In the Slovakian footsteps of my great-grandfather

Around 130 years ago, a young man left his home in Eastern Europe in search of a better life. Today, John Lichfield revisits the birthplace of his ancestors in Kecerovce, eastern Slovakia
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The Independent Online

Kecerovce is a pretty, brooding, dusty village, in the midst of the gentle, beautiful hills and dark forests of eastern Slovakia. On one of the two main streets, beside a bridge over a river, there stands a tumbledown, ochre-coloured house, with elaborate carved window-frames, among the few old houses to survive the destruction that Russian troops caused when they captured the village in 1945.

From this house, some time in 1870 or 1871, a young man of 16 set out on a journey that took him first to a shoe factory near Budapest and finally to Manchester in north-west England.

There is a picture of him, taken 30 years later in about 1901, wearing a Lancashire cloth cap and holding a cricket bat, as part of a team composed entirely of his brother, sons, nephews, sons-in-law and nephews-in-law. The picture was taken on a field in Broughton, near Salford, which later became The Cliff, the Manchester United training ground, the place where Bobby Charlton, George Best and David Beckham, among others, learnt to play football.

In other words, within three decades, this young man from a poor Jewish family in an obscure part of what was then Hungary and part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, had become largely English and entirely Mancunian. His name was Samuel Lichtenstein. He was my great grandfather, my father's father's father.

When I travelled to Kecerovce this week, I was only the third of Samuel's descendants to do so in 133 years. The village seemed as good a place as any to talk about the risky and, placed in true perspective, joyous, eastward enlargement of the European Union, which takes effect today.

Most commentary in Britain and other Western European countries has focused on the re-unification of Europe as a nuisance or a menace, especially the alleged menace of immigration. We seem to have lost our sense of history.

Today marks the reconnection - finally - of the cultural and economic sinews severed by the First World War (which pitted the Manchester Lichtensteins against the Slovak Lichtensteins), the Holocaust (which murdered most of the Jews remaining in the village, including probably many of my cousins) and the Cold War (which separated Europe with barbed wire and ideology and imposed a 45-year social and economic freeze on the east).

What I found in Slovakia was depressing at times, but not entirely depressing. "My" village, Kecerovce, only 60 kilometres from the Ukraine and the new eastern frontier of the EU, is in one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest of the mostly poor new member states. It represents, in microcosm, the social, racial and ethnic problems which make this enlargement of the EU so potentially explosive, and so essential.

Kecerovce has 500 ethnic Slovak residents, who live in pleasant houses in the centre of the village, and 2,035 Roma Gypsies, who live in three settlements on the outskirts, ranging from the appalling, to the disgraceful, to the inhuman.

The village is already being flooded with EU money, to improve water supplies, housing and the village school, and to try to break down the barriers of prejudice and contempt between Slovaks and Gypsies.

In the Kecerovce village school, there are 660 children, of whom 622 are Roma Gypsies, beautiful children, lively children, but children doomed to a life of grinding despair unless EU membership changes something (and it may).

We were given a warm welcome in the village and filled up, whether we liked it or not, with rice-and-pork sausages, pickled beetroot and sweet, thick red wine. But I was disappointed (although I had been forewarned) to find so little excitement in Kecerovce as EU accession approached; rather a kind of resignation or indifference, even an annoyance that Western Europeans were greeting the return of their long-lost, poor eastern cousins with such churlish reluctance and disdain.

Worse, I found that eastern Slovakia was brimming with other British journalists, determined to prove, or at any rate to report, that the entire Gypsy population of Slovakia was about to decamp to Britain.

In the corridors of my hotel in Kosice, I overheard one British journalist shouting into his mobile phone: "The message from the hills of eastern Slovakia is: 'Tell them all in Britain that we are on our way'."

In talking to dozens of "Roma" this week, I could not find a single person who had even considered going to Britain, or anywhere else in Western Europe, although no doubt a few of the cleverer, richer or more enterprising ones will do so (following my great-grandfather's footsteps).

Zdena is 34, with broad hips, a broader grin and three children, who live in a breeze-block shack. We met her on the edge of an old, ruined Jewish ceremony where my great-great-grandfather is said to be buried. (His gravestone appears to have been destroyed or stolen.)

Like all the Slovak "Roma", Zdena is very brown-skinned. She could be Indian or Nepalese. The contrast with the light-skinned, blue-eyed Slovaks is striking: two entirely separate tribes (and not just two) have uneasily occupied this same land for centuries.

The "old system", as Slovaks call the Communist past, corrupted the Roma, by forbidding them to wander and encouraging them to breed. They received high welfare payments for each child. The "new system" (Slovakia's market reforms have been tougher than in almost any other Eastern European country) sliced the payments overnight.

Zdena told us she and her family now lived on 2,000 Slovak crowns (£33) a month. Her 16-year-old son - the same age as my great-grandfather when he left the village - is supposed to go to secondary school in town but she cannot afford to send him. "The European Union means nothing to me," she said. "The old system was better. I expect things only to get worse. I think the EU will make things worse for the Roma. Why should we travel to the West? They hate the Roma in the West, just like here. Life would be even harder in the West."

My guide and interpreter in the village was Pavol Jesensky, a 21-year-old student of English and computers. He took me to meet the mayor of Kecerovce, Ana Bombarova, a determined woman, built like a shot-putter, who welcomed me politely as a long-lost son of the village and gave me a copy of the village crest.

