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Juraj Jánošík: how an outlaw became the Slovak National Hero

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Juraj Jánošík, the outlaw who supposedly robbed the rich and gave to the poor (a deed often attributed to the famous Robin Hood), and who has inspired really countless artistic works, was once an ordinary man, despite there are very few accounts about his life.
One of them is the protocol from his trial in March 1713 when he was sentenced to death, other are the two documents from the archives in Trenčín, and lastly, there is the registry office of the parish in Varín.
Thanks to the latter, we know the exact date of his christening, January 25, 1688.
Based on this information, we know that Jánošík was born a few days earlier in the Terchová village near Žilina in northern Slovakia. This beautiful hilly area is now considered one of the best Slovak tourist destinations, but back in 17th century, it was quite rough place to live in.

Reading in between the lines of antique chronicles, one learns that young Juraj wasn´t much different from his peers: he cultivated crops, take care of livestock and learned common crafts of the traditional way of a regular peasant’s life. He might have continue in this direction just like his parents and friends. But Juraj at the age of 18 or 19 suddenly became a soldier instead – probably seduced by the vision of better wage and less hard work.
At that time, Slovakia was part of Kingdom of Hungary with influences from the Austrian Empire, and the situation was rather turbulent because of the Habsburgs, Hungary, and their constant disputes. The Slovak people did not do well, as they were plagued by poverty and serf duty to the nobility.
The dissatisfaction escalated with the formation of a rebellious army led by Francis II Rákóczi, and Jánošík was one of the recruited.
He spent two years with this army, and his service ended with the battle of Trenčín, when the Habsburg imperial army suppressed the rebellion and regained dominance over the Slovak territory.

Jánošík survived the fight and returned to his native village, but not for long: after a short time, he joined, probably against his will, the Austrian army, and was placed in the prison service at the Bytča Castle, where he helped the imprisoned Tomáš Uhorčík escape.
Uhorčík was a leader of a band of robbers whose territory was in western and northern Slovakia, but also in Poland and Moravia. Jánošík and Uhorčík became fast friends based on their shared political ideals. Jánošík joined Uhorčík’s band of robbers and became its leader at the age of 23, after Uhorčík got married and left to settle in Klenovec.
Everything we know about Jánošík’s robbery is based on his confession, which he made during his trial in Liptovský Mikuláš in March 1713, and on Tomáš Uhorčík’s confession.
The band of robbers had around twenty members from Slovakia, Poland, and Moravia. Most of their victims were rich merchants. Under Jánošík’s leadership, the group was exceptionally chivalrous: They did not kill any of the robbed victims and even helped an accidentally injured priest. They split the loot mostly among themselves, but they also gave some of it to the peasants in exchange for other things or services.
According to some historians, Jánošík’s intent wasn’t just to enrich himself, his political ideals and the miserable condition of the region was also the driving force.
However, his career as a robber, didn’t last long, not even two whole years: Juraj Jánošík ended his young and thrilling life in Liptovský Mikuláš on May 18 1713, when he was executed by hanging on a hook speared through his left side – this is how he was left to die. He was only 25 years old.
This brutal way of execution was reserved for leaders of robber bands. However, sources diverge about how he was executed, and it is also possible that he was hanged. A legend says that he refused the grace offered in exchange for enlisting soldiers of his abilities with the words: “If you have baked me so you should also eat me!” and jumped on the hook.

Thought Juraj Jánošík died more than 3 centuries ago, his spirit and story still lives and thrives in Slovak culture.
It’s believed that for the 67 years since his death, stories about him spread only orally.
The first record of a song about him comes from the period around 1780, while his first printed mention is from 1809. It was the writers of the Slovak National Revival who turned Jánošík into the legendary hero.
Romanticism in Slovak and Czech lands was closely connected with Slovak and Czech National Revival: both nations lived under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire, previously the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary,mwith Slovaks going through Hungarisation and Czechs through Germanisation. Both revival movements were to ensure that these two nations did not disappear, and language and cultural heritage were key in this.
At that time, folklore was the focus of many writers and scholars, and it was the Slovak romantic poet Ján Botto who completed the image of Jánošík as the brave young man who represents people’s desire for freedom and justice.
In his famous poem, Smrť Jánošíkova (literally “Death of Jánošík”), Botto captures the last moments of Jánošík’s life. In this work, Jánošík meets rusalki and víly, the supernatural female beings from Slavic folklore, and at the end of the poem, he even marries their queen. With this ending, Botto expressed his belief in a better future.
In any case, as with any other legendary hero, even Jánošík’s story was reshaped, in particular by the fascist regime in Slovakia during World War II and later by USSR when Czechoslovakia was its satellite state.
Nevertheless, Jánošík has inspired countless writers, musicians, artists, and other creative people from Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic to come up with their retellings of his story.
If you want to learn more about him, check out the movie called Jánošík – true history (2009) directed by famous Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Or allow yourself a little retro-fun and go for the very first feature in the history of Slovak cinematography: 1921´s movie Jánošík.
Of course, if you get a chance, you should definitely opt for seeing a bit of Jánošík´s history for your own: take a walk around majestic remains of the Strečno castle, where his gang committed its most notorious crimes, or visit beautiful Terchová during the famous folk festival Jánošíkove dni (Jánošík´s days) and breath in the captivating atmosphere of true Slovak folk party. But you can also walk through the demanding, yet absolutely rewarding hiking trail Jánošíkove diery (Jánošík´s holes)…
Either way, throughout the last three hundred years, he has remained to be the symbol of the fight for freedom, and he continues to inspire people to create more, fight for justice, and not to lose hope in the face of adversity.

Images from web – Google Research

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