finding my croatian ancestry

My Roots~~Finding Family in Croatia


With old faded documents from almost a 100 years ago, we started an amazing journey that took us 5,000 miles from home in search of my family.

Finding Your Roots

Wearing my Oz red shoes and riding on my magic carpet, I had a real-life fairy-tale! Like a Nicholas Sparks’ novel, a Lifetime movie or, better yet, the movie, Pretty Woman’ {“I want the dream!}, this sojourn could not have been scripted any more perfectly. It was probably ‘in the stars’. Destined to happen.

And, I know, orchestrated by the big guy upstairs because I had no preconceived ideas of what would happen. It just happened! Or better yet, this was as if Henry Louis Gates of PBS’s ‘Finding Your Roots’ was orchestrating our journey. 

Croatian Ancestry

I share this life-changing journey with you in piccolo chapters, hoping you’ll stay on my magic carpet~~read one and stop, read two or three and leave~it’s all up to you. But, please come back and read the next and next until the ride is complete. And, most importantly, I do this because I’m hoping that you will feel the love, sense the allure, embrace the mystery and maybe if it hasn’t already happened in your life, make the same journey yourself with your family history someday, And, thank you, to all my foodie family and loves who hopped on this magic carpet ride with me, commented each day as I posted and shared, and who put up with my shenanigans making me feel really good that my experience was something that touched your hearts! 

Finding Your Roots

Isn’t it most all of our dreams to find our roots. Who and where we came from? At least in the past one hundred years?

finding my croatian ancestry
My magic red slippers!

The Hotel in Zagreb

As I walked down the five flights of richly carpeted steps, scarlet red with gold border scrolling—the kind that adorn palaces, of the Hotel Astoria in Zagreb, Croatia, I had swells of thoughts and emotions flooding my heart and mind.  They never had the opportunities that I have had, nor the life.  They were exceptionally brave and courageous—could I ever do something like this?  They sacrificed everything they had to give me this life.

Ancestry Immigration Records

My grandfather and grandmother were part of the great American immigration at the turn of the 20th century. Ancestry immigration records weren’t perfect at the turn of the 20th century, so there was little to cling to as far as a paper trail.

They had passed away when I was just a child, and I really didn’t know them well. But, now as a grandparent myself, I am keenly aware and very grateful of their gift to me. In just three generations of our family since my grandparents came to American, their four grandchildren, my three siblings and me, all are accomplished professionals with advanced university degrees, and their great grand-children have followed in those footsteps graduating from noted American institutions like Brown University, The College William and Mary, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the United States Military Academy at West Point and others.

Find my Roots

Yes, this, in my mind, is the real ‘American Dream’—where my grandparents came to a new country—culture, foods, language, everything—in search of something better than their small farming village where my grandfather’s profession was as a farmer. Ben, my delicious and supportive husband as much excited as I and always wanting to make this pilgrimage to my past, and I were on the last few days of our exhilarating trek through parts of Europe—Cologne, Germany, Chianti in Tuscany, and the exotic cities of Split and Debrovnik along the Adriatic.

Ancestry Search

Now we were in Zagreb, an enchanting city on the interior of Croatia, about to get in our pint-sized European rental car, Google Map directions in hand, and head out of the city about 100 km to search for a small village, the home of my grandfather, called Disnik. It was at a time like this, and I’ve had many times like this, that I was regretting—regretting that I’d not been more investigative about my heritage when Mom was alive. Oh, yes, she tried, but I always had other things on my mind, other things to do, other seemingly ‘important’ things of life.  I had not asked enough questions.

What is Family History

I had not taken the time to really  sit for leisurely hours and let Mom talk—where she could share her amazingly rich memories of growing up as a first-generation Croatian in the hollers of West Virginia, where my grandfather had come to do the hard and dangerous labor of being a coal miner—where my grandmother had toiled and labored every day running a boarding house full of other immigrants, packing daily lunch buckets, cooking endless meals, and scraping out a living.  As Mom used to say, ‘…our boarding house was like the United Nations—Poles, Greeks, Croatians, Italians, Serbs, Armenians, Hungarians, and more’—where multiple languages chattered daily and where unique talents emerged and were shared—the violinist, the opera singer, the comedienne, the magician among others. ‘  These people became family.  Their goals were all much alike.  They shared themselves and their talents, and they treasured retaining who they were, their roots, in this new country.  They were all searching for a better life.  They were resolute in looking towards the future, not for them, but for the generations that followed.

