It’s a Family Affair
I’m sure no one wants to hear the details of someone else’s family tree, but nonetheless, I’m going to tell you a story. I will try and keep it short and concise, but I’m writing this with the hopes of inspiring others; others like me: who wondered about their distant ancestors and possible relatives far, far away, but had virtually no info about them; not even a starting point. For anyone who thought finding their distant relatives is an impossible and futile dream.
I grew up around very little family. My parents divorced when I was just three. They quickly both moved to opposite ends of the country, leaving behind the scores of my cousins, aunts and uncles and a set of grandparents scattered around Chicago. I grew up with my Mom in Los Angeles County; her side of the family was extremely small, consisting of just my grandparents and her brother, my uncle. That was it. There was even less family to see when I’d visit my Dad, now in Florida; it was just he and his new wife, and their kids. I never had a chance to take part in the whole “big family” experience, and frankly, that was okay with me; I was your average self-centered American teen who just cared about the clothes I was wearing and the car I was driving. Really, it wasn’t that I was that big of a jerk, but I started my career in radio very early–at just 15 years old–and was okay with having such a small family: It meant more time for me to worry about the stuff I cared about, and less time having to attend family weddings, birthday parties, graduations and reunions. I had zero interest.
But I did always have an interest on where I came from; my blood, my roots.
First, I carry an extremely rare last name; so different, that only once in my life have I ever met anyone else not related to me with the same last name. In a world of Smiths, Wilsons, Garcias and Lopezes, I was a Rehak. Weird name, I know.
And while my Mom’s side of the family–the Arnolds–have been here in the USA since the 1700s (they fought in the American Revolution), the Rehaks and Podmoliks (My dad’s father’s and mother’s last name, respectively) were fairly new to the country. My great grandparents immigrated here at the turn of the century, making me only a third-generation American. I have blurry visions of my grandmother Sophie giving me Czech-recipe baked goods and speaking with a slight accent. Since I left town when I was only three, sadly, I don’t have many memories with my paternal grandparents. Sadly, they both passed before I was adult, and before I realized the importance of spending time with and getting to know family. If I only would’ve known then. Such is life.
But I’ve always been curious about my Dad’s side of the family, especially intrigued about my great-grandparents that made the journey from the Old World here. To help stoke the flames of curiosity, my Dad would tell me stories of his grandfather Podmolik. The legend was, he left a wife and a whole bunch of kids back in Czechoslovakia (in a castle!) and ran away to America with the hot housekeeper, who was 20 years younger than him! Wow, what a soap opera that was! I thought it was an interesting story, but wasn’t sure of its accuracy. My dad is the kind of guy who tells a million tall tales and you never know which ones are true and which ones are fairy tales. For instance, once told me about his great uncle “Hose Nose,” who rolled over in his sleep, got his nose stuck in his ear, sneezed, and blew his brains out. Yeah, those kinds of stories. Nonetheless, this story about my great-grandfather and his shenanigans with the housekeeper always stayed with me. I thought it was a fascinating tale and maybe great-grandpa’s genes were responsible for my own discrepancies and one of the reasons that I had a hard time behaving and holding down a steady girlfriend. I figured I’d die not knowing anything else other than the vague details provided to me by my dad during those long car rides in our Caprice Classic as a boy.
Been Around the World
Fast forward, decades later. I’d become a world traveler on a mission to visit every country in the entire world! In 2015 I even visited Prague. I was excited to be in the country where my blood comes from, and I got a kick out of asking random waitresses and hotel staff members if they had ever “heard of my last name.” They all had, for Rehak in The Czech Republic is almost as popular as Jones is here in America. It was neat trip and I really enjoyed Prague, though I wished there was someway, somehow to connect with my distant relatives while I was there. But I knew there wasn’t, and probably would never be. The only thing my dad said he remembered, is that his parents went back and visited relatives in the 1970s, but that’s it. No records, no names, no photos. A dead end.
