Paul Brunovsky was born in the spa town of Piešt’any, in western Slovakia, in September 1930. His father Štefan was a builder, while his mother Katarína stayed at home raising Paul and his five siblings. Paul says Piešt’any was ‘peaceful’ during the War; so much so that a large number of German children were sent there to escape the bombings of major German cities. Paul says relations were strained between the local Slovak kids and their visiting German peers. After the War, Paul finished his schooling in Piešt’any and started an apprenticeship in the glassworks of Gustáv Gelinger. There Paul trained to become a glass beveler. At this time, Paul became very involved in the Slovak Catholic youth movement Orel. When this group was outlawed by the Communists in 1948, Paul and fellow members of the local chapter renamed themselves Divadelný krúžok Jána Hollého [The Ján Hollý Dramatic Circle]. Paul says this theatre group had a good deal of success, with several members being invited to become professional actors in the nearby town of Nitra. With pressure growing on the group to conform or dissolve, and Paul’s place of work in line for nationalization, Paul decided to leave the country. He left with a friend, Jozef Strechaj, in October 1949.
The pair crossed the border into Germany near the Bohemian town of Poběžovice. Paul spent the next 18 months in nearly a dozen different refugee camps in Western Germany before signing up to go to Canada. Paul’s first job in Canada was as a lumberjack, in Batchawana Ontario, for the Algoma Timberlakes Corporation. After one year, Paul moved to Toronto, where he became involved in the Slovak community at the city’s St. Cyril & Methodius Church. In 1959, Paul was granted an American visa and decided to settle in Cleveland, where his friend Jozef Strechaj was already living. He started to work as a printer at the local Czech paper Nový Svět, but left the publication after a short time to take a job at the Cleveland Press, where he subsequently worked for over 20 years. Paul married a third-generation Slovak-American, Kathleen, and had four children, two of whom have become priests with different orders in the Cleveland area. Paul is a member of several Slovak organizations in Cleveland, such as the First Catholic Slovak Union, the Cleveland Slovak Dramatic Club and the Zemplín Club. In 1971, he founded the city’s annual Slovak Festival which continues to this day.
“Then the Hitler-Jugend came over to Piešt’any, it was a tourist city and they took a lot of hotels over. They were a nuisance to us, they were an arrogant bunch of punks that we didn’t like, they took our places where we used to play. They thought that Slovakia was their colony. Germany was being bombed more, while the war was almost unnoticed in Slovakia, nonexistent, it was peaceful there during the War – especially Piešt’any. There was no bombing, and so they sent their German kids over there to indoctrinate them in Hitler’s propaganda and make them into new citizens, tough new citizens.
“One time I remember there was a skirmish when I pushed one of those kids into a river. We had to hide in our back yards because they were chasing us and there would have been a penalty if they had caught up with us and found out who did that. It was a little river, there was water flowing and in the middle there was only one board, and he purposely… I was on that board first and he thought that he had the right, that I should back up from it, and I did not. So that was the only skirmish that we had.”
“There were two bridges in Piešt’any, we heard that they were blown out by the Germans, so we went up there, and as I got to the bridge there was a boat with soldiers, Russian soldiers, coming across the river, and they had prisoners. And when they came to this side of the river where we were, they told the prisoners to get up out of the boat and walk on the dike. And as one man walked up the dike the Russian soldier who was on the top of the dike pulled his pistol and emptied it right into this guy. So his body rolled down. There was about twenty, thirty, people witnessing this whole thing. They were looking for prisoners, German prisoners, who were hiding. And so people were willing to tell them if they knew somebody was hiding some place.
“Then later on we walked over to around the airport. There was an airport in Piešt’any, and they had bunkers in there. So we went up there to see what it looks like and we saw some dead bodies of Germans, their boots and belts were missing. And some of the explosives were still there, so we tried to grab some of those explosives, we later on used them for fishing. We threw the explosive in the water and the fish popped out and we had it, but we didn’t do too much of it because it was forbidden.”
“We could not go under the Catholic Youth name anymore and so we went under the name Divadelný krúžok Jána Hollého. What we did? We put on about five plays every year, and we were pretty good. We competed locally and county-wide and finally we even ended up in Turčianský Svätý Martin, where there was a national competition. And we placed there in a pretty good position, and actually some of us, including myself, were later offered professional acting roles, in Nitra. However, next door to our Orlovna, where we had our own place, was a facility that was owned by a baron. He escaped some place, never came back, and the commies took over that facility and installed a youth program in there. They wanted us to go with them. We resisted. And they were pushing on us in this Catholic Orlovna – what used to be – to get more socialistic. And we resisted, so they were using all kinds of tricks and oppression and threats, and some of the boys were almost ready to go to the military, and I decided to go overseas.”
“We had to go see in the garbage dump and see to find ourselves some kind of a can, washed it off, and that is when we got our first food, some kind of eintopf [stew] – a big spoon of it for both. We had no spoons to eat it with, so we just ate it the best way we could. The next day, Joe had a ring, we sold that ring, and bought a spoon and cigarettes – we were smoking in those days. Breakfast every morning was just a slice of margarine, a slice of kind of a bread and a black coffee. For noon, there were mostly things that were in one pot, like what the Germans call eintopf sometimes, like soup. And the same thing was for supper, something close to it, not much food anyway – and bread with it.”
“We had some political frictions, the Slovaks, but the biggest friction was between the Czechoslovaks and Slovaks. Fights erupted on a weekly basis, and the MPs marched in with big sticks and beat anybody who was outside regardless of what it was, who it was, whether they were fighting or not. Then finally the Germans took over the camp. Rocks were being thrown and even I had to sleep with a pipe in my bed, for my own protection. So anyway, there were a lot of fights, and sometimes the Germans marched in, the German police, and there were a few times that it was so bad that some people… the Germans opened fire and some people got shot.”
“When we got to that place, 25 of us, the wagon was pushed to the side, the train continued, and there was only that little station there, where you could stop the train yourself, and hop on the train and go wherever you wanted to. And at the camp, there was a barrack with bunk beds. You picked your own, wherever you wanted to stay, and then next door was a barrack with kitchen and dining room. We were very hungry and when we got in there we ate like we never ate in all our lives, for maybe an hour or so and finally we filled up! We got back to the barracks and next day was an assignment. It was an assignment to go into the bush, three men to a team. Two pushing the saw and one with a horse bringing the wood to the road. Well, I was not strong enough, nobody wanted to get me in their trio, and there was another Czech fellow who didn’t have no trio. So they assigned us to chop the wood for the kitchen. So we did that for about a week or so, supplied the kitchen with the wood, and in the meantime the others were working as a team piecework. They were making better money, we only got around 80, 79, cents an hour. The food was plenty and good. The sleep was okay, even though there were the trains passing by we never heard them anyway. We got used to it.”
“I suggested at the [Cleveland Slovak Dramatic Club]… I came with the idea of a Slovak Festival. And immediately they made a chairman of me of the thing, to organize it. So I started organizing and got some of the factions together, Slovak musicians and all the people to participate. And despite some of the opposition that we had, especially from the older generations, it was a huge success from day one. Nobody ever knew that it would be so successful, people were standing in lines of eight or nine for food and drinks and we had a good program. So we found out that the facility is not big enough if we continue – we started continuing – and we moved to a larger facility. The next year we had so many people that they were fighting outside to get in!”