A Genealogical Quest for Identity – PART 2 of 2
NOTE: If you haven’t read PART 1, you can read it here
As I hinted at in my PART 1 of this post, I was hopeful that the latter half of this segment of my quest would deliver more fruit in terms of my family history and genealogy research. The trials and tribulations of mining through the nebulous records of a foreign country with only basic understanding of the language have proven difficult, but not as much as the clerical and logistical roller coaster. The amount of hoops one must jump through in order to find a morsel of information is frustrating to say the least.
That being said, it’s still pretty amazing to think that they have records in books from hundreds of years ago that were kept intact throughout the Napoleonic, Venetian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Communist rule and occupations. In a land that has been split up, torn apart and put back together again many times in the past several hundred years, it’s a wonderment that one can find any records whatsoever. But alas, here we are in 2016, and I’m about to walk into one of the satellite records Archives offices in Varaždin.
What I quickly learned on my journey is that there are several satellite archive offices scattered around different regions of Croatia which hold archival records from each respective region (roughly pre-1900). Those records go back approximately 50 or 100 years. Anything older than that is stored in the main archives in Zagreb. Incidentally, that’s where my journey started, and might be where it ends too… we shall see.
The Quest Continues
I woke up in the morning at my Croatian countryside cabin nestled in the vineyard and noticed a drizzle from the sky and one of the most stunning rainbows I’d ever seen, encircling the breadth of the landscape, a multicolor streak serving as a welcome banner to the region of my ancestors. If I was looking for a sign from the universe that I was on the right track, this would most assuredly be it!
Leaving the country vineyard cabin behind was tough, but I had to stay steadfast on my mission, to the archives or bust! I pulled into the parking lot next to an old building with a Croatian flag, the consistent symbol adorning the plethora of government offices I’d been to over the past several years.
The Archives in Varaždin
After managing to find a few people that spoke a little bit of English, one of them quite well, I was able to communicate what I wanted to the gentleman and take a sigh of relief because I was off the hook as far as language barrier, thank goodness. They explained to me that there were several possible stashes of archival books where I might be able to find information from my family. From the long list they picked out, I had a strong sense that I would never get all that done in one day and unfortunately it was a Friday and I was leaving for the coast later that evening. No matter… I would plow through as much as I could and see what I could find.
They took me up to a second level into a room with a really large wooden table with shelves of old books… was this the Croatian Hogwart’s library? I was given a pair of white gloves to put on so the oils from my hands wouldn’t damage the old, weathered pages. We discussed which book to bring out first and decided on the books from the Zagorje region. He left to get them from the library stash while I took obligatory selfies.
Accompanying him upon his return was an old, large leather-bound book with parchment pages. Definitely the most epic book I’d ever touched! He showed me the columns of information, what they meant, and how to look for the information relating to my family. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack… handwritten Croatian script writing of names, dates, and places, a sea of words and letters within which I’d have to recognize the names from my family tree.
Searching Through the History Books
I began to carefully turn the pages, scanning all the columns, one by one. It was quite cumbersome, yet intriguing, satiating a curiosity for knowledge and history. And then something really interesting happened… I started noticing patterns in the entries. I began to recognize other family names and their relations and their matching addresses. I was able to pull out little stories from the sea of writing. Turns out back then a lot of families lived on the same land, so there were addresses with several lines of a family listed as having been born there.
For example, there were two back-to-back birth entries, both boys born on the same day at the same address but different parents. Then I noticed the fathers had the same last name, and the sons had the same names as the other one’s father. So, what I deduced was two brothers that lived at the same address had their sons on the same day and they named their sons after one another. How endearing is that? Proof of the strength of family bonds in this region and the anchor that knowledge of one’s family ties has in this culture. There were several other really cool stories I pulled out while scanning the books, but that was the most charming to me.
Every 10 or 15 minutes I’d find an entry that I thought was related to me, but then we’d dig through the papers to verify and it would be disproven. As time ticked away, new books would be brought out, birth records, death records, marriage records, all from the various regions I requested. I painstakingly sifted through every page for clues, sometimes twice just in case, like a genealogical sleuth searching for the truth. The other workers mentioned that they were going to get a coffee and a bite to eat and they invited me to go along. I thanked them, but insisted that I stay, despite the fact that I hadn’t eaten, drank or visited the bathroom since 8 AM and it was now pushing 2 PM. They were impressed with my commitment and resolution, but I was committed to finding a shred of SOMETHING from my family history before their closing time at 4 PM. One of the kind gentleman agreed to stay with me and help search, he too knew I would never get through even half the books on my own, with his help, we could get maybe 75% of it done.
About 30 minutes later, we found something… an entry that seemed to match my grandfather’s mother. We didn’t know much about her or her parents, not even their names, so this would be a big find. Sure enough, we verified it, it was indeed her! A big sigh of relief as the time was coming to an end. With a fifth wind kicking in, fueled by this awesome find, I kept sifting through the books as fast as I could for as long as they’d allow me to stay there. And just before they were about to shut me down…bam! I found another entry… the name of my grandmother’s father, address matched, seemed to be the one… woohoo!!! (Note: later I was to find out that the second family record I found might not be correct, although the verification of that is still ongoing).
