George Mesko (born Zoltán Meško), 1928
George Mesko was born in Košice in March 1928. His father worked as a senior official on the Košice-Bohumín Railway, while his mother stayed at home and looked after George and his older sisters. With the signing of the First Vienna Arbitration in 1938, the Mesko family found itself living in Hungary as Košice was handed over to Regent Miklós Horthy. The family made plans to move to Vrútky, Slovakia, where they had relatives, but George’s father had a stroke and so the family remained in Košice for the duration of the War. In 1944, George and the other 16-year-old males in Košice were summoned to Germany to man the country’s understaffed factories. George did not end up going as he suffered a serious allergic reaction shortly before being dispatched, which his mother then used as a reason to send him to Slovakia to convalesce with relatives (and therefore avoid enlistment).
Upon graduation shortly after the War, George began his studies in Bratislava at the Medical Faculty of Comenius University, where he remained for six years. He has written a book about the atmosphere he remembers at the medical school in the early 1950s, entitled The Silent Conspiracy (published in both Slovak and English). Following university, George returned to Košice to work at the city’s children’s hospital. This job was followed by stints at the children’s hospital in Sliač and then back in Bratislava. In 1960, George married his wife, Judith; the couple had both a civil ceremony and a church wedding in secret in Budapest, he says. At the time of the Soviet-led invasion in August 1968, George was on holiday in Yugoslavia with his wife and two children. In light of the invasion, the family decided not to go home.
A leading cardiologist, George accepted an Alexander von Humboldt scholarship in Tübingen, where he and his family subsequently stayed for ten months. In 1969, the Meskos came to Boston, when George was offered a position at Harvard Medical School. Twenty years later, George set up the Heart to Heart Foundation with other members of the Slovak-American Cultural Center – an institution based in New York City. The fund sponsored, among other things, study visits for Slovak healthcare professionals abroad. George retired in 1996. He now lives in McLean, Virginia, and devotes much of his time to writing, primarily about 20th-century Slovak history.
George’s family found itself living in Hungary after the signing of the First Vienna Arbitration in 1938
“Then came the Viennese Arbitrage, you know, and then Košice on November 11, I think, fell to Hungary – and we were packing to go to Slovakia, you know, as [we were] of Slovakian origin. But my father had a stroke, you know. And he was paralyzed for one and a half years. So we went nowhere. We had to switch allegiance or whatever, and we stayed in Hungary until 1945 – that means in Košice, you know. Because this is not the only… many towns changed state; it was Austro-Hungary before, then it was Czechoslovakia, then it was Hungary and then again back Czechoslovakia. And the citizens stayed there, because that was there home.”
George says things became particularly bad in Košice towards the end of WWII
“I don’t know, you know we were, at that time when the screws were kind of tightened up with food… and like many of my professors at school were taken to the army. Then the two high schools were connected because there were not enough professors, you know. So the fourth year and the fifth year of the high school – especially the fifth year – was kind of shaky. And then 1944 – then it was tough, you know. Then it was tough.”
On August 21, 1968, George was on holiday with his family in Yugoslavia
“I had a very good position at the children’s hospital in Bratislava and so… but then we went for vacation, to Yugoslavia, you know. And after we finished vacation we came to Belgrade on August 19, 1968 with two small children – daughter two, son five. And the 20th or 21st, we were ready to go home. And we were living with a friend and he went to the market to buy some fruit for the kids, and suddenly all the microphones in the city of Belgrade were sounding ‘Invasion, invasion, invasion, blah, blah, blah’ and we did not know what is going on! Well, my friend told me ‘Well, you go nowhere – the Soviet Army, the Warsaw-Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia. My God! We didn’t have any money! Just for gasoline! But, when I was in Bratislava, I was teaching cardiology to Yugoslav doctors from Belgrade… Náhoda [coincidence]… And so I went after them and they told me, you know, ‘Listen, we need you.’ The Party and the union had a meeting. ‘We’ll give you a monthly payment ahead and you will start to work with machines.’ And I really did. I did diagnostics and whatever.
“But, you know, there were tremendous demonstrations in Belgrade. The Yugoslavs were fantastic. There were a couple of thousand, I don’t know, 50,000 Slovaks and Czechs in that area because people were coming up from the sea, you know, going home. This was the end of August, the end of vacation. They gave gasoline to people, food, lodging, you know, everything – hat down! They were extremely helpful. And, the funny thing is, I went to a demonstration with my wife and there was half of the Czechoslovak government! Šik was there, Hájek was there – I don’t know who else, you know, all on a balcony all, and we were all chanting, you know!”
George has written about his experiences at Medical School in the 1950s in ‘The Silent Conspiracy’
“That was the so-called kádrovanie, you know the sort of political… x-ray, you know, who you really are. But the funny thing is, they didn’t find out who you really are. I was lucky that my father was dead. If my father was not dead, I am out of medical school. You know, that’s what your origins are – you know, your belief, your religion – this is what counts. If you were not on their side, on the left side then, that’s it.”
George says he and his wife had a church wedding in secret
“Well I was married… we just celebrated, with my wife, our 50th anniversary. I was married in Banská Bystrica and they knew in Sliač that I was a Catholic, so they were snooping [to find out] when I am going to go to church. And so in November we went, with my wife, to a congress in Budapest, you know, and I had there an aunt of second, third degree, and she arranged that we were married in church, in secret, in Budapest, where the altar boys were our witnesses. And our son was baptized in secret in Banská Štiavnica, you know, in a small town in Southern Slovakia – a beautiful little town – and our daughter was baptized in Modrý kostolík in Bratislava, it was kind of not a big deal. But they were all baptized.
“You just go to some kind of remote town where nobody knows. And we went to the church, we knocked on the priest’s door, and I told him that we have a two month-old son and that we would like to baptize him. And the priest had his sister there as a housekeeper, and so she was the godmother, and he baptized him, so that’s how. And I think he wrote a certificate or something like that, you know.”
According to George, the culture of giving doctors gifts started innocently in Slovakia and degenerated
“It started with a bouquet of flowers. You know, I go here to my cardiologist. He is paid, but on Christmas, he got a bottle of Bordeaux. But I am not corrupting him, I just express my gratitude. But this kind of gratitude which was in
Košice a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of wine… when a babka [old woman] came from, I don’t know, Palárikovo or whatever, so she gave you a chicken. But this was not there to corrupt you, but to be thankful to the doc. But it degenerated. That’s where the problem is, you know? And when in Bratislava somebody needs a bypass, before the euro, I have a Canadian friend and he paid 30,000 koruny, you know, extra. But this started under Communists – you know – I should correct [that]… it degenerated under the Communists. That’s how I would look at it.”
Category: Oral History