The Importance of Being Educated
With four kids in tow, Štefan and Zuzana Šuster arrived in Pivnica in 1790 (or thereabouts). The Royal Empress Maria Theresa sent Slovaks to settle there that year, displacing most of the Serbs that had settled in the area along the Danube River 100 years earlier during the Great Serbian Migration, when they themselves displaced the Turks who had invaded the place a century earlier.
Literally translated, Pivnica means “beer cellar,” and it is a popular name for many drinking establishments located in the lower level of Slovak buildings today, similar to the pubs of England that are accessed by a narrow stone staircase to a bar below. Perhaps Štefan came to expand his beer making empire; he did start growing hops, a Suster crop that continued into the 20th century.
When the Slovaks arrived, the place was nearly uninhabitable, and at best it was difficult to derive a livelihood from. The land was flat as a pancake for as far as the eye could see (once the trees were cleared) and wet, covered in swampy forestland. The place had been the bottom of the Pannonian Sea hundreds of thousands of years earlier, and The Royal Empress saw little value in the land. She gave each Slovak family hundreds of acres, never believing much would come of their efforts in cultivating the land.
The Slovaks quickly got to work deforesting and building a series of sophisticated canals into an irrigation system that is still in place today. They transformed the useless land into the most valuable terroir in Europe: the sea bottom soil is dark and rich with nutrients, and provides excellent ground for growing crops. (There is a strong connection between the place and the Dutch, although I have been unable to figure out when or how it started. You will see canals and even windmills in the area, and I see that the Royal Netherlands Embassy donated money to build platforms for stork nests a few years ago.)
Maria Theresa not only attempted to reform all of her constituents into Catholics, she also set out to educate them. A mother of an incredible number of children (16 to be exact, including Marie Antoinette), she was keenly aware of the burden of governing uneducated people. In 1775, the year Štefan’s first son was born, she mandated that all children of both genders ages 6 through 12 be educated. She introduced a new educational system based on that of Prussia, but in many villages her educational reform was met with hostility.
Maria Theresa did not take the educational rebellion lightly; she arrested anyone who disobeyed her command. Štefan, trained in theology as well as shoe making, stepped up and became one of the first teachers in Pivnica. While over half of the population in the Austrian Empire remained illiterate well into the 19th century, Pivnica residents did not.
Štefan was also a founder of the first Protestant Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pivnica, building it in 1793. The church that still stands replaced the first church in 1824, but the church bell from the original structure still rings today. Church records were started decades before the government ordered them to be kept: written down neatly in leather bound books is every birth, death and marriage dating back to the very first Slovak settlers. I was surprised at how thrilled I felt to see the handwritten entries for Štefan and his family through the centuries.
Štefan taught class in the church, educating many of the first Slovak children of Pivnica, including his own sons. The Šuster family, like most Slovaks in the area, spoke and wrote in several languages, including Hungarian, Latin, German, Serbian and of course, Slovak. Multi-lingual ability and a good education continue to be top priorities in the Šuster family to this day. In the spring of 2010 for example, two of Štefan’s great 8x grandchildren were among the top 50 students in all of Vojvodina’s Slovak public school system.