At the end of a hard day’s work, a thoughtful young peasant boy named Pavol used to lie in his father’s farm field and look up in awe at the un-obscured sky that stretched endlessly overhead. The magnificence of the constellations and stars made him question his existence, and made him feel both small and significant at the same time. Later he would grow up to put these thoughts down on paper in the form of beautiful lyrical poetry, and would become a beacon for millions of Slovak people who would rise up in unison against hundreds of years of Magyar domination, recognize their own significance, and demand a country of their own.
On a personal level, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav would also greatly influence the lives of my ancestors and the trajectory of my own life, something I never knew until recently. My great, great grandfather Jan Suster had offered each of his eight children a choice: either land or a post secondary education. Two of them – Michal, my great grandfather, and later his sister Karolina – chose education. In 1909 at the age of 16, Michal packed up his few belongings and headed a few hours north to Dolny Kubin in what is now the north eastern part of Slovakia, where he would attend college over the next 4 years. The small town was very poor, yet housed a school that would educate several artists and leaders who would play prominent roles in the future Czechoslovakia.
The things Pavol thought about while slaving away at some mindless, repetitive task in the field propelled him to leave the farm to attend school in Hungary, where he eventually became a lawyer and one of the most prolific Slovak writers and poets of all time. In 1871 he wrote radical poetry that was not understood or appreciated by his elders; indeed, they ignored his work for the entire decade, and refused to publish him. Around that time he coined the pen name “Hviezdoslav” (“Star-lauder”).
Pavol went on to write epic poems and books and translated a massive amount of work into Slovak, including Shakespeare (Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and works by Goethe and Pushkin among others, and was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature for his work translating Madách (The Tragedy of Man) and for his anti-WWI poem, “Bloody Sonnet”. He became the poet laureate of his country, and in 1918 he was elected to parliament in Czechoslovakia.
This is exactly what captivates me about Slovaks. One the one hand, as a people we are peaceful, even docile people living contentedly off the land under the tent of a great big sky. Because of our relatively simple existence and happiness with few material goods, the greater world has perceived us to be ignorant, simple minded people. But out in the fields and inside those Slovak farmhouses and homes in tiny hamlets and villages live people who positively radiate with creativity and intelligence.
It must have been a very heady experience to be so close to such a powerful and charismatic person as Pavol at the height of his popularity. Michal learned much from Pavol over those four years, and perhaps most importantly, he came away with a love of learning. He would pass this love on down to his two children, and they on to theirs and so forth. My grandfather, Jerry, Michal’s son, set the expectation that each of his five children would attend university, which they did, and the same expectation was set for the 11 grandchildren, and now again it is so for the next generation. It amazes me to think that a poor peasant boy from 150 years ago who dreamed about the stars has caused me to reach for them myself.