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Genealogy quest leads reporter to rural Slovakia

| Friday, Sept. 12, 2003

CHMINIANSKE JAKUBOVANY, Slovakia -- No one here knows my great-grandfather.

He left this rural village of family farm plots 100 years ago without looking back.

Now, three generations later, my inquiries about his life draw bemused looks and a curious reception. One family with the same last name even posed for photos, though protesting they could be no more than distant cousins.

Retracing the footsteps of Andre Sedlak, these tenuous links have been enough.

In a nation of immigrants, genealogy has become a popular American pastime with families seeking to retell their stories. The search, like mine, can be complicated by a lack of records, language barriers, distance and the passage of time.

With the Internet, local guides and more than a little luck, my mother, Olive Marie (Sedlak) Conte, and I completed our ancestral journey this summer.

The story of many

While unique to me, my great-grandfather's story has been repeated a million times or more.

So many Slovaks made similar trips at the last turn of the century that it seems everyone here has a relative who came to Pittsburgh. More Slovaks settled in Pennsylvania than any other state, and 50,000 of the immigrants and their descendents live in Allegheny County today.

Cultural ties between the city and Slovakia remain obvious. Dozens of Slovak social clubs are maintained throughout the region. Just last year, Pittsburgh adopted Slovakia's third-largest city, Presov, as its newest "sister city."

"The perception of people is that Pittsburgh is the capital of the 'second Slovakia,'" says Milan Benc, mayor of Presov, whose cousin lives in Derry, Pa.

But while public bonds are strong, personal ones can be fragile.

My journey here started with Andre Sedlak's baptismal certificate, a few black-and-white photos of him in America and bits of family history recalled by my mother, her aunts and uncles and cousins.

Written in Hungarian with archaic place names, the baptismal record offered a start but only that. The University of Pittsburgh's Slavic Language Department gave me the name of a professor's wife, Emily Swan, who translated the certificate into English.

That revealed my great-great-grandparents' names, their village, their street address and information about their church. Lutherans in a predominantly Roman Catholic country, they were a religious minority but lived in an enclave of other Protestants.

My excitement was immediately dampened by the realization that the village name, Jakabvagasa, was Hungarian and no longer exists.

Thanks to the Internet, that was not as insurmountable as it first seemed. A Web site called "East Slovakia Genealogy Research Strategies" ( www.iabsi.com/gen/public ) offered some of the best advice for starting out.

Online assistance

Peter Nagy, a Slovak who runs his own Internet site ( www.centroconsult.sk ) and genealogical research service, looks up historic place names for free. He responded to an e-mail inquiry overnight, giving me the modern village name of "Chminianske Jakubovany."

I easily located the village online at MapQuest ( www.mapquest.com ), finding it about 10 miles west of Presov.

As in my own family, many Slovaks stayed in America but many others did not.

When Sedlak and his three brothers left their village, two of them immediately returned and the other two never looked back. My great-grandfather settled in the Monongahela Valley, and his brother ventured on to Ohio.

Slovaks who came back from America often had saved up enough money working in mines and mills to afford their own small plot of land. Then, when the Socialists took over the country through World War II, thousands lost their homesteads and their savings.

"My grandfather went to Pittsburgh to work in the mines and came back," says Imrich Fulop, deputy director of the Kosice Self-Governing Region, Eastern Slovakia's largest state. "The only difference between those who stayed and those who returned is that we're still poor."

Unemployment in some rural villages here tops 80 percent today, but many of the small family farms have been restored.

Arriving here, we stopped at the first farm house with people outside. With the help of a guide, we asked whether they knew any Sedlaks in the village, and they did. In Slovak, my family name means "farmer" or "villager," something akin to Smith or Jones in the United States.

Family ties?

The patriarch of the family hopped in our car and led us to a house owned by a man named George Sedlak, the same name as one of Andre's brothers but too young to be of the same generation.

Sedlak, 82, said his father had the same name but did not have any brothers in America. At best, then, we were no more than distant cousins. But because they looked like my American relatives and because they were so gracious, my mother and I posed for a couple of pictures.

Eager for any other contact, we sought out the Lutheran church where Andre Sedlak had been baptized.

The village minister, who lives in the church with his wife and son, led us into his office.

Our baptismal certificate gives specific details about church records, but the book containing them no longer exists. More recent records, dating to the early 19th century, showed that Andre Sedlak's brother, George, had at least one child who died shortly after birth. No other details were available.

Then the minister led us into the sanctuary, the spiritual climax of our journey.

In a room that had been added midway through the 20th century, wooden pews sat in rows below crystal chandeliers and an ornate painted ceiling.

Passing through an archway emblazoned in brown paint with Slovak scripture, we found the white-marble font where my great-grandfather had been baptized 135 years earlier.

After months of research, I had at last found a connection across the generations to my great-grandfather, who had died even before my mother was born. In that moment, we reconnected the century-old circle of my family's story.

Additional Information:

About the Story

Andrew Conte reported this story from Central Europe on a three-week fellowship sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The fund is an American institution that promotes the exchange of ideas and cooperation between the United States and Europe in the spirit of the post-World War II Marshall Plan.

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