John Warhola’s passing inspires a Medzilaborce remembrance.


John Warhola has died, and therein lies a story.

In the fall of 1991, having only recently assumed my duties teaching conversational English to staff members at Kosice’s university hospital, I was asked by Dr. Roland, the hospital’s first non-Communust administrator, if I’d like to accompany him to a Saturday afternoon museum opening in Medzilaborce, Slovakia.

The trip involved a total of seven hours on the road, to and from Medzilaborce, a lengthy commute not fully suggested by maps which did not account for the fractured condition of rural Slovak roads and a handful of “touristic” stops along the way. Dr. Roland did not drive, and at the time, he still made use of the hospital’s de facto chauffered limo service, with its fleet of Soviet-made gas guzzlers and uniformed personnel.

What a ride!

Medzilaborce is cradled within the northern terminus of the Carpathians, which then veer westward to end in exclamatory fashion at the compact Tatra mountain range. Small towns are nestled between rugged, forested ridgelines. Poland is only a few miles away. This isolated area of Slovakia (as yet Czechoslovakia in 1991) is inhabited by Slovaks, Poles and indigenous Rusyns, the latter of the Orthodox persuasion, accounting for the gorgeous church in the center of town, and explaining the road signs in the Cyrillic alphabet: Меджильабірці.

Two large Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans guarding the doorway of an otherwise nondescript concrete building gave the game away, for Andy Warhol’s family was Rusyn, the collection now known as the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art was an embryonic East-West cultural venture in the immediate aftermath of Communism, and Andy’s brother John was on hand to speak for the foundation.

Andy Warhol’s elder brother dies aged 85; John Warhola was one of three founding members of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (in the Guardian)

After Warhola’s father, Andrij, died in 1942, Warhola raised his younger brother, Andy (born Andy Warhola), and made sure he attended college. Their father, who had emigrated to the US from what is now Slovakia in 1914, left enough to pay for Andy’s first two years of college, but his brother took responsibility for the reminder of the artist’s education.

And so, that’s how I came to meet John Warhola, if only for a few seconds and a handshake in a receiving line.

“Surreal” doesn’t really do it justice, but I’m happy to see that the museum has survived and apparently prospered during the two decades since my visit. In 1991, we capped the opening with early dinner at a restaurant down the street, which served delicious pork and knedlicky dumplings with roasted potatoes, all washed down with cool golden lager brewed down the road in Presov.

With requisite condolences at John Warhola’s passing, I dedicate these memories of that singular day to him.