With a sense of success and achievement, we scurried down the stairs with the books in hand and over to the first guy I spoke to who had to verify everything and punch it into a program to generate a certificate for me to take home as proof of the family line. And just like that, the family tree was extended another generation back and I had the information I needed to dig around the archives in Zagreb. There are still more books to go through and more family lines to trace, so the search in Varaždin is not complete, I indeed shall return to those old books one day.
The Result: A Few Steps Closer to Identity
Before I left, I profusely thanked all of the workers that assisted me, especially the guy that helped me look through the books. He also gave me the names of the parishes in the regions I was searching so I could contact the priests and see if they have any additional information to offer. Apparently the churches in each region used to keep most of the records and that is how a lot of these books survived all the wars and flip flopping back and forth. Very cool, another trail to explore!
Although my journey is not finished, there was a big sense of relief leaving there with new information. My efforts had not been in vain and I was getting results. Finding one key opened another mystery that must be solved… I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt or in a Sherlock Holmes novel that revolved around my family tree. With each step back to my car, I could feel a stronger sense of who I was with pride knowing that I came from such a deep history and that I’d played an important part in uncovering some of it.
The following evening when I was in Dubrovnik, I had dinner with some friends who lived there. One was a local from Dubrovnik and we were talking about my quest when she kind of giggled. I asked her what was so funny about it and she said my story was so interesting to her because she never really thinks about her ancestors. “If I want to know anything, I would just go over that hill to the cemetery and find out everything I want to know. I just know they’re there, so I don’t worry too much about it”. When she said that, I knew why I had a burning inside to know who my ancestors were, and that was good enough for me to fuel the remaining quests.
In the future I intend to return to Zagreb and dig through those archives. I also intend to go back to Varaždin and see what else I can find. Once all is said and done and I’ve traced the line as far as I can, I plan to switch over to my paternal side and see what traces I can find in India, which will undoubtedly warrant it’s own posts when the time comes.
Perhaps this post will have a part 3 or 4, I’m not sure where the journey will go, and to me, that’s one of the most exciting aspects of this whole genealogical quest.
A Genealogical Quest for Identity – PART 1 of 2
NOTE: My First Blog Post
Nestled amidst symmetrical rows of grapevines on a small vineyard on one of the many rolling rural hills of the Zagorje region of Croatia, I’m writing my first blog post. I’ve been wanting to start a blog for awhile now, as a means by which to express ideas, commentary and exposition on topics that not only interest me, but also to spark intellectual discussions, enrich the reader with newfound information, or simply share stories that I feel are compelling and inspiring. With this first entry of what I hope will be many, I want to share the journey I’ve been on for years, but particularly this most recent trip to Croatia.
I’m currently on a quest to see how far back I can trace my familial maternal line of Croatian heritage. Delving into one’s genealogical history can reveal insights into one’s origins, ultimately and ideally revealing more about you as a person. Having a sense of identity can ground you in place, time, and history and offer perspective about the journey of humanity and the purpose of life. It sounds obscure and grandiose, but stick with me here, it gets even more fun.
Tracing a family history via genealogy research in a country like Croatia that has been war torn for centuries, flip-flopping invaders since the Middle Ages, can be extremely challenging and cumbersome. Just when you think there’s light at the end of the tunnel, you hit a roadblock that can discourage and derail the journey. Vex not oh weary traveler, for what you seek may lie just over the next hill of red tape. The rules and regulations of a country still in transition towards the technological conveniences of modern record keeping are perplexing and mind bending. From my experience, it’s best to just accept them and take what you can get, go with the flow, and when all else fails, charm their socks off with your foreign swagger.
Although I grew up with a strong connection to my Croatian heritage, I did not pick up certain specific cultural attributes, namely the language, but also other inherent cultural idiosyncrasies that are important when planning an immersive experience. How am I going to get through this? What if they don’t speak any English? What if this was a total waste of time and energy? What if…. What if…. What if…. You can drive yourself bonkers with fear driven “What If’s…”, but the bottom line is that you just have to grow a pair, suck it up and get in that car, plane, boat, hovercraft, and go for it, if the interest compels you.
The First Stop – The Office of Birth and Death Records in Lepoglava
Today I was a little bit nervous approaching the records office in Lepoglava where my grandfather was born and raised (and also happens to be where Croatia’s main prison is located, offering a creepy and terrifying backdrop to the situation). I fumbled through a rickety door into the mostly dull 1960s communist era office and managed to ask (in Croatian) the innocuous elderly lady seated at the desk if she speaks English. She replied with an adamant “Ne” (or “no”), prompting me to break out into a nervous sweat with dry mouth setting in, “oh crap, what do I do now?”
