In 2006, as a Fulbright Scholar teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design (AFAD) in Bratislava, I initiated conversations with new colleagues and friends about how their life had changed since the end of Socialism. I wanted to better understand the experiences of people who, like me, grew up during the Cold War. Over time, as my circle of friends expanded outside of AFAD, I talked with people working in government, NGOS, publishers, wine makers, musicians, villagers and the owners of the small, neighborhood potraviny (grocery), where I shopped for food.
Many of the conversations were so compelling that I began to write them down and soon an oral history project, Voices From the Center, was born. Wanting a wider view of people’s experiences during Socialism, I expanded the project from Slovakia to Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, comprising the grouping known as the Viśegrad or V4 countries. This gave the project geographic definition as well as a lens into the range of social and economic systems that made up the former Eastern Bloc.
Reliving these personal and collective histories with the participants was often riveting. People told stories of espionage and evading the secret police, planning for the eventual revolution, receiving and smuggling goods and information that connected them to the outside world, and of the many tactics they used to survive the repressive regimes.
Voices From the Center eventually grew into a multi-year project that included a dynamic web site, exhibitions and public programs throughout Central Europe and the United States. Working around the V4 region for the past years, I have been welcomed into people’s homes, workplaces, and community centers. Some people were initially skeptical of this American, but their suspicions would fade away once we started talking. It is an old cliché, but worth repeating – in the end, our common humanity was and remains, stronger than our cultural differences.
The Fulbright, and the seeds it planted, was life changing in ways that I could have never anticipated or imagined. I am so grateful to have had this rich experience.
Janeil Engelstad – Fulbright to Slovakia 2006