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The Power of a Letter – Shared with a Genealogist

Sometimes we are lucky enough to have a friend who entrusts us with a special gift. About a year ago I was that lucky person. And about a month ago, my friend—who is the most magnificent writer—shared her story. Mitchell Kyd, AKA Yvonne Butts-Mitchell, said that I could share it here.

As genealogists, we are told to analyze documents to glean and evaluate every bit of information we can. We check for originality, who provided the information, and if the information is direct or indirect (or negative) evidence to answer a question we have about our ancestors. It sounds so impersonal, until someone like Yvonne tells the story behind the research.

Yvonne handed me her gift–a letter written in November, 1926. Following is the story she wrote about that letter, based on my genealogy research. Please check out her blog, Dead Mouse Diaries, for great reads about everyday life–the life that most of our ancestors led.

News from the Path Valley Hotel, Episode #96: The Power of a Letter

In a very ordinary way, my cousin Candy handed me an extraordinary gift last spring: a little, yellowed envelope she had found among her mother’s things. The postmark was pale and blurred but discernible: November, 1926. It had been addressed to her grandmother Florence. Why her mother had kept it all those years remains a mystery to us both but Candy knew I’d enjoy it. Although we shared a grandmother on our dads’ side, the letter had been an exchange between our maternal grandmothers,  mailed to hers and written by mine.

At first blush, it was an exchange of news between two high school friends who had been separated by distance and life changes. From the start, it offered the promise of a delightful peek behind the curtain for this storyteller, but something seemed unsettling.

I knew instantly the thick, black pencil strokes on the envelope didn’t look like my grandmother’s handwriting but the name in the return address seemed unmistakable. In the style of the day, the writer had used her husband’s formal name, my pap’s, with a “Mrs.” preceding it.  When I pulled out the letter, I was thrown off again, struck that the writing style seemed off somehow, not my grandmother’s fluid lines and careful grammar. I skipped ahead to the signature on the last page. Again, it was signed as “Mrs.” The writer was certainly my pap’s young wife.

The pages were filled with girl talk, the young bride wrote to ask her friend Florence about her baby and how her life was going as a young mother.  She asked her friend how she liked having her hair shingled and what she wanted for Christmas, then added: “Maybe you are like me. Take anything I get.”

It was a line of news on the second page that stopped me cold. The letter told of family deaths, including the writer’s sister who had left seven young children behind. I remember running my finger over the handwriting then, looking again at the signature, going back to the postmark. My grandmother never had a sister and she married Pap in 1930. The tears welled up as I realized then what a treasure I was holding in my hand, a key to a family mystery.

When I was very young, Pap used to take me to visit a woman we called Grandma Horn. Although she was always delighted to see us both, and always treated me with the best grandma-like affection, I never understood how our lives fit together. My “real” grandma, Pap’s wife, never went with us but always sent her regards. Grandma Horn returned the sentiment.

I don’t remember when Grandma Horn died. I didn’t go to her funeral but I’m sure Pap did, probably 50-something years ago. Sometime after that, I started to catch bits and pieces of her story: my pap had been married once before and Grandma Horn had been his first mother-in-law. The letter I was holding had been written by her daughter Helen.

In very vague terms, I’ve known for decades that Pap’s first wife Helen had died and that he had lost an infant son, too. End of story. Even my mother didn’t know much more. The hush wasn’t really a cover up, I learned later; the memories were simply too painful. Time passes; memories fade. The generations before us disappear and are reduced to an occasional comment at a random family gathering. I learned nothing more about Helen or their son until my mother showed me her cemetery marker three years ago.

When the gift of a letter connected me with Helen and the woman I loved as Grandma Horn, I shared the story with close friends, among them genealogist Pam Anderson. In her hands, Helen’s letter opened doors that had been locked in my family history. Pam dug into public records and newspaper files. Her research and tenacity brought me census records, marriage applications, birth certificates and obituaries. Here’s a sampling of what her excavations uncovered, all triggered by one letter from a seventeen-year-old newlywed:

Grandma Horn’s first name was Ida; she had been a maid. Helen’s dad, Grandma Horn’s husband, was David, a laborer, who was 23 years older than Ida when they married. Both had children from former relationships. Although Ida could read and write, David made an “X” on the marriage application rather than adding a signature indicating he was illiterate. He did own property which meant he had made his way in the world, regardless.

