Czechs discover passion for family history, says genealogy researcher Blanka Lednická

Stammbaum der Schwarzenberger

Ever since Czech TV began broadcasting its own version of BBC’s show Who Do You Think You Are, many people have developed an interest in finding more about their own history, about who their ancestors were, where lived, and what they did. In this edition of Panorama, we discuss the boom in genealogy with researcher Blanka Lednická who a few years ago left her IT job and set up her own genealogy business.

Blanka Lednická,  photo: archive of Blanka Lednická
“The reason was very simple: maternity leave. I could no longer work for the IT firm I was working for so I decided to do the second thing I know to do best – genealogy and family history.”

Did you specialize in genealogy in your studies at Masaryk University?

“It was not easy to specialize in that but yes, but graduation thesis was based on genealogical research of my own family in southern Moravia, in the Vysočina region.”

How far were you able to trace your own ancestors?

“The furthest I got was around 1550. The 16th century is really the furthest I have ever got.”

You have been in the business for a few years now. You said your first client was an American Czech who was looking for his ancestors here. Could you help him find out more about his family history?

“Yes, we traced a few generations of his family. He said he only wanted to go back a little, so we did that, and we were able to make his family tree as precisely as he wanted.”

Do you get more clients from abroad or are they mostly Czech?

“Currently, our clients are mostly Czech but at the beginning, most of them were American.”

There has been a wave of interest in genealogy here after the Czech version of Who Do You Think You Are was shown here. Have you registered an increased interest as well?

“Yes, it has affected my business as well. I have seen a substantial increase in the number of people interested in genealogical research. Most of them wrote me just a couple of days after the fist episode of the show was broadcast, and I got about 70 requests just in January. That was as many as in the whole of last year.”

The family tree
So have you expanded your business?

“Yes, I have. I hired two girls to help me. They are both also on maternity leave, and are now working together.”

How can you and your co-workers do research in archives if you are all on maternity leave? Don’t you have to go to the actual archives?

“Well, not to all of them. Many registries and parish records have already been put on-line, and are available for research from home, which is great for me. If I do have to go, we have a nanny who helps me. But now, my husband stays home on parental leave. We switched from June 1; I work full time and he’s home.”

You said most of your clients were men – why do you think that is?

“That’s something I’d like to know myself. Perhaps they think family history is more important, and don’t have time to do the research themselves. Women mostly do the research themselves. I help them with reading the parish books and so on, but not with the research itself. So men probably have more money to spend on the research, and they want it fast which is not so common if you do it on your own.”

There are two kinds of family trees – you either trace the descendants of a person in the past, or you go back tracing ancestors of someone who lives now. Which of these are in more demand?

“Usually the latter. The former type– tracing descendants of someone in the past – is very difficult. It’s time demanding, and it is expensive.”

Speaking of time and money, how much do you charge for compiling a basic family tree?

“The typical paternal line which goes back as far as possible is usually between 3,000 and 5,000 crowns. But if you want to find the ancestors of all the family lines, that starts at 7,000 crowns but could be much more expensive.”

What was you biggest order? Who was your most profitable client?

Photo: European Commission
“Well, I can’s say it was most profitable because I spent much more time on the job than I expected but it was several tens of thousands of crowns. It was a family which has comedians and actors among their ancestors who move around a lot. So it really took a long time to research it.”

How long does it usually take you to compile the basic family tree?

“The paternal line takes about a month. But right now, things are a bit complicated because I have work to do until the second half of next year. So if someone is interested in getting the results sooner than that, I can’t really help.”

Are you considering hiring more people? Or do you think the interest will eventually fade away?

“It would be very helpful now but on the other hand, I would have to become a manager again, and I don’t want that. I want to do the research. If I hire more people, I would have to lead them which is not the way I want to go. So I’m not considering hiring more people although many people have offered help. But for me, that’s not something I want to do.”

When someone comes to you and says, ‘I would like to look up my ancestors, where they lived and what they did’, what kind of information should they provide you with?

“All the relevant information they have from late 19th and early 20th century is what usually helps. But if they don’t have this and they are Czech, all they need to do is to provide me with power of attorney so that I can start the research in archives and municipal offices where I can get the information.”

Where do you go from there? What’s the first place you start?

“The first place is the family of the person. Then, I start working in archives. I have to determine where the relevant records are kept. There are seven main archives in the Czech Republic for this kind of research so it depends on the area where the ancestors lived.”

This applies only to Catholics or is it the same for Protestants for instance? I suppose they had their own parish books…

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“Exactly. They had their own registries but they are kept in the same archives as the Catholic books. A different situation is with Jewish ancestors; their records are kept in a special archive for the whole of the Czech Republic.”

Have you been researching Jewish ancestors as well? Is it different in any way, in the language of the records for instance?

“I have, and the languages are the same. All the records are either in Czech, German, or Latin. There is a different issue with the Jewish registries however – they do not cover the period prior to 1800 so you can’t do the research directly in birth records but have to use different sources, which makes it more complicated.”

How far in history do you typically get?

“Usually to between the 1650s and the 1700s but there are cases when we only get to the 1780s because of lack of resources. For example, there might have been a fire which destroyed the records, and then we have a problem and have to end the research.”

You mentioned that many Czechs have illusions about their family history. What are they?

“Well, many people believe they have aristocrats in their family trees, some great grandfather who was a nobleman, which is usually not true. Another very popular legend is that people are descendants of some French of Italian soldiers from the Napoleonic wars who stayed here, married and had children. But this is much less frequent than people would like to believe.”

And finally, are you planning to expand you services for descendents of Czechs who now live abroad?

“I have a blog called Czech Genealogy for Beginners where I provide advice and tips for English speakers interested in genealogy. That’s one thing I do. People also post questions there, and I or my colleague answer them. Another things is that I’m planning to translate my book about genealogy into English and release it in the US. I hope to do that later this year but it’s not definite yet, so we’ll see if that gets underway.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on July 4, 2013.