IN A VILLAGE IN EASTERN SLOVAKIA LIVE 500 ETHNIC GERMANS – THE LAST STRONGHOLD OF A DYING CULTURE. AMONG THE LAST OF ITS KIND IS A FORMER PRESIDENT, WHO NEVER MANAGED TO LEAVE HIS HOMELAND BEHIND.
Words by Joseph Gepp
Just so the tires don’t squeak, the Chauffeur of a black Audi limousine brakes hard from 120 to zero – a tad too fast within a local area. In every other town old women would peep through the flower stick samples of their curtains on to the road and would ask themselves, who the important guest might be, as the Chauffeur opens the car-door in such an official manner. Not here in Metzenseifen, where one knows Rudolf Schuster well: He is a former president.
He visits now and then, lately more often. He originates from here – from this last road, of Medzev, which was called: Metzenseifen. Rudolf Schuster is the most famous person in this place. He managed to get out, what the old Ladies would call – the far world. He was mayor of the district town Kosice, then Slovakian ambassador in Canada and finally the state president to Bratislava. Today he returns to his village to visit his old parental home. After they died he furnished it into a small private museum. It is a reminiscence to everything he experienced during his 73 years of life. A photo encountering George W. Bush in the Oval Office during his time as Slovakian president. A Red Army Second World War movie camera presented from the Ex-Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. A rich Metzenseifner’s carriage, which he once and strictly forbidden rode along with at the back as a child. For doing so he collected a damn heavy slap in his face. Now this carriage is safe in his hutch. Agitated in the midst of all these memories and realising, that his career only became possible by a set of lucky coincidences. Coincidences, what led to the fact that he was not driven away into the West at the end of the Second World War in 1945. Not like nearly all other ethnic Germans. He was one of 600 people of Metzenseifen, who managed stay.
Today approximately five hundred and twenty ethnic Germans live in Metzenseifen. The elderly speak „Mantakien“, an old German dialect. Metzenseifen has the highest ethnic German population in Slovakia, although still only a minority within the 3,500 inhabitants of this parish.
Once the place was entirely of German descent. In 1945 Metzenseifen became Medzev, and the ethnic Germans culture to an extent history. In 1880 13 percent of the inhabitants of today’s Slovakia had been Carpathian Germans, in 1947 there were about half percent left. During the last census in the year 2001, only 0.1 per cent admitted themselves to their origin – 5,500 people in entire Slovakia. The largest ethnic German town Metzenseifen lies completely in the southeast of the country, close to the Ukrainian and Hungarian border and about thirty kilometres away from the second largest Slovakian city, Kosice. The city Rudolf Schuster had been the mayor of, until his election to the Slovakian president in 1999.
Rudolf Schuster was one person, who remained, due to three lucky coincidences. „The soldiers tried three times to drag me and my family away”, he says. Three times they narrowly escaped their dreadful doom. The first time during 1944, when the Nazis came to call home the ethnic German Metzenseifner’s into the Third Reich. „With seventy trucks the German’s closed in our village“, Schuster explains, „Then the soldiers went from house to house forcing each inhabitant onto the loading area“. Schuster escaped because his mother fled in-time with him to their Hungarian aunt. Meanwhile his father hid himself in the shovel of a mill-wheel. After the Nazis moved-off, the Soviets came in. „They had a list of those for deportation to Siberia. So these selected people where gathered together at the main square of the village. The Soviets pretended they were destined for work service”. Most of them never returned. The second time Rudolf Schuster was in luck again. His name was not on the list. „My brother supported the communist partisans during the war and enjoyed thereby the protection of the Red Army”, he comments.
Finally, the Czechoslovakian army arrived to execute the Benes decrees. After all the atrocities committed by the national socialists in the occupied Czechoslovakia, president Edvard Benes decided to completely expel all German minorities from the new Czechoslovakia after the end of the war in 1945. So all houses in Metzenseifen were sealed and their inhabitants had to appear for evacuation in the school building. Each person could only take along 25 Kilos of their belongings! The Schuster’s needed not leave. Schuster’s mother spoke perfect Hungarian and consequently she obtained a certificate from a Hungarian physician, declaring her cardiac defect and thus certifying the inability of her transportation.
Some time later the Czechoslovakian army withdrew again and the family Schuster remained. The family had collided three times with world-history and they resisted the all driving-out attempts. Now they became Czechoslovakian – tolerated by the communist regime on the condition they would not display their German roots. Best, if they completely forgot their origin, but they did not forget: They arranged themselves with new Czechoslovakia and became communists and patriots.
Whenever Schuster goes through his parents‘ house today, in melancholic and proudly thoughts of his childhood and youth, he notices, how important to him his origin is: A farmhouse of the 19. Century, one of many, which stands threaded-up like many others along the main street, renovated only somewhat more beautifully than the others. Metzenseifen looks alike nearly each small, rural municipality between the eastern edge of the Alps and the Urals. It lies elongate and narrow between two ridges. Low farmhouses in line, each with an entrance gate and tiny windows, seeming to get simpler and smaller, the further one departs from the centre. It also seams to be the second important road of the whole village as the route is branching off from the main street.
