Mariana Šibalová is from Sfânta Elena. She was born here, and so were here husband and her parents. This is where she wants to live the rest of her life. She promised her husband on his deathbed that she wouldn’t leave for the Czech Republic. He wanted to hear her say that, and she knows she will keep her promise. This is where she was born, a few years after the end of the Second World War, and this is where she will remain until the end of her life.
“My aunt called me and told me:
– There are so many storks, run and catch one!
– Why should I run, I don’t care about storks!
– Run, there are storks all the way to Garina! And there are a lot of them!
– I don’t believe you, I’m not going!
– Your Máňa has already caught one!
– Oh! I’ve just realized, our Máňa has had a baby!”
Mariana has three children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. All the great-grandchildren are in the village of Ravensca, not far from Sfânta Elena. But two of the children and most of the grandchildren live in the Czech Republic.
Sfânta Elena is one of six Czech villages in Banat. Czechs came here two centuries ago and have preserved their language and traditions. They lived in somewhat isolated villages, in an enclave, and married almost exclusively members of the Czech community. To those around them, they are known as pemi. The word comes from Bohemians, as Mrs Mariana laughingly tells me. The inhabitants of Sfânta Elena call the inhabitants of Coronini “fishermen”, and Romanians in general “Wallachians”.
Since their arrival in Banat, the people of these villages have known several waves of migration. They were part of the wider movements of population in the region which also influenced the lives of people outside the Czech community. However, the migration of the Czechs from Banat had its own specificity. In the beginning, immediately after their arrival in Banat, life was hard for them. They often didn’t the jobs they were promised and had to build their villages in harsh conditions. The first major wave of migration was to America, after the First World War. But it was mostly single people and young families who left. Communication possibilities were limited, so this wave of migration didn’t really leave a mark on the community.
The next, larger wave of migration took place in Czech villaes after World War Two, when ethnic Czechs living in other countries were repatriated as part of Czechoslovakia’s political efforts at the time. The aim was to repopulate the border with Germany following the expulsion of some three million ethnic Germans, the original inhabitants of the area. But the war also affected the Czech community in Banat, especially through the enlistment of young men, as Mrs Mariana knows from stories she was told:
“My father fought in the war. My mother didn’t think he was still alive anymore. News reached the village that they had been shot. And somehow they thought my father was in that group that had been shot. My mother thought he was dead. One day, my mother was fetching water. It was right here, next to our house. There was a man by the well, Šneider, Pinčulák. His family name was Šneider, but people called them ‘Pinčulák’. And as they were walking up from the well, they came to this corner, and the old man turned and looks over his shoulder. Then he looked again and stopped. My mother adjusted the hooks on her shoulders, the ones they used for carrying water back in the day, and continued walking. The old man had recognized my daddy by his walk. He was dressed in rags, his beard and hair were grown out, he was dirty and he had something like a backpack on his back. And the old man turns around and says to my mom:
– If you met Venta, would you recognize him?
And she says:
– Uncle, how could I not recognize my husband?
And the old man left it at that and they continued slowly, very slowly. My dad had recognized my mother. When he reached them, he shook hands with Pinčulák, but they didn’t speak Czech. They started speaking in Romanian and they kept walking until they got to that house all the way up the hill. And before saying goodbye, the old man asked my mom again:
– Anca, would you recognize your Vența?
– Uncle, what are saying, of course I would recognize him, how could I not?
– And who is this man walking with us now?
– I don’t know, some Wallachian.
– It’s me, Vența!
– In that moment my mother dropped the hooks. She almost fainted from the scare. And then they hugged. It was him.”
Mrs Šibalová remembers her childhood with a warm and playful smile. How much the children played, but also how much work they had to do. She would watch the cows when they were grazing, she would help out in the fields. Every penny was important. Her mother crossed the woods to Moldova Nouă, carrying on her back goods to sell at the market – milk, cheese, both sweet and salty, eggs. She had to bring back cigarettes for her husband and whatever else was needed in the household. Sometimes she even had enough money for candy for the children. She went to the market in summer, as well as winter, in all types of weather.
¨I only went with her to the marker once. My mother had managed to collect a few eggs, they were hard to find, we didn’t eat them, so kept them to sell them, right? We went at night, before dawn. And there was a road, there was a big pile of dirt, and it was dark. And I tripped, my backpack flew over my head. I broke the eggs! I broke everything and I even spilled the cream.
My mother often went to the market to sell things. One winter, she went out in a snow so deep, she couldn’t walk. You know how it was, food was scarce. She was already on her way back when she reached a hut. She was lucky, a neighbour of ours pulled her in, she couldn’t walk anymore. It was snowing, it was freezing cold, and the snow covering her had frozen. She stayed there until morning. They brought her back with horses the next day. We were crying because our mother hadn’t come home overnight. We were afraid something had happened to her.
IN Sfânta Elena there is a primary school where classes were, and still are, taught exclusively in Czech. Mariana, like many of her fellow villagers, graduated primary school and did not continue her studies. It was only later, when she was expecting to give birth to her first son, that she managed to finish eight classes. She laughingly recounts how she almost couldn’t fit in her desk because of her belly. Then she met her husband, and she gave birth to two more children. They met at the village community centre, where he was in charge of film screenings. At the time, they showed films every day, and there was no shortage of spectators. But apart from films and traditional celebrations, young people were also tied by work, as conditions were difficult in many ways.
