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Beware of Pretty Faces

November 10, 2010

Jozef performs at last week's dinner party, with Helene in blue and green on the couch, still mesmerized by his performance. Watch the movie carefully, and you will see a spy in the background.

Despite the near disastrous food preparations, my Slovak dinner party was a success, largely due to the lively guests.  The food was edible, even tasty some said, and barely a morsel was left.  The highlight of the evening, however, was not the food but Jozef, a new friend and our Slovak entertainer.  While he sang beautifully and seduced us all, it was the stories about his life that captured my heart.

One evening decades ago, Jozef Ivaska sang a medley of Slovak songs to the delight of his audience in a small town in the Orava region of Czechoslovakia, just as he did night after night in one bar or another.  Audience member and American tourist, the lovely Helene Baine Cincebeaux, was mesmerized by the young blond singer and approached him after his performance.  Helene introduced herself in Slovak and then  invited Jozef back to her table to enjoy a drink or two with friends.    Jozef looked around the room briefly with some suspicion, seemed satisfied, then joined Helene at the table and was soon happily engaged in conversation with his new fans.

The beautiful Helene

At Helene’s request, Jozef made a tape of Slovak folk songs for her and later took them over to her hotel.  Immediately after leaving the tape with Helene, Jozef was arrested, beaten, thrown into jail, and charged with espionage.  It was 1979, and someone in the StB, the communist secret police, had ratted him out, claiming he was spying for the Americans.

An undercurrent of anxiety existed in Czechoslovakia for over 50 years as the StB enlisted plain-clothed, everyday citizens to spy on their friends and colleagues, looking for anyone exhibiting anti-communist ties or activities.  As a citizen, you were always looking over your shoulder, not quite sure who to trust, afraid that anything you said might be deemed inappropriate and overhead by one of “them.”  Apparently one of “them” had seen Jozef at the bar that night, and he was followed, spied upon and captured by the police as he cavorted with nefarious Americans.

Jozef Ivaska, Man of A Thousand Songs

Who knows who the spy was? It may have been a patron at the bar, or a fellow singer, jealous of his success.  Another famous singer at the time in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Neckar, was accused not too long ago of being an StB agent in the 70’s and 80’s, spying on his business manager and on other singers like Jozef.

It was not long after this incident that my father, Jerry, went to Orava to visit relatives.  Arriving in a shiny new Skoda rental, Jerry insisted on driving around town for a tour with George, his cousin, who just happened to be the police chief *.  George reluctantly went, climbing into the car only after dark and after confirming that no neighbors were watching.  As Jerry rode around Dolny Kubin, George slid down on the seat so that his head was below the dashboard whenever they approached someone on the street.  When I learned about Jozef’s arrest, I  was sickened to think it might have been by someone in George’s department.

Operetta in Baden, Austria

Jozef went on to sing opera in the Operetta in Baden, Austria for over 20 years, and to perform internationally, singing in 26 countries across four continents, sometimes to audiences of over 30,000 screaming fans.  In this month alone, Jozef has been performing across the United States from Pennsylvania to Florida, and in the Ukraine and Austria where he is well known. While performing in Japan, his hosts were unable to pay him in cash, and so they threw him a dinner party and served him a rare delicacy, a soup worth over $100 per serving.  A bowl of live worms was placed in front of him and boiling water was poured over the squirming mass, instantly quieting them.  Jozef couldn’t bring himself to eat the offering, much to the dismay of his hosts who were terribly offended.

I didn’t pay Jozef either in cash either, and celebrated his arrival in DC by throwing him a dinner party too.  But I served poppyseed rolls, not worms; Jozef ate them up and I was totally charmed by the man.

Love you, Jozef.

Diane's Macovy Koláče, Slovak Poppy Seed Rolls

*George later became the chief of police for the entire Orava region after the fall of communism. He came to stay with us in the 90’s while attending training at the FBI training center in Quantico, VA. George was the family historian and I looked forward to hearing his stories during my visit to Slovakia earlier this year. Sadly, he fell ill the day before my arrival, and died shortly thereafter.

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