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Ancestry Travel Makes Global History Real

Finding family roots in other parts of the world sheds light on their American lives


spinner image Illustration of a man and woman driving a car down a narrow street in the Czech Republic
Illustration by Chris Lyons

It was supposed to be easy to find my father in-law’s ancestral hometown in the Czech Republic. We had a letter written by him in Czech, his first language, detailing our mission.

“Sir, my name is David Bartusek,” began the 1995 letter, introducing my husband as a Minnesota-born American. “My great-grandfather hailed from Vyšné, Czechoslovakia. They tell me it is about 10 kilometers south of Veselí. I would like to take a look there.” It goes on to name the community, Hamr, where the family attended church, and offers $25 to anyone who can give us a ride there. “Could you help me?” it ended.

When we presented this letter at our hotel in České Budějovice, the capital of South Bohemia, the clerk looked confused and gestured that she couldn’t read it, but not because the handwriting was illegible (his cursive was textbook). In the four generations since the family left the motherland, the language had evolved. We could only liken it to us trying to read Old English. We feared our mission had come to an early finish, though in our hearts we knew that no family story truly dead ends. 

I have learned that family isn’t necessarily the destination on such searches for ancestry. Rather, I see them as the conduit to a broader view of history. In my work as a journalist, I have interviewed Americans who connected with long-lost family members in places like Ireland and Romania. I’ve also interviewed genealogists who specialize in making those connections possible. My own efforts, admittedly without professional assistance, have been less fruitful but no less illuminating in understanding the circumstances that forced emigration.

Unfortunately, when ties are cut they are often irretrievable. Author Alex Haley inspired the genealogy craze of the 1970s and ’80s with Roots, which traces his family through slavery in America back to freedom in Gambia. This irreversible severance occurs in other cultures, too, through poverty, warfare, natural disasters and, most inescapably, the steady erosion of memory over time. I have come to think more holistically about “my family” as a unique story, worthy of tracing, faint though it is, and to consider ancestry travel as opening a window to the timeline of human history.

Four years ago, my husband, son and I went to Montenegro, my grandfather’s homeland, to explore my paternal family roots. Slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, Montenegro has transformed in recent years into a popular Adriatic cruise port at Kotor, where medieval walls scale the mountain, encircling mazelike stone streets, Romanesque churches and palazzi often built during the 400-year Venetian reign. The Chinese are building a highway linking the capital, Podgorica, to the ski region in the Dinaric Alps, but most of the development taking place in the country is reserved for its beachy fringes, where European holidaymakers can have the Italian Riviera experience at a bargain rate.

spinner image Elaine Glusac sits on a wall in front of a scenic overlook of mountains and water
Travel writer Elaine Glusac says though the routes may be obscured by time and the characters ghosts, ancestral trips make history real by illuminating the story of migration that continues today.
Courtesy Elaine Glusac

Of course, there was none of that in 1910 when 16-year-old Mitar Glusac, my grandfather, then a shepherd who was ridiculed as “too big” for trying to attend primary school in his teens, walked out of the stony pastures of inland Grahovo (today, about an hour’s drive from Kotor) and eventually onto a ship in Bremerhaven, Germany, bound for Galveston, Texas. He worked on wharves there, in coal mines in Youngstown, Ohio, and eventually settled in Detroit in 1929, where he stoked the blast furnaces for the original Ford auto plant for more than 30 years. He never spoke much English, and when asked if he would like to visit Montenegro, he always replied, “Nema niceg osim kamena,” or “There is nothing there but rock.”

It wasn’t hard to see Grahovo through his lens. A ribbon of lightly traveled road threaded pine forests and rolling wheat fields, a place so haunting and untouched that I couldn’t help imagining the luxury bicycle touring companies that will discover it. But that hasn’t happened yet. In deserted Grahovo, foam spilled out of split cushions at the lone outdoor café and a stray dog slept in the middle of the street, apparently aware no traffic would interfere with his rest.