Helen was born March 2, 1909. While her marriage to my pap was not recorded in Franklin County, her letter to Florence reveals they married on February 26, 1926, just before her 17th birthday. It’s unlikely that she knew it when she was writing to Florence in November, but she was probably two months pregnant at the time. Other records show that her infant son died when two months premature, on April 12 , 1927, two days after my pap’s birthday. Helen died one week later when she was barely 18.

The baby’s death certificate calls him “John.” I’m guessing that at the time of death, Helen was too ill and my pap too overwhelmed to have declared a name. When the obituary appeared a few days later, the baby’s name was listed as Charles David, a combination of both grandfathers. Helen’s obituary in the local newspaper attributes her death to pneumonia, like most others listed that same day and the week preceding.

March 2, 2017, would be Helen’s 108th birthday. Ironically, she shared that birthday with my great-grandmother, pap’s second mother-in-law. I realize now that day that must have been rough for him to celebrate as the rest of us gathered for her cake and ice cream each year.

Helen did not leave a written account of her short time here and until last year, she was merely a cemetery marker in my layer of family history. One little letter has made her real for me and helped me pass along a part of her story.

Happy birthday, Helen. You and the little soul who was among us barely long enough to get a name have not yet been forgotten.  And to Florence, Roberta and Candy– thank you for recognizing and preserving the power of a letter.

Dead Mouse Diaries by Mitchell Kyd

The other cool thing: Helen and I share a birthday!

Peter Nagy – My Slovak Repository Guide

As I prepare to leave for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), I’m also getting ready to spend three whirl-wind evenings at the Family History Library. According to my SLIG syllabus, it’s “the largest genealogical library in the world.” So most people would assume that I’ll head straight to the Slovak resources. But not this time. Next week I’ll concentrate on the US and Canadian ancestors. But why???

About a year ago, in preparation for our second visit to Slovakia, I contacted Peter Nagy of CentroConsult, a Slovak genealogist that I found through the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG). I hired Peter because I knew that he was familiar with resources in western Slovakia where my paternal grandparents immigrated from. What could Peter do that I couldn’t? He knew the Slovak system, specifically:

  • The different repositories and what records they held
  • The forms that needed to be filled out to obtain the records
  • What was needed to prove my relationship to get the records – my passport, my birth certificate and my father’s birth certificate
  • How to cite the various Slovak records
  • The language!

But the first thing that Peter did for me, was what I do for my clients—make me focus! I was only going to have a day to research there, so of course I wanted to know “everything” about the Supena and Pracser/Konas families (more about Pracser and Konas later). Luckily, Peter was patient and coached me through the Slovak genealogy process. He also began the research before our September 2016 trip. Because he knew where to look, he found and translated my great grandparents’ marriage record, which verified known information and provided some new details. In Slovakia, you don’t get copies of original records. All are derivative certificates taken from the original registers. But the one thing we could not locate was my grandmother’s birth record. We always knew she was born in Nitra. Right……

Nitra City Hall

After we did all we could via e-mail, we set our meeting date and place—Nitra City Hall, in the town where my grandmother grew up. At City Hall, we got my great grandfather’s death record and my grandparents’ marriage record. We were given the certified transcript, but were also allowed to view the actual registry to see if any other information might be apparent. Unfortunately no copies or photographs of these registries are allowed. And again, the birth place of my grandmother was not listed.

But because the family was Roman Catholic, we decided to walk to the parish and see if there might be a church marriage record for my grandmother, giving me her birth place and the church they were married in. As luck would have it, the office was closed.

Our next stop was the archives for the Nitra region, similar to our county archives. There we found a 1919 census record on microfilm. Unfortunately the copier was not working, so I was allowed to photograph the screen on the reader. It gave information typical to a US census—address, family members and birth years, nationality, religion and literacy.

