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Searching for Stefanik

August 21, 2011

Gen. Stefanikova's plane crash in Czecho-Slovakia, May1919. The sky is grey and overcast, and judging by the clothes, it must have been cold. I am not sure if this picture was taken by my great grandfather or not, but it is the Shuster family photo collection.

Digging through an old shoebox of family photos one day, I came across a faded picture of a plane crash.  In the picture men are milling around, poking through the remnants of the small plane that lies crumpled on the ground. On the back of the picture was handwritten, Gen Stefanikova Rosbiti Lietadlo -4-5-1919. Who, I wondered, was General Stefanikova, and why did my great grandparents have a picture of this man’s untimely death in a flying accident?

Milan Stefanik as a young student in Prague where he studied astronomy at Charles University. Štefánik's personal motto was: To Believe, To Love and To Work (Veriť, milovať, pracovať). TF Simon web site.

After some research, I learned that the General was the revered Slovak Milan Stefanik, and that he had tragically crashed his plane in bad weather near Bratislava on May 4, 1919. The dashing young Stefanik had died at 39, just months after seeing his lifelong dream of an independent country for Czechs and Slovaks come true.  He was known as one of the founding fathers of Czecho-Slovakia, established in October, 1918.

Stefanik loved art, and filled his Paris apartment with it. He had many artist friends, including Czech artist Hugo Boettinger who drew this sketch of 25r old Stefanik in 1905. From TF Simon web site.

Stefanik, like my great grandparents and several generations before them, had grown up Slovak in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The son of a Lutheran pastor, Stefanik was fiercely proud of his heritage and took offense at the strong anti-Slovak sentiments in the empire.  Speaking Slovak in public was forbidden, as was teaching of the language, culture and history of the Slav people.

Once on a train ride  to visit his family Stefanik was speaking Slovak in a private rail car with his friends. When the train conductor came to collect the tickets, he overheard the Slovak language being spoken and spit in Stefanik’s face.  Stefanik, by then a well known astronomer and diplomat, was furious, and fired off an angry letter to the editor of the national newspaper that caused quite a sensation at the time.

Hugo Boettinger sketch, "At the Station", from TF Simon's web site.

While a student in Prague at the turn of the century (where he was forced to speak Hungarian), Stefanik would travel to Pressburg (now Bratislava) to stay with the family of  the distinguished lawyer Vendelín “Vendko” Kutlík and his wife Bozena. Vendko, known as the “Second Stur” and his wife had been clandestinely teaching students Slovak history from their home, quietly continuing what Ludovit Stur had begun in the “Slovak uprising” of 1848/49.   When Hungarian authorities got wind of Vendko’s teachings he was investigated and authorities claimed he was “the most dangerous Pan-Slav incendiary” in the country,  “poaching Slovak students to Pan-Slavism, leading them to anti-Hungarianism, pulling students into his family circle and even in pubs…

Vendelin "Vendko" Kutlik, 1890's. Born in 1834 in Stara Pazova. His father's family ran a butcher shop; his mother Catherine walked into the shop and was mesmerized by way John prepared her meat - they soon married. Photo from the Kutlik web site below.

Vendko was found guilty of treason, dis-barred, his law firm shut down, and his children were forced to leave school, flee the country or go underground where they continued to secretly teach Slovak.  After a long illness Vendko died in 1904, destitute.

After Vendko’s death, Stefanik moved to Paris and charmed his way into a job at the Observatory in Meudon.  He traveled the world setting up observatories and spent a year in Tahiti where he watched Halley’s Comet and was called Taata Hio Fetia by the natives, the “man who watches stars.” An avid photographer, Stefanik’s stunning photos caused many to visit the island after him.

Stefanik lived in a small Paris apartment on the corner of Rue Le Clerc. Stefanik often brought back objects that laid about his apartment as if in a museum. He liked to hang out in the Cafe Viennois with his artist friends. After an extensive search, Stefanik brought back several pieces by Paul Gauguin from Tahiti that were thought to have been destroyed. Photo from a book on Stefanik dated 1929.

When WWI started, he joined the French Army and flew airplanes over Serbia, a gunner in the back seat shooting down at the invading Austro Hungarians. His plane crashed in 1915, and critically injured, he was airlifted to hospital by fellow pilot Louis Paulhan in the first medivac rescue in history.

General Milan Stefanik, the dashing young man in the French Army uniform in the middle, visited the United States in 1917 to drum up support for his crazy idea of an independent country for Czechs and Slovaks. Here he meets with politicians in Washington DC. He also raised money, awareness and rallied fellow Slovaks to join him in fighting against the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI. He also traveled to Russia and successfully lobbied to release 100,000 Czech and Slovak POWs and created the Czech0-Slovak Legion. This photo is from the US archives in DC.

On a recent visit to a cemetery in Slovakia where my relatives were buried, I found engraved on a tombstone the maiden name of my great, great grandmother, Maria Andel – it was Kutlik. Maria, Vendko’s family and other “Kutlyks” came from Srance, a small village of a few hundred people nestled in the foothills of the Tatra mountains, a 10 minute walk from Dolny Kubin.   They had arrived there in the 1600’s from Poland; Vendko, it turns out, was Maria’s uncle.

Stefanik’s fantastic achievement of an independent country for his fellow Slovaks was more than the realization of his own dream; it was the culmination of the dreams of many before him, including Stur, Vendko, my family and countless other Slovaks who had quietly fought for the rights of Slovaks and who had suffered under the injustice of Hungarian oppression for a millennium.

Statues and tributes to Stefanik can be found around the world, including Tahiti, France, Slovakia and the United States. A couple of weeks ago I drove to Cleveland, Ohio to find Stefanik as I had read that a a statue had been built in his honor in 1924. The statue stands in the middle of a round-about on the outskirts of picturesque Wade Park on a busy road in eastern Cleveland.

Script engraved in the side of Stefanik's statue in Cleveland. His death must have deeply shocked and saddened Slovaks, including my family who held on to the photo of his plane crash for over 90 years.

A footnote to this story: I learned from a reader after publishing this that Stefanik’s brother, Igor Branislav Štefánik, married Zuzana Suster from Pivnice. Both Zuzana and I descend from the same Stefan Suster who immigrated to Vojvodina in the 1780’s.

An introduction to Vendelin Kutlik –

An essay written in 1937 by T.F. Simon about Stefanik and Paul Gauguin:

More photos of Stefanik’s life and of Bettinger’s art

A timeline of Stefanik’s incredible life –

An excellent overview of Stefanik’s life:

Milan Stefanik: “There is no such thing as the impossible.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Annie permalink
    September 27, 2014 11:50 am

    Being Slovak I enjoy great stories about great people, especially when the people are Slovak. Thanks so much for this…an incredible life of an incredible person. Good job!

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