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Those Who Remain Behind

A Slovak village embraces its Greek Catholic heritage

by Jacqueline Ruyak

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Last December, on the feast of St. Nicholas, a group of excited preschool children gathered around a priest in a classroom in the remote village of Jakubany in eastern Slovakia. Father Damian Saraka was there to usher in an annual custom; to greet the beloved St. Nicholas and his scary sidekick, the devil. This year, the young Greek Catholic priest had another reason for attending the event. Dorothy, his daughter, sat among the giddy children.

Every feast of St. Nicholas, the bishop and his less than saintly companion visit Jakubany, checking whether or not children know their prayers. St. Nicholas rewards those who do with candy and other goodies. The devil threatens to punish those who do not.

Under communism, authorities discouraged the custom in favor of the more secular Santa Claus. But in this Rusyn Greek Catholic village, residents flouted the restriction and continued to host the saint and the imp, impressing upon their children the necessity of prayer.

Before his current assignment in Jakubany, Father Saraka lived and worked for five years in a hamlet of 80 people near Slovakia’s border with Ukraine — his first parish after his ordination to the priesthood in Prešov. Alcoholism was rife in the tiny community and only four men had jobs.

“When people came to the house to do some work,” the priest remembered, “they would first ask for alcohol. To them, it was like putting gas in a car.”

In Jakubany, things are different, he said. Villagers want to work.

As elsewhere in eastern Slovakia, the country’s least developed region, unemployment in Jakubany runs high. The few jobs available — almost exclusively in the construction, service and teaching sectors — pay poorly. This dearth of opportunity compels young villagers to look for work in Slovakia’s larger urban centers or in the neighboring Czech Republic. Young, unmarried men often share information about available jobs even further afield, such as Britain, Ireland or the United States.

“Younger people move to the nearby town of Stará L’ubovňa for work and get flats or houses there,” said Mária Pol’anská, the school’s director. “Open borders [within the European Union] allow a lot of people to go abroad to look for work. Some come back, some don’t.”

Mrs. Pol’anská has four children and six grandchildren, but none live in Jakubany. “My children married and went off to Stará L’ubovňa, to Holland and elsewhere. They talked about who would stay and take over the family home, but in the end they all left.”

While Mrs. Pol’anská has considered leaving Jakubany and joining members of her family, she has decided against it for now. “My home is here, my old mother is here.”

Recent migration has not yet depopulated the village of its 2,500 residents. The municipality has invested considerable sums to improve infrastructure. A new road was built and an updated sewage system is being installed. There are also plans to construct new apartment buildings.

“The population has now stabilized,” said Michal Kundl’a, village historian and a retired teacher. To lure back those who left, the village has made land available at low rates. “We hope those who went abroad will return and build their own homes.”

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Tags: Cultural Identity Village life Carpatho-Rusyn Slovakia Roma