Anne McKeown (born Anna Gornalová), 1945
Anne McKeown was born in Pribiš, Slovakia, in 1945. Although her parents were living abroad due to her father’s position as a diplomat, her mother returned to her family home to give birth to Anne. They returned to Marseille, France, when Anne was six weeks old and lived there for the next five years. Anne’s brother, Patrick, was born in 1949. That same year, Anne’s father, knowing that he did not want his family to live under communism, resigned from his government position and applied for asylum in the United States, Canada, and Australia. In 1950, they received permission to move to Australia, and settled in Melbourne where her father got a job with Caterpillar and her mother took in boarders. Anne says she had a ‘wonderful’ childhood in Melbourne and particularly remembers attending the Slovak dances that her mother helped organize.
In 1957, Anne and her family moved to Whiting, Indiana, under the sponsorship of old friends who were from the same town in Slovakia. She graduated high school at the age of 16 and enrolled in the nursing school at Purdue University. After graduating, Anne moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. and began working at Northern Virginia Doctors’ Hospital. She subsequently worked as a doctor’s assistant in a private office and then as the assistant to the chief of surgery at Columbia Hospital for Women in Washington, D.C. Anne met her husband in 1968, and they married two years later in Whiting. Anne says she vividly recalls her first trip back to Czechoslovakia in 1973 where she was viewed with suspicion because of her Slovak origin.
As an active member of the Slovak American Society of Washington, D.C., Anne has recently been involved in planning the annual Svätý Mikuláš [St. Nicholas] party. Her husband, Jim, has taken an interest in her Slovak heritage and enjoys painting traditional decorated kraslice [Easter eggs]. They split their time between Falls Church, Virginia, and Bratislava, where they own an apartment.
Anne’s family was involved in the Slovak community in Melbourne
“Well, he [Anne’s father] obviously spoke fluent English, so people didn’t have a place to live, my father would help, people were in hospitals. So then this whole group of Slovaks then decided they were going to meet at St. Monica’s one Sunday a month, and then they started these dances. Six years they built a little church in the outskirts, the boonies, with all the money they made as profits from the dances.
Can you maybe tell me a bit more, for example, you’ve mentioned these dances a couple of times. How many people were coming along to them, and what sort of foods were you making?
“Well, the typical goulash and whatever they could haul on the trolley busses. I know all the ladies got involved, and of course they served beer and I guess hard alcohol. As a child I remember dancing a lot. But then the young men would have arguments, and so my mother took it over, Mrs. Gornal took it over. And there was no more trouble.”
Anne describes the town of Whiting, Indiana
“Well, there were two Slovak churches. One for the people from Orava, and one for the people from the other side, St. John the Baptist, and Immaculate Conception. There was also a Slovak Lutheran church, and there was also a synagogue in the town. And yes, the Irish were on one side with Sacred Heart and the Polish were at St. Adalbert’s. Now this is a town of 10,000. There must have been a church on every block depending on what nationality you were. That’s the way it was, you went to your church. And it was very hardworking – hardworking people.”
Education was important to Slovak immigrants and to Anne’s family
“So everyone, all of these Slovaks in the ’50s, or that left in the ’40s, ’50s, the big thing for you was ‘You go to school!’ And of course, because this family was so bright, my mother would say, ‘If you don’t do your studies I’m gonna put my head in the oven!’ You had to study.”
Anne returned to Slovakia for the first time in 1973 with her husband and her mother’s cousin
“You were very cautious about everything you did. With my mother’s first cousin, Oliver, he was probably about 60, we were in our 20s. And I can remember crossing the Austrian border and there was a border patrol, one gentleman at the Austrian border in a shack and he saluted us and he said, ‘Good luck.’ We go into the bridge into Bratislava, and everything there is machine guns, soldiers. There’s not a tree, there’s watchtowers every thirty feet. It was so frightening. They’re looking under your car with mirrors, they’re opening your car – frightening, frightening.”
The Slovak American Society of Washington, D.C. holds an annual Mikuláš party
“I’d go to the events, but I wasn’t as involved. Then I became more involved. Then we started having the Mikuláš parties. And normally I was in charge, I was in charge of Mikuláš. We’d have volunteers make holúbky and desserts and things like that, and it’s just gotten bigger and bigger. Now of course, we go to the Slovak embassy. It’s become big. And then of course we invite the embassy staff. Last Christmas we had thirty children, which is a large amount. And we have an actor who plays Mikuláš. We’ve had other people, but he’s the best. And so we told him this year, ‘Do it fast, because we have thirty kids.”
Category: Oral History