Parents did not want them to speak Slovak, but “totally Americanised” old boys are giving it a try

I want to become a Slovak citizen so I must learn Slovak, says second-generation Slovak-American Gregory Fabian.

Cartoon from Puck, a US humour magazine, published on August 9, 1899 by J. S. Pughe. Uncle Sam sees hyphenated voters and asks, “Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?”Cartoon from Puck, a US humour magazine, published on August 9, 1899 by J. S. Pughe. Uncle Sam sees hyphenated voters and asks, “Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?”

A glossary of words is also published online.

John Hudanish does not remember many of the Slovak words he learnt as a child. However, the 82-year-old third-generation Slovak American can still count to ten in Slovak. He also recalls the phrase ísť spať (go to sleep) and the Slovak word for rascal, huncút.

By the time he was ten, all of his grandparents, three of whom sailed to America at the turn of the 20th century from what is now eastern Slovakia, had passed away. It was the immigrant generation that spoke Slovak, or one of many Slovak dialects, and had to learn English to get by, working in mines, factories and as domestic servants, whereas their American-born children were fluent in English, not so much in Slovak, though they understood their parents’ language.

“My own parents were uneducated. They were struggling to put bread on the table,” the Vietnam war veteran, Hudanish, said, “They had no time to teach me Slovak, and it did not seem essential to them that I learn to speak it.”

I think for my parents it was important to fit in. Failure was not an option.

Dan Gresh on why his parents did not teach him Slovak

If, in fact, Eastern Europeans in the USA, who were commonly referred to as “Hunkies,” an ethnic slur used until the mid-20th century, wanted to secure a better future for their children, they had to raise them as Americans, not Slovak Americans. Many parents therefore decided to eschew Slovak in front of their offspring.

In his 1941 novel Out of This Furnace, American writer Thomas Bell, a first-generation Slovak American, chronicles the evolution of Slovak immigrants facing oppression and assimilation in America, which they had also experienced in Austria-Hungary. The aim of the book was to “strengthen in Slovaks their pride in their origin,” as Bell, whose name had been Belejčák before he anglicised it, told Ľudový denník (People’s Daily), a now defunct Slovak-American newspaper, a few years later.

Yet, decades on, most of the older generation, Hudanish argued, still has only a vague awareness of their ethnic heritage and lack national pride for their culture compared to the Irish or the Italians, although America is now open to minority cultures.

“Because I have chosen to live in Slovakia, I am something of an anomaly,” he said.

In Zvolen, where he moved three years ago, Hudanish lives with his wife and is learning Slovak, which is taught nowadays by several schools in the USA, including the University of Pittsburgh.

Great Melting Pot

Little by little, Dan Gresh, a 70-year-old second-generation Slovak American who mostly plays piano and sings, is also learning Slovak, but in Pennsylvania. His parents had seven children, ran a large dairy farm, and thus deemed teaching their children Slovak inconsequential.

Gresh asked his father to teach him to count to ten, and he showed him one or two times, but he then busied himself greasing the hay rake.

“He said I need to speak English,” Gresh recalled. “I think for my parents it was important to fit in. Failure was not an option,” he said.

The fact that Hungarian was the main language in Austria-Hungary, which dissolved after the First World War, while English was the predominant language in America may have also contributed to the thinking among some Slovak immigrants that a knowledge of Slovak or a Slovak dialect was needless for their children.

“For my grandparents’ and parents’ generations during the two great wars, allegiance to this nation was an issue. You needed to be a good American,” Gresh, who has visited Slovakia twice, claimed.

During World War I and II, Austria-Hungary and Slovakia were part of blocs standing against the USA and its allies.

My parents did not teach us to speak Slovak or even speak it much in front of us because they were concerned that we would speak English with a Slovak dialect

Gregory Fabian

History Professor Benjamin Sorensen at Cape Fear Community College agreed America wanted people to become Americans, and even though there was no set policy for this, in real life, people had to assimilate to climb the social ladder. Plus, the American propaganda at the time spoke of America as a Great Melting Pot.

“This idea was really looking at America as a ‘crucible’ that would meld cultures together into an American culture, much like using intense heat to combine two ‘base metals’ to create a ‘superior’ product,” the professor explained.

In 1916, a year before America entered the First World War, former US president Theodore Roosevelt said he stood against every form of “hyphenated Americanism,” that is, the right American should identify as American while any other culture in the US should fully assimilate to the new American life.

“It really was in response to this that Slovak parents all but made sure that their children would speak very limited Slovak, if at all,” Sorensen said.

Totally Americanised

The family story of Gregory Fabian, a second-generation Slovak American, is somewhat parallel to Hudanish’s.

All four of his grandparents were Slovak. They worked as miners, mill workers and domestic servants for wealthy Anglo-Saxon families in Pennsylvania, all of them passing away by the time Fabian turned seven. They went to Slovak churches and preferred speaking in eastern Slovak dialects with their children, but the same children, Fabian’s parents, decided to Americanise their sons.

“My maternal grandfather worked very hard in the blast furnace of a steel mill his entire life in America. But when he retired, he had no pension,” Fabian said, noting Bell’s book brings back memories of his grandparents.

This was just one of the reasons for Americanisation, another being the ridicule Fabian’s mother faced as a school pupil because she had only two dresses to wear to school. To protect their children against discrimination and help them prosper in the country of their birth, Fabian’s parents decided to recognise only American holidays.

“My parents did not teach us to speak Slovak or even speak it much in front of us because they were concerned that we would speak English with a Slovak dialect,” Fabian added, admitting he had no interest in learning Slovak when his brother and he were growing up. “We were totally Americanised.”

Still, he recalls Keď som chodil do školy (When I Used to go to School), a Slovak children’s song his mother taught him.

Settling in grandparents’ homeland

America’s present view of different cultures has shifted. Sorensen compared it to a ‘salad bowl,’ which celebrates individual cultures and the oneness of American citizenship.

As of 2019, the US Census Bureau estimates 997,098 people speak a Slavic language at home. It is unknown how many of those use Slovak in their homes. Sorensen noted the language is spoken in his household.

Read alsoAs they age, Americans’ desire to reconnect with Slovakia grows Read more 

On the other hand, Mike Zets of Ohio, whose mother came to America from central Slovakia as a little girl in 1911, does not speak Slovak and does not fall into the estimate. His mother did not want her children to learn the language because of a stigma attached to being a displaced person, Zets said.

“We were allowed to learn a few Slovak prayers and basic greetings,” he said. “I can still pray the Rosary in Slovak and say Dobrú noc! (Good night!) and Na zdravie! (Cheers!/Bless you!).”

For another reason, Fabian is also not lumped into the statistics. The human rights lawyer and actor by profession settled in Bratislava in 2009 and has been studying Slovak for the last eight years.

“I will live here for the rest of my life,” he said, “I want to become a Slovak citizen so I must learn Slovak.”

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