Essay by Sona Smilekova

Family History
Sona Smilekova
962 12 Detva Slovak Republic
Sona is a student at the Gymnazium Detva, Year Second

  • ..and a lovely life the flowers lived…*

(The life and work of VERONIKA GOLIANOVA)

My great-grandma was born on 26 May 1914 in Detva. At that time her three brothers were enlisted into the First World War. Her coming into the world did not excite her siblings, because every added hungry mouth cut into the share of the family inheritance… She was the seventh, and the last. Her oldest brother Stefan was in prison camp in Russia, which is why he returned home only when Veronika was six. When a neighbor spotted him, she called out that “little King Stefan” returned from the war (her mother’s maiden name was Kra, Slovak for “king”). Veronika took aim and ran at him. She threw herself at him, but only reached his knees. She embraced them. He lifted her up, asked, “Are you that Veronika?” and kissed her. At that moment a great bond formed between them. When he got married, he and his family were excellent friends. For her other siblings, too, she became “our Veronika”. They all loved each other. Neighbors held them up as examples to their children.

She grew up in humble circumstances, but inherited from her family a sense of beauty and aesthetics, and a perseverance with which she proved able to find and create beauty. Her mother weaved and sewed splendidly, but it was Veronika’s father’s sister that initiated her into the mysteries of embroidery. “Oh yes, uncountable hours I sat and lay on the bench by auntie, so I could watch her fingers from below, as they loaded the thread on the curved needle, and by working the thread created the gorgeous patterns of our Detva embroidery.” Veronika embroidered as a small child – she was about eight when she first took to the frame. Her sisters and sisters-in-law let her make a few patterns on the upper sleeve – when joined, the needlework of the fabric at the edge is not so visible. As a nine year old girl she embroidered a towel for the first time. “I remember how I longed to have sleeves embroidered in chiffon. I begged so much, so much that she consented. She sold a goose, and from the domestic budget came secretly what was needed for my chiffon. When she brought it, she lovingly and firmly said: But don’t you ruin it! Nor did I. How could I possibly? I was so careful with every stitch, since mama so trusted me. That was for me the greatest of rewards.”

Veronika went to school only in winter months, when the cows were not at pasture. Through it all she did well, not having to repeat a single year. After completing the seven years of mandatory attendance, she stayed at home for a time. She needed, though, to earn money, so she went to serve in an aristocratic family in Zvolen. She worked there five whole years. In addition to housework, she had to embroider and crochet various linens for the lady of the house. For her talent she became quite a favorite of this lady. Once every two or three months she would let her go home to Detva for a Sunday afternoon. Monday morning at six she was to be back in Zvolen. When she finished with service, she returned home and worked in her parents’ home.

In 1937 she married Martin Golian, a carpenter. After the wedding she moved to the upper end of Detva. There was already another young wife with two children and a brother-in-law in the house. They all lived together this way for a year. During this time Veronika tried to save money for their own house. The following year they moved into it, though it wasn’t yet finished. They were, however, happy they had their own roof overhead. Gradually they finished and furnished it. A daughter was born to them. Veronika embroidered day and night, to provide for the family. Her husband did not have work all the time, so she had to sit days and nights curled over her frame, over a piece of linen, making her magic with the lively marvel of Detva motifs. She would combine them herself, using her own imagination in the most various adaptations.

In these times, many people died of a variety of not very serious diseases. They couldn’t cope even with common fever. Veronika was the only one on the whole street who had a thermometer. She attended various medical lectures, and therefore knew first aid. The doctor was at that time inaccessible. That was why villagers came to her. When someone from the neighborhood fell ill, they knocked on her door, even at two in the morning. “Please! You have those ‘grades’ [slang for thermometer markings], come measure my child’s fever,” they would plead with her. Without hesitating she would always go and advise them on compresses for the child.

Because she was interested in what was going on in the world, she bought a radio. It was the seventh radio in Detva. On Sunday afternoon they played songs. Their yard filled with neighbors, who brought chairs and sat down. Veronika put the radio in a window, so the songs could be heard well.

At that time in Detva, an embroidery club started. A Detva notary founded it. Most Detva embroiderers sewed in the club. By then she had completely mastered the mystery of the hook and needle. There was great interest in her work. She worked on the most complicated orders. She worked eleven years in this way. At her work, her eyes and face would fill with a peaceful gravity, though just as naturally they might fill with jolly laughter. But they could also fill with tears, if she was recalling the war. “War? Uprising? The most terrible of all was the people’s retreat to the mountains. Everyone grabbed what he could: here a featherbed, there a bag of food, on the cart or on foot, with the animals or without… a few meters’ gap, a few people, another gap, another bunch of people… Children acting up, women crying, a gloomy, varied expedition, behind which was left an almost deserted Detva. What all ran through people’s heads then! An expedition heading for the Chrapkova hills. But then what? How and where to live? A natural human fear drove us from the village. The same fear, though, drove us from the hills back to the village. What next?”

