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Discovering my roots

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OCTOBER 18, 2018

In 1912 my infant grandmother and her family traveled by wagon and train from a remote community in Austria-Hungary to Hamburg, Germany, where they boarded a no-frills passenger ocean liner to the United States. A century later in Brooklyn, I stepped onto the luxury cruise ship Queen Mary 2 for my first trip to Europe to visit the home of my ancestors.

The trip had been years in the making. I knew that my grandmother was from a German ethnic minority called Danube Swabians that had populated Southeastern Europe along the Danube in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her dad was an abusive alcoholic and, as the youngest, she was stuck at home with him after her siblings had moved out. I knew that in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, German culture and language had become unpopular, even dangerous, because of the two world wars. Maybe that was part of the reason my grandmother had no interest in meeting one of her relatives who had come to visit her and her sisters in the late ‘80s from Europe. She never went to see her, nobody made a record of the visit, and our chance to rekindle that European family connection was lost.

My search for family history gave my first trip to Europe a great sense of purpose and adventure. After disembarking at the port of Southampton, England, I slowly worked my way east to Budapest. From Budapest, I rode the train for a few hours to Arad, Romania. When my grandma was still a child, after World War I ended, Hungary was reduced to a pittance of its former territory. The German Banat, the region where my grandmother was born, became split between Serbia and Romania. The village where she was born means “tree garden” in the three different languages it shares.

In the 1980s, my mother had the foresight to sit her aunts down and interview them about “the old country.” This recording is easily my most valuable family possession. My aunt described being cured of debilitating rheumatism by Gypsies (her word) with licorice root and prayer. They recounted their mother being chased around the house and shot at (!) by my abusive great-grandfather. They described funeral processions down the main street from the church and Easter parades with “the devil and the pitchfork.”

These stories overlaid my visit to her old town like a palimpsest. I arrived in the village by bus, passing cows on the one-stop-sign main street. The address numbering had been changed several times through wars and revolutions, and there was no way to pick out my grandmother’s house. But I knew roughly where it was by her family’s descriptions.

In 2013 there was only one German left in the village. Germans and Hungarians had been supplanted by Romanians. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu once bragged that “oil, Germans and Jews are our most important export commodity.” Most Germans who could not afford their own ransom during the communist years left after the 1989 revolution. My relatives were among them, and I wanted to know their names so that I could track them down in Germany. I began sorting through old German church records dating back hundreds of years. Over a six-week period, I slowly traced my family’s lineage backward and forward.

There were some hiccups. Under privacy laws, I was not able to view 20th-century records in the state archive, so my tour guide taught me the way: a little envelope of cash tucked in a bouquet of flowers for both of the kind ladies at the office. A couple of weeks later, they furnished some of the family names. We even traveled an hour to a small village, where my guide interviewed a Hungarian woman in three languages in an attempt to trace the whereabouts of one of my great-aunts.

Six months later, in a small town outside of Stuttgart, Germany, I walked into the “Haus der Donauschwaben,” where the woman at the family research archive helped me cold-call names that we matched with the German telephone directory. None of the male relatives wanted to speak to me, but two of my female cousins — a couple of sisters — agreed to meet with me. I joined one of them at her house, where we went through shoeboxes of old photos.

She described to me some of the hardships her family faced during the war. She talked about their transition from Romania to Germany. We shared stories and took photos together. She was happy to meet me — she said that she always knew she had relatives in the U.S. but did not know who or where. I showed her the family tree and described our connection — she was my mother’s second cousin. The woman who had come to visit decades earlier was her aunt: my grandmother’s first cousin.

I haven’t been back since then, and we have not stayed in touch, but those characters and memories remain with me. It is a special privilege to connect with our pasts and to take the time to explore our diverging family histories.

I recommend it.

Mark Shipley writes the Thursday column on his experience as a Gen X transfer student. Contact him at [email protected] .

OCTOBER 18, 2018