Thursday, November 20, 2014

My European Roots

A letter from my agency’s personnel office arrived every other year.  Its contents and its questions were always the same.  In it I’m asked to “reconfirm” my ethnicity as if something happened in the last two years to change where my genes originated.

My genes originated in Norway and in Eastern Europe.  My family name is Norwegian and I’ve always called myself Norwegian.  The personnel office asked about changes in my ethnicity to satisfy some game played with hyphens.  If you are a hyphenated American, you are in a protected group and unofficial official quotas are established to hire and promote a certain number of hyphenated Americans.  If your grandparents didn’t emigrate from a “protected” area, then in the eyes of the Federal personnel offices you don’t count.

Two years before my last ethnicity check I marked the box for Native American.  My reasoning for being Native American was simple.  I was born in Wisconsin and am a native of that State.  Wisconsin is in America, so logic dictates that I am a Native American.  Two years later, I received a letter confirming that my ethnicity was “white, not of Hispanic origin.”  When it was determined by the personnel office that I was not a Native American, but “white, not of Hispanic origin,” I decided to question them. 

My great grandparents sailed from Norway, in July 1885.  They landed in the United States and found their way to northern Wisconsin.  They started chopping down trees and plowing fields and raising crops and having children.  From Norway, they brought many Norwegian traditions like a serious work ethic, a love for fish, stories of the Viking explorers, cross-country skis, and an affinity for cold weather and snow.  Our last name was slightly re-written to make it more Anglicized.  My ancestors gave up their Norwegian citizenship and became Americans.  They voted in elections, they drank beer and they had more children.  Over time, they became obvious Norwegian-Americans.

I responded to the last letter reconfirming my ethnicity by checking the “other” box and writing in “Norwegian-American.”  Several months later I received a letter from the personnel office informing me that I was not Norwegian-American because we of Norse descent are not a “protected group.”  I wrote back to the personnel office and pointed out a few simple facts.  I began by quoting an oft-forgotten piece of paper called the Constitution that affirms that we are all equal, so how can there be any protected group?  I also pointed out that a Norwegian named Leif Ericcson found the North American continent long before any of the protected groups arrived with their hyphens.  I mentioned the many contributions to American society that my Norwegian ancestors brought to this land, things like lutefisk and lefse, cod liver oil, and cross-country skis.  As a footnote to my argument, I mentioned that if personnel did not recognize my Norwegian-American ancestry, I was sure that a Federal District Court judge somewhere would recognize it for them.

Another two months passed before I received a letter from my personnel office.  It told me that there had been a communication problem earlier and that I was a Norwegian-American after all. I wrote back and said that my Norse ancestors thanked them and could I now start using the hyphen when I applied for promotions.

A trip to Iceland gave me my first feel for Scandinavia while driving along a fjord.  It helped me understand a little about where I originated, yet it wasn’t the real thing.  During a later visit to Epcot Center, I ate dinner at the Norway display and afterward knew that I had to visit Norway.  Several reservations were made to travel there, but each trip fell through.

A birdwatcher from England posted on the Internet a report from his recent trip to Sweden.  The report told about his travels to central Sweden near Uppsala, and mentioned finding several bird species that I had not yet seen.  My curiosity was piqued by the birds and I consulted references for finding the same species in Norway.  Only two of the five species I hoped to see could be found with any regularity in Norway.  Still, my heritage is Norwegian, and it didn’t seem right to visit the Swedes before I explored my own roots.

A check of airline websites confirmed my decision to travel to Sweden and not Norway.  SAS, the Scandinavian airline had astronomically expensive flights to Oslo and to Stockholm.  British Airways’ fare to Oslo was nearly twice as expensive as was their fare to Stockholm.  Weighing these facts, and adding the chances for finding more birds in Sweden, I concluded that Sweden was close enough to Norway that a trip there would give me some idea of my Scandinavian roots even if it wasn’t Norway.  I went to the British Airways website, typed in Washington, D.C. to Stockholm, chose the dates I wanted to travel, and clicked on the purchase icon.  I flew from Washington three months later.  It was Scandinavia and it was close to Mother Norway but it wasn’t the same as being there.

My last night in Stockholm I stayed in a hotel near the airport and caught their courtesy van to the departure lounge the next morning.  The driver of the van was a Swede who was married to a Finnish woman.  As we talked, I noticed that each of his statements ended with “you know,” as if I did.  His mannerisms reminded me of old Norwegians I knew when I was a child.  He asked about my visit and why I traveled to Sweden.  I told him about the birds and about my Norwegian heritage.  I mentioned how beautiful I found Sweden and how much it reminded me of where I grew up in Wisconsin.

“If you think Sweden is beautiful, you need to see Norway.”