Veronika herself decided then to go down to Detva. No one charged her to do so, nor was she acting any on any side’s behalf. She took her six year old daughter and went. The risk of accusations, the fear of the worst, and the hope that it wouldn’t happen. Powerlessness toward those above, and toward the people that were catching them. To return to the village. What did that mean then? Heroism, despair, faith in the humanity of the other side? She had not even properly gotten back home, when fellow villagers sympathizing with the Germans approached her. But they did not turn her in. People gradually started returning. They didn’t know what would happen to them, but after all: to be able to return home… “You wouldn’t have believed it, even the dogs barked happily and the cows capered when they came into a setting they knew.” And then, when the villagers came back down, they lived “…well…as before, and then we would go to Porana to help the resistance fighters.”

After 1948 the club was disbanded. She started working in the local people’s farming cooperative in plant production. Those in Detva knew Veronika as a very smart woman. That was why they elected her to the local council. She became a member of the town office commission. When an official visit came to Detva, she would prepare a gift in the form of embroidery. Always free of charge.

She was also a people’s justice of the peace. She would attend District Court sessions in Zvolen, where they resolved divorces, alimonies and the like. She was also chairwoman of the women’s association that organized many drives for the beautification of Detva, crafts exhibitions, and cooking and baking courses.

In her free time she continued embroidering. Besides these activities, she also got into folklore. Her fondness for it dated right back to her childhood. She liked remembering her youth, which came back to her in the brisk music of Detva, and she also loved to dance. In those years, a folk group worked in Detva, led by a Detva organist. Under his direction she participated in various performances. With their temperamental dance and music, and gorgeous folk costumes, they appealed even to Prague audiences, when they performed at the first national agricultural exhibition. In 1956, Veronika took on the leadership of the folk group for more than forty-five years. She organized and rehearsed her first performance on the occasion of the visit of the French partisans that fought in the Slovak national uprising. She presented them enactment of a Detva wedding, with the bride played by her eighteen year old daughter Vilma. They performed the program that Veronika rehearsed on various occasions. They showed enactments such as: christening, courting, wedding, spinning, feather stripping and assorted others.

When in 1956 the first “Folklore Festival under Porana hill” commenced in Detva, the folk group was one of those invited to perform in the program. They presented their well-prepared Detva wedding, and were very popular. The next year, people asked, “And will there be the Detva wedding again?” Veronika prepared something to do with Detva’s customs every year.

In the 1960s, synthetic materials were becoming prevalent, leaving embroidery behind. But Veronika didn’t let it go. She feared needlework might fall into neglect. That was why she wanted to start a permanent exhibition of Detva folk art. After she and local authorities consulted, they decided that it would be a good idea to start not only an exhibition, but also a shop of Detva folk art. Half of it was exhibition space.

The embroiderers had had a break of several years. Veronika went house to house to persuade the women to dust off their wooden frames and revive the beauty of the original patterns. Thus started in Detva a shop with folk art products unique in Slovakia. Until then there had been only UOUV, the Center of Folk Art Products in Bratislava. To their objections Veronika Golianova replied, “No one can deny us that we are from Detva, and want to preserve what’s ours!” Even from ministries would they come to this little shop to buy the beautiful needlework. At UOUV they realized this was a truly exceptional embroiderer. Based on the work she submitted and expert assessment, they qualified her as a needlework folk art producer.

In the summer, when the village was full of tourists, the shop shelves went quite bare. Really, more than once foreign visitors sat on the shop’s steps and waited until some embroiderer brought in finished work. The needlework traveled around the world. As attested by the visitors’ book: to the USA, the Netherlands, Spain, Egypt, the USSR, France, Japan, Canada, Australia, Yugoslavia, Argentina, India, Israel, Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic.

Work in this shop went easily for her, because patterns and color combinations were never a problem for her. Detva woman embroidered and embroider a great deal. Their work is handsome and delicate, regardless of how demanding the design. But often, or in fact always, when they needed a new pattern or a revitalized old one, when they couldn’t figure out what they had themselves started to draw, they came to Veronika. She most beautifully set out on the linen tulips, bells, hearts, stars or snails. She never learned it from anyone, never studied it. When she took up a pencil or needle (often embroidering without a drawing), precise work would always appear from under her hands. Because of her skill, she could afford to send back more than one woman’s work. Some embroiderers didn’t like that, and they took offense, but in the end admitted that needlework isn’t just patterns, but also a perfection of craft. Veronika would say that embroidery has its laws. She knew them perfectly, but knew better how to apply them than to formulate them.