The next leg or our trip was to Sered, where my grandfather grew up. Two years ago, a mystery was discovered that to this day has not been solved—but Peter and I have not given up. My family has always known our surname to be Pracser. But in all the Slovak records, my grandfather’s and great grandparents’ surname is listed as Konas. The first time Pracser is noted is on the ship’s manifest when the two couples immigrated. To try to get to the bottom of this mystery, Peter suggested that we check my grandfather’s sister’s birth record—she was the youngest—at the Sered City Hall. Again, the name was Konas. BUT, because Peter asked to look at the original registry, he turned the page and saw that Elizabeth had a twin brother that was stillborn. I would never have known this without the help of an experienced genealogist who knew the system and the language. Three towns and two repositories later, it was time to say good-bye to our new friend and guide…until I returned home!

Once at home, the question of my grandmother’s birth place continued to nag at me, and I still hadn’t contacted the Catholic Parish. I emailed Peter, and he said that if I wrote the letter, he would translate it for me. I wrote, he edited and translated and off it went in the postal mail. Within a week, I received an email from the pastor, asking me if I spoke Slovak. I said no, but copied Peter, who said he would translate for me. Almost immediately, I received another email with attached scans of the marriage registry—with my grandmother’s birth place! It was not Nitra, but what looks to be basically a small town grown up around a train station, a town called Čiky, part of Palárikovo. Peter found her birth registry on FamilySearch, then ordered the record from the archives. Was the family traveling to Nitra when they had to make an impromptu stop to welcome my grandmother?? We may never know.

St. Peter & Paul Church
Nitra Castle

My final question—for this round—was what church did my grandparents get marry in? The pastor quickly responded to my email: St. Peter and Pavol Church, the church we visited on our first trip to the Nitra Castle, closest to their home.

Many thanks go to Peter Nagy. I know that I couldn’t have been as efficient or thorough without him, and that he will continue to be there for me as I continue the quest into my Slovak ancestry and the Pracser/Konas mystery.

Peter Nagy with Pam in Nitra

Another Great Pennsylvania Archives – In Our Own Franklin County Back Yard

I’ve written before about the Pennsylvania State Archives, and about the wonderful staff and their records. I’ve solved many clients’ genealogy problems because of my monthly trips to Harrisburg. However, many people are just now learning about the not-so-new resource right here in Franklin County – The Franklin County Archives.

The Franklin County Archives
The Franklin County Archives

The Archives are run by Director, Justin McHenry. Justin and his three staff members are responsible for preserving all of the records created by Franklin County Government since the county was formed in 1784. According to their website, “The Franklin County Archives is dedicated to safeguarding and preserving its history and heritage as well as providing the public with access to the documents and records pertaining to the history, administration and operation of the County.” To genealogists, the most important part of that statement is “providing the public with access to the documents and records.” And that is just what they are doing.

A couple months ago, I brought my Menno Haven Retirement Communities genealogy class to the archives to learn about the resources that are housed at there. Justin explained that the records of most interest to genealogists are being moved from the Courthouse to the Archives, and slowly being scanned so they’re available online. The goal is a one-stop-shop for people who will eventually be able to research their ancestors from the comfort of their own home.

At this time, most of the records from the County Clerk’s office have been transferred to Justin’s care – Orphans’ Court records, such as tax records and delayed birth records; also, naturalization records, administration papers, early land warrants, early rough draft surveys. Some records, like land records and tax assessment books, are categorized by township on the website. If Justin has any records in his possession that aren’t already online, he will scan them and place them in the “requests” category – NO CHARGE!!!

Franklin County history reference books have also been scanned and are available online, including the 1868 Beers Atlas of Franklin County. According to the website, “These and the other works in the ‘Reference Books’ are in the public domain and provided for you to help give a more robust search when looking for an ancestor. All of the books have been OCRd, meaning when you search for a name it will produce hits from the reference books.”

Justin McHenry, Director of the Archives
Justin McHenry, Director of the Archives

Change is usually difficult, but those of us who do genealogy research in Franklin County are excited about this change and look forward to more documents online, easily accessible to the public. Thank you, Justin!!

