Slovak heritage festival celebrates 29th anniversary


Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Vendors sell Christmas ornaments and other knickknacks in the Cathedral of Learning during the 29th annual Slovak Festival on Sunday.

By Diana Velasquez, Staff Writer

A gaggle of young cheery-faced children dance out from under a curtain covering the Cathedral of Learning elevators. Slovakian folk music accompanies their steps as the crowd coos over the last toddler to emerge, who squeals in excitement.

The Pitt Slovak Studies Program and the Pitt Student Slovak Club celebrated their 29th annual Slovak Festival on Sunday. Attendees packed the Cathedral common room from 1-5 p.m. for an afternoon of pierogies, traditional dancing and various friendly competitions.

In the center of the first floor, a makeshift stage was set up for dancers and others to perform. They started with a traditional folk dance performed by the Pittsburgh Area Slovakians, and transitioned into a classical piano performance and a best Baba contest — “Baba” is the word for grandmother in Slovak and other Slavic languages.

Vendors lined the sides of both halves of the room, selling traditional Slovak dance dress, handmade jewelry and knicknacks, kitchenware, books and even a whole table dedicated to Christmas ornaments.

Melanie Malsch, a senior environmental studies major and a student employee in the Slavic language and literature department, said she was delighted to see attendance spike for the event this year after attending last year’s event.

This is my second year here and this is way more people in the Cathedral than I saw last year, which is really exciting,” she said.

The common floor became increasingly filled as excited attendees poured in from the front. The line for traditional Slovakian food, including Pittsburgh’s famous pierogies, stretched almost all the way around the room by 2 p.m.

Christine Metil, festival coordinator and the former academic coordinator of the Slovak department at Pitt, said Pittsburgh is very lucky to have a group that wants to celebrate Slovak culture and help Pitt in its study of the Slovak language.

“The community just loves their food, their culture, they love their music,” she said. “We just have a strong Slovak community in Pittsburgh that likes coming here and they’re very happy that such an obscure language is being taught here at Pitt.”

Slovak culture is most prominent today in Slovakia, where Slovak is the official language, but historically this ethnic group inhabited much of Eastern Europe. The United States houses the second-largest community of Slovak speakers, second only to Slovakia.

It’s no surprise that Slovak culture is so prevalent in Pittsburgh. According to a flyer passed out at the event, parents of American pop art artist Andy Warhol identified as Slovak. Similarly, in the 2000 Census, 100,000 Pittsburgh-area residents reported full or partial Slovak heritage.

The University of Pittsburgh is the only university in the United States where students can earn a minor in the Slovak culture and take classes dedicated to the language.

According to Metil, the ability to keep this program going at the University is thanks to the Slovak community here in Pittsburgh. She said their classes still go on regardless of the number of students enrolled due to the endowment given to the department by members of the Slovak community — which funds the pay of a full-time faculty member to teach Slovak language and culture.

University of Pittsburgh is the only Slovak studies program in the whole country. And we have an endowed professor so it doesn’t matter if there are five students in the class or 20. We run all three levels, beginning, intermediate and advanced Slovak,” she said.

Malsch said she hopes the attendees celebrate the intricacies and charm of a culture that may be small but has a strong presence in the community. She said learning about the Slovak culture and the people’s way of life has made her proud to assist in creating this festival for the Slovak community of Pittsburgh — as a thank you for all that they do for Pitt and its venture into the study of Slovak culture.

“I’ve gotten to learn about the Slovak culture, it’s so beautiful and just lovable I think, it’s important to show this community what they mean to us because they are showing us what we mean to them year round,” she said.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Marika Olijar. The Pitt News regrets this error.