She also welcomes EU membership because of the money it is bringing to the village and because of the new market opportunities it will offer for the local farm produce. But she admits that for many middle-aged or older residents the new European dawn is a time of great anxiety. "They fear that, within the EU, prices will rise quickly but that incomes will remain the same."

There is a generational rift here, which can be traced right through the new eastern tier of the EU. Pavol, my angelic student guide (who voluntarily teaches English to the Roma as part of the EU programme) said he and fellow students are impatient for the kind of changes that EU membership could bring.

"For us it is a promise, not just that we can travel to the West, although some of us would like to travel for a while. It is a promise that the West will come to us, that Western prosperity, and some Western attitudes will come here, without changing the best of what we have."

Pavol said there were opals in the hills, which were scarcely mined. He took us to see the natural cold-water geyser near the village, the largest in Europe, which is boxed in by what he called "socialistic concrete" and hardly publicised. "That is Slovakia," he said, with a giggle. "We have so much and we do nothing with it. Inside the EU, that must change."

Pavol had also arranged a meeting with one of the village's oldest residents, Alzbeta Lencowa, a gentle woman of 82, who has lived under five political systems. She is about to enter a sixth.

"I remember the Jews in the village well," she said, taking my hand. "I remember your family well. They kept a bar and a shop before the war. They were a famous family here, the Lichtensteins. The Jews and Slovaks in Kecerovce always got on well. We all went to school together. We all went to dances together. I cried, many people cried when the Jews were taken away [in 1943, almost certainly 400 miles north, to Auschwitz]."

Her son, Josef Lencow, 50, is a relatively prosperous wood merchant, a bear of a man much given to bear-hugging and force-feeding visitors. Mr Lencow is annoyed that Westerners seem to think (from what he has seen on Slovak TV) that Slovaks are all impoverished good-for-nothings who are simply waiting for today's EU starting whistle before storming planes bound for London or Paris.

Even though he does not want to leave his village, he is furious that EU countries have reneged on their promise of free movement, branding him and all the other Easterners as second-class Europeans.

"We may be poorer than you in money, but we do not have a poorer life. Most Slovaks are rural people, who live in villages and want to share what they have with their family and friends. We like to visit other places [Mr Lencow insists on showing me his snaps of the Eiffel tower and Versailles] but we don't want to be immigrants."

Mr Lencow said life under the "old system" was not so bad. He even said that little has improved for ordinary Slovaks since Communism collapsed in 1989 (a doubtful proposition, if you look at the flourishing shops in Kosice, 15 miles away, and the Western investment, especially in car-making, now flooding into Slovakia).

As for the EU money pouring into the village, it is a terrible mistake, he says. "Money will not solve the Roma problem," he said. "Nothing will solve the Roma problem. Only a bomb. A big bomb."

Just to the north of the village, there is another Jewish cemetery, 25 gravestones, surrounded by wheat fields and the rich green hills which could be the Pennine hills in which I was brought up. The last grave-stone in the last row is that of my great, great grandmother, Rebecca Lichtenstein, Samuel's mother, who died in 1857, when he was two years old.

A split in the family after his father remarried seems to have been the cause of his emigration. In 1907, Samuel sent his son, my great-uncle David, back from Manchester to the village, to erect a stone on the grave of the mother that he could presumably hardly remember.

Standing beside my great-great-grandmother's grave (rediscovered by my cousin Kathryn two years ago), I felt a kind of numbness. I could not even imagine her face. Too many connections had not been made. There is no chain of family memory linking me to Rebecca, a woman born as Rebecca Meyer in Kecerovce in the year of the battle of Waterloo. Her son, Samuel, died just after my father was born; my father's father (who changed his name to Lichfield in 1936) died four years before I was born.

Is that also true of the sewing together of Europe, completed, or rather begun, today? It cannot succeed; there is no chain of memory; too many connections have been missed for too long. We should all hope that is not the case. Even the Daily Express.

I could make an argument for emigration, based on the solid citizenry of the succeeding generations of Samuel's family (jewellers, cotton-traders, solicitors, businessmen, hotel-managers, doctors and only one black-sheep journalist).

But the best way of preventing the mass emigration that the British popular press loves to hate is to make the enlargement of the EU a success. Of the 250,000 people who have already emigrated from East to West in Europe since the collapse of Communism, by far the majority came from the basket-case and ethnically cleansing countries of the Balkans.

All those nationalist hormones bouncing around in such an ethnically unstable place as Eastern Europe could have caused a half-dozen Yugoslavias by now. The old Austro-Hungarian empire, gently, and the Soviet bloc, savagely, subdued the nationalisms for a while. The EU, muddled and unpopular though it is, has a way of burying the worst impulses of nationalism in paper, grey print and endless negotiation. It also has a way of insisting, politely, on good manners towards minorities, even Gypsies.

The promise of belonging to the tedious, much-maligned EU explains in part why countries like Slovakia, after teetering on the brink of racist and authoritarian disaster in the early 1990s, have done so much to clean up their act (though in the case of the Roma, not nearly enough).

It is depressing - and dangerous - that we in Western Europe have been so churlish about opening our borders and the EU purse-strings. Considering how much blood, including British blood, has been spilt in conflicts originating in Eastern Europe in the past century, the healing of divisions should be an occasion for joy and generosity. The alternative is to condemn our children to walk in the footsteps of their great-grandfathers.