My flight to London lifted off from Stockholm at noon and we flew in perfectly clear skies.  I was seated on the right side of the plane, forward of the wing and its engine.  We flew almost straight west before turning southwest and flying out over the North Sea.  As we made our turn, the pilot announced that we were near Kristiansand, Norway.  I looked down at my homeland and saw deep fjords that had been gouged from the Precambrian bedrock.  The land was covered with forest of spruces and birches as it was to the east in Sweden.  I had finally seen Norway as the van driver suggested several hours earlier. 

But I still hadn’t really been there.

Several years later I swallowed hard when looking at the prices of everything in Norway and traveled there to trace my roots.  I spent several days in and around Bergen on the fjord-filled coast because my family sailed from Bergen to the United States when they emigrated.  As with Sweden, this part of Norway looked exactly like home.  The lay of the land was the same, the color of the barns and the shapes of the houses were the same.  Aspen forests sprinkled with white birch and black spruce dominated the landscape exactly like they did in Barron County, Wisconsin.  Even the pastoral landscapes with Holstein cows chewing their cud in Norwegian farm yards looked exactly like they do in my natal Wisconsin.  It was instantly clear why my ancestors chose to settle where they did when they found northern Wisconsin.  Except for the language difference everything there was like it was back home.

Although my family name is obviously Norwegian my mother’s name was a bit of a mystery.  My maternal grandmother was a Gohr (not Gore like the real President, but Gohr). There is no doubting the origin of that very Germanic name.  However it was a different story with my paternal grandfather’s family name and ultimately my mother’s family name.

Some thought that “Beranek” was German and others said “oh, no, that’s a Czech name. It’s from Bohemia.”  As a child in northern Wisconsin I was quite aware of the hell that someone could be put through because of their ethnicity.  Being Norwegian was just as cool as being a Swede or German.  However some of the “lesser” nationalities seemed to cause problems.  Heaven help the Pole’s for being Polish.  The same, it turned out, was true for “Bohemians” or “Bohonks” as they were also called. For some reason I never understood, a “Bohonk” was actually a lower life form than was a Polack, and a Polack was right down there with Bohonks. Still, the possibility remained that some of my genes, in this case 25 percent of them, were Bohonk and a week in the Czech Republic was the most logical way to find out.

We slipped and slid our way out of the Prague airport and onto the motorway to the city. Seated next to me was a drunk (or at least feeling no pain) obnoxious British woman who tried her best to impress all of us with her command of the Czech language and her knowledge of the streets of Prague.  Despite her having told the driver where she wanted to go, she promptly began telling the driver how to find the address. She tried telling him in what sounded like Czech.  After five minutes of being kind and putting up with her the driver began saying “what did you say? That sounded like Czech but not any Czech I’ve ever heard.”  Instead of her taking the hint she just piled it on thicker and louder until I wanted to reach over and strangle her. At one point I stuck my index finger out, raised my thumb to resemble a pistol and then made a motion like the gun was going off – while pointed at her.  Unfortunately my finger wasn’t loaded.

By the time we were in the university district of the city the driver had had enough and told her “madam, you either shut up or you are getting out and walking. I don’t care how much luggage you have.”  Ms. Britain didn’t listen and the shuttle promptly slid to the side of the road.  The driver put the vehicle in park, opened his door, walked to the back of the van, extracted her luggage, opened her side door and said “OUT!”  She had no choice.

Wenceslas Square is one of the main city squares and the center of the business and cultural communities. It has been a place where many historical events occurred; it is also a traditional place for demonstrations, celebrations, and similar public gatherings. The square is named after Saint Wenceslas the patron saint of Bohemia.  As I worked my way around the square I was able to confirm with no reservations at all that my mom’s family name is Czech and not German.  I confirmed it when I found the Hotel Beranek on one of its street corners.  When I found my other family name attached to this hotel I dropped in to see if there were any long lost cousins floating around. Unfortunately the woman behind the counter said that the manager was not a Beranek but she was able to confirm that Beranek was “a very Czech name, you know.”  That mystery was finally settled. 

For my last evening in Prague I sought out an ethnic restaurant that was recommended by the hotel – a place where I could get real Czech food without having a sign outside the door advertising that it was authentic.  The meal, whose Czech name I cannot remember was some sort of pork sausage, boiled cabbage and a hunk of potato. It was prepared and presented exactly like my grandmother used to make this same meal. Its aroma was like grandma made and its taste was exactly as I remember her making it.  It was, as Yogi Berra once said, “déjà vu all over again” eating this food. The only thing missing was my grandmother.

Subsequent research on provided additional confirmation of my family name’s Norwegian roots and also my mother’s maiden name’s Czech roots. Intermingled with all of the ancestors I never met or heard of was several references suggesting that my maternal grandmother’s family (the Gohr side) originated in Poland and not Germany as we once speculated.  Examination of old European maps and other historical references suggested that the town from which her family originated was in what was once Poland but geopolitical influences changed the country boundaries to Germany.  Thus although the family name is undeniably German there is a hint of Polish in there somewhere which made a trip to Poland an essential and perhaps final aspect of my journey to uncover my roots.  

