A Christmas Miracle
by Kathleen Ruckman
It was December 23, 1910, and a plague of diphtheria swept through eastern Czechoslovakia that Christmas season. In the tiny village of Velky Slavkov, lying in the shadow of the High Tatra Mountains, a solitary man walked a deserted street. Pushing his hat lower on his head against the bitter wind, the man pressed ahead, passing homes with drawn shades and tightly shuttered windows.
For weeks, diphtheria—an acute infectious disease that strikes the upper respiratory system—had ravaged the small towns along the foothills of the Tatra region. Nearly half the townspeople of Velky Slavkov had fallen to the plague; many of the victims were young children less than 10 years of age.
Carrying a pail of black paint, the man climbed a flight of outdoor stairs and swabbed an “X” on the wooden doorpost of the Boratkova household. Another home was quarantined.
After the man left, Suzanna Boratkova kneeled at her doorpost, weeping and praying in Slovak. In less than a week, she and her husband, Jano, were suddenly childless. Their oldest child, 5-year-old Malena, had succumbed to the disease a few days earlier. In the back yard, Jano labored in the woodshed, pounding the last nail into a coffin he was building for his two sons, who had died earlier that day from diphtheria. Between sobs, Jano coughed and wheezed, because he, too, had contracted the deadly plague.
Suzanna returned to the house. Crying in agony, she cleaned and wrapped her sons for the final time, carefully laying them into the handmade pine caskets. She and Jano lifted them onto the wagon, and with a quick jerk of the reins, started the slow journey to the town cemetery.
Driving the horses through the foot-high snow, Jano and Suzanna braced themselves against a chilling wind that stung both body and soul.
“Another trip to the graveyard is more than I can bear!” Suzanna cried out, as they passed house after house marred with the black death mark. The couple empathized with those families, but they didn’t have the strength to offer sympathy or encouragement. They were too wrapped up in their own grief, much like the cotton muslins tightly swathed around their sons.
Two more grave sites had been dug into the frozen earth. Now, all three children were together for eternity. Suzanna struggling through the Lord’s Prayer, hugged the cold ground and wouldn’t let go. Jano finally pulled her away with what little strength he had and led her back to the wagon. She clutched her empty arms and crossed them over her broken heart. She reminded herself that she would never hold her babies again.
Tomorrow was Christmas Eve. As Jano and Suzanna re-entered their barren and branded house, they needed comfort. They needed solace from their village friends. But no one dared come near. There were no Christmas greetings. No sympathies were extended. The black “X” spelled “DEATH” and “DO NOT ENTER”. Their dark house was a frightful, forbidden tomb.
Little high-laced brown leather shoes were still lined up against the wood stove—as they usually were when the children were tenderly tucked into the same bed. But now, the large feather bed was empty, and the old stucco house had never felt so cold.
“I won’t see another Christmas,” Jano whispered weakly to his wife. “I don’t think I’ll see the New Year in, either.
He pushed away the soup and bread that he could not swallow. It was as though the diphtheria had tied a noose tightly around his throat, neither allowing food nor sufficient air to sustain him. The village doctor had shrugged his shoulders when he visited Jano a few days before. He had no cure.
Suzanna gathered some kindling wood and lit a fire for the night, sure that her husband was about to die. Morning arrived—Jano was still alive. Snowflakes fell from a gray sky and the wind blew a white mist over the frosted windows. Suzanna, exhausted from a restless night with little sleep, dipped her cloth again in cold water to cool Jano’s burning fever. Then, rubbing the icy glaze off her lattice window, she fixed her eyes on the Tatra Mountains. Her mind contemplated Psalm 121:1-2; “I will look to the hills from whence cometh my help.”
Suddenly her gaze was interrupted as she saw a peasant woman trudging through the snow. The old woman’s red and purple plaid shawl, draped over her hunched shoulders, hardly seemed warm enough against the morning chill. A babushka, or kerchief, was wrapped around her head. Her long peasant skirt was a bright display of cotton and linen patchwork, and her woolen leggings and high-buttoned boots allowed her to successfully trod the snow-filled street. In one of her uncovered hands she held a jar of clear liquid. Suzanna stood half-stunned as she watched the old woman shuffle up the forbidden walkway.
Suzanna heard the knocker strike twice. She cautiously opened the door and saw an unusual face, one wrinkled from years of farm work and severe winters. But her eyes expressed a warmth that filled Suzanna’s heart.
“We have the plague in our home, and my husband is in a fever right now,” Suzanna warned her.
The old woman nodded, and then asked if she could step inside. She held out her little jar to Suzanna.
“Take a clean, white linen and wrap it around your finger,” she instructed. “Dip your finger into this pure kerosene oil and swab out your husband’s throat, and then have him swallow a tablespoon of the oil. This should cause him to vomit the deadly mucous. Otherwise he will surely suffocate. I will pray for you and your family.”
The old woman squeezed Suzanna’s hand and quickly stepped out to the frigid outdoors. Never before had Suzanna’s heart been touched in this way. Here was a poor woman appearing—in love—on her doorstep in the midst of a plague. Her unexpected gift was folk remedy against diphtheria.
“I’ll try it,” she called out to the old woman, with tears in her eyes. “God bless you.”
Early Christmas morning, Jano retched up the deadly phlegm. His fever was broken. Suzanna wept and praised God. A flicker of hope lightened her heart for a moment; surely God would someday bless her and Jano with more children.
There were no presents under a trimmed and tinseled tree that Christmas morning. But the jar of oil glimmering on the window sill was a gift of life for generations to come.
Postscript: In the days following the miraculous healing of Jano, Suzanna shared the folk remedy with neighbors. In the 1920’s, Jano emigrated to America to find work, Suzanna joined him later with their eight children.
Their ship reached Ellis Island on Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1926, and the family settled near the steel mills of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The family consisted of a set of triplets, two sets of twins, and two single births. Two of the triplet boys were named John and Paul after the two sons who died from diphtheria. The other triplet was named Samuel, who today is the father of this author.