Slovaks in Serbia

There are many possible ways to introduce to a wider audience, the phenomenon known as the Slovak minority in Serbia. Some of these methods are currently in use or have been done in the past. Despite this it is not widely known, that in Serbia today there is a large Slovak minority which has been there for the last two hundred and sixty years, with its own indigenous and unique culture. That is why we are taking this next step towards raising the profile of the Slovaks of Serbia today by presenting their efforts in preserving their Slovak heritage and identity and their pride in their Slovak roots.
The story of Slovaks living in the Lowlands has its beginning in the end of 17th century when Slovaks from the northern counties of Slovakia moved south in large numbers. Several waves of the population left the lands that had been devastated or scorched by the Ottoman Turks during their retreat from Royal Hungary. The southern migration of Slovaks took place during three waves: the years 1690 – 1710, 1711 – 1740 and 1740 – 1790. Further migration continued even into the 19th century. The third wave of Slovaks came from the most southern regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire-Báčka, Banát and Sriem. The first document dates from 1745, when freeman Matej Čáni led one hundred and twenty-eight Slovak families to the Futog Estate in Báčsky Petrovec. Slovaks moved to other regions of the Lowland either directly from Slovak counties, via secondary or tertiary migrations from Austro-Hungarian counties or from recently established Lowlands regions, because of poor economic or social conditions.
In their new homeland, the Slovaks established their own villages or moved into communities where Serbian, German, Hungarian, Romanian or other nationalities were already living. All the settlers found that it was necessary to cultivate the land through several generations before agriculture could flourish. The immigrant communities were ethnically very heterogeneous and primarily focused on maintaining their own traditions and social norms which they brought from their homeland.
There was a small percentage of Slovaks from the Roman Catholic tradition, but more than ninety percent of these immigrants who came to Serbia were Protestants who followed the teachings of Martin Luther. First and foremost among what they brought with them were the moral principles of their Christian faith and their Bible which would have been written in the archaic biblical Czech language. Their spiritual life was a focus and it was strengthened by the ministers and teachers who came from Slovakia. Settlers were steadfast in their demands for spiritual pastors, as is evidenced by stories where settlers threatened to abandon the estates unless the landlords would ensure that Lutheran clergyman would be provided for them. It was educated men from Slovakia who laid the firm foundations for the development of the Slovaks' religious and cultural life. Of prime importance in each settlement was the building of schools and churches, especially after 1781 when the king issued his Edict of Tolerance which guaranteed religious freedom. They built church buildings which were characterized by a simple interior with an altar and wall paintings or quotations from the Bible that would serve to strengthen their faith. Part of the spiritual life at that time was the maintenance of the mother language, family and religious traditions and overall cultural growth of the general Slovak community. Besides the Bible, the famous Slovak hymnal book Tranoscius, written by Juraj Tranovsky, served to edify the soul by encouraging the singing of religious songs.
This period of history was the period of the Enlightenment in Slovakia. At this time the Viennese court, and especially Joseph II, advocated for the better status of the people, including education and culture. Bearers of these efforts were many personalities among the Slovak intellectuals operating in the newly developed towns and villages. These individuals had very good cooperation with the Serbian population. The first four directors of the earliest Serbian school in Sriemske Karlovce were Slovaks: Andrej Volný; Ján Gros; Pavel Magda and Karl Rumy. In 1819, the first director of the newly established Serbian high school in Novi Sad was a major Slovak patriot, Pavel Jozef Šafárik. In the eighteen twenties, P. J. Šafárik, Juraj Rohoň and Michal Godra established the educational society of Societas Slavica and in the eighteen sixties, Jozef Podhradský published two magazines for youth, Zornička and Slávik. This was also the start of book publishing and the proof is the first historical book about the Slovaks from the Lowlands which was published in the Slovak language in the year 1888 in German Palanka – Báč-Sriemski Slováci. The nephew of P. J. Šafárik, Dr. Janko Šafárik was one of the founders of many national institutions in Belgrade and in 1895, the first graphic arts school in Belgrade was founded by the Slovak Cyril Kutlík. The celebrated Slovak artist, Jozef Klemens Božatech, also lived in Belgrade. These relationships persisted throughout the 19th century and continued into the next, when leading figures such as Viliam Figuš-Bystrý, Mykuláš-Schneider Trnavský, Ján Koniarek as well as many others emerged.