A small stream seamed by herbage backyards and flowerbeds divides the main road into two parallel carriage lanes, thus, as often seen in eastern Austrian villages. Passing the main square and the catholic church the roads lead to the shabby outskirts of town and only here one notices that one is in the former Eastern Bloc and not in Austrian regions like Burgenland or Marchfeld. On the side of concrete slabs constructed buildings and a few shut down factories, the Roma of Metzenseifen live in ramshackle houses and corrugated sheet huts. Now and then they come into town on their horse-drawn carriages, which are loaded with scrap metal. That’s when two worlds meet one another, and all vibrations of the Eastern European societies in the year 18 after the fall of the iron curtain become obvious, when the scruffy full blood horses canter past the western cars and the pretty farmhouses. On the main square in front of the church a plague column stands tall – only the head of one baroque statues is missing.
Roma in Metzenseifen
The ethnic German community in Metzenseifen is a vanishing group, dedicating much time in memory care. The old, still talk Mantakien, but the young speak and think only in Slovak. Perhaps the powerful consciousness of their own culture is delaying their approaching fall, but at least conserve the memory. The isolation of the remaining, entails an exaggerated interest in the own identity – thus, that each German inhabitant of Metzenseifen becomes a homeland researcher nearly perforce. Just like Rudolf Schuster or the seventy seven year old Walter Bistika. He presides over the „Karpathian Germans place for encounters” – the club premises of the ethnic Germans, also a farmhouse, directly next to Schuster’s house. There the ethnic Germans meet each Sunday noon after celebrating mass. Today five gentlemen, all far beyond the age of sixty, are playing billiard and drinking Slivovica out of plastic jiggers, followed by plenty of laughter, since they have a lot to tell each other. You can see Bistika standing aside, a tall guy and a trace more civically distinguished than the others. Before retiring, he worked as an accountant, but always kept true to his native soil: Metzenseifen.
Bistika reveals some history: In the late Middle Age two waves of German settlements took place – here in so-called Spis region of Slovakia. The immigrants came from the over-populated regions of West Germany and with them the dialect Mantakien – a mixture of West German linguistic idioms, with Slovakian and Hungarian influences.
Mantakien language is from the high German language so far away, that one hardly understands it. The language sounds, as if a Swiss German would try to speak Flemish – trying not to hide his strong Swiss accent. „The name of the language resulted actually from a misunderstanding“, tells Bistika. „The people of Metzenseifen sold their products on Hungarian markets and many could not speak Hungarian. During the discussion with their Hungarian customers, they always asked each other: ‚Was moant A?‘ (What does he mean?) The Hungarian heard this phrase so often, until they omitted the ‚Was‘ and they called their suppliers in a modification of this sentence ‚Mantakians‘. Later the Mantakians took over this foreign term“.
Others speak Potokien, and that only eight kilometers further away in the next village called “Stoß”, another place with a strong German minority. Far northern in Spis region they speak Unsrien, Bistika explains, as if it is the most normal thing in the world, that each community of some hundred humans speak their own language. „Here in Metzenseifen we say for example: ‚Wart a bissl!‘ (Wait a bit!). In Stoß they say: ‚ Hart a bissl!‘ Due to the long time isolation of the remaining German linguistics, each area has kept its local characteristics“, Rudolf Schuster approves, during a walk in the back of his garden aiming towards the yard. There is also a small wooden pavilion and a biotope with gold fish. In this pavilion, Schuster invited foreign state guests during his time as a president, where he offered local meals, and drinks – today this seems so far away: He spies his neighbour on the other side of the garden fence and starts off a friendly chat in Mantakien. You can see two old men who know each other for a long time. If the fence between them would not exist, they probably would pat themselves on their shoulders. The change from the public official to the owner of this house, who holds affable conversations with his neighbour, occurs by Rudolf Schuster nearly too fast to comprehend. In this garden the appearance of the political leader, melts to a common human being. The Audi has disappeared for a long time. Rudolf Schuster indulges in his surrounding, evolving completely to an inhabitant of Metzenseifen.
But then again: his expensive suit, his long black coat, his carefully bound tie, finally the bodyguard, who stands ten meters far away measuring the scene with distrust, folding his hands at his back, reminds at Schusters’ background beyond Metzenseifen.
The longer Rudolf Schuster stays in his garden, the more locals join in. Word has spread, that the Audi is standing at the front door. Schuster still chats with all in a normal and polite manner. He points to the biotope mentioning, that the gold fish have hatchlings. „People of Metzenseifen had their homeland here“, he says about those who had to leave 1945, „and even though they came from Germany centuries ago, does not mean that they wanted to go away again“. For him it would have been hard to leave this place at that time. Rudolf Schuster adores Metzenseifen. He explains the rhythmic sound of the forging hammers, when striking on the anvils. Up to the beginning of the communist period, the steel production was the most important industry of Metzenseifen; this tune was the sound of Metzenseifen, when the ex-president was youngster.
