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Educating Karolina Suster, The Slovak Girl

March 5, 2010

Fulla Painting - 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.

Fulla - Winter Behind the City

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.

Wooden bridge over the Orava River in Dolny Kubin, theme of Pavol poems

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 - Bar Dancers, 1932

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.

Koloman Sokol Painting - Vernissage

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.

Fulla Painting

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, Samuel, Branko and family 1929

Karolina, Samuel, Branko and family 1929

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.

Karolina (Suster) and Samuel Sirka

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.

Summer of 1944, Karolina, Samuel, Branko and Vera

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.

Mami ka - Karolina Suster Sirka, Age 98, Year 2000

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Linda J-H permalink
    March 6, 2010 11:43 am

    How interesting your story has been! You are very fortunate to have this information about the Suster family. So much of my family’s history has been lost.

    • March 6, 2010 1:32 pm

      Yes, we are very lucky to have the information and these stories passed down. My dad and his dad loved to take and collect photographs, and so we have a rich collection of them, all well documented and now digitized. In 1958 a distant relative, Dr. Jozeph Suster, researched the family tree back to the 1700’s, and wrote it up on a huge piece of paper. I remember my grandfather had it in his possession for years, a curled and yellowed paper at least 6 feet long all written in beautiful calligraphy like a giant organizational chart. My great, great Uncle Branko, Karolina’s son, researched the family tree and updated it about 10 years ago. And Karolina’s granddaughter, Daniella and her husband Jaroslav got Karolina to tell family stories, and wrote them down in 1994. Jaroslav is a history teacher and genealogist, and so I am lucky to be fed information from him. He’s got access to church records in Vojvodina dating back 250 years. Many of the stories were told to me by my dad, and I regret that it has taken me this long to write them down. My grandmother died only a couple of years ago, and I would have loved to have heard them from her. This blog is my way of sharing the stories with the next generation so that they are not forgotten.

  2. March 6, 2010 1:25 pm

    Thank you for adding an interesting new element to the stories I know of my grandfather’s early years as an artist in Czechoslovakia. There must have been something in the water, both Karolina and Koloman lived long, rich lives. Remarkably, Koloman’s wife Lydia is still living in Arizona. She’ll turn 103 in June.

    • March 6, 2010 1:51 pm

      I am so glad you wrote in. I thought about tracking down Koloman’s relatives to learn more about their early days in school, hoping someone would have written them down. I would love to hear the stories I am sure he told you. Was there ever a book written about his life? I have been trying to find the exact school they went to, hoping to find some records there on my visit later this spring.

      I have found that most the Suster family has lived far beyond the average life expectancy – water from the Orava, Sava and Danube rivers, or hearty Slavic genes, I guess. I hope you will pass on the story to your grandmother. I will be sure to remember to wish her happy birthday this June.

    • July 16, 2010 3:59 pm

      Mr. Sokol:

      I’m presuming you are connected to the Koloman Sokol family in Tucson, which is my adopted hometown now.

      Scrolling thru the Google site on Koloman Sokol, I came across Sokol’s painting of Karolina, who looks exactly like my maternal grandmother! I am told that I resemble her, which would fit as genetic characteristics appear after a generational pause. This grandmother was born, raised, lived and died in Previdza, CZ (now Republic of Slovakia). She had seven children,;my mother was the second-born, and responsible for the U.S. immigration in 1922.

      The reason for this background and my interest in Koloman Sokol stems from research I’ve been doing on family letters exchanged in the 21st C. Koloman Sokol is mentioned several times by my first cousin, Eman Chylo, M.D., a now-retired Bratislava surgeon.

      As I am preparing a lengthy letter (condolence on the death of his daughter, my first cousin, once removed), I thought of his fascination with Sokol’s art and decided to bring Eman whatever updated information I could. I see in a recent post that Sokol’s wife is still living, and that will please my cousin, as his daughter died prematurely at the age of 41-yrs, last month.

      “Karolina” is a painting that would give Eman & his wife comfort. Can you advise me as to how to obtain a reprint? Any information would be very much appreciated. As I mentioned, I live in Oro Valley and can be reached by phone at 531-9149, or by means of this email address.


      Therese Schostok Dudas

      • July 16, 2010 4:22 pm

        Hi Terry, I am not related to Sokol, although he did go to school with my great aunt Karolina. I don’t think this picture is of her, either. But I do love it, and I would love to have a copy of it as well. I will pass on your request to Nik Sokol, Kolomon’s grandson.


  3. NGS permalink
    March 6, 2010 7:07 pm

    Karolina was born in Austria-Hungary, married in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, spent the majority of her adult life in communist Yugoslavia and died in democratic Serbia.

    In addition, she lived to see 3 gruesome wars.

    What an mind-blowing resume for a little Slovak girl from Vojvodina.

    Tonya, Did you ever meet with Karolina?

    • March 6, 2010 10:58 pm

      Unfortunately, I never did. My parents and brothers did, and many other relatives were lucky enough to meet her. I depended on my cousin Daniela and her husband Jaroslav to tell me the stories, and I did some research myself. It makes you realize how lucky you are to live in the world today, and how relatively easy life is for us.

  4. Daniela permalink
    March 7, 2010 6:05 pm

    You never known what have you missed not knowing her. In Hlozany where she was living , everyone was calling her Pani fararka – Mrs. PRIESTS, she was excellent mother, wife, an cooker – here big cakes, diners , lunches every week for nobility from Hlozany was famous. Last 10 years she lives with here daughter Viera in Pazova. And one interesting moment – she was the Master to make apricot brandy, and a master chef for sausages. Till the last day of her life she was reading newspapers, and listening radio news very morning at 6,30 and watching TV news at 19,30.

    • March 7, 2010 10:25 pm

      Daniela, I really do wish that I had met her. I think the older we get, the more we realize how short life is and how important our family is to us. I can hardly wait to visit you in the spring. Love Tonya

  5. July 16, 2010 10:27 pm

    Pauline – thank you for your reply. I hope that Koloman Sokol’s grandson can direct both of us a source for this portrait. Does the name Fulla ring any bells with you?

    Therese Dudas

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