s on a hill, so the street heads up on a slope, eventually reaching a set of stairs that leads straight up to the church.
We wandered up the stairs to visit the church, which was painted a light yellow colour and was absolutely stunning. It was built in the 12th Century, so it’s pretty sure that my ancestors would have been baptized and married there. It’s pretty hard to explain the feeling that you get when you’re walking in the footsteps of your ancestors, but I definitely felt it today. They would have walked up those stairs every Sunday for church, and would have celebrated important landmarks in those walls.
We knocked on the door of the church but there was no answer, so we headed over to the cemetery in hopes of finding some of the names I had on my family tree. We didn’t come across any Tomecko, but right away we spotted Smihula’ova, the name of another ancestor on the tree. Smihula is the official name, but Marcela explained that in Slovakia they add “ova” on last names and the names of women. The grave was much more recent than anything that could directly relate to my tree, but it was cool to see the name anyways. After wandering around through all the graves, we realized that they were all form the 20th Century. Marcela explained that often times in Slovakia they reuse the same land for cemeteries; once the land deteriorates on old graves, they burry their family members on top of them. That’s a nightmare for genealogists, but as long as that’s the case here, my ancestors would be buried in that same ground.
After checking out what must have been all of the gravestones in the cemetery, we wandered back past the church and down back into the town in hopes of finding the house, #5, where my ancestors lived. Marcela wasted no time and asked the first man she saw in Slovakian if he recognized the house from a photo Grandma gave me. With it being such a small town, he of course did, but he had to tell us that only two years ago they tore it down. He explained that the owners moved away and could not sell the house, so it fell into disarray and was eventually torn down. The land was taken over by the neighbours, who expanded their yard.
It wasn’t a total bust, though, because after explaining my situation and sharing my family tree, he sent us down the road to house where an 86-year-old woman lives with the last name Smihula. So off we went, down the road to a cute little pink house covered in flower baskets where lived a woman named Smihula.
An older woman opened the door, and once again Marcela explained in Slovak why we were here. After some talking and sharing of the family tree, the woman invited us in to her home. The woman who answered the door was the daughter of the woman we’d been told about, so as we got settled in her beautiful sitting room, she went upstairs to fetch her mother, Maria Smihula.
Maria married in to the Smihula’ova family through her husband, Ondrej Smihula, who passed away in 1990. She and her daughter welcomed us so graciously into their home and listened while we explained why we were there. Maria’s grandson, also named Ondrej, also turned up on his bike, and turned out to be the biggest help because he, unlike his grandmother, has a special interest in family history. Ondrej recognized the Smuhla name on my tree, and quickly biked home to bring back a book that mentioned my ancestor by name, George Smihula. Ondrej already knew the story of George Smihula, because he, too, is his ancestor. This book, written in the 1940s by the local priest, chronicles the history of Bijacovce, and contains an entire chapter about a 1831 uprising that hit the town, lead in part by George Smihula. Georgie, who was named many times in the book, lead the town’s portion of the rebellion, and was eventually hanged in the nearby hills once the Hungarians got the uprising under control. Ondrej said that if you hike up into the hills you can find a small chapel marking the spot of George’s death where you can even still see the hook. I didn’t have the chance to hike up, but someday I really hope to visit.
Maria and her daughter also mentioned that directly across the street, in an old white house, the Smihula family used to live. They lived in this house on the main road until moving to America, in Pennsylvania. This was especially exciting to me, because my ancestors moved to Pennsylvania before moving to Saskatchewan, so it could definitely be that there’s some connection there. The women are still in contact with a relative who lives in Pennsylvania who came to visit a few years ago and promises to come back one day! They showed us the most recent letter she sent, suggesting that there might be some relation there as well.
At this point, everyone was getting pretty excited. It was pretty clear that, however distantly, we were related in some way, and all three of our hosts were excited to tell us and show us all about the town. Ondrej ran upstairs and emerged in a traditional outfit, specific to the town, and Maria’s daughter brought down a beautiful head piece worn by women in the town on special occasions. This was her’s before she was married (it changes to green once a woman is married), and amazingly she let me try it on.
We chatted for so long, and I cannot believe how welcoming and friendly, and altogether incredible this family was to me. We found out that Maria’s daughter is the current groundskeeper of the church, so she offered to phone the priest to ask if we could see the inside. The priest approved, so after saying the biggest possible thank-you, Ondrej lead us back up the hill to the church. After stopping by the Priest’s house to get the most ancient-looking set of keys I’ve ever seen, he took us back up to the church.
First he lead us back through the cemetery and pointed out the stones we’d seen that said Smihula’ova, explaining who they were in relation to him. Next, he took us into this tiny chapel, which is the oldest part of the church. A lot of it has been restored, but this dates at least as far back as the 12th Century, so it’s safe to say my ancestors would have stood in that same chapel. It was beautiful and cool, and just so incredible to be standing there. Although you could tell it had a fresh coat of paint, you could tell it was ancient and full of history.
Next, we visited the main church. It was beautiful inside despite being quite simple. Ondrej showed us part of the wall that was currently being uncovered; apparently there used to be incredible frescoes all over the walls, but at one point when Slovakia was conquered, it was painted over. Today they’re in the process of uncovering the old paint. From what they’ve done so far you can tell that it was once absolutely stunning.
Ondrej offered to show us the upstairs, so we followed him up a tiny stone winding staircase into the roof of the church. From there you could see more of the frescoes; they weren’t painted over because a ceiling had been installed before Slovakia was conquered. They were incredible. Next, we followed him up even more winding stairs into the bell tower. The bells ring on every hour, so we had to be quick before the one o’clock bell came around. Ondrej explained that some of the bells are used daily, while others are for special occasions, and a smaller one is used to announce deaths.
Ondrej was so cool because as a 13-year-old boy , he could not have been more excited or proud to show us around and share his history with us. It’s cool to think that, no matter how distantly, we’re related somehow! He was so eager to answer our questions and find out how I knew so much about my family history. I wish I’d had more details to give him – he and my grandma should talk!
We came down from the bell tower and thanked Ondrej profusely for showing us around. We wanted to give the family a gift or some sort of token of gratitude, but in a town so small, the only thing we could come up with was chocolate! So we left Ondrej back at the house and ran down to the store to buy some nice chocolates. When we got back to the house, they were so sweet and thankful – as though they hadn’t spent at least an hour helping me! Maria invited me to stay for lunch – they were having haluski – but there definitely wasn’t enough to go around for all of us, so we exchanged addresses for Christmas cards, and Ondrej and I exchanged emails. Maria’s daughter said I should let them know if I find out exactly how we’re related.
On our way out of the village, we found the row of houses where the #5 once stood. It was sad to see that it’s no longer standing, but pretty incredible to stand looking at the land where my ancestors used to live. They used to leave that house and walk up and down that main street. It’s completely overwhelming to picture all of that.
It was such an overwhelmingly cool day. I think I’m still processing everything that happened; I’m sure I’ll realized things I left out! But I’ve never visited somewhere that so clearly belonged to my ancestors. So thank you so much to my Grandma Condon for sending me to Slovakia with all the right knowledge and material. This was one of the most special days of my life, and I can’t explain how happy I am to have visited Bijacovce.