In the mid 19th century, the descendants of early Slovak settlers in Vojvodina were drawn to organize in the cultural realm. The first library was founded in Báčsky Petrovec in 1845, and in 1866 the premiere of the first theatrical performance took place. Slovaks met in religious, cultural and economic circles and clubs to help each other economically and spiritually to lift ones spirit, but especially to strengthen their Slovak identity. The Petrovský Choir was established in 1899 and formally registered in 1901. Its mandate, besides singing, was to oversee many other cultural and heritage activities in Báčsky Petrovec. The start of the twentieth century also saw other associations develop, especially reading circles which developed and presented many cultural and artistic activities. In 1902 in Novi Sad, the first Slovak newspaper Dolnozemský Slovák was published to cover national, social, political and cultural news relevant to Slovaks in Vojvodina.
After World War I, the Slovaks from the southern areas of the state found themselves within a new state structure. The dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the development of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929, imposed many new circumstances on the Slovak community which was separated from their mother country. This was reflected in increased activity in the economic, political, social and cultural processes which resulted in the building of the institutional basis for the Slovak minority. In 1919 Báčsky Petrovec had a Slovak gymnasium as well as publisher with its own printing press for printing Slovak textbooks and literature. In the same year the Slovak National Celebrations were founded to provide Slovaks with an event for presenting and celebrating their own culture. They took this opportunity to lay the groundwork for new organizations, clubs and theatrical groups. In 1920 in Petrovec, the newspaper called Národná jednota or National Union was first published along with other literary, cultural and recreational periodicals (Snahy, Svit, Frčka, Hévis etc.). In 1921, the Slovak Evangelical A.V. Church in Yugoslavia was founded, and eleven years later, in 1932, Matica Slovenská was established in Yugoslavia. This was a cultural and heritage organization which was present at that time in most countries with Slavic populations.
In the interwar period, Vojvodina Slovaks were bearers of spiritual, material and Slovak cultural traditions and that can be seen in every aspect of their lives. But beyond the artifacts embodied in folk architecture or arts and crafts were the traditions linked to the more intangible aspects of culture such as language and dialects, customs, traditions, ceremonial cycles, folk narratives, songs and legends. These are passed on from parent to child, or one generation to the next in a very compact society and are thereby resistant to external influences. During World War II there was cultural stagnation, for it was a time of struggle for survival and basic existence. In the early post-war years from 1946 until 1948, an initiative called “Mother is calling” was organized in Czechoslovakia and Slovaks living abroad were asked to “come home and rebuild the country”. This led to many Vojvodina Slovak intellectuals returning to their homeland, including many who had been leaders in the Slovak cultural activities.
After World War II, many of the previously separate Slovak organizations and associations merged together. It was also the period when the right conditions existed for ethno-national organizations and more focused local organizations to develop. Evidence of this is the establishment of the weekly newspaper Hlas ľudu or Voice of the People in Petrovec in 1944, which was the continuator of the newspaper Národná jednota, the organizing of an Ethnographic collection in Petrovec in 1949, the beginning of Slovak language broadcasts on Radio Novi Sad in 1949, Slovak Studies being set up at the Philosophical Faculty in 1961, Slovak TV programming in Novi Sad beginning in 1975, a Gallery of Zuzka Medveďova in Petrovec in 1989 as well as the establishment of institutions which began to serve specific needs but developed a broader scope over time. A unique place in this list is the Gallery of Folk Art which was established in 1955 and which has grown in focus from a local to a very broad spectrum under the name, the Gallery of Naïve Art in Kovačica. It was a very productive period and results were especially evident at annual festivals dedicated to music, literature, theatre, dance and other similar artistic activities. It was also a very rich period in the publishing field. The magazine for children that had been published since 1939 under the title of Naše slniečko or Our Sunshine, is today called Zornička. In 1933, the first issue of the magazine devoted to culture and literature called Náš zivot or Our Life is published and since 1949 the monthly magazine for literature and culture called Nový život or New Life was published. Since 1970 there has been a monthly publication published for youth called Vzlet or Taking Off. At the same time hundreds of books covering many literary genres have been published by the leading literary authors. One may say that from the period after World War II until the breakup of former Yugoslavia in the nineties, Slovak national life reached its highest standards in almost all sectors of arts and culture. It is also the period when the Slovak minority had the highest number of people. These exceptional performances in both high and mass culture could be achieved because of the tenacity, concentration and high awareness of its cultural leaders and because of the broad spectrum of the population.