The Norwegian Star sailed from Copenhagen Denmark to Miami on October 6 but I arrived a few days early to not only have time to recalibrate my body clock but also to spend a smidgen of time in Poland.  Regular flights from Copenhagen to Chopin International Airport in Warsaw made it easy to spend a day in Poland and on my first full day in Europe I flew LOT Polish Airlines to Warsaw to discover a bit about this final country from which my ancestors may have originated.

Poland's national airline, LOT, was a most appropriate way to travel to Warsaw

In what seemed like seconds we had passed over the Baltic Sea and made landfall over Poland. Our pilot made certain everyone knew because of his boastful announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen we have just passed over the frontier of the beautiful nation of Poland, my home.”  Our route of flight took us over extensive areas of farmland mixed with extensive areas of heavy forest.  We passed just north of Flatow, Poland from which my maternal great grandparents emigrated in the 1870s and then began our approach to Warsaw.

Anyone who paid attention in history class in high school is aware of the carnage that rained down on Poland by Hitler and the Nazi’s before the start of World War II.  Those same history classes likely also were the site of many discussions about how Hitler behaved toward the Jews and especially the Polish Jews.  Estimates are that before the war there were 3.3 million Jews in Poland; during the war the estimates are that 3 million of them were killed.  I wanted to learn more about these atrocities and more but had only a few hours to explore.

My flight arrived in Warsaw under brilliantly bright sunshine at 9:30 and the Warsaw Uprising Museum opened at 10:00.  A quick and efficient subway from the airport to the downtown transported me to within a few blocks of the museum and I entered it shortly after its doors opened.  The museum's website provides visitors with a little tidbit of the treasures that wait inside:

Opened in 2004, this remains one of Poland’s best museums. Packed with interactive displays, photographs, video footage and miscellaneous exhibits it’s a museum that’s guaranteed to leave a mark on all visitors. Occupying a former tram power station the 2,000m2 space is split over several levels, leading visitors through the chronological story of the Uprising.  Start off by learning about life under Nazi rule, your tour accompanied by the background rattle of machine guns, dive bombers and a thumping heartbeat. Different halls focus on the many aspects of the Uprising; walk through a replica radio station, or a covert printing press.

The mezzanine level features film detailing the first month of battle, before which visitors get to clamber through a mock sewer. The final sections are devoted to the creation of a Soviet puppet state, a hall of remembrance, and a particularly poignant display about the destruction of the city; take time to watch the black and white ‘before and after’ shots of important Warsaw landmarks being systematically obliterated by the Nazis as punishment.

Near the exit check out the film "City of Ruins," a silence-inducing 5 minute 3-D aerial 'film' which took 2 years to make and used old pictures and new technology to recreate a picture of the desolation of ‘liberated’ Warsaw in March 1945. There is also an exact replica of a B24 Allied plane once used to make supply drops over the besieged city. A viewing platform and ‘peace garden’ wrap up this high impact experience. 

The most descriptive phrase in the website information is “high impact experience” and a visit to the Uprising Museum certainly fits that description.   I left after four hours with an entirely different perspective not only on the war but also on Polish people.  As a child growing up in northern Wisconsin it was an everyday occurrence to make some negative comment about a “Polack” whether it was in a Polish joke (“Did you hear about the Polack who…”) or some other degrading comment.  Back then it was an almost accepted form of interacting but not once did I ever stop to think how it affected Carl Jalowitz or Ted Gonsowski or David Antczak or any of the others of Polish descent among whom I lived. 

My experience growing up reinforced my belief that if I had any Polish ancestry it was something about which to be ashamed.  However a few hours in the Warsaw Uprising Museum changed that view.  Instead I left the museum hoping that some of my maternal genes had originated in Poland.  The Poles are a grand and proud group of people who have persevered in spite of horrific odds, horrific treatment at the hands of the Nazi’s and in spite of all the Polish jokes I told as a child.  Wojeich, a 40-something Pole I met in the museum, easily figured out that I was an American and asked about my impressions of the museum.  I told him about my past, about the potential for some Polish genetics to be floating around inside me, and about how thoroughly the museum experience affected me.

Wojeich simply smiled and said “Welcome to your homeland, Craig.  We accept you even if you’re not Polish.”  I took his comment to mean that I was forgiven for all those Polish jokes I told in high school.  

I didn't make it to Flatow, Poland, on this trip but it was not for a lack of desire.  My oldest daughter and I want to make a trip there some time before I'm too old to travel.  We might also race down to Prague to expose her to even more of her genetic roots.  Maybe with luck we can find the restaurant that served authentic Czech food exactly like her great grandmother used to make for me.