Written by Tom Zahn
Remember when you were young the conversations you overheard around the kitchen table. The „grown-ups“ spoke about places far away and unknown to you. Occasionally you caught hold of something that had some special meaning to you. So you grew up in belief of those selected memories, and you lived your life according to their special meaning, that somehow your ancestors were extraordinary.
Skip ahead fifty or sixty some odd years to find yourself poised for the trip of a lifetime. A return to the place of your family´s origin, and an exploration into those vague recollections of the dreams you once dreamed. This is the point where myth comes face to face with reality. What is to be done when the expectations differ so much that they cast doubt on what is to be found? What is to be done?
This is the story of one such reunion. One of many, this tale was chosen for it´s message, that in every myth there is some thread of truth. Some point from where the young mind departs on a journey of fantasy, and in so doing creates a reality of it´s very own. A contradiction, which could have simply been left at loose ends, was bravely explored, and the truth that finally emerged was far more dear. Thus, being “from the nobility” was not what it seemed.
This was one of our earliest assignments that not only required research in the archives, examining old parish registers of births, marriages and deaths, but also the detective work necessary to locate living relatives, and the precise location of an ancestral home. In both cases, our efforts succeeded, based on the details that we were provided, and after all there we had no doubt that the correct records and the ancestral home had been found. The elderly woman who remained living in this particular house was not in fact a blood relation (the widow of the true relative), but she welcomed the visit nevertheless.
This, however, is where our work became complicated. As we arrived to the village with our client, she insisted that there must be some error in our work. She was quite certain that her family was from something far more grand than a simple farm house in a small agricultural village. She recalled quite well that her uncles had said that the family was “from the nobility”. Such a thing had not occurred to us, since the records all agreed so well with all the data we had been provided. Thus, only one question remained. Should the visit go ahead as planned? Since someone was waiting, the client graciously agreed, but not without a certain amount of trepidation.
We were greeted by an elderly woman who lived alone in the ancestral house. An old farm which, although it had seen better days, was now in a sad state of disrepair. She was surrounded by dogs and cats. Once inside her house, we sat at a table in her kitchen, which was obviously her bedroom as well. I suppose the atmosphere could be described as rustic, at best, especially for someone not familiar to such things. And yet our client, along with her husband, bravely sat down for what we thought would be a short, polite, visit. Only when our host opened a shoebox filled with family pictures, did the expression of sober disbelief on the face of our client turn to amazement. She reach into a bag, which she had brought along, to reveal that she had many of the same pictures. This was a moment that defies words She was home!
The visit continued in a much more animated and emotional way, with a wealth of questions and curiosity and gift giving. When it was time to leave, however, there was still one question that was left unanswered. The question, “How could my uncles have lied?” This brought tears to our clients eyes. It was an unfathomable question that left her speechless. And yet the day was not done, there was still one more place to visit. In the next village, the two brothers (her uncles) lived before they moved to America.
Our host in this second village was a retired teacher with a chronicle. The significance of finding such a person, possessing such a record, cannot be overstated. In this case the chronicle contained detailed information about each home and family that had lived in this village as far back as the 19th century. Upon these pages we found the names of the uncles, recording their tenure and departure to America. This chronicle also tracked the name of each farm, since before the farms were numbered in the 18th century, each farm and house had it´s own unique name (typically after a family name or some geographic description).
Thus, we discovered that these two brothers had been pub keepers in this village, and that the name of their pub was “U Šlechty” (at the Nobility). It is difficult to describe the absolute joy that erupted at the table with this revelation. And so, there was no betrayal after all. It had only been the unfortunate misunderstanding in the mind of a young girl. At the end of the day, it was a reunion full of meaning, which concluded in a comforting satisfaction. A truth revealed, and left to ponder all that it implied.
Not every trip reaches such a nice conclusion. More often than not, genealogy results in still further questions. Overall, however, I chose to use this trip to illustrate the point that, without ever having ventured someplace which appeared to contradict everything believed about an ancestor, we may never know the truth. In fact, there is almost always a thread of truth in each family story. After all, it is only those who are willing to explore beyond their reasonable doubts, in the most unlikely places, who can really be sure.
P.A.T.H. FINDERS Intl was started in 1995 by Tom and Marie Zahn, who live in Prague. Tom, a native of New Jersey, first visited what was then Czechoslovakia in 1992. Initially he came to witness to the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. Just before the trip, an avid genealogist and friend, Jim Sibbitt took Tom to Salt Lake City, where they conducted research and found that Tom’s family had roots in Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine. Tom had also been a student at The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, WA, where he received his Bachelors Degree in 1990. As a volunteer in the archives there, he met Randy Stilson, a reference librarian and a constant souce of praise and encouragement. These experiences later proved to be the touchstone and spark in the founding of P.A.T.H. FINDERS.
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