Marek Soltis was born in Prešov in eastern Slovakia in 1969. He grew up with his parents, Ondrej and Maria, and his younger brother and sister. Marek and his family lived with his maternal grandparents in Rokycany for several years while his parents were building a house. Marek says that he dreamed of being a musician from an early age, and he learned to play the accordion and the guitar. Beginning in early high school, Marek joined a band which played gigs around the city. He attended a technical high school and then studied physics at Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Prešov with the intention of becoming a university professor. Marek was a university student when the Velvet Revolution occurred in November 1989. He says that students at his school were particularly active during this time, and he distributed newspapers and traveled to factories. Marek calls this time ‘indescribable.’ After graduating, he began playing music professionally and played in a theatre orchestra.
In 1996, Marek traveled to the United States to visit a friend. He says that corruption in the newly-democratic Slovakia combined with professional opportunities in the United States led to his decision to stay permanently. He settled in the New York City area and, although he says his first months were difficult, he quickly became involved in the music and Slovak communities. Marek took classes at Hunter College and joined a band. Today, Marek owns a music and entertainment company which, among other things, helps to bring Slovak music to the United States. He is also the sound engineer at the Bohemian National Hall in Manhattan. Marek and his wife, also a Slovak émigré, have a young daughter and son to whom they speak Slovak. Today he lives with his family in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“I know that our school, in the eastern part of Slovakia, took a leading role, and so did I. I was just so involved in the revolution, and I didn’t see my parents back then for almost two months. I didn’t go those 11 kilometers because we were so busy. We started releasing our newspaper – it was probably the only one. Later on in Kosice there was one called Premeny. So our first job was to go in the streets, and I was actually writing some articles, and then we were giving these newspapers to people. That time is just indescribable. The joy of the people; we were being given free food. I’m almost having tears in my eyes because that time is indescribable. It’s still the communist era and you go to a store and you ask for some soup or something and [they’d say] ‘Just don’t pay, guys.’ We had tricolors on and we were kind of known from the college. We got like ‘Strike Committee’ [patches] and all that. So they knew us. Taxi drivers gave us rides, even to Svidník. It was just ‘Guys, don’t even think about it.’ So we had taxi drivers waiting for us and we were going from factory to factory. Our role was, those first days we knew one thing – the economy cannot collapse. And what happened, in those factories, on every level people started to fight. Personal crap on the leaders, on the Communist Party, and our role was to keep the economy and factories going, because they were like ‘Oh, we’re not working!’ and we had to go there and were telling them and – this is great – they respected us. I don’t know why. We were not the police; we were not authority, but we came and we actually had the director of the factory and ordinary workers sitting and we had them communicate. So that was my role.”
Proud of Heritage
“I want them to speak Slovak. Children pick up English in schools like that, and the only time – I knew one thing – the only time I can give them the language is from the time they were born until they go to school. So even if he talks to me in English, I answer him in Slovak, and I know it’s the only time. I still wish we could have some different programs, some schools where they can use it. I’m so thankful for the school in Bohemian Hall in Queens, Astoria. We used to have better support [from Slovakia]. I’m not the guy who cries out, ‘Oh, the government has to take care of it in Slovakia,’ but it’s a fact that we are Slovakians and we have our children and we want to give them that education. The level of grammar is not just something you can give to them like that or once a week. So I wish we can do something about that. And there are a lot of children right now.”
Music and Communities
“I was always kind of growing or living with the music community, and it was not just the band. It was folk music, folk ensembles, dancers, theatre. So I got to know a lot of people, and also that community was what I always loved. The musical or artistic group of people, we always said that we are different. We have a big love for it. It helped me in my business, too. I forget many times about money; my thing is to satisfy people. In the end, they have to be happy. If they’re happy then I’m happy. And if you have money at the end of it, that’s the greatest thing in the world. But I’m helping a lot of musicians, a lot of bands, have a chance to come here and actually play a little bit on American soil. Many of them present it as ‘Oh, we are playing to American audiences,’ but of course they are not playing for the American public; they are playing for Slovakian immigrants, which, in many cases, these people cannot have another chance to see groups or artists because they cannot leave this country because they are illegal. But we have to consider as a fact that they are Slovaks and they are existing, they’re living, they’re humans. To see the joy of those groups of people if you bring something to them, it’s priceless.”