International Family Reunion

The Unforgettable Osturna Odyssey

How does one begin to describe the long-awaited Osturna Odyssey, a gathering that reunited 36 Americans with their cousins in Osturna? It’s not easy. In fact, doing so will probably take portions of several issues.

It all began in a rather chaotic fashion as we assembled on June 23rd at Newark Airport in New Jersey. Although many of us were related in some way, the majority were meeting each other for the first time.

We managed to make our collective way to Bratislava, Slovakia, where we were greeted for the first of many times by our relatives. Dusan Smolenak and his family came to meet their cousins at the airport.

We spent several days exploring Bratislava and its surroundings, including the Devin Castle where a construction crew was building the scenery for a movie which will be filmed there shortly.

In Bratislava, we were also fortunate to meet up with Vladimir Balejka of California who has done so much of the translating of letters between Osturna family members.

After that, there was a sojourn to the relaxing spa town of Piestany where many in the group treated themselves to mud baths and massages.

And then, it was on to our true destination — with time for a quick break in Martin, the home of several ethnological museums.

On the evening of June 28th, we pulled into our hotel in Spisska Stara Ves, approximately 15 kilometers from Osturna.

Here, we were once again warmly greeted by relatives. On hand were the mayor, Jozef Smolenak, Jan Smolenak who had come from Detva, and Andrej Homza.

A few of us were fortunate enough to venture into Osturna that night, but most took advantage of a quiet evening to store up energy for the next days’ reunion.

And what a reunion it was! It would be fair to say that none of us truly appreciated the magnitude of the events we had put in motion. In a 450, it seemed that they were all on hand at the town hall that afternoon.

A group of perhaps 35 local youngsters and musicians entertained us for more than an hour, performing a number of folk dances. The town hall was full to capacity and overflowing.

Afterward the party spilled out on to the lawn (see below) and continued as both locals and visiting Americans danced, sang, and tried to figure out family connections. Some stayed at the town hall, while others went off on visits to the homes of their first and second cousins. Inevitably, these home visits included a few toasts, huge quantities of food, and tears when it was time to leave.

In the evening, everyone reassembled in the town hall for more mingling and dancing. This zabava went on until the wee hours.

The following morning, locals and visitors alike attended mass at St. Michael’s Church in Osturna. There was a special ceremony to welcome the American cousins, who were all called out by name.

After mass, the priest was kind enough to let us view the Osturna church records for a while, a much appreciated privilege.

Due to wet weather, a planned raft ride had to be cancelled, so some took this opportunity to stroll through the cemetery or walk through the village. Still others visited the homes of more relatives.

Again, in the evening, there were plenty of tears and wistful looks when it was time to go our separate ways. Even though Osturna is a small village, everyone agreed that there simply was not enough time to do everything they wanted to do there. A measure of how wonderful the reunion was is the fact that many of the Osturna Odyssey travelers are already planning to return for a second visit.

Osturna presently has some 250 homes, about half of which belong to weekenders who have created wonderful escape cottages. A 40-bed hotel is scheduled to open this summer, and here and there, one sees satellite dishes, so it has not avoided modern trappings. Still, actually walking the street that meanders through Osturna, it doesn’t require much imagination to picture what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents must have seen before they left, for much has thankfully remained the same. In this respect, we are uniquely blessed.

Who Came on the Odyssey

A total of 36 Osturna descendants made the trip from the United States to the village of their ancestors. The group included children, grandchildren, great-grand-children, and great-great-grandchildren of Osturna immigrants. Our youngest — at age 10 — was Leigh Mary Bannworth of Westfield, New Jersey, while our oldest was 88-year-old Mike Rusnak of Port Charlotte, Florida.

The following are those who made the trip. In some cases, names are given in parentheses when the family connection is not obvious.

Parents from Osturna

Grandparents from Osturna

Great-Grandparents from Osturna

Great-Great-Grandparents from Osturna

On hand to greet us were relatives, not only from Osturna, but from around the Slovak and Czech Republics. Some of them had not been to Osturna in 20-50 years, and a few had never been there at all.

Within the Smolenak clan alone, numerous family members came from a variety of cities and towns, including Poprad, Zilina, Lendak, Prague, Velka Lomnica, Kosice, and Detva.

Another pleasant surprise was the appearance of Virginia Polinsky from St. Clairsville, Ohio (near Barton) along with her husband, Richard, and their daughter Martha. They had just come from seeking Richard’s family across the border in Poland, and arrived in time for the celebration in Osturna.

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