The nineteen-nineties saw the erosion and devaluation of cultural life and the establishment of new sub-cultural models. Gradually there was a strengthening of self-esteem and nationalistic sentiments among the ethnic minorities. During this period Matica Slovenská in Yugoslavia (1990) was renewed together with their local councils (1991) and since the year 1992 they renewed Slovak National Celebrations. Despite the difficulties at this time, the Slovaks celebrated a very important anniversary - 250 years of the life of Slovaks in Vojvodina. Under the auspices of the Spolok vojvodinských slovakistov (Association of Slovak Studies in Vojvodina) there was an International Symposium held in Novi Sad and Báčsky Petrovec and which was attended by the leading personalities of the Slovak community. The consequences of war in the nineteen nineties were far-reaching for the entire country and its citizens. The Slovak community in particular felt the loss from the departure of a large number of intellectuals and educated people to Slovakia and abroad.
The year 2000 brought democratic changes to Serbia which allowed new freedom among minority activities. The extremely sensitive issues of politics had to be resolved with an appropriate model which provided for the cultural autonomy of almost twenty ethnic communities which existed during the first decade of the 21st century Yugoslavia. This was followed by similar actions in the state union of Serbia and Montenegro and then in the Republic of Serbia. A new law was passed on the Protection of Rights and Freedoms of National Minorities (2002) on which was founded the National Council of the Slovak National Minority (2003) which subsequently modified the whole body of the cultural infrastructure of Slovaks living in Serbia. In 2002 when the census was held, it revealed that there were 59,021 Slovaks (0.79% of the 7,498,001 inhabitants of Serbia, without data for Kosovo), out of which there were 56,637 in Vojvodina. In 2009 the first elections were held in the Slovak Parliament, the National Council of the Slovak National Minority, when more than 32,000 Slovaks living in forty four municipalities in Serbia enrolled on a separate voter list.
The organized cultural life in the past and the present can be talked about in the context of thirty-six geographical sites, which are concentrated mainly in three regions of Vojvodina – in Báčka, in Banát and Sriem. The largest Slovak center in Báčka is considered to be Báčsky Petrovec. In Sriem it would be Stará Pazova and in Banát it would be Kovačica. The largest national organizations and institutions are located in the capital of Vojvodina, Novi Sad, which is also a neutral administrative center providing the above-mentioned cultural infrastructure. The most important cultural institutions today are undoubtedly the Zuzka Medveďova Gallery and Gallery K. M. Lehotský in Báčsky Petrovec, The Matica Slovenská in Serbia, Naive Art in Kovačica, The Museum of Vojvodina's Slovaks, Slovak Vojvodina Theatre, The Slovak Publishing Centre, Štefan Homola Library and others. The youngest is the Institute for Slovak Culture of Vojvodina (2008), which implements a policy of conservation, enhancement and development of the Slovak Vojvodina culture in its broadest context. In addition to the network of professional attention for heritage and contemporary cultural creation there is also a network of amateur clubs, associations, NGOs and private initiatives whose enthusiasm and deep feeling for Slovak culture and heritage completes the overall picture of a viable Slovak minority in Serbia.
The first decade of the 21st century can be described as the beginning of a new period in the life of the local Slovaks. This period is characterized by the delegation of the power for responsibility and care of the over cultural life of Slovaks from state level to the minority capacity. Important motivation in realizing these objectives is the financial and logistical help which Slovaks in Vojvodina receive from the Slovak Republic. It is thanks to the delegation of power, the financial support from Serbia as well as other countries and mainly thanks to the continuous palette of activities, which are organized by the Slovak minority on the cultural level, is the primary reason that the Slovaks are known and recognized as a mature minority which deeply respects its roots, preserves its traditions and which independently develops its own abilities and creativity. At the same time, the Slovaks regard themselves as a fully integrated minority, who with their particularities and uniqueness to a large degree enhance and complement the cultural mosaic of the multiethnic Vojvodina and Serbia.
Mgr. art. Milina Sklabinská

Translated by Ondrej Miháľ