„We lost two generations“, says Walter Bistika and one realises this fact makes him feel quite sad, „the first generation through expulsion, the second by communist suppression of the Germans.” There are hardly any young people in Metzenseifen, who speak Mantakien anymore. Bistika estimates one- or two hundred. Even though German is a subject at school again, it is a recognized minority by the Slovak state and the Karpathian Germans, both groups provide financial support. Many youngsters leave or are simply not interested in their Mantakian idendity. “Some learn German simply because they might use it“, Bistika says – but hardly anybody is interested in Mantakien anymore. „It could well be that the Mantakien language and identity will cease by 2050“, he remarks and puts the blame on the globalization. „It forms all of us to become equal and robs our cultural characteristics“. Perhaps Bistika really hits the point with his diagnosis.
It is nearly impossible to find Mantakians, who are younger than sixty years or some, who are young and would call themselves Mantakians. Close to the main square, in a small inn, a couple of men sit together, some ethnical Slovaks and some ethnic Germans, drinking Czech beer and borrowing some money from the barkeeper to play on the slot machine. Some talk Slovakien, some broken German, but nobody talks Mantakien. What the treasure for the old Metzenseifners is – is for these men only a foreign language. Nobody is particularly interested in a Mantikian identity. The barman, Gedeon Silorad, a blond older man, who still speaks Mantakien, points towards the table, excuses himself by twitching his shoulders, as if to say: „That’s how the lads round here are like nowadays.”
The gap between the generations is deep in this small community. It seems, as if the last sixty years have cut every cultural connection between the old and the young, more compared to Austria or Western Europe. Nobody embodies that better than Rudolf Schuster, who completely has absorbed his memories of his youth. His museum could be a monument, dedicated for him and the old people of Metzenseifen. Nevertheless, now his holiday has ended: He again sits in the rear of the limousine, which takes him back to Kosice. The friendly and easily sentimental host becomes the statesman again. Contemplative he looks out of the window, jumping from topic to topic and commentating whatever the Audi passes. Here in this former Slovakian steel factory, he worked a long time on the management floor, he points on an enormous factory area on the right hand side and on which today the nameplate „U.S. Steel“ hangs. After privatisation a third of the staff was rationalized, Schuster explains with bitterness and jumps to the next topic, whereby he interprets this time the left: on Lunik IX, one the largest Sinti and Romanies estates of Slovakia. When he was the mayor of Kosice, he had to put up with much criticism, because he forced the emigration of Romanies from the Kosic town centre to the Lunik IX during communistic times. „However that had to be done“, he confirms. „The Romanies left everything to forfeit. The building structure would have otherwise been completely damaged“. Thank God he decided this during the communist time, when such decisions were comparatively easy, he quickly adds. Slovakia operates under other rules.
Thirty kilometres lie between Metzenseifen and Kosice. They reveal – that modern life, 16 years after the turn, has not entirely reached east Slovakia. You notice a people-mixture, which in former times was the rule in Central Eastern Europe, but today only in certain regions present. The ethnic Germans are only one part of this mixture: After Medzev, Jasov – a place with a minority of Hungarians follows. Further south down the Hungarian border, live Rusyns, an east Slavic ethnic group. The Ethnologists still cannot say clearly whether one can rank them among the Ukrainian or not. In-between are purely Slovakian villages and the Romanises estates – which are clearly more run-down than the rest. Concrete slabs estates, in which the Romanies during communistic times were forced to emigrate. The doors and even the door frames of these buildings are missing, instead you find holes in the brick walls, gapes which still remain due to their demolition. A Romanies girl stretches her fist upwards and sticks her tongue out, as the Audi passes.
The Karpathian Germans are the smallest of all ethnic groups. The only one, which is threatened to extinct. The ex-president had meanwhile arrived for a long time in Kosice one begins preparations for the Palm Sunday in Metzenseifen, where in the catholic church a Mass will take place in German and Slovakian language. The next day Walter Bistika, who also manages the Metzenseifen singing association, will stand on the gallery and sing together with others the church song. „My God, my God, why have you left me?“ He will sing in German. The intercession will follow in Slovakian. After the Mass Bistika comments on the singing association, that it suffers obsolescence and the average age is meanwhile 66 years.
Silorad Gedeon did not attend the Mass. He is waiting for his customers behind the bar. They will visit his inn after the Mass. He is drinking Slivovica and tells an anecdote during his time in Vienna, working as a painter. He sat at the Gürtel close to the Westbahnhof in a cab and with him a colleague. They were chatting in Mantakien, when all of a sudden the cab driver asks: „Are you from Holland?“ The Mantakians answered they were not from Holland. „From Belgium?“ Again: no. „From where are you then?“ Gedeon explaines, they are from eastern Slovakia. The cab driver did not believe them and says: „From Slovakia? But only Russians live there!“ Gedeon smiles about his anecdote, drinks the last sip Slivovica and summarises: „The Viennese. What rotten folk“.