Ravensca is situated at the highest altitude of all the Czech villages in Banat. The road to the village is difficult and the emblematic sentence “I broke my car”, is often heard. But when you pass through the forest somewhere high above the hills, you arrive in the mountains, in the middle of a divine nature, in a village visited by many people who see it as heaven on earth. And when you stay for a couple of days you begin to wonder what life is like there. What stories does each house, family, barn, hausplatz —cas the locals call their gardens —, clearing and field carry? And you discover a lot of things, a history of two hundred years that continues to this day, in a different manner, but it goes on. Many stories are already forgotten, others await to happen. And the language spoken here, which conveys a lot beyond the words per se, is Czech with Romanian influences, and elements preserved from the time the Czechs first came to this area.
Helena Pelnařová and I have known each other for years, and more than once we sat surrounded by boxes of photos, both old and new, while she talked about her life and that of the village. Each photo brought about a long string of memories, some about local customs, others about stories from the village. But for each of them, she or her husband cracks a joke. We laugh a lot. As Helena’s husband, Johan, says: “Whoever doesn’t joke, doesn’t live!” These time travels are most intense in winter. From spring to late autumn there is a lot of work to be done, and every chore has its own season. You can’t waste time talking, it’s the season to make a living.
However, it’s now summer and I’ve asked Helena Pelnařová to tell me some stories, so I only open one box and choose just a few pictures to see what they will reveal. We’ll continue this conversation in winter, when the fog will have settled over the village and we will only be able to see a few feet in front of us, when snow will have covered the roads and old stoves will be warming the homes.
FIRST CHAPTER – THE PICTURE OF THE CHLIDHOOD HOME
My childhood home, which you see in this picture, you won’t recognize it now! It’s changed a lot. The middle room is the bathroom, in the back room and the front room there are beds for tourists. The original house had three rooms. My siblings and I slept with our mom in the back room, the middle room was the kitchen, with a walled oven on which we used to cook, it smelled so nice! Father slept in the room by the street, because he was a sanitary officer and he did his own thing.
After I moved out and my parents died, my sister lived there for many years. She already had grown-up daughters who had married and gone to the Czech Republic. After a while she got sick and went to live with them. When my sister died, the girls sold the house, sometime in the 2000s. In 2002, something like that.
I lived a lot in that house, with my parents, with simple food cooked by my mother. In the summer, they went to work, and when they came back in the evening they would make polenta, fried eggs, and cheese. My favourite was soup. But the soup had to be clear, without any spices, my father couldn’t stand them. We also had sarmale, meat jellies and roast meat, same as now.
We were many children; we went to school together. I had a cousin — later he became the godfather of my kids — when we came home from school, we used to fight using our bags. What fun we had doing that, I still laugh when I think about it.
When I came home from school, I had to go fetch the cattle that were grazing. The parents would take the cattle to the pasture, but they wouldn’t watch them, they would just take them there. I would have to go see where they were. One time, I went looking for the cows, but I couldn’t find one of the cows. The next morning my parents went looking for it and found it dead in a ravine. I don’t know what had happened, but my parents scolded me for that. It makes me laugh now, but I didn’t feel like laughing then! Another time, I played with the neighbours’ girls while looking after some ducklings. I lost track of time, the sow came and: chomp, chomp, chomp, she ate the ducklings. I made sure to lock them up in the evening, when my parents came home from work, but they were only a few left. I can’t imagine what I would do if someone did that to my ducklings now!
There are lots of stories. When we were little, and even when we grew older, we would drop this or that. One time it was really bad, I still remember every detail of that day. I went and herded the cows and lost my whip. I left it down by the well, where we get water. When I got home, I realized had left the whip behind. I went back, but the whip was gone. My father told me: if you can’t find the whip, don’t bother coming back home! I didn’t find the whip, so I didn’t come home. I slept in a barn, and they looked for me the entire night. Then my mother scolded my father for threatening me. But this too is past.
What else should I tell you? I had chores, but I had no toys. I used to go to the neighbour’s girls. We’d dress up in our mothers’ clothes and go to church and listen to the service. Or when there was a wedding, we’d dress up as brides. We played very nicely. My parents would never find me home when they came back from work. I was always at the neighbours.
(Looking at a picture) This is taken in front of the house at my big sister’s daughter’s christening. Their father was still alive. He was from Șumița, another Czech village in the area. There were marriages between people from here and boys or girls from other Czech villages. The boys rarely left. The girls would marry outside the Czech community, although they were forbidden to make acquaintance with them. But it happened. For example, boys from Baia Noua came to Eibenthal with a show and all the Czechs girls fell in love with them. Three girls eventually married them and left the village. They also went to Ciclova, to the monastery, every year on the 15th of August, and they would meet there. The boys had their eyes on the girls, the girls on the boys… This niece of mine who got married in Șumița, that’s where she met her husband, at the monastery in Ciclova.
At the time people had households, but they were many in the family. So the rule was this: the last child stayed with the parents. That’s how it was back then, children didn’t scatter around the country or abroad.
SECOND CHAPTER – GROUP PHOTO WITH CHILDREN
The village school dates to the time the Czechs first came and settled on this hill. I don’t know why they chose this place. Life is hard now, imagine what it was like when they arrived. But from the very beginning they built a chapel where they held services, because the people here are very faithful, but it also served as a school. Others say that there was something like a community centre where both the service and teaching happened. But that was a long time ago. There have been all kinds of teachers over the years, even Romanians who taught in Romanian, but most of the time the teaching was done in Czech by teachers from the village. In the 70s, František Šubrt even finished university and taught here until he left for the Czech Republic after the Revolution. After the Revolution, Czech teachers were also sent from the Czech Republic to teach here. There were more children back then.
