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That Son of Mine

April 29, 2010

Slovak family in Vojvodina

Pauline’s kids always said that she liked her son Jerry (my dad) best.  She would beam whenever he entered the room, pinch his cheek lovingly and say “syna môj”, meaning “son of mine”.  In Pauline’s eyes, Jerry could do no wrong.  I suspect most mothers think that about their sons.

Ludwig was thrilled to have his father back home. Not only did he miss his dad’s presence as a father, he was glad to finally be able to relinquish a position that had been forced upon him out of necessity.  As the eldest child in the Milec family, Ludwig had borne the brunt of the duties normally handled by the man of the house for six years; now, he could be the mother’s son once again.

Of all her brothers and sisters, Pauline had always been closest to Ludwig.  German in origin, the name “Ludwig” is a combination of two words, “loud” and “struggle.”  Ludwig was happy and intelligent, healthy and vigorous; in general, a fighter. A wiry body, he had dark brown hair like his dad, with a dark complexion and sallow eyes.  To Pauline, Ludwig was the kind and helpful older brother, her playmate and partner in mischievous behavior.  Together they tackled the family chores and helped out in the family bakery; he was a godsend to Maria during the absence of her husband during the war.   As the other Milec children succumbed to illness in the typhus epidemic of 1916, Pauline and Ludwig survived, and it naturally brought them even closer to each other, and to their mother.

Slovak family in Vojvodina with dog, 1920s

Every morning, the two kids were up by dawn feeding the pigs, chickens and goats kept on their small plot of land behind the house, picking up the freshly laid eggs, milking the cow and the goats, and in the warmer months, tending the garden and picking the plums from the fruit trees that were so abundant in Soljani at that time.

Slovak family tending the animals

Ludwig would open the back gate and let the pigs out of the yard so that they could wander through town and into the woods where they would spend their leisurely days foraging for food. All the pigs in town were let free like this on a daily basis, and at the end of the day, unassisted, the pigs would come sauntering home, right back into their own sheds.  Shepherds would guard the pigs in the forest during the day, consuming large quantities of special “water” stored inside hollowed out trees (suspected to be vodka).

Boy and pigs

The pigs didn’t always occupy their sheds alone. During WWI, some of the young village men who did not want to go to war avoided the draft by hiding deep in the forest and sleeping in a pig shed at night. They lived this way in the smell and dirt like pigs until the war ended.  The shepherds would feed them food smuggled through by their mama’s- cabbage, sausage, cheese, plums, vodka and bread –  and would do their best to keep them entertained.

Pauline and Ludwig's School in Soljani

After their chores, Pauline and Ludwig would both head off to the small school that served the 150 households in the town, along with the 75 or so other kids in the school.  After school they would walk to the “Milecova Pekáreň”, their family bakery and work until dinner, selling kifle, zemle, bread and pastries to the townspeople.

Pauline's school class in Soljani, early 1920s. Pauline is in front, third from the right.

Most Slovaks came to Soljani in late 1800’s, settling on Vladimir Nazora Street, an area of town still referred to as “Dalmatia.”  There were two types of Slovak immigrants – those from Vojvodina, referred to as “drotari”, who were merchants and other business people who came seeking greater profits, and “pendzerasi”, Slovaks from regions in the area that is now in Slovakia called Trencin and Trnava , peasants who came seeking better land for farming.  The pendzerasi introduced windows in houses to the village, and hence the name “pendzer” when referring to windows today in Soljani.  The Milecs were drotari.

The drotari started many small businesses in town prior to World War I.  Stercer Vita was the center of the village, and alongside the bank, post office and school, local families ran several businesses:

  • Martina Bertic-a shop and pub
  • Paul and Maria Milec – bakery
  • Jakob Lunko – owned shops with a pub
  • Dragutin Spoljar-commerce
  • Ivan Galovic- a shop, an inn and butcher shop
  • Louis Najman-a shop near the church
  • Eva and Anthony Merle-a large reading room and the Croatia Inn with it owns Sokol (more about Sokols later)


Several craftsmen worked in town servicing the families.  The tailor Palka Cincurak was a family relative, originally from Pivnice, Vojvodina along with the Milecs.

