It was the 50th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising (29 Aug.-28 Oct., 1944), a guerilla resistance effort against Nazi occupation and the collaborationist government of Jozef Tiso. Because the rebel forces first entered Banská Bystrica and made it their headquarters, that town is considered the epicenter of the SNP (Slovak abbreviation). So that’s where the SNP Museum has been for decades, and where the main celebrations took place in 1994.
I’d been living there for a year, teaching English, as I’d already done for two years in another Slovak town, Martin. I’d left Martin to return to the States for a master’s degree, then signed up with the Soros Foundations – yes, that Soros – which had assigned me to a prominent lycée in Bystrica. For an expat at the time it was probably the hippest place to be outside Bratislava, with its very active British Council, a plethora of choices for nightlife, and new cafes and restaurants sprouting up practically every month.
The curious thing is that when I’d left town at the end of the previous school year, the main square was littered with large chunks of asphalt. The sound of jackhammers everywhere made café life unbearable. All a preface to large-scale reconstruction – to beautify the town for the SNP’s 50th anniversary.
I’d spent half the summer in Provence teaching English in a program for French and American teens, then gone back home to Virginia to visit family and friends.
I returned to Bystrica in late August, relieved to find that the renovation project had been completed on time. I went to the regular Tuesday-evening rehearsal of a chorus, called Hron, that I’d been singing in since the previous October. Only then did I learn of our invitation to sing at the SNP anniversary.
So it was luck, not virtue, that got me there. Total serendipity.
Still, I faced one hurdle: during my two-month absence, a list of our choir’s participants had been sent to event security for background checks. I didn’t want to miss out, but how was I even going to get in?
“Don’t worry,” a fellow baritone said. “Somebody’ll be a no-show, and you can get in on their pass.”
Who knows what laws that might have been breaking, but it was worth a shot.
On the big day, in a music room in an elementary school down the street from the grandstands, we held a warm-up beforehand. At the end, Hron’s secretary handed me a badge with the name of a luke-warm chorister who hadn’t turned out (indeed, rarely came to practice).
“Today, you’re gonna be Milan.”
Fortunately, our passes had only names, no pictures. I trudged along with the other guys, dressed in dark suit just like them, carrying only a black music folder, just like them. There’s anonymity in numbers. I’d left my camera home to avoid any hang-ups at the gate, any body searches, any questions from security I’d have to answer in accented Slovak, which would raise further suspicions. We rounded a corner and found ourselves backed up behind hundreds of other participants. Soon, the sheep-herd narrowed down to single-file at the “gate” – the metal detector leading to the VIP area. As I passed through, I flashed the card at a guard, who waved me on to keep the line moving at a reasonable clip. I was in! Still, I pushed another twenty feet through the crowd before breathing a sigh of relief that he hadn’t demanded photo ID.
And soon I found myself on a platform some 100 feet from a much larger reviewing stand with about seven heads of state, five vice presidents, and a dozen top brass: from Germany, Austria, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary. And Russia, of course, representing the Soviet Union. A crowd of twenty thousand had gathered on the grassy field, large enough for football, in front of the SNP Museum/Memorial. For the opening, a military band played during a five-plane flyover, complete with red, white and blue jet trails. TV cameras were poised in scores of locations to capture the scene live. My nerves were still calming from the ID thing. Thank God I didn’t have to sing a solo.
In between speeches, our chorus sang Slovak patriotic songs. My favorite among them was Ferko Urbánek’s poem “Hoj, vlasť moja” in an early twentieth-century setting by Mikuláš Schneider-Trnavský, Slovakia’s most renowned composer. Trnavský had earned his compatriots' adulation by compiling the main Slovak Catholic hymnal, still used today. His skills at arrangement show on this song as well. (Please, see/listen to the video below.) Simply sublime, how the voices move subtly in the beginning, then undulating voices come to a fervent crescendo/rallentando at the end of each verse.
Oh, my mother country, thou dearest land, I love thee will all my heart. I want to be thy faithful son, to live in labor for thy welfare.
Oh, my mother country, thou earthly paradise, thou beauteous bliss, eternal month of May. I want to be thy faithful son, to live in labor for thy salvation.
Tears crept to my eyelids at the notion of the faithful son. Could I possibly be a Slovak patriot? With no Slovak ancestry? When we got to the third verse, our director opened her arms extra-wide to signal a crescendo even more dramatic than on the previous two verses.
Oh, my mother country, thou holy land. I honor thee with all my soul. I want to be thy faithful son, and someday dream in thy bosom.
Yet dream here means sleep, and bosom and land suggest a grave. As much as I enjoyed the mountainous landscape here, the folk melodies and dances, the warmth of the local population, I wasn’t sure I wanted to die in Slovakia. And then I thought of all those memorials, the mass graves of the partisans who died fighting the fascists in the SNP.
What am I doing here?
It was just one of those occasions when you accept strange, undeserved fate. With gratitude.