Off the Grid Genealogy
[I first met Jennifer Wilson on Twitter. She started following me. Then I followed her back. Then we just started tweeting back and forth. One evening I tweeted about making my Paw Paw's Corn Chowder for dinner. And Jennifer replied back that it sounded delicious and would I mind sharing it. So I did. I tweeted my Paw Paw's Corn Chowder recipe. She laughed and remarked that that was the first time she'd seen someone tweet a recipe. <grin>
Jennifer Wilson's family story is so amazing, and what she and her family did is so awe-inspiring. I highly recommend her book, and I feel honored and blessed to share her story with you. Once you start reading it, you won't be able to put it down until you're done. And then? Then you'll want to go find your family story too. But don't take my word for it. Listen to Jennifer's story... ~Caroline]
Off the Grid Genealogy
I set out to take a family sabbatical and write a nice travelogue. I ended up with a kamikaze genealogy mission haunted by dead ancestors, dark secrets, bootleg liquor and sheep on a spit.
By Jennifer Wilson
“Radošević people, there are good and bad ones.” Viktor let out a slow, rumbling laugh that bordered on the diabolical.
“Which Radošević are you?”
This is the kind of ominous taunt you encounter when you take your genealogy search out of the archives and into the analog world. An old man, laughing, hinting that your homeland village may or may not (but probably!) aligned with Nazis and Fascists in World War Two. And oh, by the way? We’re not sure if your people had anything to do with it (but probably!).
This was so very far from the pleasant, rustic tale I set out to discover when my husband Jim and our two young children returned to the ancient Croatian mountain village of my ancestors to live, recovering the lost lessons of my great-grandparents.
It wasn’t all roasted sheep on a spit and frolicking through meadow flowers, as you’ll find out in Running Away to Home (St. Martin’s Press), my book about our crazy adventure. Though there is a decent amount of frolicking. And roasting things on spits.
But, as you know, genealogy isn’t for lightweights. When you go rooting around the ancestors’ stomping grounds, you find out things you weren’t expecting.
See, the tiny village of Mrkopalj is an odd place.
Oddly beautiful, tucked away in the evergreen-covered mountains of northern Croatia.
The region where it’s located is oddly empty, as in barely populated since even before the Turks tried to invade. When they did, the Habsburgs sent pirates and outcasts to live there just so the place didn’t look totally free for the taking (Recovered Family Fact Number One).
And, well, just standard-issue odd. Our drunken landlord Robert hadn’t finished our rooms when we arrived, jet-lagged and wary, unsure we wanted to spend the next several months in a Balkan construction zone. Which was, by the way, next door to neighbors who kept cattle on the first floor of their house. In the midst of a neighborhood where every single person mowed their lawn with a slingblade.
You may be asking yourself why a mother would drag her family across the globe and back a century just to live like the ancestors.
Well, it’s because I’m odd, too.
(If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming we might be kindred spirits in the oddness department. Or maybe you’re just waiting for me to get to the point. Yes! The point! There is one. Here it comes.)
I’m odd because I love history. Adore antique things. My idea of a good time is interviewing old people. Instead of dating, my husband and I restored Victorian houses.
And yet, I can’t do traditional genealogy. I’m convinced I have some sort of genealogical dyslexia. One look at a family tree, a mere mention of the words “first cousin, twice removed,” and my brain goes into an opossum-like paralysis. I simply can’t comprehend the book work, and I don’t understand the protocol. My mind doesn’t operate that way. I’m jealous of those who do.
And so, when my ancestors came calling (as dead ancestors do), I took a different tack. When someone with my special (lack of) skills becomes obsessed with the family tree, we have to flat-out climb the thing.
It began when my great aunt, Sister Mary Paula Radošević, passed away—the last of the immigrant relatives—I inherited her personal papers. On the night after her funeral, I got lost in the family history of the ancient mountain village of Mrkopalj, Croatia. The ancestors whispered in my ear, tempting my mom-frazzled brain with a simpler life in the Old Country. I wanted my kids out of soccer practice and ballet, and into the branches of apple trees. I wanted Jim back from his office computer, walking with me through the meadow.
So, with lots of weird and wonderful twists of fate in between, we returned to the same place Valentin and Jelena Radošević came from 100 years ago. We lived there for several months, immersed in that simple life I dreamed of. It’s a very special, thing to walk in the steps of the ancestors. To page through the ancient Book of Names in the church, or interview the old ones through my interpreter, Stefanija, who was also everybody’s favorite bartender at the local café.
Which brings us back to Viktor’s kitchen, where his wife Manda is putting on tea from flowers she picked on the mountain. He’s telling me about the rough history of Mrkopalj, and reminding me that I would probably never know what happened to my people, because no one kept up with them (dammit, Mom!). But most certainly they’d been entwined in Croatia’s 1000-year history of war. That during World War Two they’d have been forced, like everyone, to choose between Communists and Nazis, if they wanted to survive. And no, I can’t tell you all the details. What? I can’t tell you every single thing, or my publisher would kill me!
But we also learned that the ancestors sang songs as they worked in the forest, and lived through a beautiful bustling age when the lumber mills were booming and everybody had a cow in the yard and chickens for the pot. They ski’d in the powder snow that fell from October to April, which was so deep they had to wear snowshoes to the mercantile.
I have a flimsy paper trail from that time, at best. But I (Jim) did just enough research to know that I’m probably related to most of Mrkopalj. I found a few long-lost relatives, but a village full of family that I’m still in touch with. And really, that’s good enough for me.
I believe I am my own version of a genealogist. Maybe just the Braille version, and an odd one at that.
Either way, we’ve all found our way home.
Jennifer Wilson is a writer for such magazines as Esquire, National Geographic Traveler, Better Homes & Gardens, Parents,Traditional Home, Midwest Living and many national newspapers and magazines. Running Away to Home is her first book.
Wonderful post. Brave soul. I've thought long and hard about researching some of my European family and what happened during WWII. At this point I'll pass. It's all I can do to write about the Civil War where I am several generations removed. I don't believe I can manage Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. I'll leave that for another, more distant generation.
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