Far and Wide: Trip to Czech Republic connects distant past, modern lives

The village main strip in Zasmuky, Czech Republic, where the writer's great-grandmother grew up.
The village main strip in Zasmuky, Czech Republic, where the writer's great-grandmother grew up.

The drizzle was steady when the tiny car with a steering wheel that screeched at each turn during the hour's drive from Prague stopped at a rural crossroads. Before us was a two-story farmhouse, its courtyard hidden behind a tall, wooden gate. The ochre paint on its stucco façade was chipped and faded, but delicate relief carvings of beribboned wreaths and branches of ripe berries adorned the side wall.

I walked closer to this house I had never seen, in this village I had never visited, in this country to which I had seldom yearned to travel. My face was wet with more than raindrops as I stared. I felt I had returned home.

This was the boyhood home of my great-grandfather Anton Zemina, a man I had never met. He had farmed here 125 years earlier, had run here as a boy, herded livestock over these cobbles and walked away from here as a young man en route to the United States.

I was in the village of Sobocice, Bohemia, Czech Republic — little more than a cluster of tidy houses on narrow streets surrounded by lush farmland. Our interpreter Marek noted that the size and style of the house indicated my ancestors were prosperous. Then, he knocked on neighbors' doors: Did anyone know of a family named Zemina who once lived in this house?

I had assumed my great-grandfather was poor. Why else would he leave Europe? In reality, until a few months prior to this May 2011 trip, I had no clue where my Czech ancestors came from, nor why my great-grandfather left Europe.

That was until the day when, as I had done on countless other occasions, I plugged key words into a search engine. There it was: a vital record bearing my great-grandfather's name and a revelation. His birthplace was Sobocice. Just like that – I had a link across the ocean and a connection to another time and place.

I had grown up feeling firmly rooted in my father's heritage. He is first generation Italian-American. My mother's ancestors are one more generation removed from Europe. I knew my mother's family hailed from communities inside what was then Czechoslovakia, but most of her heritage remained a mystery that could not be unlocked as long as the country lay behind the Iron Curtain.

So, my research remained confined to occasional trips to records offices or writing letters to request copies of vital records from U.S. cities in which my ancestors had lived. In 1990, while attending graduate school in Washington, D.C., I snatched a few hours in the bowels of the National Archives. With the Internet still in its infancy, genealogy was then the realm of musty basements, imprecise indexes hand-scribbled on 3-by-5 cards and stacks of unwieldy books. I started with the 1900 census.

In searching there for my mother's father's family, I was surprised to find my grandfather and his two brothers listed as residents of a Newark, N.J. orphanage. This information jogged a long-dormant memory for my mother – her father had spoken of living in an orphanage after his mother died and before his father remarried.

The leaves on my family tree were multiplying and even greening. Still, a family tree flourishes only through the places family walked, the homes in which they lived, the lives they led.

Nearly 20 years after my trip to the Archives, an Internet search finally spanned the ocean. I found my great-grandfather's birth village on a Czech Republic map – east of Prague and not far from the city of Kutna Hora.

I hired a genealogist in the Czech Republic. He unearthed a myriad of

ancestors' birth, death and marriage records and determined my great-grandfather was the youngest of 12 children.

The 1989 Velvet Revolution had ended travel barriers to the Czech Republic. We planned a trip. Our interpreter brought us to Sobocice and nearby Zasmuky, where my great-great-grandmother grew up.

To my amazement, the villages would have been recognizable to my great-grandfather. The Catholic Church where my great-great-grandparents married still dominated Zasmuky's square. The centuries-old manor house loomed on a nearby hill.

Even the street numbers recorded on my great-grandfather's 1868 birth certificate remained in place. Still, evidence of my family's presence there seemed at first to have been scrubbed away. Marek found only one person with a dim recollection of the Zeminas.

We then headed down a dirt lane in Zasmuky, locating a house with the street number matching the one listed on my great-great grandmother Josepha Faltova's vital records. A wooden gate displayed a small nameplate: "Faltova." More than a century after my great-grandfather emigrated, descendents of his mother's family remained.