Search for Ancestors

Starting a search for ancestors is a scary adventure. I mean you have no idea what or who might turn up. Was I ready for what God had planned for me and Ben?


Finding My Roots

The Feelings & Memories

This was also a time that I was anxious…reserved…tentative…even fearful.  At random moments hot tears would well up in my eyes—for no reason—I’d fight them back trying to convince myself that I was being ‘silly’ but really knowing that this was a lifetime overwhelming excursion and my tears were not only normal but a beautiful part of the sensations.  It was as if there was something transforming inside of me, something being orchestrated in my heart and soul that I had no control over…maybe it was the energy of those long gone, I thought.

My Roots~~Finding Family in Croatia
The streets of Zagreb.


Family Histories

Maybe there were others, who’d walked this path before, walking with me now. I mean without sounding slightly whacko and like I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid, I somehow thought that I wasn’t walking alone.  There was no one to shepherd me, only Ben, my rock, at my side.  I had no idea whatsoever to expect!  I had no idea what I’d discover or find, if anything.  It could be fruitless.  It could be bountiful.  Or it could be something in between.

Family Records

Without many family records, I imagined my grandparents’ lives as young people. I mean it had been almost a hundred years since young and probably totally in love about 20-year-olds, Josef and Maria Rebich, had come to America—how many towns in the United States can you go to and find, hopefully, old-timers and people who may ‘remember’ someone from a century ago?

I tried to let my mind fly and imagine how they must have been feeling when they were coming to America—maybe there were subtle likenesses—a palpitating heart, clammy hands, short breaths then long deep self-relaxing breathing to control the mind.  And, yes, I wondered if they had tears in their eyes leaving their remote farm village, embracing for the last time their family, smelling the scents that defined their world, and seeing one last time their home place, the land.

Searching Ancestry

Yes, this journey to Disnik was predicated on my dim, fleeting and desperate hope that I could find someone who might remember. What I had with me were worn photocopied documents to their past—my grandfather’s passport, a christening record of my grandfather’s siblings that included the names of his mother and father, and my grandmother’s birth certificate—all of these documents had been saved and preserved by my older sister who spent infinitely more hours and time with Mom in her adult years than I, who considered Mom her ‘best friend.’ 

In fact, Mom would say to her in her in her blatant no frills tone of voice while taking a long drag from her favorite friend, her cigarette—‘…you know, Kathryn, you need to get younger friends…’  Named after our mother, Kathryn would laugh and dismiss it because Mom was the best friend anyone could ever imagine having.

The Family History

My Roots~~Finding Family in Croatia
The skies of Croatia.

The Woman, Kata

Dark eyes like nuggets of coal.  The alluring looks of pure natural beauty.  A smile that could melt your heart.  Fun, a wicked sense of humor, fabulous home chef, immensely talented with creativity, very bright, savvy with money {she could make a buck last longer than I can ten bucks} and steeped with experience and wisdom that only comes from a very hard and long-lived life, Mom had devoted everything to her four young children when my Dad unexpectedly died in his early 40s. Only 38, no high school diploma, and a first-generation Croatian, like her parents, Mom pushed us kids to get educations knowing that an education was the building block of the American dream.

Finding Roots

Growing up, she was all business. She had to be. She was hard on us.  She didn’t let up.  She did the unrelenting hard work of both father and mother. No one was there to give her a break.  No respites. She was the quintessential devoted single parent at a time where there were few. And, she remained widowed, never even having one date in her life after dad, until she died at the age of 85.

Her philosophy about men was straight-forward like her approach to life, she said…’…if you’ve had a bad husband, you don’t remarry for fear you’ll get one worse, and if you’ve had a good husband, you don’t remarry for fear you’ll not find one as good.’ Mom, who in the old country was ‘Kata’ never missed a chance to put me or any of us kids in our place. She was humorous.  She was pithy.  If you talked too much, she’d look at you with steely serious eyes and say, ‘…condense it!’

