finding your roots

My Roots~~After Nearly 100 Years~~

Finding your roots. Vastly different worlds, but from the same start. Two brothers. One stays in the old country. One journeys to America.

PBS Ancestry Show

No PBS ancestry show could be any more moving and emotional than what my journey was in Croatia. If you missed the first part, please back up and read how this sojourn all started.


Rediscovering Your Roots Wow

When you embark upon rediscovering your roots, yes, it’s a wow. But, I had no idea that mine would be a BIG WOW! My husband, Ben, stands in awe even today reminiscing about this experience. Yes, he saw it first-hand and probably remembers things that just flew by me because I was so wrapped up in emotion. 

Family Search

The Village of Disnik

It’s strange how mistakes, wrong turns, and blunders can turn out to be exactly right—I mean at the time you don’t know it, but it sometimes happens that way. And, this family search of mine is the perfect example of this truth. 

We’d followed our directions, we thought, to a tee and arrived in Disnik finding ‘the house’ I just knew was my grandfather’s home place.  When we pulled up I had this sinking feeling that this was the end of the journey, it was what I’d come for, just to stand there in front of this weed covered, battered and dilapidated house and know I’d come full circle.

Taking pictures I noticed across the road, which was about wide enough for one car, and there were no other cars in sight, a man working in his garden.  Rather than looking like some alien from Mars, a stranger totally, I walked over, jumped the ditch, and waved to him to introduce myself and, hopefully, communicate to him why this crazy American was taking pictures of this house. 

We tried to talk going back and forth with gestures, smiles, and single words, and from this I learned, don’t ask me how, that this house was not the ‘Rebic’ house.

Ancestry Trees

The farmer must have seen the disappointment in my face and understood to some degree that I was looking for my ancestry trees. Within minutes, he had another young man there, who obviously was in the middle of his day’s farm work, and before long there was the uncle of this young man and a young woman—all could speak varying degrees of English, so I explained why I was there.

And, without hesitation or any feelings of divulging privacy, I was sharing with them my crumpled worn copies of the documents I had on my grandfather and grandmother—they began flipping through them, talking in Croatian and then pulling out their cell phones and making calls. 

It was as if a major intelligence operation was taking place right there on this country road with complete strangers who’d made it their mission to help me—this desperate American woman who’d traveled thousands of miles looking for family that had left there nearly 100 years ago!

finding your roots

Family Histories

I can’t even begin to explain the rush of feelings I was having—and the thoughts that were racing through my head—I mean where can you go where people come to your aid with not motive other than to help—how do you find a place where there could even be a remote thread of a chance of finding family from a century prior, I mean who would you even begin to call! 

This was not an easy task nor was it a guarantee, but there was no giving up on their part—for almost two hours they worked, they called, they chattered with each other, and they shared with me what they thought they’d discovered.

Finding Your Roots

Rather than stand out in the road, they invited us into their home.  I mean finding your roots nearly a century later takes a village.

Christina, wife of one of the gentlemen and a young beautiful newly married woman expecting their first baby, immediately went to the kitchen to fix coffee for us and serve cookies.  Their home was warm, welcoming and a refuge of hospitality for two nincompoop Americans on this crazy journey. 

Christina spoke good English, she was a pre-school teacher—we talked about Facebook, we would become ‘friends’—she shared with us her beautiful wedding pictures, an affair with over 400 guests and something that was an extravaganza to behold!

Finally, her uncle shared with us that he had found a member of the Rebic family, and he was going to the next village to get her and bring her back to meet us—who would this be?  What would she know?  Could she provide some links to my past?

My Roots~~After Nearly 100 Years~~

Search for Ancestors

Meeting my Family

Within about 30 minutes, the door opened and in walked a reserved pretty woman probably in her late 40s or early 50s—no make-up showed her beautiful features, she clutched her sweater around her mid-section as she and her 16 year-old daughter, a strikingly beautiful teenager dressed as any American teen would, sat in the small living room with us.   Everyone else seemed to disappear and all I could see was this person who could be my family.

