I submit an article by a friend of mine that I believe people here may find
interesting, about how to track geneological Hungarian heritage. This
article ran in last week's edition of a free online newsletter I publish,
called the Hungary Report. Details of the newsletter, including
subscription info, is at bottom.
Rick E. Bruner Freelance journalist, Budapest
> Editor: The Hungary Report (online)
> "info" c/o:
Tel/Fax: (36-1) 202-4700 >
Geneologists help Magyars track roots
By Michael J. Jordan
Tel: (361) 141-4837
Copyright (c) 1995
A decade ago, American Philip Janosik was sitting in his living room
surrounded by three generations of his family when he felt the tug of
his ancestral roots.
"It occurred to me that if someone didn't start putting our history
down on paper it would be lost some day," said Janosik, a 63-year-old
retiree living in Enumclaw, Washington. "It's something for my
descendents, not for myself."
A decade of genealogical research later, Janosik now believes he is a
descendent of the legendary Hungarian "Robin Hood" figure Gyorgy
Janosik, whose gang robbed from landowners and gave to peasants in
the Tatra Mountains in the early 1700s.
"I think I'm related, but I'm not sure how yet," Janosik said in an
interview from the United States.
Despite a reputation for rootlessness, Americans have long been
fascinated with their ties to the Old World. And the collapse of the
Soviet empire has brought to the surface reams of records and
documents that have given genealogical services and hobbyists
unprecedented access to Central and Eastern European archives.
Genealogical services, which charge from $200 to $2,000 to create a
family tree, are increasing in popularity. The services are
particularly popular among Americans, who rely heavily on
professional assistance because they are not familiar with European
history and geography and often don't have the luxury of traveling to
poke through materials.
Janosik assumed he was of Slovak origin because he looked at the map
and saw the town his relatives had emigrated from was in present-day
Slovakia. Only later did he learn that the town was part of Hungary
at the time his parents left.
Even high-profile Americans, like newly elected New York Governor
George Pataki, are getting into the act. Pataki has learned from his
older brother Louis, the family archivist, that their grandfather
grew up in Kisvarda, a Hungarian village of 18,000 near the Ukrainian
Grandfather Janos Pataki set off for the US in 1908 with dreams of a
prosperous future, but wound up in a hat factory in Peekskill, NY.
The new governor said he intends to visit Hungary because of his
"strong emotional ties" to the region.
But answering "Who am I?" is no longer a client's sole motivation.
They also ask for information on land seized by the Communists in
1948, how to obtain birth certificates and where to locate distant
relatives. One 50-year-old man with a family history of heart disease
called Family Tree Genealogical Research Bureau to learn more about
what to expect in his future.
For some clients, like Hungarian-Belgian P=E9ter Langh, an interest in
genealogy can be two-fold. Langh, a Brussels native who moved to
Budapest in 1991, traced his Hungarian roots back to the 1650s. But
equally important to him were the facts and figures about Hungary's
century-old goose-liver industry. Langh and his father own Baron
Kft., a processor and exporter of the Hungarian delicacy.
"For 40 years Hungarians living abroad were kept apart from their
history," said Langh, 37, whose family emigrated in 1957. "Unless
you're a politician or a general in the army, you don't act on
history. But by learning about the movement of your family and the
way things were, you realize how history acted on you."
Among clients, genealogists note a disproportionate number of Jews.
For half a century the subject was taboo among Hungarian Jewry.
Lineage once determined life or death: beginning in 1938, Hungarians
were persecuted unless they could prove the absence of Jewish blood
dating back three generations. And during the Communist era,
hard-line leaders like Matyas Rakosi emphasized ideology over
"Survivors of the Holocaust now want their children to know what
happened to their ancestors," said genealogist Ilona Sardi, who works
at the Budapest Jewish Museum.
Tracing a family history can often be disillusioning. Some clients
enter their quest with preconceived notions they are somehow linked
to Hungarian nobility or famous literary figures. That only heightens
"Almost always that's false," said Family Tree co-owner Tibor
Radvanyi. "It was just some nice tale your grandma told you."
Family Tree has, however, matched up clients with the likes of Mihaly
Voromarty and Ferenc Deak. One client was recently traced back to a
13th-century nobleman. Another client, Erzsebet Bese, is a descendant
of one of the original Magyar tribes.
"Before it was only family legend because we had no strong proof,"
For every discovery of a celebrity ancestor, there's one that
shatters a family.
One Hungarian-American discovered through research that his father
was a Hungarian fascist leader during World War II. Another family
was humiliated to learn of an ancestor born out of wedlock. And a
Hungarian-Argentinean, a staunch Roman-Catholic, recently refused
payment to Family Tree when told he was related to a 19th-century
Genealogists encourage clients to adopt the same attitude as Ernest
Chrisbacher of Wayne, NJ. He wasn't surprised to learn his ethnic
German ancestors were farmers for 250 years in western Hungary. The
family name Griesbacher was changed by US immigration officials at
the turn of the century.
"Every road you take in life has a thousand forks in it, and that's
how I came to be here," said the 61-year-old Chrisbacher. For several
years he's published a newsletter updating about 100 Griesbachers
around the world of his genealogical research.
Realistic expectations make for greater likelihood of a "success,"
said longtime genealogist A. Sandor Harmath. Said Harmath: "Don't be
disappointed if it turns out you're coming from a very simple
So, you want to trace your Hungarian roots
Genealogist Harmath, who says he has searched through archives for
more than 600 clients over the past 50 years, has a simple
do-it-yourself recipe: knowledge of Hungarian history and geography,
and mastery of German and Latin (Hungarian became the permanent
official language only in 1867).
If you're lacking any or all of these skills, Harmath says at least
toss in a dash of detective work and a pinch of patience.
The State Archives are located at 1 Beecsi Kapu ter, on Castle Hill.
Bring plenty of identification as security is tight. Head to the
microfilm section armed with all the information you have about your
family. Don't hesitate to ask for assistance.
Start with the books listing town or church records. For each name,
there is (hopefully) a date and place of birth, marriage and death,
and the name of their spouse. File a request for the microfilm, and
expect it the next day.
From there, trace backward. If information is missing, search for
clues. For example, suggests Harmath, if your ancestor was a peasant,
but you don't know exactly where his family was from, try searching
within a 30-kilometer radius.
"When science doesn't serve you, you have to use your instincts,"
Harmath said. But once you start, he promises, you'll find "it's like
a drug. You can't give up."
If the prospect of days spent in the library doesn't appeal to you,
try a genealogist. Tell them what you want to know, then ask around
for a couple of estimates.
A word to the wise: the genealogy business everywhere has a
reputation for producing hoaxes. Insist on xeroxed copies of
Here are some sources contacted for this report:
Tibor Radvanyi and Gyorgy Eotvos
Tel: (36-1) 215-0696; 132-7905
Budapest 1025, Zoldlomb u.. 16-18/b
Dr. Sandor Harmath
Tel: (36-1) 114-0310
Budapest 1085, Jozsef krt. 50, III/12
Jewish Museum (specializing in Jewish heritage)
Tel: (36-1) 342-1350; 342-8949
* * *
Michael Jordan (no, NOT the basketball player) is a freelance
journalist writing for Reuters and other sources and, fortunately, is
a friend of the Hungary Report. Unfortunately, he's not online
THE HUNGARY REPORT
The Hungary Report is a weekly English online update of news and
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