“I’m not who I thought I was.” Nearly everyone who’s had their DNA analyzed says this.
For example, what would I have in common with Andy Warhol? A lot. We are both from Western Pennsylvania and share Carpatho-Rusyn ancestry. Growing up, I heard that we were “Rusyn,” but it seemed inconsequential until I connected with a DNA relative via Ancestry. A master genealogist who has traveled to our shared ancestral home (a mostly Rusyn village called Olsavica, Slovakia), Dave easily traced my paternal grandfather’s line and is a walking encyclopedia of Rusyn customs. I’m forever grateful to him.
I’d worked with my family tree for a long time but gave it up for a while. True, there were some records available, but for someone with Eastern European ancestry it was frustrating. There didn’t seem to be much out there and I concluded that all of those records must have been lost in, and between WWI and WWII.
I was wrong and I’ve never been happier to admit that.
I picked it up again when I did
it’s been a strange dance. I say “dance” because while I “work on” and with my ancestral history, my ancestors sometimes seem to return the favor. But that’s another conversation that I promise to have later.
However, not until recently did I start committing time and resources to this adventure.
As a freelance journalist, I rely heavily on my writing and research skills when excavating family history. Insatiable curiosity tempered by skepticism are useful too.
I’m also something of an archeologist. As a young child, I saw the 1930 film, “The Mummy,” with Boris Karloff, Zita Johan, and Edward Van Sloan (the best “Van Helsing” type of character ever). That planted a lifelong fascination with past civilizations, hieroglyphics and even reincarnation.
My advanced degree helped since my course of studies involved learning Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and some Ugaritic and, yes, hieroglyphics. Although I haven’t been able to get that far back in my own family history, being able to read, struggle with, and interpret ancient languages has been an asset as I pore over faded family records in Slovak, Russian, German, Hungarian and Latin.
“My people” are an eclectic bunch that include coal miners, postal clerks, security guards, musicians, restaurant owners, tinners, blacksmiths, nurses, teachers, opticians, artists, actors, and writers.
Growing up, I was lucky to know two out of my four grandparents.
We lived with my maternal grandfather, Fryderyk Wilhelm Ott, who was born in a small village in Russian Poland. He and his family were part of the “Lutheran minority.” Fryderyk (known as Fritz or Fred) spoke 4 languages–Russian, Polish, German and English, and, as he often chided, “I only went to third (“turd”) grade!” He had a point. Grandpa moved with us from Johnstown to Cleveland, Ohio.
My paternal grandmother, Julianna Vrabel Zett, was from Štítnik, Rožňava, Slovakia and lived with two of her sons in Johnstown. We’d visit her often when we were children and those memories are some of my best.
It’s probably a cliche to say she was an amazing cook, but she was. My Babka made delicacies like Ox Tail soup and Pogača that were out of this world. I also remember jars of fudge and other candy. Going to Grandma’s house was a treat.
Growing up in both Johnstown and Cleveland, I was not that different from most of my friends and classmates. Many were also 2nd (or 1st) generation immigrants. Some were immigrants themselves from Hungary, Romania, Italy and the former Czechoslovakia. Many were also survivors of the various death camps in Nazi Germany, including my best friend’s mother.
It took a lot of years to both understand my eclectic family background and appreciate it.