Back to my world traveling addiction. My goal is to visit all 193 countries on the planet, including the tough ones. And even though I’d been able to check off places like South Sudan, North Korea and Iraq, there’s at least one country that simply won’t let Americans in, and that’s Syria. Before you think I’m crazy for even thinking about visiting Syria, I’ll have you know there are indeed people like me, crazy country-counters, that have been to Damascus, recently. There is actually a small tourism industry in Syria, including a visitor’s bureau, and despite what you see on the news, all of Syria is not war-ravaged and crumbling. The capital of Damascus, for example, is a beautiful and some would say even thriving city.
Okay, so what’s Syria have to with finding my family back in the Czech Republic? I’ll tell you, stay with me.
I want to go to Syria, remember? And unfortunately, because of the current, very strained diplomatic relations between the US and Syria, Syria isn’t letting any Americans in to just “visit.” So because of this, and a couple other countries that aren’t so in love with us, I’ve been investigating the possibilities of obtaining a second passport, from another country. It’s legal, just very expensive and/or difficult. For example, there are a handful of countries that will sell you citizenship, but it costs anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, and damn, I don’t need to go to Syria that bad. A passport from Uruguay seemed a little more obtainable, but even then still involves buying property and a very lengthy and bureaucratic process.
Monday, June 3, 2019
I’d all but given up on a second passport until a few weeks ago. I’d read on a travel message board that The Czech Republic was now offering those who qualified “citizenship by descent,” and that there were new laws on the books that made it possible for foreigners with Czech blood to become citizens of their homeland. I quickly jumped online and found a company that helps facilitate this and applied on their website. A representative soon emailed me back, sending me a “family tree” document that I was to fill out, to see if I qualified for Czech citizenship.
The family tree template was pretty straight forward, asking for info about my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, including specifics like date of birth, date, and locations of both events. I remember working on my family tree at Ancestry.com a few years back, so I logged on to see if my tree was still there. It indeed was still there, though it was pretty bare. I spent a few minutes navigating around the site–it had been a while, but it didn’t take me long to pick up where I left off. I jumped around and checked out some other trees belonging to family members like my step mom and even cousins back in Chicago. At the end of my session, I was able to come up with the names of my great grandparents on my Dad’s (Czech) side, but that was it. Everything stopped there, a dead end. I didn’t need to submit info on anyone further back than my great grandparents, since they were the ones who were born in the Old World, but now I was curious. Very curious.
To further stimulate this growing curiosity, on my Mom’s side, the Arnolds, I could see back into the 1600s! Using ancestry.com’s “hint,” “probable relative” and even the “DNA match” tools, just fifteen minutes later I’d successfully constructed a very long and spread out family history for my Mom’s side, which was made up of mostly English and German roots. The info was just absolutely incredible, but just magnified how empty and incomplete my Rehak side of the tree was. I couldn’t just leave it that way, without at least finding out a little more about who my great grandparents’ parents were and how they got here. And so the detective work began.
I called my Dad to see if he knew anything about where this dead end might continue: Did he know the even just the names of his great-grandparents? He didn’t. My aunt Penny (his sister) didn’t either. And since my grandparents weren’t alive anymore, I had no one else to ask.
I used the “search” function on Ancestry.com to try and bring up any details, or even just the names, of my grandparents’ parents, but no luck. Oh, I’d found their names, but only attached to basic records like the census and draft cards. Nothing that connected them to the Old World or to their parents. I wanted to find out where they born, and who their parents were, and how they got here! I found none of that. But I couldn’t give up. I couldn’t just leave this alone. I’m not designed that way. Instead, this was the moment I decided to go into super-detective mode.
Sunday, June 9th, 2019
I may not have found any of the connections I needed to link up with Czech relatives and ancestors on Ancestry.com yet, so I decided to go a completely different route: social media.
Although it’s pretty rare in the US, Rehak is actually a fairly common name in The Czech Republic. I looked up “Rehak” on Instagram and found hundreds and hundreds of them. But Podmolik–my Dad’s mom’s name–well that must be pretty unusual, because I only found a handful of Podmoliks on Instagram. I reached out to all of them, introducing myself and explaining I was looking for a family link. In less than 24-hours I received a reply.
