Juraj Jánošík – Legendary Slovak Thief Turned Hero

Notorious bandit beloved for stealing from rich and giving out to poor

DavidRockDesign (CC0), Pixabay

No king, knight, warrior or saint. The most beloved hero of Slovak history was actually – a thief. His name was Juraj Jánošík and his real story is heavily blurred by dozens of legends, myths and beliefs. Still, take your time to read the little we know about his turbulent real-life story…

Rebel with(out) a cause

Juraj Jánošík was born in 1688 on a remote settlement close to the village Terchová. 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. In addition, this era witnessed the violent string of anti-habsburg uprisings, which led to widespread insecurity and instability. These circumstances also allowed a German squire, Lord Ján Jakub Löwenburg, to gain control over Terchová and few other surrounding villages. His absolutistic style of ruling contributed to forming of an underground network of rebels and criminals who declined to subordinate and preferred to live by their own rules.

Reading in between the lines of antique chronicles, one learns that young Juraj wasn´t much different from his peers: cultivating crops, taking care of livestock and learning common crafts was the traditional way of peasant´s life and 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. Little did he know that this would lead him to the most influential meeting of his life – meeting with Tomáš Uhorčík, the charismatic leader of band of outlaws, who served his time in the prison where soldier Jánošík acted as a guard. The two of them became good friends and Jánošík reportedly helped Uhorčík by various courtesies. Their paths crossed once again when Jánošík was no longer a soldier and Uhorčík was no longer a prisoner (he mysteriously escaped). Soon afterwards they sealed their friendship by committing their first joint raid. The loot? Moravian canvas for shirts…

When marriage (and quarrel with comrade about burglarizing a vicarage) made Uhorčík leave his criminal career, Juraj Jánošík was appointed his successor: he took an oath and became sovereign leader of the gang. In its golden era, this group comprised of twelve bandits coming from different places all over contemporary lands of Slovakia, Poland and Czech Republic. Obviously, they moved from stealing canvas quite considerably by this time – under Jánošík´s ruling they specialized in raiding rich thanes, merchants and their ladies – on various occasions they even burglarized (and according to later indictment against them even murdered) glorious men of faith.

The legend states that Jánošík and his boys enjoyed great popularity among locals, who helped to hide whenever the law threatened to catch them. They reportedly gained this fame by giving out parts of their loot to common people around them – golden rings from thane´s wife to young girls in pubs, fur coats from greedy vicar to hard working blacksmith, landlord´s ornamented sword to poor young villager etc. Thought this can easily be interpreted as smartness of a man, who knows he´s going to need these people on his side, it also gave birth to the immortal legend of Juraj Jánošík – “a thieve, who took from rich and gave out to poor.”

Short-lived legend with a tragic ending

Thought his legend outlives his real life by centuries, his criminal career was actually quite short-lived. He stood in the head of his gang in autumn of 1711 and exactly two years later he already got busted never to gain his freedom again. Paradoxically, he got caught while visiting his old “reformed” friend Tomáč Uhorčík, who was imprisoned and tried with him – although at first only as Jánošík´s supporter under his alias Martin Mravec. Uhorčík´s house was raided by approximately 20 gendarmes that day and they were motivated not only by Jánošík´s great reputation, but also by the considerably high reward.

Upcoming court process was probably the most obvious evidence of Juraj Jánošík´s prominence, as it was heavily chronicled and observed by many authorities. It took two months and comprised of dozens of testimonies, confrontations and interrogations. Even though Jánošík reportedly cooperated in the means of confessing to crimes he was accused of, he never disclosed names of his allies (many of them were notable and some of them even came to testify in his favor). Neither have he, although cruelly tortured and blackmailed, ever disclosed the true identity of Martin Mravec – though Uhorčík  later confessed himself end got executed for it. 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.

Dead but immortal

Thought Juraj Jánošík died more than 3 centuries ago, his spirit and story still lives and thrives in Slovak culture. If you want to learn more about him – or the folk tales and myths that surround 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. Visit beautiful Terchová during the famous folk festival Jánošíkove dni (Jánošík´s days) and breath in the captivating atmosphere of true Slovak folk party. Walk through the demanding, yet absolutely rewarding hiking trail Jánošíkove diery (Jánošík´s holes) and admit that the lad who spent his youth around these rough rocks definitely had what they call a true grit

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