¨Yes, oh my God, they now give children Pampers diapers, then throw them away. My first son was born in May, on the ninth of May, at the beginning of summer. I’d come home from the fields and in the evening, I’d have to wash diapers. I’d make diapers out of anything I could, I’d tear aprons. But even so, I didn’t have many diapers, so I had to wash them, then dry them. And in the morning, we’d go to the fields. And it was serious work, not like now.
Later I learned to use the scythe, like a man. I had to cut the grass. The children were still small, and my husband was sick. People said we should hire someone, but who? No one would do it, so I cut the grass myself, I grabbed the scythe and I cut the grass. Some women laughed at me. It wasn’t easy for me either. He couldn’t do it, he had lungs surgery. As soon as he got tired, he would get sick, so I had to do it. What else was I to do? But I did it gladly.
I visited Mariana Šibalova together with her granddaughter, Máňa, her husband, Franta, and their fifth child, their newborn Petr. The young family lives in Ravensca, another Czech village, but they often come visit their grandmother at Sfânta Elena. But the grandmother also has many memories of Ravensca. She knows the people there and takes a keen interest in them whenever she gets a chance.
“Now there are cars, it’s easier. My brother got married in Ravensca, I didn’t want Máňa to move there, it’s far. But I wanted her to marry a Czech, so we’re happy.
In the old days, right before the fasting period began, we used to go to a party called nedeie. My brother went to a nedeie in Ravensca with another boy form our village. And there he met a girl who became his wife. He didn’t listen to our parents. He was cheeky. My parents didn’t want him to go to Ravensca, and we fought over that so much. And he was like nooo, that’s what I want. And when he went, they found themselves such a tinny house, my God. Wretched, run down. It was like a hut, that’s how small it was. And now when he was here three Sundays ago, he said to me: ‘Daddy should have taken a big stick and beaten me with it.’
I used to go there too. My God! Every year when I finished my work here, he’d pick me up and take me to Ravensca. They were behind on everything there. When my brother first came to pick me up, I was watching the cows right there, on the Garina. And my mother came up the hill and shouted, come home immediately, Ioza is here. I ran down from the Garina, I left the cows there, in the care of a girl. When I got home, he was there with his father-in-law. We sat for a while, then let’s go. I thought they’d come by carriage, but he said he’d come on foot. And when we got to Circova, where there were two huts, I asked him: How much further, Iozo? His father-in-law says: “We’re halfway there”. I couldn’t walk any longer, and I said so. I told them we’d have to sleep by the side of the road. And he kept coaxing me on, come on, come on. I took off my shoes and I got to Ravensca barefooted. I thought not even the crows would carry my bones to that place.
I can’t remember how many times I lied to them. I’d say that our parents had sent word through a man, Hrůza, who had a wife from Ravensca. And I’d say to my brother, I can’t stay here anymore, I have to go home. I also had a child at home. He was about two years old, and I’d said, look, I have to go home to him, he’s crying for me. But he’d ask me to stay one more day, then another, and another. My God, I was sick of Ravensca! Sick of it!
Life was tougher there. The field was far away.”
At Sfânta Elena and in the surrounding area, jobs could be found within acceptable distances. The men worked in the mines, they worked hard, and they had households in the village, and fields that also needed work. Both of Mariana’s sons worked in the mines. Her husband managed to get a job on the surface because he had had lung surgery. But the mines gradually closed, and people lost their source of income. The next wave of migration affected the entire Banat. In the post-Revolution transition period, more and more people from the Czech community started to leave for the Czech Republic. There was less and less work in the area, the mines had closed, and there was no alternative. The Czech community, like the Romanian society, began to visibly transform.
“There was a lot of work here when the mines were open. One was called Svaroh and the other Varad. I didn’t go there, only the men did. My husband heated the water for the bath where the miners washed. Because he had lung surgery. He couldn’t go down into the mines anymore, he needed some easier work. Of course, it cost us to get him that job. Back then you had to give money to… They say the wheel turns if you grease it. So he got that job. It was good.
But the boys were working in the mine. The one who died, Ștefan, Máňa’s father, and my other son who is now in the Czech Republic, they both worked in the Varad mine. It was hard work. All day long they were digging, throwing whatever they dug out into those wagons. But then it all stopped. That’s why our children went to the Czech Republic… My husband was sick, I had two surgeries in one month. Oh, God! I’ve been through a lot, you know… And it all passed, we had to go through it all. And we still do.
When the children left, oh, God, I don’t wish that on anyone, I was so sad. When they leave, my God! We had a tractor, we had a barn full of cattle. We had an aggressive bull. And his father would say, you’re going away, Vențo, far away, what are me and your mother going to do with that bull? And he said, don’t worry, dad, I’ll take care of it tomorrow. He came here with Hrůza, he took the tractor, tied the animals behind the tractor, and sold everything. Don’t think it was easy. How I cried. My husband was walking around pulling his hair ‘Ma’, we’re left with an empty barn!”
The boy has been away for fifteen years and the girl for eighteen years. If everyone who in now in the Czech Republic had stayed here, I say there would be houses all the way up to the hill and then who knows how far. Because there were many of people here, but many have gone to the Czech Republic.”
Photo credit: Diana Bilec