I had a beautiful childhood, because there were many children in the village, and we played together. There were a lot of children in primary school. When I started school, there were 9 in the 4th grade, 3 or 4 in the 3rd grade, 9 — including my husband — in the 2nd grade (5 girls and 4 boys), and in the 1st grade we were 5. Now there are 3 children in the entire school.
At one point there was a secondary school in Ravensca for grades 5 to 8, I can’t remember the years. My child didn’t catch that up, after him there were grades 5 to 8, there were more children then… My generation from 1949, we were the last ones with 7 classes and the last with 11 classes. As there was no school for older children in the village, starting with 5th grade I went to a boarding school in Bozovici. There I attended grades five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten. I didn’t come home often. I would stay there even for three months on end, because there were no buses, plus we also went to school on Saturdays. When we did go, we had to catch the bus from Bozovici to Șopotu Nou on Saturday afternoons, then we had to go up the hill on foot. We’d arrive at nightfall. And on Monday we had to leave at 5 o’clock in the morning, and we had to walk down the hill to catch the bus. When I started 11th grade, I got married and there was no more time for school.
In Ravensca I studied in Czech, I rarely heard Romanian spoken. The teacher here was Czech. He was born in that broken house down the street. But he lived at the school. During communism he wasn’t allowed to go to church, he wasn’t allowed to own land, to keep cows… He was a communist. He played the organ in church, but he didn’t want people seeing him. Everyone knew that he was playing the organ, but nobody saw him.
Anyway, life was different under communism. When Ceaușescu was in debt to the Russians, we had to give eggs, meat, milk. We would take the milk to Alena, there was a milk collection centre there and they would make cheese. They would collect milk, make cheese and transport it. They used to grade the milk. So if you brought in your milk, they would grade it depending on how fat it was. Same with eggs. They measured them at the village cooperative. But there were no quotas. If you had any, you brought them, they gave you some money for them, the small ones were worth less, the big ones, more. Or you’d trade them for other products, sugar, whatever you needed. We didn’t need flour, because back then we grew wheat and made flour at the mill. Our own.
THIRD CHAPTER – PICTURE OF YOUNG PEOPLE IN WHITE, AND ANOTHER ONE FROM A WEDDING
In the old days, it took a whole week or more to prepare a wedding. Women would make cakes and cattle and pigs were slaughtered beginning with Thursday. On Saturdays they made schnitzels, sarmale, they roasted the meat. At the last wedding they hired a cook who took care of everything, but before that it was the women in the village who did everything. The people who helped at the wedding came to the community centre on Monday to clean, wash the dishes, but they also helped serve the food.
The wedding usually lasted a day and a night, but here, in the house next door, Pavel’s grandmother, when she had her wedding, they kept it up Monday too! On Saturday night they got together, and the wedding lasted till Monday. They had the wedding at home, not at the community centre. On Monday they checked the gifts and for each gift they said something, a joke. They were mostly getting linen, things like that. Now they give money. If there’s any wedding. The last wedding celebrated in the village was about ten years ago.
The weddings were organized before Ash Wednesday and then between Easter and Pentecost. In autumn, it was from August to November. In November there were no more weddings until Christmas.
When they met, the girl had to give the boy a flower. The girls and the boys would go to church together, walking in rows, according to age. The bride had helpers, the whole village would gather, there was music. It didn’t matter if they were young or old. It didn’t matter. There was a band from the village, there were eight-nine musicians, then there was our son Josef, they were five in his band. We had two bands at Josef’s wedding. The old band, because the father-in-law was in the old band, and Josef was in the young band. Since they were all unmarried, they agreed that when they got married, they would play at each other’s wedding for free.
Here’s a picture from poslední hodinka. There were a lot of boys and girls, and for nedeie, the village religious festival, the boys would go with musicians to girls’ houses. The girl would give the boy a flower and when this was done, they would all meet at the community centre, and the boys would dance the first dance with the girls who gave them the flower. Sometimes another boy would come get the flower, not the one she had an understanding with, and discussions would ensue.
Monday was the white tradition. The festival was on Sunday and on Monday was poslední hodinka. People didn’t go to church, this young people’s entertainment. The girls would dress in white, and they would go from house to house, some negotiated with them to let them cross the street, there was drinking, laughing. Youth!
FOURTH CHAPTER – RELATIVES IN BRAZIL
My father had an uncle who went to America. There were many in the family, nine children and they scattered. One went to Hungary, another went to America. The one who went to America had a Romanian girlfriend, I don’t know what happened, but the woman died. He wanted to marry another girl from the village, but her parents wouldn’t let her. They wanted wealth, so he went to America.
He had his military service, he was young at the time, 23-24 years old. He married a woman there and had a son. The boy didn’t know Czech, but the old man would write to us. He sent us pictures and icons. Brazil, where they live, is a very religious state. He ended up in Sao Paolo. His boy studied and became an officer. But he didn’t know the language, so we lost touch. When the old man was still alive, he sent us letters and pictures. After that it was over.
Many people left for America. But not from our village. I heard about one who wanted to go, but they sent him home because he didn’t have his military service. They say that dozens of families left Gârnic before the First World War and after. Maybe other people left with my uncle… but certainly not many. Now people are leaving for the Czech Republic. Since I was a child, I never saw people leave. I remember that in 1962 a whole family who lived in the centre of the village left for the Czech Republic. During communism people didn’t leave much. But after the Revolution they gradually left, almost everyone did. Especially the youth, there was no work.
Life is short and complicated. You don’t know where you’re going, but wherever you end up, that’s where you live life with both good and bad. I was also away in the Czech Republic for five years. I would have liked to stay, but he didn’t want me to. I had no choice but to come back. I worked in a hospital there, we could have got a studio and lived peacefully. Life brought me back.
Photo credit: Petra Dobruská