Association of Professional Genealogists’ New Author – It’s Me!

apgq-article-2016
APGQ Sep 2016

What a great present I found waiting for me after a ten-day vacation to Slovakia. It was my first article for the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) – and it was chosen as the lead article for the APG Quarterly September 2016 issue. The APG  is an “international organization dedicated to supporting those engaged in the business of genealogy through advocacy, collaboration, education, and the promotion of high ethical standards.” Many of my clients have located me through this website. And I too, found an amazing genealogist, Peter Nagy who I worked with on my trip to Nitra and Sered, Slovakia.

 

This article is on Transferable Skills – yes something I should know a bit about. Speech Pathology to Construction to Genealogy means I’ve had to answer the same question over and over: How can you do that?? I just wrote about what everyone knows – no matter what your job or career, it’s all about being:

  • A self-starter
  • Goal-oriented
  • Analytical
  • An effective communicator
  • Client centered

 

Like my past articles, the editor and APG Publications Advisory Committee worked with me to make this submission its professional best, and I thank this wonderful editing team for their help and guidance.

Finding Family in Slovakia – Part IV

Pam Meeting Milan
Pam Meeting Milan

Finally, the good part . . . We arrived on a September Thursday morning and had the day to ourselves to explore Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Friday morning was a scheduled tour of the city, then a tour of Devin Castle, where Tom and I would meet Milan Hrnčiřík by the Iron Curtain Memorial at 1:00 pm, which is exactly where he was. I had no photographs of him, but I knew him the minute I saw him – and we hugged. Our first photograph together was taken while we were waiting for Peter, Milan’s son, to drive us to lunch.

To recap – because I know this can get confusing – there were four Supena children born 1899-1909: Marie (my grandmother), Jolanka, Stefan and Helena. Marie and Stefan immigrated to the United States, but Jolanka and Helena stayed in Slovakia, and I would soon meet their children and grandchildren.

Supena Sisters Jolanka Felix Katulik, Marie Pracser, Helena Hrncirik, ca.1948
Supena Sisters
Jolanka Felix Katulik, Marie Pracser, Helena Hrncirik, ca.1948

That Friday, I learned about the Hrnčiřík family – how Milan, his two brothers, and mother, survived World War II. His father was killed by the Nazis in the famous Slovak Uprising of 1944, and was never seen again. Milan is 87, with college degrees. He traveled the world, even coming to Chicago in the 1950s to visit my grandmother. Milan and his wife, Dorota, have two sons who run the restaurant at Devin Castle, and a daughter who was voted “ 2014 Most Loved Teacher in Slovakia.” Needless to say, he is very proud of his family. These three children are my counterparts – grandchildren of Helena (Supena) Hrnčiříková, my grandmother’s sister. After lunch, we drove to Milan’s home, former communist housing, which looks like a typical American two-story townhouse with a lush back yard and beautiful garden. We spent the afternoon with Dorota and Vlasta, his niece, talking and sharing photographs. Luckily, I discovered that most Slovaks speak English, especially the younger generation.

The next day, we drove to Nitra, our family’s ancestral town. Our first stop was the cemetery where my great grandparents are buried – the place that I first found Milan as the contact for the family plot. What I didn’t know was that just three days before our arrival, Milan had their headstone exchanged for a “better one,” just because we were coming. There were also fresh flowers on the grave, placed by Gitka, Milan’s brother, Ivan’s widow – again, just because of us. I later found out that Milan was also in constant contact with our tour agency and checked out our hotels in Bratislava and Nitra. He wanted everything to be perfect.

After the cemetery, we walked to the church where Milan’s parents (and possibly my grandparents) were married, then to the home where Milan lived with his mother and brothers after the war. Gitka Hrnčiříková now lives there with her daughter, Jana. They welcomed me as if I was a long lost daughter. We were surprised to find that Dušan, Milan’s middle brother, also drove to Nitra to meet us. He had done research on our family and later emailed me a copy of his manuscript. Dušan and his daughter, Vlasta – another granddaughter I met – are now my friends on Facebook! I had just met most of Helena Hrnčiříková’s children and grandchildren!