Josef Podmolik was nice enough to return this stranger’s message, and even greeted me as his “distant relative.” Without even being prompted, he sent me a few paragraphs about the Podmolik name: its meaning and a little history. He went on to ask me for the names and info of my great grandparents (Podmoliks) who left The Czech Republic to come to America. I quickly replied and included the fable about Jan Podmolik, the playboy who ran off to America with that young housekeeper. I then signed off and went about my day. The response I received an hour later was enough to stop my heart.
Josef had pulled down a book from the family study–a binded, family “Podmolik Chronicle.” Not only were my great grandparents names in the book, but even my grandmother Sophie’s name was listed. Her birthdate in the book matched my records, so this was not “another” Sophie, this was my grandmother! The hairs on my arm stood straight up, and I’m not embarrassed to admit my eyes even welled up. I’d found my family in The Czech Republic, from a one in a million Instagram message. This was nothing short of a miracle!
And sure enough, good ‘ol Jan Podmolik was indeed straight out of a soap opera. The pages in the book showed that he was married to his first wife, before marrying Rozalie, a woman twenty years his junior. Wow! This was the housekeeper! He’d made almost a dozen kids with his first wife, Františka, and almost just as many with young Rozalie, including my grandmother, Sophie. I was floored that the hard to believe, fairy tale-worthy stories my dad had recited to me as a boy were really true; and it was all here, in black and white and blue highlighter. Josef even mention the family had once owned a castle. Was this a dream?
Josef and I talked in length, exchanging Instagram messages back and forth all week. Though he was in the middle of cramming for his big, end of year college exams, Josef answered everyone of my silly little questions and took lots of time out of his day to respond to my every query. My next step was to track down the author of the book, someone named Vlasta Horáčkova. She was the woman who put this whole book together. She must know more details. Who was she? Was she family?
Over the next week, this family stuff occupied my every thought and free moment. I found myself at work, even while I was in the studio on the air, trying to piece everything together. At night I dreamed about family back in The Czech Republic. Vlasta’s address in the book was listed in a town called Cechovice. Josef was in Ziln. The family chronicles read that Jan and Rozalie (and his first wife) were from the village of Velký Týnec. These towns were all on the outskirts of a city named Olmouc. The castle was in Podmolí. I spent hours reaching out to other Podmoliks on Facebook and even weaseled my way into Facebook groups of the various aforementioned towns, asking people if they knew my family. By the end of the week, I’d been invited to a Podmolik wedding back in Phillips, WI. I accepted and booked a ticket right away.
Most of the messages I sent to strangers on Instagram and Facebook went unread, but I heard back from a handful of people eager to help and ask around for me. It didn’t take me long to find Vlasta, or at least someone who knew her. I stumbled upon her niece Vera, who informed me Vlasta has passed, but they were indeed family.
I continued to meet a lot of nice people, some relatives, others just people in the villages willing help. Leopold Podmolik was the ultimate find. Not only did he have some family pedigree documents in his possession, but his family tree actually included me! My name!!! I felt like I was a ghost, looking down on me from heaven. I can’t quite describe it, but it was absolutely shocking, in all the good ways. Imagine, just days before I had dismissed the notion of ever being able to know any distant relatives in the Old World; and all this time, little did I know, these guys actually had family tree documents with me in them. Simply unbelievable! This just all seemed so far fetched, the kind of non-believable “yeah right” tales you see in unrealistic movies.
I was just delighted to actually be in touch with real-live family members living in The Czech Republic. My blood! I already made up my mind that I’d come visit next year. I just have to meet these people and see the villages where my ancestors came from, the roads they traveled; where my great-great-great grandparents, and their grandparents, had plowed the fields and tilled the soils, and had lived tough lives of labor so their children’s children could have a good life. I felt an overwhelming ode of respect, thanks and gratitude. Up until now, these people were nameless, faceless ancestors, that I could only wonder about, having not even a shred of info on. Now I knew their names, their birth dates, where they once lived and when they died. Some of my relatives never even made to adulthood, as I used Google to translate words on the newly discovered family documents like utopil, which means “drowned” in Bohemian. Little Jaroslav did not make it to see 2 years old. The note Pri pododu zemr next to Frantisek‘s name means he “died at birth.” My great aunt Filomena zemřela ve Vídni…she died in Vienna. I couldn’t believe a week ago I was clueless. Now I was sitting on a novel that spanned generations.
