Click here to see a slide show. The village of Henclova, Slovakia, looked like villages we had been passing all week: on the outskirts, fields of intense green; in the village itself, a church with a pointed steeple, a cluster of houses with sloped roofs, and a small memorial to men killed in war. The village is distinct in certain ways, if you care to look for the differences. Henclova is tucked in a mountain valley, along a brook, with the forests around it closing in a little more closely than forests do down below. Henclova is smaller than other settlements, with fewer than 200 people, and it does not lie on the way to anywhere, but at the end of a road. In a nearby town, I found an oddly translated book on the region in which the single sentence about Henclova contained the words, “known for traditional trade of linen-making.”
I had taken us out of our way to get here. All travel, I suppose, is out of one’s way. But I had chosen not to go hiking up at Stary Smokovec, nor to turn west so that we could get back to Prague, and instead to come to Henclova. I had made an effort, put the village on the itinerary the way I would have once insisted on seeing some ancient rubble heap of acknowledged historical significance.
All this because, around 1901, a 19-year-old named Mary Fridmanski Sandor left Henclova with a baby on her hip. “Can you imagine?” my mother likes to ask, suggesting an act of almost shocking bravery.
It may or may not have been brave, but I don’t find it so shocking. There was, for one thing, a Mr. Sandor who had already crossed the Atlantic. So, maybe Mary left for love. Or maybe, husbandless, she was in danger of being ostracized. But what I imagine compelling a 19-year-old girl out of her mountain hamlet is an immense restlessness. How exciting, how tempting, to get away from all she had known.
It must by now be obvious that I have a subjective interest in Henclova and Mary. In fact, she was my great-grandmother, and I am succumbing to the American disease: I want to know where I am from. But I also have a luxury peculiar to the citizens of immigrant nations, that of having a smorgasbord of roots from which to select. I can make the story up. Even as I appropriate this place, it rings false to choose it above others. Why not explore Massachusetts, or Manitoba, or any other random place my forebears may have dwelled?
I think the mountains of Slovakia appeal because, in a family tree that has featured frequent migration along all branches, they seem less like a way station and more like a source. Here I can invent a personal founding myth. It is possible to imagine, in Henclova, a family staying put for century upon century, and before that springing from under the mushrooms. This is reassuring, perhaps because in my own life I’ve been unable to stop the generational momentum. In fact, I’ve accelerated it. I can’t seem to stay put for more than a couple of years, and as a result, nowhere feels like home.
Contemporary Henclovans pick up their mail in Nalepkova, a bigger community down the valley. With 2,250 people, Nalepkova earns five paragraphs in the oddly translated book. First erected in the 13th century, the village “was probably damaged by the Turkish hordes.” An act published in 1290 granted freedoms to “people living in a thick forest.” The town prospered on iron and copper deposits, but “the 16th century brought about never ending conflicts of the landlords Mariassy.” It’s the sort of idiosyncratic history that doesn’t mention any Hapsburgs until you get to the anti-Hapsburg rebellions.
Today, one striking feature of Nalepkova and the surrounding area is that many of the residents are Roma, who are distinguishable from ethnic Slovaks by their darker skin. Once nomadic, Roma (also known as gypsies) now mostly live in settled communities across Europe, and the 300,000 or so in Slovakia largely remain second-class citizens, less educated and less likely to hold jobs. In Nalepkova, light and rain penetrate gaps in some of the wooden homes, which have outhouses instead of indoor plumbing.
I think that when my mother suggests Mary was brave, it’s through the distorting lens of hindsight. Now we know that she would never see Henclova again, but she didn’t know that herself. Perhaps it should have been obvious, what with the difficulties of transportation. But, in fact, Mary had a sister who migrated to the United States, found it not to her liking, and went back home.
Moreover, the belief that we will see a place again is not based on practicalities. Rather, it’s a necessary condition of departure. Over the last decade, I’ve been to scores of places that I’ve enjoyed and even loved. It never occurs to me, when I leave, that I’ll never see them again, even though in most cases I won’t. If it did occur to me, how would I leave? Thinking one can go home again, as Mary perhaps did, is the most necessary self-deception of all. Without it, no one would ever get out the door.
When we leave Henclova, we wind through forests and hills for several hours and arrive in Banska Bystrica, a town I had never heard of until I looked on the map for a place to sleep. A banner on the clock tower proclaims Banska Bystrica’s 750th anniversary, but the town is youthful, full of mountain bikers and cozy bars. Nothing is in English, and there are few hotels; the buskers in the main square are singing Slovak songs, not Bob Marley. This is a place that doesn’t seem to need the outside world. I briefly toy with the idea of moving here, which appeals because of the sheer difficulty—I’m not comfortable being comfortable—and also because, after so much moving, I’m looking for a place to be. I could claim I was doing it for the sake of my heritage, but I would be making it up.
There is nothing as definable as a nation for me to latch onto in these hills. Even Mary’s maiden and married names, Fridmanski and Sandor, only lead to more options. Neither is Slovak, rather, one is associated with Poland and the other with Hungary, the realms to the north and south. When she left, there was no Slovakia on the map, just a great Hungarian block stretching right up to Galicia, now part of Poland, beyond which lay the Russian Empire. Slavs and Tatars and Germans have settled here at one time or another.
In the end, all I can say is that Henclova is not really an end to anything I might be looking for. I am related to some people who lived in these mountains for a while. One of them left, maybe because she was wise and brave, or maybe not, and in doing so, she spared her progeny from two great wars, and Nazism, and communism. That’s what the small memorial in Henclova is about: It honors the local men who died in what is known as the Slovak National Uprising, the 1944 rebellion against the German puppet government in Bratislava. It also notes that an unknown Soviet partisan died fighting with the Slovaks.
Nomadic cultures haven’t fared well over the last millennium or so. They’ve been victims of their own light-footedness, run out and run over by people given to building opera houses and stadiums—people who know how to put down roots. The rooted quite rightly don’t trust the rootless, who don’t care about opera houses and stadiums and can’t be counted on to stick around. I would like to be someone who sticks around. But looking for stillness in a mountain town, because my great-grandmother happened to leave it one day, is just another excuse to wander.