Questions About Family

When I’d visit her in those last years, I’d always be in a ‘hurry’—she’d be sitting on her sofa, pillows propped up on each side to take the pressure off her arthritic arm joints, her gypsy shawl around her shoulders, maybe her ‘Frenchie’ tam covering her silver hair, her feet propped up on her wooden ‘cutie’ tangelo case (she never threw anything away and always re-fashioned things into something else—and in this case, a footstool, which I still have and treasure!), and, yes, a cigarette in her hand.  She’d take a drag, look at me with those piercing, albeit tired and worn eyes but still exotically gorgeous, and say, ‘…Alice, you don’t stay long enough to get the seat warm…’

Meaning of Family History

And, she was precisely right—my convoluted thinking was that Mom would ‘live forever’, she was indestructible, immortal, always there, and I could get to hanging out longer ‘another time’—oh, what a numb nut I was! The journey to Disnik was in honor of Mom—in honor of her legacy—in honor of the birthright I’d been given and one that I would pass on nobly to my children and grandchildren.  I was on a mission to find my family, our family.  A family Kata never knew in America—because of the circumstances, for whatever reasons, there was no connection to Disnik and the Rebic or Zunatz families after my grandparents came to America.


finding my croatian ancestry
  Driving to Disnik. The countryside.

The Drive to  Dišnik

Navigating out of Zagreb was not an easy task.  We didn’t have a GPS because with Hertz if you rented the car in one city, like we did in Split, and turned it in in another city, like we did in Zagreb, then you could not have a GPS. 

Go figure. So our directions were good ol’ Google map and printed out! Not only were the directions confusing but the words, the names of the streets like— Ul. dr. Franje Račkog, Avenija Marina Držića and  Hrastovčić ul—and other foreign words were so unfamiliar—finding the street names was yet another challenge—they were inconspicuously carved in plaques of stone or on metal plates usually on the sides of buildings…well, most of the time!

Find My Family Tree

I was the co-pilot.  Ben the pilot.  Our breadbox size car was trying to not get slammed by zippy and zoom zoom city driving!   Finally, we maneuvered our way out, and we were on the highway about to drive around 100 km—on an Interstate of sorts—my head was swimming and my heart was pounding.  My mind’s voice was saying, is this really happening?

Almost hoping I’d never get there but wanting to get there as fast as I could, we followed carefully the directions my cousin had given me.  Melanie had made the journey to  Dišnik with my sister, Kathryn and her son, Danny, about three years prior. They’d found what they thought was the ‘family’ home, but nothing more than that. No relatives.  No family.  Just the overgrown thatched room and stone home that could have been the Rebic home.

Immigration Records

I continued to clich my immigration records. My only faint ties to my grandparents and their lives in Croatia. The countryside changed quickly and changed dramatically—from city landscape to wide open fields, green grass and land for as far as the eye could see.  Some farmland.  Some open land.  Some signs of animals in open fields. Some of the names of towns along the way were on our map, others were not, including Disnik. 

We would exit at Kutina then head to Garešnica  and from there to Dišnik.  We were moving more and more into the more remote areas of Croatia—to areas of simple life, good people, hard-working, fresh air, home gardens, goats and sheep, travel by bicycles and, yes, all the magic of the 21st century—the Internet, computers, cell phones, Facebook, cars, tractors, and more.

Find my Ancestry

finding my croatian ancestry
 My family’s village.

Traveling to Croatia

Finding Dišnik

Deciding to travel to Croatia with this emotional mission was easy. It was still something on the idea of a ‘dream’. Taking the exit to Kutina meant no turning back—we were committed.  The die had been cast.  In probably 20 minutes I was going to have a life-altering experience regardless of the outcome.  Kutina is a pretty good sized city, and it’s vibrancy is evident in the bustling of the people, the traffic, the cafes and restaurants and the retail stores—we made our way through quickly and headed towards Garešnica—a very familiar name to me.

Croatian Birth Records

There were no birth records for my grandparents. However, on my grandfather’s passport, Garešnica , written in old-world script as was everything on the passport, meant I was close.  I kind of equated Garešnica to say a county seat in the states—this was where my grandfather probably obtained his passport. 