Milan in Front of Supena Family Home
Milan in Front of Supena Family Home

On Sunday, Milan came to meet us to go to my grandmother’s childhood home. But there was another surprise. Staying at the hotel for her husband’s 60th birthday party, was another granddaughter – Gabriela (Kutalíková) Meravá, granddaughter of Jolanka. “Your grandma-ma’s must be working up there,” said Milan, pointing to the heavens, because this was definitely not a planned meeting! We then walked to the former Supena home and shop on Podzámska Street where the Supena sisters grew up, and the Town Palace where my great grandfather worked until he died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu. The whole time, we took the photos in some of the same places that I had pictures of my grandmother.

On Monday, we said goodbye to Milan as we continued our trip to the High Tatra Mountains. But we met him four days later to have one final lunch – soup included, of course! He even came again at 7:00 am on Saturday morning to see us off. So what did I learn from our trip? First, “Supena” is not pronounced Soo-pee´-nə, as we always thought. It’s pronounced Shoo´-pay-nə. Second, my new relatives treated me as if they always knew me. My Slovak family was so welcoming that I couldn’t wait to share our adventure with my American one. Finally, I hope that everyone has the opportunity to find relatives that they don’t yet know – whether they are down the street or across the pond.

Tom and I leave tomorrow for a reunion with our Slovak family.

Finding Family in Slovakia – Part III

Before we get to the good part – and Milan – I want to set a little background about the Slovak Republic and its people. Growing up, I remember my grandmother telling me she was from Austria, Hungary, Austria-Hungary or Czechoslovakia. In fact she was from all of those places. Luckily she lived in the same city, Nitra, until she moved to the United States – and that city never changed names. From 1867 until 1918, Slovakia was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, specifically Hungary. After World War I (1918), Czechoslovakia was formed from countries that now make up the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. After World War II until 1989, Czechoslovakia was a communist country. In 1993, the people of Czechoslovakia voted to separate and become their own countries. No wonder my brothers and sisters disagreed about where our grandparents came from!

Slovakia in Eastern Europe
Slovakia in Europe

Located in eastern Europe, the Slovak Republic (19,000 square miles) is less than half the size of Pennsylvania, but both the land and climate are similar. Its eight regions are like our counties. The largest city and capital is Bratislava, slightly larger than Pittsburgh. Like Pennsylvania, the country can be driven from east to west in half a day, but gas costs $7.00/gallon! Slovakia has over 500 caves and is fourth in the world for its percentage of forests. The people care so much about their wildlife, that they built overpasses for the deer to migrate across major highways. There are over 5,000 natural springs, and only 500 are used for spas or drinking water. The High Tatra Mountains promote hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Slovakia also boasts 500 castles, one of which my grandmother grew up near on Podzámska Street, which means, “under the castle.”

The population of Slovakia is approximately 5.4 million, similar to that of Minnesota. 70-80% of the population are Roman Catholic, like my Grandmother’s family. However, I don’t remember her attending church, and my father converted to the Episcopal religion when my parents married. Many immigrants moved to Pennsylvania to work in the mines, jobs that they held in their native country. However, my grandparents moved to Chicago, probably because they already had relatives living there. They were trained as a tailor and seamstress, and continued working in that industry when they arrived in 1920. It’s difficult to imagine moving from a beautiful country of mountains and forests to a large city of skyscrapers and traffic.

slovak-town
Typical Slovak Town

I thought I was familiar with Slovak food, because I especially liked my grandmother’s chicken noodle soup, made with lots of thin egg noodles and whole pieces of chicken, and especially her baked walnut roll. But the best were her plum dumplings – plums wrapped in potato dough, boiled, then rolled in buttered bread crumbs and sugar!! My sisters still make the dumplings and my cousin, Eric (so I’m told), is the king of walnut roll. In Slovakia, Tom and I learned that chicken is still popular, as is pork and anything made with noodles and cheese. But most important, is that every lunch begins with soup. Beer and wine are also popular, as many micro-breweries and family wineries have sprung up throughout the country. Unfortunately, Slovakia does not export their wine – they say there isn’t enough to export because they drink it all! But we were lucky enough to be in Bratislava for Beer Fest. Think of Chambers Fest Old Market Days, but with beer vendor tents. And then there is their traditional drink – Borovička – a juniper flavored brandy. We had a few of those, too….

Next time . . . the final chapter, or should I say, just the beginning of a whole new family.

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