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Donation lifts hopes in neglected Gelnica

GELNICA - This town of 6,500 may be poor, plagued by 30% unemployment, and cut off both from the rest of the country and its own history in a remote pocket of the Hlinec river valley. But following the construction of a new 350,000 Slovak crown ($7,000) playground, financed mainly by a Dutch couple, Louis and Marina van Emmerik, local children at least seem in high spirits, swinging, sliding and eagerly posing for photographs.
The Van Emmeriks put up 302,000 crowns last April for the Gelnica playground; the town picked up the remaining 48,000 crown tab and promised to pay for maintenance. Today, swings, see-saws, a slide and a large wooden jungle-gym sit in a lot that four months ago was overrun by weeds and littered with garbage.


A Dutch couple's gift has these children smiling in eastern Slovakia.
photo: Chris Togneri

GELNICA - This town of 6,500 may be poor, plagued by 30% unemployment, and cut off both from the rest of the country and its own history in a remote pocket of the Hlinec river valley. But following the construction of a new 350,000 Slovak crown ($7,000) playground, financed mainly by a Dutch couple, Louis and Marina van Emmerik, local children at least seem in high spirits, swinging, sliding and eagerly posing for photographs.

The Van Emmeriks put up 302,000 crowns last April for the Gelnica playground; the town picked up the remaining 48,000 crown tab and promised to pay for maintenance. Today, swings, see-saws, a slide and a large wooden jungle-gym sit in a lot that four months ago was overrun by weeds and littered with garbage.

"It's quite simple," said Louis van Emmerik, explaining the motivation behind his and his wife's charity. "Children are innocent, they can't help being poor."

"We have other playgrounds, but nothing more than an old slide with some swings," said Jozef Humeňanský, Gelnica superintendent. "The Van Emmeriks had worked for years with local orphanages. One day the mayor asked them to do something for the other children too. We were very surprised when they agreed."

The Dutch couple became active philanthropists in Slovakia after Louis, 61, heard of a Slovak relative who years ago had given clothes to children's homes here. Her generosity inspired Van Emmerik to do the same, and from there his own generosity grew.

"We brought bus-loads of clothes, 1.5 tonnes per trip, 200 garbage bags full," he said. "Then the orphanage asked us for a mini-van and we gave it to them. They asked for a fax machine, then a copier, then a playground, and we gave it all to them. Then the mayor said that the city had other poor children, so we paid for that new playground too."

The Van Emmericks' contributions have infused Gelnica mayor Ondrej Žakarovský with optimism for his town's future. The playground, he says, could be the first step in a new push to improve Gelnica, once a key mining town.

"Gelnica used to be one of the most important towns in the country," Žakarovský said. "We hope this playground will lead to bigger projects."

The wooded hills surrounding Gelnica, which today isolate it from the rest of Slovakia, were extensively veined with copper, silver, gold, lead mercury and iron ore, and were mined from the 13th century until the first world war. In 1875 Gelnica produced 90 million nails (or 27 wagons full) with iron ore from local mines.

But the Czechoslovak government shut down the mines in the 1920s. Local craftsmen and most labourers left.

Today Gelnica is isolated and has a negligible tourist industry. Some residents travel 40 kilometres a day to work in factories in the eastern Slovak metropolis of Košice.

Humeňanský said that the playground would be the corner stone of more projects to revive his community. The area nearby, he said, has already been set aside for new tennis and basketball courts, a new community centre and culture centre. Costs are estimated at 500,000 crowns.

"I don't know where we'll get the money," Humeňanský said. "We're looking for a sponsor; the town can't pay for it all."

They can start with the van Emmeriks, whose willingness to help Gelnica's children is as strong as ever. "We'll at least pay for the new basketball courts," Louis said. "But not the tennis courts. That's not for kids, so we won't pay for it."

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