After Mitar left, two world wars rocked the region, particularly World War II, when the Axis powers colonized the kingdom and rebels fought royalists. Family members, some of whom witnessed terrible violence, fled, moving to neighboring Serbia and as far away as Venezuela. A memorial to the hundreds of Grahovo locals killed during the war suffered damage in an earthquake within two years of its construction in 1977, leaving a cracked and weedy tribute today.

Mitar might have died during the war if he hadn’t emigrated. My family will never fully grasp the desperation that would drive a teenager to leave everything he knew, but we do sense the enormity of the move and have benefited from his resolve. Some 50 of us (his descendants) have gone to school here in the U.S. and thrived as doctors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, musicians and teachers. This list includes my father, Mitar’s youngest child, who, ironically, rose to become the top governmental liaison at one of Ford’s rivals, Chrysler.

 

Many stories of emigration, commonly driven by poverty, need or fear, don’t braid into history’s major events. On my mother’s side, Finnish family members recounted an ancestor who had been conscripted by the Russian military in the 19th century, and never heard from again. This ominous tale led to their emigration at a time when Russia occupied Finland. According to the Library of Congress, nearly a quarter-million Finns immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1924, many to Michigan, dubbed the “heart of Finnish America.”

The first child of Finnish immigrants, my grandmother was born in Michigan and died there several years before I traveled to Finland to report on Nordic design in the late 1990s. Unexpectedly, I seemed to see her everywhere in Helsinki. Walking around the capital one dim winter day, I began to see her blue eyes in the faces of passersby, as well as her fair skin that creased into diamonds when she smiled. The elderly women with their market bags and hand knits were her size, short and rather squat, and had her pinkish nose.

Finland is much more prosperous now, and it’s hard to imagine 10 percent of its population leaving as it did then. But here were the saunas I experienced as a child in Michigan, as well as the food, the weak coffee and hearty dispositions. So much survived my ancestors’ move to the U.S., which attests to how we persevere.

 

Back in the Czech Republic, where the hotel clerk couldn’t read our letter written in a lost-in-time language, our hearts sunk — until she signaled her willingness to help by flagging a cabbie outside and explaining the situation to him. He agreed to help, and with our English-to-Czech dictionary — no one we encountered that crisp fall day spoke English — we drove with him to Veselí, a quiet town that didn’t exactly live up to its name, “Happy,” in translation. The three of us continued to Hamr and found the Catholic church graveyard filled with the surnames of community members we knew from Minnesota, like Adamek, Sticha, Trnka and, of course, our own, Bartusek. With much pointing at the map and bad translation attempts, we made it to Vyšné, a hamlet of just a few farmhouses surrounding a pond, which was deserted on a Sunday. Apparently, we had missed the villagers between home and church.

Once in Vyšné — ramshackle, manure-scented, rustic — we understood a little more about the circumstances the family had left behind. We knew about the onerous taxes the ruling Hapsburg regime had imposed on the peasants in the 19th century. The residents were clearly subsistence farmers, and signs on homesteads dating them to the 1800s suggested circumstances hadn’t changed much between then and now. There was no collective peasant revolt, just a trickling away of farmers fed up with their own powerlessness to a point of starting fresh somewhere fearfully foreign.

spinner image Elaine Glusac walks through a history town
Elaine Glusac finds families have their own mythologies that often endure, though the heroes die and the backdrops change.
Courtesy Elaine Glusac

For them, it was Minnesota, where they met other immigrant Czechs and settled into a farming community surrounded by lakes and named to combine their new and old worlds, New Prague. Czech was the dominant language there for two generations and the older members of the third still speak it fluently — if perhaps antiquatedly.

Families have their own mythologies that often endure, though the heroes die and the backdrops change. The myths themselves are part of the lore of America for those who came here by choice. Revisiting a family homeland places those myths within global history, putting faces to facts. Though the routes may be obscured by time and the characters ghosts, ancestral trips make history real by illuminating the story of migration that continues today, a story of the fortitude of emigrants, the optimism of leaving, and the inheritance of that promise that so many of us share.

 

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