In addition to leading Detva folklore, she imparted her skill to girls and women by means of needlework courses. “Even if only a quarter of the most fanatic remain, it’s not a useless investment, because to learn to embroider in the true Detva technique takes good nerves and patience.” She gave several such courses throughout Slovakia.

Detva embroidery is used not only for interior decor, but also for fashion. Especially women’s clothing. In the 1980s, “The Beauty of Life” exhibitions took place every year, during which women from all over Slovakia presented their hand crafts. Detva needlework from the hands of Veronika Golianova was also present. Her work was always exceptional. Rounds took place at district, regional and national levels. Journalists of various magazines also took part, who liked Veronika’s work and very often wrote about it. Writers from the magazine Moda (Fashion) approached her to ask whether she would embroider some model clothing. The cooperation consisted of their bringing her fabric indicating where the embroidery should be and what color. They left the pattern to her. The result was always enchanting.

In times when city fashions started pushing into the villages, villagers would sell their costumes, or even burn them. So Veronika started to buy them up. When it went out that she was buying old costume parts, especially sleeves, there was no shortage of sellers. “I collected it all myself,” she says. “It’s important to me that this splendor not disappear from our life. We’ve grown old, but that which we created ten, twenty, even fifty years ago has not lost any of its freshness, impressiveness. I’ve collected maybe a hundred embroidered gloves. I have them at home, I guard them like my eyes. I still use them for inspiration. How much we have embroidered in our lives… We always found time. Even with work, poverty. In fact this was our happiness, because if there was nothing to put in your mouth, we could sell needlework, or rather wealthy ladies would commission it from us. Actually it never lacked from any girl’s wardrobe. The more she had of it, and the more beautiful, the more she was respected. We were very proud of that.” Old ladies from Detva and nearby brought her everything they had in the house. Oftentimes afterwards money was short in the family budget, but it paid off. A huge collection of sleeves resulted, which are stored in her wonderful painted chest. She sold about thirty pieces for a symbolic price to the Porana regional museum. Even after her death, the chest with all its gems of Detva costumes sits in the same place. Apart from a large collection of sleeves, it holds other women’s and men’s costume pieces: weaving, tablecloths, table mats, and woven towels used mostly at weddings or for horse ornamentation. In quiet moments at home she and her daughter Vilma would open the chest and admire the marvelous handiwork of women. These often couldn’t even write, but had a great sense for color, and for designs so precise an engineer might have drawn them. Veronika was one of them. She would just throw herself at the frame and immediately know what she would sew.

Veronika Golianova could also sing beautifully. When her age kept her from leading the Detva folk group, they would invite her to sing some song every year at festival. She was happy to pull on her costume and go to perform. She loved reading poetry. Her favorite poet was Andrej Sladkovie. She would say, “Sometimes at night, when I read, I wonder how that Sladkovie could write so wisely and faithfully about Detva’s people? I don’t know whether I once felt the way he wrote it, or whether I just believed him… But what a sincere and sensitive person he must have been!”

Prominent people such as Irena Svobodova, the woman cosmonaut Tereskova, the Afghan queen and her lady in waiting, Pope Paul VI and many other personalities have had Detva needlework in their collections. Her lifelong love of needlework, her activity in the Detva folk movement and her passionate collection activities place Veronika Golianova among the most significant personalities of the town and the entire region.

In 1997, the town of Detva in cooperation with the Porana regional museum created an exhibit for her, titled “… and a lovely life the flowers lived…” The exhibit consisted of four units. In the first was Veronika Golianova’s passion for collecting. Her needlework on domestic and coarse linen, embroidered colorfully, formed the second unit. The third unit consisted of needlework on velvet. The fourth part displayed fashion accessories and dresses. Her granddaughters Iveta Smilekova and Taoa Hojeova put together the exhibit.

She passed away on 26 December 1999. In her memory, the Porana regional museum established a permanent exhibition: From the Treasure Chest of Veronika Golianova. It is located next to the shop of Detva folk art.

In conclusion, one aphorism from Veronika Golianova: “You know, I am the way I am, no one can say anything in the world to me against my Detva. That’s why I live in it, and it lives in me. Because my Detva, full of needlework, song, dance, customs and traditions, is enviable.”