The passport, number 107.531 issued in about 1909 when Croatia was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Franje Josipa I was king, was mainly written in Croatian and French. While Ben and I were in Split at the bus station waiting several hours for our bus to take us to Dubrovnik, I sat next to a Croatian woman who spoke excellent English.

Why Visit Croatia

Besides being one of the most beautiful places on Earth, especially the coast of Croatia, why would you search for a small remote village in Croatia? Yes, for me, it was to bring closure to who my grandparents were. Where they were born. What their world was like. And, this Croatian stranger woman was going to be a key to my journey. 

Oddly attractive in a curious way, eyeglasses the thickness of Coca-Cola bottles, and obviously a working class woman who also taught English for extra income, she was on a sojourn to one of the islands to work for the summer months as a chamber maid to help support her family, all of whom had lost their jobs. 

We sat for at least two hours going word by word through the passport, the christening document and the birth certificate with her translating for me. Sonja was totally engaged in my sojourn, my mission—she wanted to be a part of making it a reality. I learned things I never knew.

My grandfather’s physical descriptions were noted in the passport—small, dark hair, round face, almond eyes, and ‘normal’ nose.  His profession was ‘farmer’—he had departed from a port in Bremen, Germany. (How in the devil he and my grandmother got there is beyond me!)

Croatian History

Little did I know that in this passport I had Croatian history. My grandfather’s reason for coming to America was ‘work’. And, to the question, ‘how long do you plan to stay’, he wrote, ‘forever.’  The christening records showed that he had three siblings—Mara, Bara, and Ivan with my grandfather being the youngest born in 1889. 

His father’s name was Andre (Andrew) and his mother was Ana—handsome names, noble, regal.  My middle son I had named Andrew Joseph, never knowing his great great grandfather was also Andrew, and Joseph for his great grandfather, father, and paternal great grandfather.

History of Croatians

Croatia has a colorful history over hundreds and hundreds of years. Stamped on the front of my grandfather’s passport was ‘Austro-Hungarian Empire’. While I didn’t have my grandmother’s passport, I did have her Catholic Church ‘birth certificate’. It indicated that the name of her village, Laslikovo, about 15km from Disnik—questions started popping up in my mind—where did my grandparents meet,  how did they meet, how did they decide to come to America together or did they, how did they get the money, know how to get to Germany?

So many unknowns.  Her mother was Sophia, a housewife, and her father Zarko, a farmer—I even learned my great grandmother’s maiden name!  You never know where guardian angels will be along your path in life and, for me, one was perched right there  next to me on that rainy dreary chilly day in Split at the bus station.  I will forever be indebted to Sophia, a gentle and generous soul, who crossed my path in life at precisely the right moment.

There’s a final post to the conclusion of this journey. Read  On
My Roots~~Finding Family in Croatia
   Total strangers in the village helping me locate my family.













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  1. Ally it’s been years since you wrote this – yet here I am, a decade later, following along through tears – captivated by your story, as if it were mine. My Dad and his Croatian family fled Yugoslavia in the 70s, leaving behind their family farm and everyone they knew to start over. I’m embarking on an online lineage hunt thanks to DNA, to try and uncover my lost family history. I too know and deeply appreciate everything Baka and Dida gave up, so I could have the life I do. Thank you for sharing your story. With love x

    1. Oh, my sweet love, Janyne, thank you for this heartfelt message. Yes, our grandparents stepped into a journey that would so richly and beautifully benefit us, the later generations. Their courage and fearlessness makes my heart swell. They’ left behind everything all in the hopes of a bettter life. Gosh knows, the strength, resolute and adventure. We owe much to them and where we are today. xoxx ally

  2. Mary Uremovic says:

    Dearest Ally,

    It was hard to read this through all the tears. I am first generation Croatian and your story touched me so deeply. One of my best friends made your Croatian cheesecake and that is how I found you. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story,

    God BLess, Mary Uremovic

    1. Oh, Mary, thank you so so so much for connecting with me. Yes, that entire experience was super emotional for me and my husband, too, as it just naturally unfolded. I felt definitely that it was in God’s hands, and that He was making it all happen from the coincidences to the happenstance. I’ll forever be grateful to all the people in the village who came to help me, a complete stranger, as I searched for my roots. I know they run deep in strong beautiful people. Sending love and sweet wishes xoxx ally

  3. Tina Leininger says:

    Hello from beautiful British Columbia,

    I found you on Insta after following Bobby, Desi and Rose Honey. My ears pricked up when you talked about making Croatian recipes because I too am of Croatian descent. It made me feel that we had a small connection and I love keeping up with you and all your adventures.