Speaking slowly in English, as if that helps with translation, she told me she spoke English—I was relieved knowing huge progress would be made. 

Maya then began sharing with me historical memories about her married family, which descended from the Rebic line.  Her 89 year-old mother-in-law, Manda, infirmed and with dementia, lived with them—she was the daughter of Ivan—when she said that warm tears filled my eyes—Ivan was my grandfather’s, Joseph’s, brother! 

My Ancestry

Joseph had come to America she said, he had married Mara (Mary my grandmother), and they had a daughter, Kata—my mother!  Maya said that the family received a letter from Josef, nearly 100 years ago, telling them of his new daughter—I was overjoyed and overwhelmed knowing this was the family lineage I’d come to find!

Like a Nicholas Sparks novel or a Lifetime movie, the emotions were flowing.  I had so many questions.  I wanted to meet Manda, Mom’s first cousin.  I wanted to meet Maya’s husband, Vlado, my second cousin. 

I wanted to meet their other daughter—family that no one ever knew existed.  Looking back I know the ‘ancestry angels’, the kind and gentle people who helped me make this happen were probably smiling, too, from ear to ear—they’d created for another person, a stranger in their path, a dream come true.

Who are my Ancestors

We would follow Maya back to her home where we spent another couple of hours pouring over old photo albums, finding family on Facebook and introducing them to new family, sharing our world with theirs and theirs with ours.  We would eat truly organic and farm to table food—lamb, tomatoes, bread—have good coffee, sip and chatter incessantly. 

Photos would be taken, smiles and laughter would emerge.  We would visit, yes, the real home place where my grandfather lived as a boy. 

Croatian Americans

Yes, I’m one of many Croatian Americans whose grandparents and family came to America in the early 20th century.

I would meet Manda, Vlado’s mother and my mother’s cousin whom she never knew. I would hold her frail hand, look into her tender familiar eyes seeing a glimpse of my Mom, and know that even with her dementia there was a thread of recognition of who I was. 

Croatian Immigrants

She stared into my eyes as Maya talked to her in Croatian telling her who I was—she weakly pulled my hand to her face and gently kissed it.  I was nothing but a bundle of hot salty tears, heart beating and throat throbbing trying to contain some sense of decorum.

Never had I expected to find this complete joy when we left from Zagreb. My grandfather and grandmother, both young Croatian immigrants, braving a long journey to America. And, now here I was returning to their homeland and meeting my blood. 

All of this happened so ‘coincidentally’ or was it a coincidence? Was it providential?  What would have been the likelihood of anything like this being orchestrated and pulled off so perfectly? 

Croatian Immigration to America

How could something like this ever work in a world without cell phones, without the generosity of a lifestyle of people who were home on this Friday afternoon tending their animals, tending their farms, tending their lives—and it all came to a halt, like a magical moment in time, when Ben and I made the wrong turn and found the wrong house and eventually found the right family. 

Yes, a wave of Croatian immigrants came to America and the numbers peaked around 1910. Many of them, Roman Catholics, were economic immigrants. I think my grandfather and grandmother were that.

Economic immigrants looking for a better life, more opportunity. They gave up everything and never returned because they were in search of the glorious new life in the United States of America. 

Croatians in America

For me, the sacrifices that my grandparents made coming to America paved the way for more than could be expected. While Mom’s life was hard and there weren’t the ‘riches’ of America, she did what her parents did. Worked hard, instilled in us the need to be educated and gave us the foundation of good family values. Most importantly, she hammered into us pristine integrity and character to be the best you can be. 

I think my grandparents would be proud to know that their great children, my three boys, have worked hard for the American dream, too. They’re all prestigious college graduates, Brown University, The United States Military Academy at West Point, and The College of William and Mary.