  • Blacksmith: Mark Zuzic, Paul Strauh, Anthony Cimerman, East Pole, Andrew Faljcan, Paul Boric, Mijo Fabric
  • Kolari (Cart Wheels): Ivan Zivic, Marko Zlomislić, Milan Brothers, Joe Perko, Charles Velikic, Tonika Above, Anthony Mormer, Zvonimir Kokotovic
  • Carpenter: Frank Faster, Mijo Habuda, John and Joseph Ivanic, Ivan and Anthony GVOZDIĆ Sibalin Rajsl
  • Freemasons: Marko Istvandesic, Matt Galovic, Crazy Mouse, Luke Celjet, Veselka Lipec, Josko Capjak, Andrew Spurga, Matt Curd
  • Tailors: Stephen Fuchs, Janko Sproh, Palka Cincurak
  • Remenar (Saddler): Marko Takacevic
  • Cobbler: Jerko Saric
  • Opancar (Workshop): Paul Sokol
  • Barbershop: Benedikt Spoljar, Philip Schneider, Andrew Tyre, Joseph Vrbljan
  • Pottery Glazer: Tomo Lacko, Tomo Senko
  • Limari (Knitters and Crocheters): Matt, Adam and Janko Jurik, Peter Racek, Andrew Henzelj

Riding to the market

Each week the Milecs would travel to the “Varsari”,  the open air markets in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia), still held in the nearby towns of Vukovar, Sid, Mitrovica and Osijek, where the Soljani townspeople would buy and sell plums and other fruits and vegetables, honey, milk, cheese, cows, chickens, cotton and woven fabrics.

Open air market in Split, Croatia

Although the First World War was not fought on the land around Soljani, most of the men were drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, and the loss of such a large number of  inhabitants and their labor nearly destroyed the village economy.  Before the war, Soljani had a population of 1693; by the time Paul came home, it had dwindled to just over 1000.  Over one third of the town’s population had been killed by the war either through battle, disease or malnutrition.  The school enrollment shrank to less than 50 kids.

Men who returned home after the war often showed up dirty and emaciated.  Paul was no different, and he was covered in grime and with the tics and lice that were rampant in the boxcars on the train in Siberia, spread by the rats that lived on the train with the soldiers.  It was not uncommon for men to be infected with the Rickettsia bacteria, spread from one person to another through the lice.

Soldiers of Austro-Hungarian Army in a barn with kids

The first inclination for a wife or mother upon the safe arrival home of their husband or son from war was to feed them well, to make up for all the lost meals and starvation experienced by the men.  Even back then though, people were warned not to feed the emaciated too much too soon, as the severely compromised digestive system could not take the sudden onslaught of calories and nutrition.

Slovak woman making sausage

The two Klucik brothers, friends of the Milec family, had fought for the Austro-Hungarian Army and had escaped from capture while stationed in Italy.  They  remained in hiding from the enemy for weeks, subsisting on nothing but oranges and lemons. When the war ended the two brothers walked home, arriving as Paul did; dirty, starving and rail thin.  While in hiding, the two of them had described to one another their favorite meals, each trying to out do the other in the use of mouthwatering descriptive words.

A mama beside her tiled oven.

No sooner had the gaunt Klucik boys walked in the door, exchanged gleeful hugs and kisses and endured pinches on the cheek, than they were sat down at the kitchen table by an insanely happy, insistent mama.  She then pulled out her frying pan and begin to chop onions, potatoes and chicken for the paprikash and halusky, grinning widely as she tapped her foot and hummed her favorite Slovak hymn.  Her boys were back, and she was going to shower them with love they best way she knew how. Over the next several days, she fed them meal after meal of good Slovak sausage, goulash, kolache and strudel – all their favorite foods, and everything they had dreamed of while lying in trenches and in hiding.

Within two weeks, full of high calories from an abundance of pork fat that was used to cook and flavor every meat and potato dish mama so lovingly prepared, and full of rich nutrients from all the dishes with plums, honey and vegetables, one of the young brothers was dead, killed by the very food that was meant to express nothing more than the boundless love of mother for son.

Syna môj.

Slovak funeral for a relative, 1920's

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan permalink
    April 29, 2010 2:45 pm

    That is SO sad…. I was really enjoying the story until that ending. I can’t begin to understand how the mother would have felt, the guilt. I wonder how many times that was repeated in other similar families after the war.

    • April 29, 2010 7:28 pm

      Oh, it was common, I understand. People were warned, and they knew. I read a story written by one of the American soldiers in WWII who liberated a concentration camp, and how he was haunted by the eyes of an older man, extremely malnourished. The man was begging him for food, and the soldier wanted desperately to give it to him. But he couldn’t or it would have certainly killed the man.

      For a peasant mother whose primary way of showing her love was through the stomach, it would have been very difficult to stop yourself from feeding your son.

  2. November 18, 2010 2:50 pm

    I’m an American journalist living in the Austrian village that borders Bratislava, Slovakia. It’s great to see the photos you’ve posted.

  3. November 18, 2010 3:06 pm

    How lucky you are – living the life I wish I could lead. I’ve got many photos going back to the 1880’s or so – great fun to put the family stories to them.

    Thank you.

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