Giving Life to Distant Ancestors

There is a picture that has moved from basement to garage and back again, and from rowhome to rowhome in Philadelphia.  It is a picture of a family, joined together in the family bakery in the late 1910’s.  I first saw this picture as a child and it was thought to be lost for the years since.  I’ve managed to scan it and take in the details amongst the water stains and torn paper.  My great-great-grandmother is in the picture.  It was taken in her sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Michael’s bakery.  My great-grandma is there too, as a little girl.  More than just a photo, I recently learned it was a Baptism celebration for Elizabeth and Michael’s son, Nicholas.

I never met these bakery owners.  But I know they are the reason my great-great-grandparents chose Philadelphia when leaving Europe.  They made a home there and found employment doing odd jobs in the bakery.

More than finding dates and places of birth, I spend much of my time doing ancestry research, trying to put together a puzzle in my mind, trying to piece together what this person was like.  What kind of struggles did they go through?  What did they look like?  I was able to recently find a picture of Elizabeth and Michael recently, along with some records and pieces that give me an idea of who they were.  They came from Hungary, single, young and poor.  Michael was tall with dark hair and “deep blue” eyes.  He labelled himself a self-employed baker when he stepped on the shore of New York, at the age of 19.  He came from Hungary but spoke German.  Had several children, became a Naturalized citizen right off the ship, battled pneumonia in 1918 and had the highest appraised house on his block by the time he was 40.  By this time he filled out his draft card for World War II, he was gray, but still slender and still baking.  He spent the last sixteen years a widower.  He lived to 93, the year before I was born.  It makes the connection feel closer in the frame of time but there was a world of difference between our lives.  When I look at the picture of he and his wife though, I can’t help but feel like they are characters.  I like to think she was sassy.  I like to give them a story.  In a way, I wouldn’t be here today without them, distant relative or not.

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I’m Hungarian & Not for Wienerschnitzel

I recently discovered that Hungary is more than just a country east of Germany; it is part of my heritage.  I mean this in the least offensive way possible, but the country was always a joke to me.  Not because of the country itself, just its name.  Ever since I discovered the country of Hungary in my elementary school history lessons, one of my favorite things to tell my parents was, “I’m Hungarian” when I wanted food.  Ok, so I still say it.

Though I have strong ties to my primarily Irish roots, I was also raised with undertones of German ancestry.  My Great-Grandma emigrated from a Germany port in her mother’s womb.  With her, she brought what we thought to be traditional German customs and recipes.  Guess what?  They weren’t German.  After spending years trying to track down her family in German records, I recently joined forces with a distant cousin who had documents to prove that my stomach is not just Hungarian; the rest of me is too.  At least the part that I thought was German is.

Because the borders were altered by a bloody game of tug of war, I find the genealogy hunt increasing in intrigue and possibilities.  Their region, which may have once been German territory, had also been Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia and now Slovakia.  Never did I imagine that the strong stock came from Eastern European hardships as opposed to Hamburg bratwursts.  I realize these clichés are not realistic and likely inappropriate, but they simply provide an altering mental image of what I had imagined as a little girl and what is now more realistic.

I’ll never be able to ask those ancestors what life was actually like.  I’ll never get to ask if they yearned for their homeland and its customs.  Instead, I know that they came to America for safety amongst the turmoil in pre-World War I Europe.  They learned English and adapted to American ways, but privately maintained the nuances of their heritage.  They were bakers, potters and laborers.  We still are, even if laboring is the only one that pays the bills these days.  I never guessed that my little joke that got a giggle out of my Mom, had truth in it.