Take me to the Otherside
Now that I cracked the curious case of The Podmoliks, that left the Rehaks. Since the name was so popular in Czech, this was going to be much more difficult that finding the Podmoliks, but I was determined. I was now even more curious. How could I neglect that other quarter of my tree? It was so bare compared to the other branches, just begging to be cultivated.
Like the Podmoliks, I was able to locate the easy stuff on my great grandfather Louis Rehak: his census listings and draft registration cards. The draft cards even included his occupation (butcher) and street address; my dad confirmed the documents indeed belonged to Louis. But that was it. An absolute dead end, and after scouring the bowels of Ancestry.com a few more times, I almost gave up. I had no record of Louis’s parents names, not could I locate the passenger list of the boat he arrived on. Nothing at EllisIsland.org either. It’s like he’d just “appeared” in Chicago. It was frustrating.
I finally caught a break when I discovered that “Louis” wasn’t exactly my great grandfather’s birth name, rather it was the Czech version of the name: Alois. Searching for “Alois Rehak” quickly opened up a whole new trail of documents, including ship records! Alois Rehak arrived in Baltimore in 1901 aboard the S.S. Oldenburg. Wow! The record also included his hometown back in Europe, but the cursive was so distorted–worse than any doctor’s handwriting–that I thought I may have reached the end of the line again. However, once again, one thing led to another, and soon I found another ship manifest: relatives from the Old World arriving into Ellis Island, paying a visit to “father in law” Alois in Chicago, with the address matching his draft card. These relatives were from a village called Podmoky, which matched the name of the town scribbled on Louis’s records. Now it was confirmed. My grandfather Alois Rehak was born in Podmoky and ventured over to America in 1901. Wow!
I was feeling like a real Dick Tracy, as each clue led to the next. However, I was soon deflated when I saw a record of Alois (with the same birthdate) indicating he died in Podmoky. I even saw a photo of his grave in the same village. But my Alois had died in America. Had I got my Aloises mixed up? Was this all just too good to be true? I happily breathed a sigh of relief after I soon after discovered there were indeed two “Aloises” in Podmoky. One had indeed died in town in 1947, and I discovered another, separate entry with a different birthdate for that Alois. Someone back home had mixed the two up as I did. What’s more–and I don’t know how I even saw this–but on Alois’s father’s grave in Podmoky, inscribed on the concrete base, in Czech, was a message that said: “(This grave) donated my son Alois from America.” Holy smokes, that’s the grave of my great-great grandfather!
Over the next few days, I continued my search online, joining another ancestry website, myheritage.com, which seemed to have much more info on my European counterparts. It wasn’t long before I had both my Podmolik and Rehak branches growing wildly in every direction, like it had been given some super powered fertilizer. The myheritage.com website seemed to open up info to me in every direction and at times it was even hard to keep up, as parents lead to brothers who let to children who led to sisters, etc. Lots of Jans, Jaroslavs and Václavs! A Lumila, a Matēj, and a Jiří.
Perhaps the most amazing discovery–and I’m not sure the accuracy of it–were the addresses. According to myheritage.com, my grandfather Alois, was born at house number 38 in Podmoky. And his dad Jan was born there too. A Google maps query showed me a photo of the property. Could it be??? And did the family own the house still? Are there Rehaks living there now? My relatives???
Plane Ticket? Czech!
I had plans to return to Africa in 2020, but couldn’t bear to hold off a visit to The Czech Republic any longer than that (I already have my 2019 travel booked out and prepaid for). I’m looking forward to renting a car and exploring the countryside! Seeing the Rehaks in Podboky and the Nymburg region, then heading down to the Haná Valley to poke around towns like Olomouc, Cechovice, and especially Velký Týnec, where that rascally Jan Rehak and his young thing housekeeper started their shenanigans (Hey, I’m so glad they did! I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t!)
Bookmark this page and stay tuned…hold my beer, I’m goin’ in!This entry was posted in Blog