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Border towns: Slovenské Nové Mesto and Čierna nad Tisou

After the horrific slaughter of World War I, the victorious Entente powers were only too happy to go along with Slovak General M.R. Štefánik's designs for a new state which he championed at the 1919 discussions in St. Germaine. The bigger the better, the foreign powers thought. The aim was to neutralize defeated Austro-Hungary by carving it up into small pieces. The method, in the north of the old Empire, was the creation of the first Czecho-Slovak Republic. The result, in "Slovakia", was a republic which had more Germans than Slovaks, and which included areas along its southern border which are still predominantly inhabited by Hungarians.


No man's land. Village children must climb a fence to play hockey on the border.
Robin Rigg

After the horrific slaughter of World War I, the victorious Entente powers were only too happy to go along with Slovak General M.R. Štefánik's designs for a new state which he championed at the 1919 discussions in St. Germaine. The bigger the better, the foreign powers thought. The aim was to neutralize defeated Austro-Hungary by carving it up into small pieces. The method, in the north of the old Empire, was the creation of the first Czecho-Slovak Republic. The result, in "Slovakia", was a republic which had more Germans than Slovaks, and which included areas along its southern border which are still predominantly inhabited by Hungarians.

The new border was fixed along the Danube in the west, and followed an administrative boundary of Hungary in the east. Several towns and villages which had previously been Hungarian were bisected by the new frontier. For local people, these lofty political maneuvres of the early twentieth century continue to have some dramatically visible effects. The children who slip under an old fence to play ice hockey on the frozen Roňava stream, in the middle of a small town an hour south-east of Košice, are actually skating in No-Man's Land: the rusty fence they cross is the Slovak-Hungarian border.

Slovenské Nové Mesto (or Újhely, as it was known before it became a "New Slovak Town") is divided from its other half, which remained in Hungary, by rural east Slovakia's version of the Berlin wall. One customs post on the Slovak side serves both countries: Hungarian border guards walk to work through the small pedestrian gate and pass shoppers from as far away as Košice. The shoppers are on their way to Hungary, where prices can be as much as three times cheaper than in Slovakia. Many families have been separated - even the Slovak border guard's parents were born in Hungary, 10 kilometres from the present border.

But it is not necessary to cross the border to get to Hungary. In the south-east of Slovakia, it seems that everybody is Hungarian. Radios are tuned to Hungarian stations, Slovak (if spoken at all) is pronounced with a heavy Hungarian accent. The only apparent sign of Slovakia in the restaurant at Čierna nad Tisou train station is the Šariš beer ad. Šariš, of course, was originally a Hungarian county known as Sáros.

Čierna has a further facet to its ethnic identity. It is the last stop before the Ukraine border. Women peddling cigarettes wear cheap clothes and too much make-up, and loiter with intent to sell contraband in the station foyer. The "bufet" sign is written in Slovak, Hungarian and Russian. A Communist painting depicts the liberation of Prague by the Red Army in 1945. It was here that Brežnev came to warn Dubček (a Slovak) to stop his "socialism with a human face" reforms. One of the porters remembers how it happened. "They had their meeting on a train just there", he says, pointing towards the second track. The atmosphere was friendly, and the Russians were shown around the town, but Dubček refused to comply with Moscow demands. Russian tanks rolled out of the early morning into Slovakia two weeks later. Czechoslovak radio told people not to resist. The main road from the Ukraine turned into one long column of tanks, armoured cars and troop carriers heading to cities further west, recalls the porter. Russian tanks reached Prague once again, but this time they were not welcome.

Hungarians and Slovaks live together in south-eastern Slovakia without conflict. People passing in the street could be Slovak or Hungarian - there is no way of knowing without speaking to them. The porter has one Slovak parent and one Hungarian. His father speaks only Hungarian. And why not? He was born in Hungary. The country has moved - not he. He still lives where his family has lived for a hundred years or more. Trains arrive in Čierna from central Slovakia bearing graffiti messages for this man: "Hungarians and gypsies, go back behind the Danube". His son looks tired as he speaks of Slovak-Hungarian tensions. The cancellation of bilingual school reports is just the latest provocation. Now, he says, his father cannot read his own grandson's report card. "Democracy is destroying everything", says the porter, shaking his head sadly.

Topic: Tourism and travel in Slovakia


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