Genealogist Tom Zahn on reuniting emigrants with their Czech relatives

Tom & Marie Zahn, photo:

My guest for today’s One on One is Tom Zahn, an American who has been living in Prague for most of the last fifteen years, and who has, during his time in the capital, been specializing in a somewhat unusual trade. Tom runs a firm called P.A.T.H. finders which tracks down clients’ long-lost Czech and Slovak relatives, and in many cases, reintroduces both parties. When I met Tom in his office, overlooking Prague’s Vyšehrad fortress, he told me when his interest in Prague, and genealogy, was born:

“Originally, I decided to come to Prague after hearing Václav Havel speak in the United States to our congress. But it was not just his speech, but what happened before his speech, and that was apparently he only had some notes which he had just scribbled out, or which he had written out in his own hand. And he hadn’t followed the protocol in Washington, which was to deliver a copy of the speech to the different press secretaries for the different senators and congressmen. And on the west coast, this was already big news on NPR Radio. I paid attention to the speech then and I thought ‘wow! This is not normal – someone saying “if you want to help us, help Russia”’. In fact, I found that speech to be quite brilliant.

“So I decided in 1990, that I would like to come here, without knowing anything further about the country. It was only two years later when I had finally saved up enough money and I was preparing to come that my employer at the time asked if I had ever done any genealogy. I went to Salt Lake City with my employer almost a month before coming here. And we found solid evidence where the family was from in Eastern Slovakia and western Ukraine. And so I came here with something in my hand of interest.”

“And after I had been to the archives, my father started to give me some outlines of his family and told me that the spelling of our name may have changed, from Czan to Zahn. For me though, it was a very poignant thing that while I was here on my first visit, my father passed away. And that gave my purpose in doing this genealogy that much more meaning to me.”

What gave you the idea to then start doing this for other people?

“I had stayed only for a few months at that point. I had gone back to the United States with this. It was successful. I went back to work. But during the period I was back in the United States I was corresponding with somebody here, a young girl, and so I came back again that summer. Some people had seen the work that I had done for my family, because whenever I spoke with anyone about it I showed them this genealogy that went back to some time in the 18th century, 1713-1718. And they said ‘Wow! Can you do that for us?’ Because at the time these records were not available through any other source. You had to come here and find somebody here. So, it became a little bit of a niche for us. I came back with the idea that we would start doing this research for people. The first one, I can remember, I had to go back to Slovakia and I was hitch-hiking. I took a wild bus ride from Levoča into the mountains and I thought ‘I’m going into a different country’ and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. But when I got to the office there – this woman in this village office in Tichý Potok spoke perfect English. And this was really a surprise and it was a successful job and the family was happy. So one thing lead to another, and after a few successes I guess word started to get out, and from that point on, we really officially began to do this work.”

Have you noticed that it has taken off in the last couple of years - ancestral tourism? Would you say that it is something that is getting more and more popular?

“I don’t know that I would say that. I think in fact that it was at its height in the late 1990s. There was a huge interest in it because it was pent up – there were so many people who wanted to do it, this particular generation of people who were retired, who maybe at a younger age had wanted to come here, some of them even had been here, but under the former regime it was difficult for them to get anywhere.

“Now, from the late 1990s to the present the internet has really blossomed or exploded to the point where so much is available online. And I think that that has had a big impact on the numbers of people we see interested.”

Do you believe that Americans coming to Europe to find their relatives here have a very different attitude to those relatives in the old country than Europeans have towards their American family?

“Frankly no. For example, in the United States, genealogy is somewhat of a hobby. I refer to it occasionally as being a ‘soft science’ – something that is not so strict. On this side of the pond, genealogy was studied, with the functional word here being ‘was’. It was a science; it was part of the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University for many years. There was a college of genealogy. Now that no longer exists, but there are some very fantastic resources from the 1920s, 1930s concerning genealogies. Many of these texts are in German. But the idea that genealogy is something that is based on hard fact, and that people are very strict about it here is because people used it in the past to prove some kind of claim towards either nobility or real property. In the United States that is not so much the purpose. It is just to find your connections with the past.”

Once you have done all of this ground work, a part of what you do is that you introduce a second, third generation emigrant to their relatives here. Can you tell me a bit about one such encounter that was particularly rewarding?

“There is on the part of many Americans a presupposed notion that there might be some blue blood, that there might be some connection to an event that they might have heard about when they were children. And in this respect, we did have one person who told us that they were certain that they were from the nobility. Well, we took them to the village, we had done the hard work of the record search and found exactly where they were from and the house, and when we took them there they were sort of put off by it and said ‘no there must be a mistake, this can’t possibly be it, my uncles told us that we were from the nobility’. And that was the first time we had heard that and so we were kind of put off, but we said ‘well, in fact, the person inside the house is expecting you, they have welcomed you – do you want to go ahead with it?’ And the woman from the United States graciously accepted, I think mostly out of politeness.

“When she was inside, the woman there has a box of pictures and old postcards. She goes through this box and pulls one out, and the woman from the United States, her expression changes immediately. She goes into her purse and pulls the same picture out. And this kind of moment is precious, because you know absolutely that there is a connection.

“Well then the woman from the United States has this quandary – why had her uncles lied? And so we had to further flush this story out. The uncles would sit around and play cards and talk about it when she was just a little girl. We were able to go to the next village over, and one of the more important resources that we use here are these village histories. In this case, we found a chronicle in this next village where the brothers, or the uncles, had lived. These two brothers had lived in a house and worked in a house that was a pub called ‘U Šlechtů’ – ‘At the nobility’.”