And, they’re all tax-paying contributing members of the American dream. The legacy lives on in their beautiful faces and and their young families now. None of this would have happened without my grandfather, Josef, and grandmother, Mary, deciding as teenagers to leave their home country. It must have been terribly frightening and scary not knowing what lay ahead. But now, looking back, I’m who I am because of their courage. 

My Roots~~After Nearly 100 Years~~
 Vlado my Croatian family. Our grandfathers were brothers, Ivan and Josef. We’re standing in front of the house that our grandfathers grew up in.


American Croatian

There was kind of an empty numb feeling in my gut when we drove away, turning and waving and heading back to Zagreb. Yes, I am the ‘American Croatian’. My blood is shared with my Croatian family. 

A kind of sadness engulfed me. I knew that in all probability I would never again see these wonderful people, my family. 

My Roots~~After Nearly 100 Years~~
 Vlado and Maya, my Croatian family. Their daughters and son-in-law. Do you see the family resemblances!


Our worlds are vastly different, but they came from the same start—two brothers, Ivan and Josef.  One stayed in the old country. One journeyed to America for a new life never to return.  Nearly 100 hundred years later their grandchildren, Ally (Alice) and Vlado, meet, and it’s as if time had stood still.

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  1. Reading your story brought tears to my eyes and I’m still crying while typing this. It reminded me that God works in mysterious ways and that there really aren’t any coincidences. I was born in Croatia and came to Canada as a child in the early ‘80s. My parents came here for a better life and their move was also a ‘forever’ one. Still, I hear my father remind me every few months to make sure that he’s buried in Croatia when the time comes. I feel that his body moved to Canada but his heart never left Croatia.
    Even though I’ve spent the majority of my life in Canada, I’ve travelled to Croatia many times and I always feel the pull of maybe returning there for good one day. I read somewhere long ago that our body naturally wants to return to the place of its birth. Maybe that’s true in my case. I have kids of my own now and it’s emotional to think that their children may one day have a story similar to yours. I’m going to start documenting as much as possible and save the important papers in case they need them one day. My parents and your grandparents took the road less travelled. I’m forever in awe of their courage and determination and I have no doubt those qualities are in our genes as well. Thank you so much for sharing your story and God bless!

    1. My dear Kristina, youre heartfelt message brings tears to my eyes, too. Yes, there is a gentle nudge or tug to really connect with your roots. Who you are. Where you come from. My Mom always said ‘You weren’t born under a rock, you have deep roots and a rich heritage.” As a young person, I dismissed and thought, oh, silly Mama. But now in the latter years of life, I realize, too, like you, that there’s more to our existence than we think. Yes, this was an extremely emotional experience. I thank my grandparents, like you and your parents, for risking all to make a better life for us. You’ll be giving your children a huge gift by having documents and information that will make their journey seeking their roots so much easier. Yes, your parents, my grandparents, definitely took the road less traveling, and it’s made all the difference. Like you, when I return to Croatia, I have a sense, an aura of being ‘home’. Bless you, dear Kristina. xoxx ally

  2. Victoria Aguilar says:

    Your story was amazing I too have croatian ancestry although i have not been able to find much except thru the census of 1920 that my great grandparents

    1. Victoria, I know it’s difficult to find ancestry, and, I was so fortunate Mom had those documents. Croatia is a beautiful heritage 🥰 Thank you for reading and your support. Please visit often!😍

  3. This is such a wonderful story!
    You could easily write a book.
    I couldn’t stop reading.
    Thanks for sharing!…so very heartfelt!♥️♥️

    1. Oh, Suzette! Your words are so special and meaningful to me. Thank you! You can imagine my surprise and what I unlocked w/just these tattered documents! And, now I’m connected w/my Croatian family on FB and social media. Never would have happened otherwise!! xoxo

  4. Barbara Donahue says:

    I read your story to the end. I could not put it down. It is a beautiful, heart warming story, and so well written. You made me tearful. So glad that you found your lost relatives. I think it is a way of knowing more about yourself and how you came to be.

