Joyce Pritchard: visit to ancestral Czech villages in Romania "the trip of a lifetime"

In today's special programme we meet Joyce Pritchard, an American woman who recently went back to her roots, when she visited the isolated Czech villages in Romania from which her great-grandparents emigrated a century ago. She and 14 other Americans of Czech-Romanian descent met long-lost relatives and experienced old Czech customs in a region somewhat left behind by the modern world. It was, says Joyce Pritchard, the trip of a lifetime.

Late last December we broadcast a report about the small Czech community in Romania. Soon afterwards, I got an email from Joyce Pritchard, who had read a transcription on our website. Her family came from those same Czech villages - could I put her in touch with Dan Mair, an expert I had interviewed?

Dan recently acted as a guide for a group including Joyce and 14 other Americans of Czech-Romanian descent, when they visited their ancestral villages. I spoke to her recently, as the group passed through Prague on their way home to the United States.

"We come from the state of Virginia, which is where most of the immigrants from the Czech villages in Romania ended up. Some of them first immigrated to the Mid-West, and there was a re-immigration in the US because the conditions in the Mid-West were pretty harsh.

"It became more well-known that the climate in Virginia was good for farming, so there was that re-immigration. Then there was a chain immigration, we believe, and they ended up getting their neighbours and friends to come.

"Some of the earliest settlers from [Czech village in Romania] Gernik in particular came in the late 1800s. My great-grandparents came in 1905, and they were one of the later groups to come."

I imagine Czechs from Romania are quite a small minority in the States - how did your group get together? How did you find one another?

Gernik,  photo:
"The Czechs from Romania are just a small part of a bigger Czech community in Virginia. We started a group, a Czech-Slovak heritage society, about two years ago. In Virginia we're not only the Czechs that came from the villages in Romania.

"We were searching, all of us, we're the generation that is searching for our roots. Things have happened - the countries have opened up, the internet has made research easier.

"We were searching for our Czech relatives but we didn't know that we should be looking in Romania. We had a village name, we were looking in the Czech Republic...we were really quite surprised to find them in Romania."

I first heard from you via the internet, because you contacted me after I did a feature about the Czech community in Romania. I put you in touch with Dan Mair, who I interviewed. He had done a paper about the Czechs in Romania. What happened from that point, when I put you in touch with Dan?

Gernik,  photo:
"Searching on the internet I found the article in December and emailed you, and you answered me very quickly. I asked you then to forward my request, that a group of us were hoping to go to these then we had identified the villages, but had heard that you couldn't go there, at all.

"So I contacted Dan and by the end of January he had contacted me, a few emails...getting to know each other. And finally I asked if he would go with us, and he said, yes."

How long had you been thinking about going, or had you been thinking about going before you got in touch with Dan?

"We had been thinking about going for a year and a half. We were really quite stymied. I had tried to contact Romanian travel agencies through the internet, and basically it's not a tourist area, nobody goes there for tourism.

"We were desperate about how to get there. We were going to go on our own, but it would have been a disaster without Dan."

You've just got back and I have to ask, of course, how was it?

"Oh, it was wonderful! I believe every single person who went in our group had a wonderful experience. Most people met family, we met family. We had birth certificates and wedding certificates from the area. We had names of other families in Gernik that were on these certificates, and we met members of that family.

"We saw not quite the life that our great-grandparents lived, because they have electricity now and they didn't then. But I was astounded by the fact that many of the customs had to have been the same as when our great-grandparents left there.

"Particularly some of the farming. The carts still have wooden wheels, but they are pulled by horses. The older women wear kroj [folk dress]...we thought maybe they just wore it for a festival we attended, but we stayed after the festival and got up early to take a hike to some mills...and the women were taking milk to sell in the next city were wearing kroj."

What is the name you were looking for? Your name is Pritchard - what's the Czech name you were looking for?

"The Czech name we were looking for was Mizera. But also on the wedding and birth certificates were Medved and Bradac and Fiala. Other members of the group were looking for Picek, Blaha...

"Actually, another thing, I told you there were a number of people who came from the villages to Virginia. They banded together and built a church in Dinwiddie County, Virginia that they built to be an exact replica of the church in Gernik.

