A Journey Home

In Remembrance of My Parents


With the loss of my parents came an intense curiosity to know more about the land where they had spent their youth and early adult years:  the Slovene Raba area. I wondered what it had been like growing up in the small villages of Szakonyfalu and Harasztifalu in the 1920's and 1930's before emmigrating to the U.S.  A few old photos and letters gave me some clues, and so began my journey of discovery.


My parents were both born in the U.S.; my mother of Windish parents (Bajzek/Grebenár), my father of Croatian ancestors (Czvitkovics/Szabó).  They lived for a few years in the Chicago area.  In the early 1920's they were taken back as young children to Hungary by their parents.  My mother grew up in Szakonyfalu, my father in Harasztifalu, near Körmend.  Many years later, as young adults, they emmigrated to the U.S. where they met for the first time and married.  They never returned to Hungary or saw their families again.


I decided to plan a trip to find my parents' villages, houses (if they were still standing), cemeteries, churches, and possibly any relatives still living in the area.  But I did not want to visit as a tourist merely passing through.  I needed to find some personal connections.  I begin to research my families. Ellis Island records provided key information. The most valuable resource was this Vendvidek website (www.vendvidek.com), created by Tibor Horváth and Joël Gerber.  Here I learned about the history, culture, traditions and language of my people.  I drew a family-tree, which at the start had many more empty branches than full ones, since I knew of very few relatives.  Within a couple of months the tree blossomed, thanks to the personal help of Tibor Horváth and a first cousin of my mother's living in Chicago, whom I had not seen in many years.  From old church records, paintakingly read by Tibor and Joël, we learned that my maternal great-grandparents came from Felsõszölnök and Szakonyfalu.  From my mother's cousin, I heard that some cousins were still living today in Szakonyfalu.  On my father's side, we discovered that he had two siblings and one nephew living today outside of Vienna, Austria. Excitement was beginning to grow.  I would be returning "home" to meet family that I had never known.


The trip itself began in mid-May. Three of my Amercian cousins and my husband joined me.  Our first stop was VIenna.  Before we did any sightseeing, I would take the train to a town outside Vienna to visit my father's nephew (my only Hungarian first cousin).  My anxiety about being a stranger to him soon faded as I was welcomed like a family member returning home after a long absence. It was a wonderful day of sharing memories, experiences, and photos over a forty-year period. A week later, I would visit the village where he and my father grew up - Harasztifalu.


After a few days in Vienna, it was time to begin the most important part of the journey -- visiting Szakonyfalu, my mother's village.  The day began with visits to the homes of three elderly cousins.  In the "pink house" my grandmother and her six siblings had been born and raised. Today, a Bajzek first cousin of my mother still lives in the house.  Just down the road live two Grebenár cousins, one of whom had lived with and cared for my grandmother in her last years. They were excited to tell me about the grandmother that I had never known. They spoke lovingly as my cousin translated between Windish, Hungarian and English. It had been many years since I had heard the Windish dialect of Slovenian spoken. They recognized family members from old photos I had brought along.  Later, they would show me photos of myself as a child and of other American family members. These photos were sent to them by my mother from the U.S.  Next we visited the Grebenár house, where my mother grew up, the cemetery, and the village church.  This was the most poignant moment of the trip -- to see and touch the tombstone of my grandmother and uncles whom I never was able to meet. We searched the cemetery and found tombstones of many other family members, long deceased. From this cemetery on the hill, we could see the village church where we would find a memorial to soldiers from Szakonyfalu killed in WWII.  My young uncle's name was etched in the granite memorial:  Grebenár Ferenc.


The next day we travelled through the Solvene/Raba villages by car and foot, crossing into Austrian and Slovenia. We saw beautiful countryside, majestic old churches, historical sights, iron-curtain border regions, and nesting storks and ostriches just off the road.  We sampled pumpkin seed oil, local honey schnapps, and enjoyed a variety of Slovenian/Hungarian dishes.

Saturday morning we joined the villagers at the Szakonyfalu festival to watch traditional folk dancers in village costumes and listened to Slovenian songs. That evening, we hosted a dinner for our new friends and relatives at the Székely Tanya, a traditional village restaurant/farm just outside of Szentgotthárd. We feasted on suckling pig, pickled vegetables, strudel and palacsintas. The group was large and merry.  It will be an evening long-remembered by all.


On our last day, we drove north to my father's village - a tiny Croatian village just outside of Körmend.  After visiting the cemetery and family gravesites, we had a chance encounter with a village couple. They had both gone to school with my father's nephews and knew the Czvitkovics family well. They spoke of my grandmother and aunt and gave me some insight into what they had been like.  They showed us my father's house, which had been renovated and is today a small restaurant.  The next day we left the villages by train to visit Budapest. My heart was filled with sadness to leave, but also with joy to have met my relatives, seen the homeland of my ancestors, and to have reconnected with my Slovene heritage.


Jeanne Czvitkovics Brown

June 2007


*  With special thanks to Tibor Horváth and Joël Gerber, without whose help this journey would never have been possible *