When I started researching my family history, I couldn’t tell you where any of my immigrant ancestors came from. Now, after a whole lot of sleuthing, I have many of my ancestral hometowns nailed down.
I know exactly where my Ukrainian, Polish and Slovak ancestors came from – all small villages and towns in the borderlands between the old Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. I know generally that my mother’s father’s family, the Agin family, came over from Ireland during colonial times. While no paper trail survives, we know through DNA testing that the Agins – part of Clan Egan – have their roots in County Offaly. Only my German origins remain a mystery. My great-great-grandmother Mary Miller and her daughter Tillie came over in the 1880s. The only record providing any clue at all is Mary’s 1924 death certificate, which indicates she came from “Collenz, Germany.” Could this be Coblenz (now Koblenz), near the French border?
For my first trip to visit an ancestral hometown, I decided to go to Slovakia. While I don’t feel particularly invested in a Slovak identity – I didn’t even know I was one-fourth Slovak until I started this research project – the trip had the virtue of being easy. Slovakia is part of the EU and, having spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic over the years, I thought it would feel familiar. By contrast, both Założce (now Zaliztsi), where my Bosakowski ancestors came from, and the Kowal family hometown of Kharucha Vel’ka are in Ukraine. A trip there will be a lot more challenging.
So last October, I traveled to Košice, Slovakia’s second largest city, to do some archival research. Then, I rented a car and headed north to the villages my Slovak ancestors called home.
NOTE: You can find a complete gallery of photos from this trip, uploaded as full resolution images, on my SmugMug gallery page.
My first stop was Trebejov, where my great-grandfather Andrej (Andrew) Sabol was born in May 1872. Trebejov sits in a narrow valley on the east side of the Hornad River, a mere 20 km north of Košice.
Arriving mid-morning on a beautiful fall day, I was struck by the absence of people. Just a few barking dogs, zealously guarding their property. I did see one woman leaving her house, who seemed alarmed when I called out to her in rudimentary Slovak. While she didn’t seem all that impressed to learn that my great-grandfather was born there, she was kind enough to point me in the direction of the family home at Trebejov 11. The house, while small, looked fairly new. It’s not clear whether it was the old Sabol house, renovated, or an entirely new structure.
Three houses down, sitting on a small ridge, I found Trebejov 14 where my great-great-grandfather Andrej Daniel lived for a time with the family of his first wife, the Filaks. Again, the house looked to be fairly modern.
From the 1869 Magyar Census and an 1868 cadastral map, I know that Trebejov had 24 households and a population of about 200 when my ancestors lived there. Trebejov today appears to have twice as many houses, while the population has dropped to 165. So while the average house had 8 inhabitants then, it’s more like 3 0r 4 now.
The town has changed in two major ways since the 1860s. First, the 24 original houses appear to have lost their farmland. That land is now occupied by other houses and a new road. Part of the Sabol family farm became the local obecný úrad (municipal office). Second, a major railway line runs right in front of the original houses, where the main road used to be, separating them from the river. In the brief time I was there, several trains roared on through. (Perhaps that explains the town’s surprising affluence. It may be a bedroom suburb for people working in Košice.)
Finally, on the outskirts of town, I noticed limestone quarries cut into the sides of mountains. They caught my eye because my grandmother used to say her family owned a limestone quarry. I assumed that was wrong. All the church records identify the Sabols as farmers. But maybe they also mined limestone on their land, which ran up toward the mountains.
Another 3 km north, along a winding mountain road, I came to the larger town of Kysak, where my great=grandmother Maria (Mary) Daniel was born in June 1880. Kysak sits atop a small hill on the opposite bank of the Hornad River. Its population has more than doubled, from just under 500 in the 1869 census to over 1100 today.
The first thing you notice, as you approach Kysak, is the incredibly large train station, located on the river plain just east of the town. I counted seven train platforms. Kysak, it turns out, is an important railway junction for trains heading west toward the Czech Republic and north toward Poland. Amazingly, the town itself still manages to feel small and quaint, probably due to its location on a hilltop.
My first stop in Kysak was the obecný úrad. Starting in 1896, Kysak started keeping civil records of births, marriages and deaths for the local area. I hoped that I could continue my review of records, which got as far as 1905. After navigating some language issues, I watched a woman pull a large volume of death records out of a vault. Together, we leafed through page after page of records looking for my great-great-grandmother Alžbeta (Elisa) Filak, whose death record did not turn up in other records I searched. We didn’t find it, alas.
As we pored through the records, the town’s mayor popped in to see what we were up to. He spoke a bit of English and seemed quite interested in my research. He gave me a recently published book on the town’s history (in Slovak but still great to have). He also pulled up on his computer the current cadastral survey, now using aerial photos, and showed me exactly where my great-grandmother was born (Kysak 4). He told me that the Hovan family, which owned the house back in the day (my great-great-grandmother Barbara Macka was married to Michal Hovan before her second marriage to Andrej Daniel) was still living there!
From there, it was a short walk up the hill to find the house. My map was not totally helpful, because it did not account for the sharp vertical climb on certain streets, but I eventually did find the right address. No one seemed to be home but I was happy to take my photo in front of the property.
Kysak seemed a lot busier than Trebejov and the people, who certainly noticed me walking around with my camera, were a bit friendlier. Again, the properties were fairly nice and well manicured. I suspect the town owes its prosperity to its close proximity to Košice.
NEXT: An account of my visit to Obišovce and Žehňa, home to the two Evangelical Lutheran churches that preserved the records of my Slovak ancestors.