"So we had a whole list of family names, essentially from the cemetery, and we had a book that had pictures of all the graves. We ended up showing that around during the festival and some of the local people...seemed to us to recognize the names of their family members who had left and gone to Virginia."

Tell me about your meeting with your family members.

"The village all came together to serve us food in the Kulturni Dum [House of Culture] and the first family member we met in Gernik was one of the servers. We had out the documents and they had his name, Medved, and he got so excited.

The food that was served at the Culture Home - lots of kolache  (cake)!
"We also had...our family was somehow from two villages, Eibental and Gernik, and we were planning to go to Eibental to try and find family there. And through some inquiries that other people helped us make in Czech we found out that we had a family name, Bradac, in Eibental.

"Through a series of lucky coincidences we went straight to that house. And they ended up being the family that was on our marriage certificate, and we ended up spending the night with them.

"I remember waking up in the morning, we were lying in this double bed and you could peak through this door. It was an older couple and they were fussing around the kitchen making us breakfast, and it just reminded me of my grandparents. And it just felt like we were back at home, with family. And it was wonderful.

"We also had a lot of family prints, and the Bradacs said they had the same picture. So that was like a total confirmation that we had come up in that family, because obviously in the early years pictures would have been sent back and forth and things like that."

I presume there aren't any hotels in these Czech villages in Romania - what kind of places did you all stay in?

"We stayed with families; the mayor of Gernik, Mr Picek, knew how many of us were coming and scouted out throughout the village and got people who were willing to have us stay with them.

"The family we stayed with were so wonderful, three of us stayed there. We were prepared for no bathroom facilities, but they had a bathroom, they had a shower. If you wanted a shower you had to put a piece of wood in the furnace. They had a working farm. He was the town librarian but he still kept his farm work up."

Was it what you expected there? Or was it a bit...I've heard there that it's quite behind the times...was it as you expected, or was it a bit more backwards? Or a bit more modern?

"We were pretty well prepared that it was going to be primitive, so in some ways it was as I expected. In some ways it was more modern, because, again, the bath facilities...we thought we'd be using outhouses and things like that.

"And then in another way it was more behind the times. And I don't mean this negatively, it was positively cultural because they've kept their traditions, like, as I've mentioned before, wearing the kroj.

In the feature that I did about the Czechs in Romania with this guy Dan Mair, who went there with you, he talked about them being quite despondent about the future. They feel that they are, in a sense, dying out. Is that something you also felt from the people you met there in the Banat region?

People at the festival reading greetings
"We were there during the festival, two days of festival, so the villages were really full of people and very alive...but what we could see was that the life there is really hard. They work really hard. They do chores in the morning, then they have their regular jobs.

"We understood that most of the young people who were there for the festival had come back home for the festival, and many people - the young folks in particular - are leaving. The key of course is to get some industry, or business or method of economic survival besides farming.

"Not that that is a bad way of life. My sister and I thought it was hard for us to say who has the better life. We dash around and are so busy doing things that we think are really important. But there they have a way of life that is really tied to the earth, which we really appreciated.

"But we know that everyone wants economic development and stuff like that. After we left the villages we toured more of Romania and we went to a town that is promoting agro-tourism - maybe that could be a way...

The folk dancing group from Gernic
"The point is I'm glad we came this year. Because whatever happens with the villages they're going to change. They're either going to have to change to survive economically, or they're going to die out. We needed to see them now, this year, and we did."

There were about 15 people in your group...did the people you met look like you?

"The little round Slavic face - we saw a lot of that. A lot of them were a lot thinner and in better shape than us! Yes, we thought we saw family resemblances."

Would it be fair to say it was the trip of a lifetime?

"Absolutely, it was the trip of a lifetime. I don't think it can be repeated again in the same way. The reason the trip grew to be so many...actually it was just a few of us who were going to go. But after you got us in touch with Dan Mair and I started telling everyone...

"I wanted to make sure that anybody who was a descendant of people who had come from these villages to Virginia had an opportunity to go with us. More and more people started signing up, because again I believe that this one time was almost like a moment of time, that we had to go this time. Because it can never be the same again."