    I also love searching the ancestry tree. I have been to libraries and courthouses in WV, Virginia, and NC. It never ends. In future I hope you are able visit Europe again and add to your Croatian line.
    Barbara (Polly) Donahue

    1. Oh, Barbara, thank you for taking time to read this story. You know, as a historian who loves ancestry, that when you come face to face with someone who shares your DNA that you never knew existed that it can be very emotional. I only wish Mom had lived long enough for me to have shared this with her. I sure hope I’ll return to Croatia soon…I’m sure my family there will be happy to see me. Fortunately, we can stay in communication through Facebook…pretty awesome! So glad you’re here to visit … now come back soon! xoxo

  5. It has been a while since I first read this ! REading again just brings back a kind of hope in my heart for people like you who make the world all about home and family! Thank you for your joy❤️

    1. Lori! With all you have to do, you take time to read my ‘story’…thank you, my dear sweet friend. I only wish I’d had a video of this happening. Again, like the Home and Family thing, this is divinely orchestrated. Angels were making it happen…love you my GCM chick! xoxo ~ally

  6. Oh my gosh. This is so amazing. I have tears as I’m writing this. what a wonderful story. I would love to meet family in Croatia. My grandfather was born in Split. I have his birth certificate?? Showing where he was born and who his parents were. And his naturalization certificate. I can’t imagine meeting family members. You’re very lucky. Thanks for sharing your story

    1. Holly!!! THANK YOU THANK YOU for taking the time to read this story. It was truly divinely orchestrated. God was totally in charge b/c things like this just ‘don’t happen’. I would think that w/the papers you have you might be able to find long lost relatives. I love Split…simply ethereal and full of history and AAAHHHMAZING food!! Yes, I was so lucky, and. the best thing is that we now all keep in contact thanks to Facebook! xoxo hugs and Croatian love! xo

  7. Grace Zaral says:

    Dear Ally, it has been and incredible journey that I has felt it as my own, since my Greatgrandfather was borned also in Croatia, and just around 4 years ago a relative and I start to try to find them, until this relative not long ago traveled to meet with them and got my Greatgrabdfathe certificate and today we communicate with each other and am planing to visit them as soon as I can. I can imagine your feeling, it is wonderful! And I am happy that this dreaming came through to your live , it is awesome finally to fill your life with the missing half, but now you are complete, have fun and enjoy it .. Warm greetings !


    1. Grace Zarak says:

      My last name is Zarak, sorry I wrote it Zaral 🙂

      1. Thank you, Grace, for that correction!! 🙂 ~~ally

    2. Oh, Grace, what a beautiful message you’ve written me…yes, you know the feelings and emotions, and I’m so happy that you will soon be re-united w/your family…it is a completion of sorts of the ‘circle of life’ and knowing your roots, from whence part of you has come, is what makes us who we are…please keep in touch w/me, Grace, and let me know how your own visit goes to our amazing country of Croatia. And, thank you for the correction on the last name!! xox ~~ally

  8. Ally,
    I had to take a moment to wipe the tears from my face before I could see the computer screen again to start typing. This is such a beautiful story of human character. You have such a wonderful way with words. Thank you for sharing this amazing journey with us. XO – Christie

    1. Christie~~thank you so much for taking time to share this me (I know how busy you are!)…it’s something that we all clamor for in life, those connections, those roots, especially as we get older and appreciate more so the value of knowing from whence we have come (and not just under a mushroom or rock!)…you’re the best, and again, I so appreciate your love xox ally

  9. Oh, but what a journey you have been on, my friend! I am so very happy for you. I’m typing this and crying like a baby. What a wonderful saga of finding your family!


    1. Jenni~~your such a dear friend…thank you…God blessed me beyond expectations xoxo <3

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