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.
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.
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!
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.