Educating Karolina Suster, The Slovak Girl
When her older brother Michal went away to school, this impressed Karolina immensely. When Karolina reached her teens in 1915 she was asked, as were each of her seven siblings, whether she wanted land or an education and Karolina immediately chose the latter. Never mind that this was during WWI, that the all-boys school was hours away in a village hard hit by the war, or that only one other Slovak girl from Vojvodina had ever gone to school, in over 100 years. At the time few schools admitted females, and in that part of the world intelligent, educated women were not thought of highly in society; only the most resilient young women persevered to get an education.
Karolina headed alone to the private school, Viššia obchodna školav dolnom Kubíne, in Dolny Kubin as did her brother Michal before her. Perhaps she felt somewhat looked after by her sister-in-law Marisa’s family, the Andels, who lived nearby. And right down the road was close family friend, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, who had supported and encouraged Michal through school.
The war hit Dolny Kubin hard, as it did every small village in its midst. Food was scarce, and Karolina and her fellow students often subsisted mainly on cabbage, milk and cheese. When he could, Michal, by now a Major in the Austro-Hungarian Army, would come back to visit Dolny Kubin and smuggle in food for Karolina, her friends, the Andels and Pavol. Conversely, life back home on the farm in Pivnice was not nearly so hard. They had always grown most of their own food, and so the war had far less of an impact on the Suster family, at least food-wise, than it did for those in town. It is a testament to her determination to complete her education that Karolina soldiered on through such difficult times.
Karolina loved school, despite the harsh living conditions and in spite of being the only girl in the school. She studied economics, languages (German, English and secretly twice a week, the legally forbidden language of Slovak), art, music and stenography, among many other subjects. Two fellow students in her class would go on to enjoy extraordinary, renowned success in their careers; artists Kolomon Sokol and Ľudovít Fulla.
Sokol was a gifted painter and graphic artist inspired by the likes of Vincent Van Gogh. Sokol travelled far from Slovakia in his life, teaching for a time in Mexico City, and then settling eventually in the US where he died at the age of 100 in Arizona earlier this century. His wife Lydia is still alive, and will be 103 this June.
Fulla too was a talented artist whose work was fundamental to Slovak Modernism. A painter, graphic artist, illustrator, stage designer and art teacher, he lived to the age of 78 and is one of the most important figures of Slovak creative art in the 20th century.
As youngsters, the class made a pact that they would meet up together every year for the rest of their lives at the same place and time. Sadly, Karolina never made the trip; her life would be dominated by one extraordinary circumstance after another, chiefly among them WWII and communism, and she became fearful of what she knew and who might find out. Twice in her life she burned important papers and invaluable family pictures, afraid of being caught; once when the Nazis came to Vojvodina in WWII, and again in 1999 when Serbia was bombed.
Karolina graduated from school and returned home to Vojvodina, where she soon met and married Samuel Sirka, a fascinating and interesting man from the village of Kulpin (near Petrovec) who was uncharacteristically enamored with her intelligence. He was Slovak Lutheran priest for 33 years, first in Bekescsaba Hungary, and then in Mokra, Romania, then Aradac, Vojvodina and finally in Hlozany, Vojvodina. He was a Senior of the Lutheran Slovak church in Backa until 1959 when he died.
One evening the Sirkas had several other priests over for dinner. Samuel asked Karolina to play the violin, which she did beautifully. When she was done, one of the priests remarked that only gypsies played music, and so after everyone left for the evening, Karolina took her violin to the hearth, threw it into the fire, and never played again.
Karolina and Samuel had two children, Brano and Vera. She was a wonderful wife and mother, a great story teller and a terrific cook. Karolina instilled the love of education in her children; both her son and daughter grew up and furthered their education, and her grandchildren did too. Karolina lived a long, healthy life as most Susters do, and died in 2001 at the ripe old age of 99. Here’s to you, Karolina Suster, our own Suster Renaissance woman.