The Google Translate app had been my crutch, but my phone was almost dead and would only have enough juice to get me through the very beginning of this conversation, then what?? With my rudimentary Croatian skills, I dug in and proceeded to explain what I wanted. She seemed to understand and softened, her once hard exterior released to a more open and understanding energy. Then came the super-speed downpour of Croatian technical, legal, and political ramblings that would have even a native speaker scratching their head. Thirty minutes later, with the help of some improvised sign language, a lifeline phone call to a cousin in Zagreb, and some guesswork, we were on the same page. I sat down to wipe the sweat pouring off my forehead, my brain exhausted from the ultra, super, focused conversation plus the remnants of jetlag. I could feel my desire for a Croatian coffee increase with every tick of the second hand. My Croatian caffeine addiction was revving its engines and would be in full swing soon enough. Although I generally abstain from coffee whilst stateside, why fight it… when in Rome, or Croatia, right?
Several hours later after a few more red tape hoops to jump through, which included me having to purchase a special government payment stamp from a nearby post-office (a side excursion that could warrant its own blog post), we were ready to get our hands dirty and dig. An hour or so later I left that records office having seen the actual birth logbook entry from 1914 when my grandfather’s birth was recorded over one hundred years ago. I sat on a nearby bench overlooking the town and took a deep breath, acknowledging that I’d had a pretty special moment. Somehow walking on streets and sidewalks in the town my grandfather walked on as a child and sleuthing out this record felt like life was coming full circle in a way. Somehow those pen marks on that old, weathered, faded yellow paper made me feel like I belonged to a deep history of people, a verification of sorts, and my curiosity wants to know how far back that trail goes. Will it venture into France? Austria? Stay in the same region of Croatia? I was dying to know, and my journey tomorrow will hopefully bear more discoveries.
I was also excited to learn that my great grandmother was a school headmaster and her husband, my great grandfather, a teacher. An interesting dynamic for a couple in late 1800s Eastern Europe! It’s no wonder their son, my grandfather, was so well educated with multiple degrees, spoke ten languages, and was well read way beyond his class level. Is my never-ending, unquenchable pursuit of knowledge, the drive within that led to my love for school and acquisition of two master’s degrees, an energetic or genetic result of their union? As the mystery unfolds with each kernel of information uncovered, I am riveted and can’t wait to find out more, not only for myself, but for my whole extended family, my offspring, and generations to come.
The fact that this is only 50% of what makes up my genetic code is mind boggling to me. There’s a whole other world of my heritage that I haven’t even begun to look into yet. Why is it that in the US, the world’s melting pot, we don’t have as tight of a grasp on our family histories as they do elsewhere in the world? The idea of knowing your genealogical history is a much more ingrained part of the cultures in other countries across the globe, but in the US, a relatively young country made up entirely of immigrants (unless you are of Native American descent), the line is often harder to trace. Of course there are exceptions of those that can trace back to their ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower, and those that can go even further, but for the most part, people can only go back a few generations, perhaps well into the 1800s. But it is not uncommon for the family trees of non-North American inhabitants to go back several centuries. How does this affect our culture here vs. there? Does the US adoption rate (both domestic and international) add to the faded records of our collective past? Thoughts to ponder as my research continues.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines Identity as: The fact of being who or what a person or thing is
The very definition of the word invokes a subconscious feeling of innate stability and groundedness, without which beseeches a yearning to know and find “what a person..is” by tracing familial roots or other means, perhaps through spiritual, practical, vocational, etc. For me, the further back I am able to trace my roots, the more deeply connected I feel towards who I am and where I come from, with the hopes of gaining insight on where I want to be or confirmation on where I am. As humans, we are interconnected energetically, physically, and genetically, whether we want to be or not. We are an accumulation of energetic combinations over the course of time, and to be completely blind or ignorant of that history is leaving a large piece of the “identity” puzzle out of the equation for yourself and subsequent generations. By seeking out my heritage, discovering the history, and solving the mysteries of who I am, I intend to tap into that connected energy through revelation, discovery, and always learning with humility and openness.
The Search Continues
Seek whatever ye shall find, find whatever ye shall be, and be whatever ye shall become.
Am I shackled by the idea of knowing my pedigree? Absolutely not, of course I’m confident in who I am and the life I have and would surely survive without knowing more. But will the fruits of this journey hopefully add to the understanding of my life and those of my relatives? I certainly hope so. And I also acknowledge that this quest is probably connected to a means of mourning the loss of my mother, as well as my grandparents, at a relatively younger age than most people. It’s been 6 years since she’s been gone, and I feel like researching these roots, something both she and her father always wanted to do but never did, is somehow bringing me closer to them, an homage to their, and my own, pursuit of identity. I could get into the history of Croatia, the communist regime of Yugoslavia, my mother and her family being displaced during WWII and marring their sense of identity while they desperately searched the world for a place to set new roots, but I will save some of that for the part 2 of this post.
I wait with baited breath for what secrets and mysteries the Croatian Archives in Varaždin have in store for me. Will light be shed onto my own enigmas? Or will it lead me to yet another step of discovery? Or will it be the dead end of the quest? The truths lie within, and only 50 km, a language barrier, mountains of red tape, and tenacity will come into play in determining success or failure.