Personal Journey: A trip to remember to a father's ancestral land

John Cech and his dad in one of the villages from which his grandparents emigrated to the U.S.
John Cech and his dad in one of the villages from which his grandparents emigrated to the U.S.
Posted: March 25, 2012

I am on a plane traveling to California for what I know will be the last time to see my father, who is succumbing to congestive heart failure. My wife in her wonderful way, knowing the pain this trip entails, slipped an Inquirer Travel article into my briefcase about a man who traveled with his father back to the small Italian village they were from. As I read it, memories of a similar pilgrimage came flooding back like rereading an old love letter.

In my job, I have been fortunate to travel the world - mostly with people who were familiar with the regions and companies I was seeing. However, I had never traveled to what is now Slovakia, the area my father's family emigrated from in 1910. That was to change, as I had an opportunity to go to the Czech Republic to see an important potential distributor. I decided to expand the trip to include more of Eastern Europe and to ask Dad to go with me.

My grandfather came to the United States, like so many from Eastern Europe before World War I, in search of a life here that was denied to many in that region. Except for a brief journey back to rescue his wife, trapped there on a visit to see her family at the outbreak of the war, he never returned. Dad was born here, and, eventually, as my grandparents passed away, the connections to "home" faded. In June 2005, that was all to change.

In preparation for the trip, we learned that Baba (my grandmother) and Djedo (my grandfather) were from the eastern region near Kosice. Klusov and Hertnik, as it turned out, were the two villages we sought. With a stroke of good luck from a distant cousin, what was to be nothing more than a drive to see the villages became a homecoming.

Hertnik was where my grandmother was born, and the family farm was still there. The turnout on our arrival was our biggest surprise: More than a dozen distant family members showed up to greet us. For some, we were the first Americans they had ever seen. To see Dad talking to women wearing richly patterned floor-length dresses and babushkas was heartwarming as he struggled to bring back the Slovak he spoke as a boy.

The farmhouse was a simple building that consisted of four rooms with no more than about a couple of acres of land - a typical living arrangement in this region - and it became clear why my grandfather was lured by the promise of so much more in America. After the traditional shot and a beer, we enjoyed a lunch of ham, cheese, fresh vegetables, and, yes, pierogies. This was repeated in Klusov, the village just over the hills where my grandfather was born.

While the influence of communist rule was seen in all of the larger cities we visited during our trip, these small villages were mostly untouched as time appeared to have passed them by. The church was the center of life there and where young men and women met. But with TV, cars, and, yes, cell phones, you could see change was coming.

This was home - and I could see that in the smile and animation of my 82-year-old father as he connected for the first time with people he had only heard about growing up. Maybe it was the effect of the shot and beer, but the initial struggle with the language melted away like watching a child who finally figured out how to balance on a bicycle.

We only had one day there, and I wish now we had made more time. The memories are as fresh as if we were there yesterday. This connection to family, this time with my father, this journey to our past, is an experience I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.

John Cech lives in Moorestown.

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