Tracing my family tree

The topic of my Letter from Prague today has appeared in a number of our programmes over the last weeks. It is genealogy and tracing one's roots. By sheer coincidence that topic has recently found its way into my life as well.

Thanks to a set of circumstances, certain family documents came into my possession: birth certificates, photos, chronicles, letters and notes. Thanks to those I was able to compile my family tree, in some branches going as far back as the 1750s, with almost no effort. I had the names and dates and a computer programme which I bought several years ago at a discount shop did all the work for me.

There were a few things that surprised me. First was the absence of German or other foreign surnames. (The average occurrence of German-sounding surnames in Czech population is between 17 and 32 percent, depending on the region.) Another thing I found interesting is how small an area my gene pool comes from. On my father's side most of the family lived on a patch of some 50 square kilometres in East Bohemia and the same goes for my mother's side in South Moravia. Generations and generations died where they were born, even the industrial revolution of the late 19th century did not change anything.

Most of my ancestors were small farmers in villages that have been swallowed by larger ones or in one case flooded by a dam. There was one teacher, one sacristan, one cooper and the ones whose surname was "Potter" were millers.

The large majority were Catholics, but one branch of the family, the ones I got my name from, kept their Lutheran faith into the late 19th century when they gave up all religion like so many Czechs. In the 17th and 18th century the East Bohemian region was predominantly Protestant. The re-catholicisation drove many people to neighbouring Prussia in the 1740s. Most of the others gradually converted to Catholicism under more or less pressure from the authorities.

Some shift of mind can even be seen in the family tree. The variety of first names, for example Matej, Bartolomej, Dorota, Mikulas in the 1750s, narrows down to Anna, Marie, Jan and Karel in the 19th century. My mother and I are the first women who are not called Anna or Marie after many generations.

Looking up the surnames in local phonebooks on the internet is also interesting - to see how little people have migrated over the last couple of centuries despite all the social and economic changes. Some of the surnames I found in my family tree still can't be found in any other region of the Czech Republic.

Finally it has been a great inspiration and motivation to see what people had to go through to give life to new generations: the Spanish flu, TB, famine, wars, floods... compared to the charmed lives we have now. And also, that Czechs, known for their lack of interest in religion, were capable of fighting or leaving their homes for their faith and ideas just over two centuries ago. Although, on the other hand, most of them just went with the flow, perhaps founding there the modern stereotype of Czechs as survivors.