    Well, now I know that we have more than a little connection. Seeing your story today I noticed a picture of you visiting your family home in Disnik and I have a photo of my at my family home in Tomasica that looks almost identical. My mother was born there and my father was born in Sokolovac. Checking the map I see that my ancestry is from a place about 4 kilometres from yours! From now on I am going to think of you as my sister.

    Sending you love and light. Zivjeli sestre!


    1. OH, my gosh, Tina! Isn’t this a God Wink! Yes, we are Croatian sisters, and you’re all the way in gorgeous British Columbia, and here I am in SC! Isn’t it enchanting how our parents and grandparents risked all to give us a better life, and how life does come full circle. Yes, we are more than connected, we are bonded w/our heritage. Thank you for sharing all of this with me. It affirms to me that writing this would, indeed, touch more than just my heart. Beaming to you lots of love, peace and energy healing and happy light, Tina. Yes Zivjeli Sestre!! xoxx Hugs and love ~ally

      1. Anonymous says:

        Draga Ally,

        I spoke with my 93 year old mother today and she remembers taking the “kola” to your village to see relatives. I am going to try and find out the name and will share when I can. Perhaps we are sisters in more than spirit.

        Talk again soon sister!

        Hugs, Tina

        1. Oh, goodness, Tina! You’re so fortunate to have your Mom and still able to get beautiful information and memories from her. I’m so excited to see the same thing! Maybe just maybe there’s even more of a connection. My grandfather’s name was Josef Rebich and grandmother Mary Zunatz, she actually lived in Garešnica. My grandfather’s brother’s (Ivan) grandson still lives there w/his family. The last name is Dizdarević. Maybe she recognizes some of these surnames. xoxx ally

  4. Irene ( Irena) Fatović Gršković says:

    I am reading your story and sobbing because it reminds me so much of my life story; though I did know both of my grandparents on both sides and did not need to search for them but there are so many similarities of our lives:
    -we are practically the same age, I am 64
    -my father also died very young at 46
    -my Mom became a widow and raised and educated 3 kids all on her own; we are all college educated!
    – My Mom was very tough on us, like yours, and made sure that we are all educated; that was her biggest goal and mission!
    -I wish that I spent more time listening to her stories too but I was too busy with my own life and didn’t think her stories were all that important; besides, they were the past!
    -my son’s name in Andrei and he lives in Boston!
    -I also practice yoga
    -I love to cook and especially love to cook Croatian foods like sarme, blitva with potatoes, stuffed peppers, fish, desserts!
    I am truly glad that I came across your inspirational story and I hope that our paths cross sometime in the future!

    1. Oh, my dear, Irene! WE ARE so much alike. I do believe that the ‘universe’ brings kindred minded loving souls together, and for you to take the time to read these recollections of ‘finding my roots’ and then share so many similarities from your own life says to me that it’s no coincidence. It was orchestrated by God and meant to be. Your Mom sounds so so much like mine. They were strong gutsy women who survived and thrived under really tough and meager circumstances. My main regret, like yours, is that I was too ‘dumb’ and silly not to pick her brain for every sliver of wisdom, memories and learning that I could have. Such is the nature of our youth. Sending lots of love and sister hugs your way. xoxx ally

  5. Karen Darensburg says:

    Fabulous her- story ,,,and his -tory too,…I love your interest and curiosity in everything and taking the initiative to find your family .. which means. You found yourself !didn’t you !
    Love and affection
    Grandma Karen

    1. Awwhhhh, I love those words, Karen…I found myself. So true. And, thank you for taking time to read about this adventure. Hugs and love my beautiful Grandma Karen! xo

  6. David Riley Sr says:

    Very well said, with heart, mind and soul !!! 🙂

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