All my life, I’ve been told my ancestry was fairly straightforward: Russian on my mom’s side, Czechoslovakian on my dad’s. No matter which way I sliced it, I was descended from poor peasant folk in Eastern Europe. Nothing glamorous, just a bunch of sheep and goat herders struggling to make a living off the land while cowering in fear of whatever local dictator was in charge at the time. Of course, with shifting borders thanks to various wars, those lines on the map sometimes moved around a bit. I learned a few years ago that the village we hailed from in Slovakia might have, at one time, actually belonged to Hungary. Same general region, so it didn’t really matter much if I couldn’t pinpoint my exact origins.
I’ve got a friend in Columbus, Ohio named Laurie. Her hobby is genealogy, and she recently completed 40 pages of familial research on her boyfriend. Learned some fascinating stuff, like the fact that he’s got ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. How cool, I told her. Knowing that I was curious about my roots, Laurie offered to tackle the project of looking into my past, and I told her to go for it. Provided her with some names, birth dates, and social security numbers, and she was off to the races. I didn’t expect any big revelations, so when she sent me back the first ten pages of her report, tracing the heritage of my paternal grandmother, I was quite surprised to learn that great-grandpa Mike actually arrived in America from Austria.
“Hey,” I told my dad excitedly. “Did you know we’re Austrian!?”
“No, we’re not,” he said.
“Are too! The proof is right here in black and white!”
I had that guy, I mean my dad, backed into a corner. There’s no arguing with a 1913 ship’s passenger manifest that lists great-grandpa Mike’s nationality as “Austrian.” I was excited by this newfound discovery, and in retrospect, it made perfect sense for a number of reasons.
- I love schnitzel.
- I’m a big fan of The Sound Of Music.
- I’ve seen all the Terminator movies that star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” was my favorite song in 1985. I even owned the cassette.
How could I have been blind to what was, in retrospect, a subconscious yet deeply felt connection to Austria all these years? Vowing to make up for lost time, I immediately got down to the business of embracing my newfound heritage. I googled my native country to study up on it. I cursed Hitler and those damn Nazis anew. I listened to Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things” and “Do Re Mi” on my iPod. I felt a kinship with the Von Trapp family and wondered if we might actually somehow be related.
Coincidentally (or was it?), on Sunday night’s episode of The Amazing Race the teams were in Austria. I felt a pang of homesickness as I watched them race through the streets of Vienna and Salzburg. Ahh, the Motherland! I actually found myself wiping a tear from the corner of my eye and vowed to someday return to my beloved alpine home, if only for a visit.
And then, the unthinkable happened. Just as I was settling comfortably into the role of Austrian ex-pat, I dug a little deeper and learned that, whoopsie, I’m not actually Austrian after all.
You see, great-grandpa Mikey’s information was inconsistent across several documents. On the S.S. Cleveland he claims to have sailed over from Austria and lists that country as his nationality. But in the 1920 census he lists Austria-Hungary, in the 1930 census he has Czechoslovakia, and on his WWII draft card it’s Hungary. Hmm, I was beginning to think this relative of mine was a pretty dodgy character with something to hide. So I explored further. Brushed up on my geography and history. It turns out Austria-Hungary was a monarchy established in 1867 that comprised not only both of those countries but several other nations as well, including Czechoslovakia and Poland. Furthermore, on his draft card, it shows his birthplace as Barancs. It was tough to track this place down, but I found the information and after translating a Hungarian Wikipedia page into English, learned that Barancs is located in present-day Czechoslovakia just a stone’s throw from a town called Trebisov, and that is significant because my parents visited Trebisov in the late 90s, staying with long-lost relatives. My dearly departed grandmother – Michael’s daughter – had kept in touch with family in that village over the years.
Which leaves me more confused than ever.
I can only conclude one of three things at this point: either my great-grandfather was a raging alcoholic prone to forgetfulness; was on the run from a shady past and deliberately fudged information; or all the shifting borders confused him so badly that the poor guy had no clue which country he was from. I wouldn’t blame him. I have a bit of a headache myself now, and I’m ten decades removed from all this nonsense. With the layout of that part of the world – just look at a map and you’ll see all these countries crammed closely together – it’s quite possible that somebody from my past once called Austria home. All it would take is one wayward sheep turning left when he should gone turned right. Livestock don’t pay attention to borders. I know this because, regardless of where I’m from, shepherding is in my blood. Maybe Austria is, too. Or maybe not. I may never know for sure, as Laurie says genealogy research focusing on European immigrants is notoriously difficult. Not all countries are as open with their records as America, and besides, not everybody thought ahead enough to write this stuff down. Not that it really matters, though.
Austrian or not, I still love schnitzel.