The surprise visit with Faltova family members was guarded, but after we returned to Connecticut, email and the miracle of Google translation allowed me to communicate with these distant relatives. In January 2012, we visited again, shared tea and pastry, studied old photograph albums and marveled that a portrait of my great-great grandmother's brother bore an uncanny resemblance to one of my cousins.

I learned that my great-grandfather, just a small child when his parents died, left Sobocice because as the youngest of 12 he had little claim to the family's wealth. He headed to Vienna, then made his way to Cleveland, Ohio and that, said these relatives, is where his family in Bohemia thought he had died.

But he hadn't died then. He lived until 1941 in several locales: Manhattan, Newark, (where his first wife died), Queens, N.Y. and finally Willington, Conn. – my hometown. In the early 20th Century, many Czech and Slovak immigrants bought Willington farms. Anton Zemina, in fact, left life in much the way he had entered it – as a wealthy farmer.

People speak of building their family trees. But, like real trees, family trees must grow. They grow taller and wider, fill out and green. Some of my tree's roots still wait to be unearthed, but the branch that extends to the Czech Republic now bursts with flowers.

The writer lives in Pawcatuck.

A detail on a house where the writer's ancestors lived in Sobocice, Bohemia, Czech Republic. It is a bake oven that was likely once on the interior of the house but is now an outdoor chimney.
A detail on a house where the writer's ancestors lived in Sobocice, Bohemia, Czech Republic. It is a bake oven that was likely once on the interior of the house but is now an outdoor chimney.
Detail from the Zemina ancestral home in Sobocice, Bohemia, Czech Republic.
Detail from the Zemina ancestral home in Sobocice, Bohemia, Czech Republic.

IF YOU GO

The Czech Republic is a tourist friendly country that offers centuries of intriguing history, natural and man-made beauty, contemporary nightlife, a variety of dining options and an extensive and easy-to-use transportation network.
The mystical and enchanting capital city of Prague is a must-see. Because it caters to millions of visitors from around the globe annually and English is widely spoken there, it can be a most convenient base. The country is fairly compact, so many other villages and smaller cities can be explored via day trips from Prague.
On the down side, Prague can be crowded and pricey. The cosmopolitan nature of the city and the proliferation of tourists make it more difficult to witness the typical Czech lifestyle.
Accommodations: A variety of hotels in all price ranges can be reserved on the usual host of online booking sites, or through a local travel agent like Klingerman Travel in New London (860.443.2855) or King Travel in Norwich (860.886.1901). Make reservations months in advance if you are seeking budget or mid-range lodging. Also consider using sites such as airbnb.com, homeaway.com or vrbo.com to search for rooms in inns or private homes.
On our second trip to Prague, we booked an efficiency apartment through a Czech company called Mary's Travel and Tourist Services. The room, which included a full bath and a small kitchen, was located in a spotless apartment building just steps from Prague's Old Town Square and, depending on the season, can cost as little as $80 a night for two people. Be sure to ask for a room at the back of buildings if you are sensitive to noise. The street noise in the apartment we rented would have been unbearable if the weather had been warm enough to keep the window open.
Dining: Traditional Czech food tends to be heavy and meat-focused. However, the dining options in Prague are the same as those found in any large, international city. Cuisines from around the globe are available in a wide range of prices. Our favorite Prague restaurant – Luka Lu on Ujezd in the Mala Strana neighborhood — featured Balkan cuisine.
Getting out of Prague: Rail and bus lines run throughout the country and buses and trains are frequent and efficient. Tour operators also offer the option to hire a private driver at fairly reasonable prices. I had hired the Rev. Jan Dus from Policka, Czech Republic to do genealogical research for me. He also offers travel services. He arranged for a driver to pick us up at our Prague hotel, drive to my ancestral villages, act as a personal tour guide and interpreter and deliver us back to our hotel. For more than six hours of work, it cost about $100. See his website at revjan.com.

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