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Why I DNA Test “In All the Ponds:” Finding My Schwarz Slovak Family in Australia & California

Many don’t DNA test for various reasons. Luckily, my relatives have been all in to help our family research. And because they understand the importance of testing, a huge brick wall—the one I least expected to break through—came tumbling down.

Gizella (Schwarz) Pracser

Gizella was born on 26 August 1871 in Sered, Slovakia, to Franciscus and Julianna (Jordan) Schwarz, the sixth of eight children. She married Joseph Pracser in 1892 and immigrated to Chicago in 1923. In the 1930 census, Gizella lived apart from her husband in Chicago and worked at a restaurant. This is all that I knew of my great grandmother—until this year.

Requests and searches for a death certificate, funeral record, and burial place came up empty until she appeared at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. Last March, I went in search of her husband’s and son’s markers and discovered Gizella there, too. The cemetery found no current records but went back to older microfilm. Her headstone was dated 1936, but the marker was purchased in 1949 by her daughter, Bessie.

Gisella (Schwarz) Pracser (1871-1936)

I now had Gizella’s death year but still knew little about her Schwarz family. A female’s family in Slovakia loomed as my most daunting brick wall. My grandmother (her daughter-in-law) knew Gizella’s parents’ names, death dates, and places. Unfortunately, my own research confirmed that only the names were correct. I needed to go beyond the limited on-line resources, so I turned to DNA.

DNA connects Slovakia to the U.S. and Australia

I found DNA matches on Ancestry (two predicted 4th-6th cousins), 23andMe (two predicted 3rd-4th cousins), and FamilyTreeDNA (one predicted 3rd-5th cousin). None matched cousins on my mother’s side but did match my father’s side, so I knew they were in my Slovak line—but where? I also knew they didn’t match my Slovak grandmother’s family, because second cousins living in Slovakia had graciously tested for me. That left only my Slovak grandfather’s family. Based on our shared centimorgans (42-73), we were probably third cousins (3C) or third cousins once removed (3C1R), sharing great great grandparents—either Joseph Pracser’s parents or Gizella Schwarz’s parents.

I contacted my two Ancestry matches in June 2019 but got no response. When I tried again in October, one responded with an apology that he rarely checked the email associated with Ancestry and referred me to his sister, Yvonne Schwarz, the family genealogist. And that’s when the brick wall fell. Yvonne and her brother are, in fact, my third cousins, and we share great great grandparents, Franciscus “Franz” Schwarz and Julianna Jordan, Gizella’s parents from Sered, Slovakia. Yvonne’s great grandfather, Edmund “Mundi” was Gizella’s younger brother. Did I mention that Yvonne lives in Australia? Gizella and Joseph immigrated to the U.S. in 1923, and Yvonne’s grandparents, Alexander and Jolan, immigrated to Australia in 1949. Our families, over 9700 miles away, connected through DNA, and Yvonne was incredibly generous with her knowledge.

What I learned from Yvonne:

  Franciscus Schwarz (1821-1876)
  • Franciscus “Franz” Schwarz was born in February 1821 in Waldhausen im Strudengau, Oberösterreich, Austria. His father may have run a saddlery business.
  • Franz established a small pileatore (hatter) shop in 1852 in Sered. His business quickly grew to three shopfronts, including a factory.
  • Julianna Jordan was born c. February 1832 in Bratislava, Slovakia; her father died just prior to her birth.
  • Franz and Julianna married on 2 November 1856.
  • Franz died on 7 March 1876 in Sered. Gizella was just four years old, and Yvonne’s great grandfather, Mundi, was only one. Franz’s large grave marker implies that he was a man of some importance.
  • On 16 August 1879, Julianna married Petrus Treisz who ran Franz’s hat manufacturing company.
  • Julianna died on 27 December 1914 in Sered.
  • In 1922, Mundi’s daughter, Edith, immigrated to the U.S. Her destination was “Cicero, Illinois, cousin Bukovsky at 2342 S. 58th Street,” the home of Gizella’s daughter.
  • In 1957, Mundi’s son, Alexander, visited my relatives, Frank and Bessie (Pracser) Varchulik and Irma Bukowsky in Downers Grove, Illinois where they lived on a small farm.
  • Yvonne also shared the following records:
    • Franciscus Schwarz 1821 birth record
    • Franciscus Schwarz 1876 death certificate
    • Franciscus Schwarz 1876 cemetery marker photo
    • Julianna (Jordan) Schwarz Treisz 1914 death record
    • Various photos of family members and tools of the hatter’s trade

 

 

 

 

But how would Yvonne and I translate the Slovak records? I contacted my dependable friend and genealogist, Peter Nagy in Slovakia, who promptly translated the original records and interpreted their meaning. He also found Julianna’s second marriage record, confirming that Petrus was 20 years younger than Julianna! According to Peter, “Petrus was probably the assistant of the first husband. After his boss died, he married his widow and so became the workshop owner. It was quite common in that time.”

More DNA family in California

Yvonne also shared information about Edith (Schwarz) Fiedorczyk, Mundi’s daughter. After immigrating in 1922, she married and lived in the Chicago area where her daughter, Evelyn, also married. Checking DNA matches again, I contacted my two matches on 23andMe and the one on FamilyTreeDNA who all shared the same surname. A brother and sister responded and confirmed that the third person is their father. He is my 3C and the siblings are my 3C1R. They live in California and are descendants of Edith and Evelyn. Yvonne also shared Evelyn’s 1940s wedding photo, taken with Frank and Bessie (Pracser) Varchulik, Gizella’s daughter and son-in-law from Downers Grove. Our families were definitely connected.

Evelyn (center), Bessie & Frank Varchulik (right)

Because of DNA, someone in Pennsylvania connected with someone in Australia and someone in California. And DNA reconnected families in Australia and California–all with help from someone in Slovakia.

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!

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