Men might as well project a voyage to the Moon as attempt to employ steam navigation against the stormy North Atlantic Ocean.
Dionysus Lardner (1793-1859)
When I was recovering from a surgery several years ago I tried to track down some aspects of my ancestry and I ran into pieces of history that confused me. When I was a child I thought my heritage was:
- French-Swiss from my maternal grandfather, whose last name was Romaine
- German from my maternal grandmother, whose maiden last name was Krattiger
- English, from my paternal grandfather, whose last name was Marshall
- Hungarian, from my maternal grandmother, whose last name was Nemecz
It was the Hungarian aspect of that heritage that fascinated me – and to this day continues to fascinate me. Maybe it was the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviets that intrigued me. Maybe it was the hopes of finding gypsy blood somewhere along the way. Maybe it was the love of paprika, gulyás, pörkölt and chicken paprikash. I knew something about everyone except Bertha Nemecz who died long before I was born and it is her unknown [to me] history that continues to intrigue me.
In the course of my research, I found that Romaine was not French-Swiss at all but Dutch, a corruption of Roman (meaning Italian) which was used to describe the Italian (Giacomo De Ferentino) who wooed an English lady (Isabella de Ruchan) in the 13th century. One of their sons, Peter, was sent to Rome to be educated and on his return to England he took the surname Romaeyn (Peter the Roman). He married a daughter of Thomas de Leicester, and many of his descendants became noted men in England including an Archbishop of York and a Lord Mayor of London.
Having sided with the Yorkists against the Lancasters during the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, they fled, after the fall of Richard III at Bosworth Field, to Holland where Romaeyn (and its variants) became Romijn, which eventually became Romeyn, Romein, Romines, Romine, Romin and yet other versions in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam then in the British colony of New Jersey, and finally Romaine in the 20th century.
It was Leonora Krattiger, my maternal grandmother, whose family emigrated from Switzerland.
The paternal side traces back to England and the likes of Rollo of Cheddar, if that can be believed. And if you go back further, there was a leap across the Channel and before that, supposedly, we swooped down out of Scandinavia.
But it is my father’s mother that intrigues me. Her name is absent from the 1920 U.S. census in which my father is shown living with his father at his grandfather’s house. Both my great-grandfather and grandfather are listed as widowers for that census. So by 1920 Bertha was not to be found. I remember hushed talk from my childhood that my grandfather had killed his wife in order to have an affair with a “hussy.”
Bertha arrived in the U.S. from somewhere in central Europe in August of 1894 with her 32-year old mother and younger brother. They had made the Atlantic crossing on the S.S. Rugia, departing Hamburg, stopping in Le Havre and landing at Ellis Island. The Rugia had once carried as many as 1,233 passengers, but on this, its last, voyage it carried just 133, and my ancestors are the last three names on the ship’s manifest. The majority of the ship’s passengers were Russians and Germans; there was one Hungarian and about a dozen Austrians. There were two French passengers, two from Great Britain, two Armenians, a goodly number of Greeks and a few Italians. The Ellis Island records show that Bertha’s family was from Austria, which at that time was one of the two monarchies that comprised the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The website It’s All Relative contains a beautiful map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that dates from 1895. Here is what that site says of the area at that time:
You will not find the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Czechoslovakia, or Poland on this map. You will find Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Upper Hungary, and Galicia. [Slovakia was known as Upper Hungary. Parts of Poland were called Galicia.]
When you get confused with where your ancestors came from, you can see why. All of the countries have changed names and borders over the last 100 years. This is why you will find Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Galicia, Austria, Hungary, or Austria-Hungary given as the country of origin on documents for the period.
To complicate things further, many of the cities and towns have other names. You will not find Bratislava but you will find Presburg. Even for the towns with the same name as today, the spelling will be different.
Did the Ellis Island authorities understand Bertha’s documentation (if she had any)? Had the ship’s passenger manifest accurately listed her origin? What language(s) did Bertha and her mother speak? Nemecz in Hungarian means German, and its origin is thought to have derived from the fact that when the first Germans went to Hungary, they were unable to communicate with the Hungarians and were often silent, or mute: néma in Hungarian.
I think I remember Bertha’s birth place listed on my father’s birth certificate as Sziget, which is almost meaningless as sziget in Hungarian means island and so forms part of many place names. According to maps that date from 1885, there is a place named Sziget near the city of Györ in Györ Megye (Megye was the equivalent of county), about half-way between Budapest and Vienna but closer to Bratislava (Slovakia): Sziget is on the current national border with Slovakia, very near the Austrian border. Györ was a departure point for many Hungarians headed north and west out of the country during the great emigrations of 1880 to 1920. The route from Györ through Slovakia, the current Czech Republic, Berlin and finally Hamburg would have been more than 500 km shorter than going overland to Le Havre.
You can somewhat forgive American officials if they did not understand the intricacies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it consisted of two autonomous monarchies, one being the last vestiges of the Habsburg dynasty and second The Kingdom of Hungary (The Lands of the Crown of Saint Stephen) with so many ethnic, language and religious interests that it was virtually unruleable. The official languages of the empire included Bosnian, Croatian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Ukrainian, and Yiddish. There was constant fighting between and among the groups, each of whom thought their language (and by extension, their culture, food, and everything else) superior to all others (the Germans were especially haughty about the superiority of German to the Slavic languages).
As I was writing this post, a woman saw my posts on various genealogy research boards about Bertha and she provided what appears to be several missing pieces of information. According to her, Bertha died during childbirth (ironic as her mother Susanne was a mid-wife) and her death, then, would have been during the birth of my father, the second of Bertha’s children. Apparently Susanne had several more children, one of whom became the grandmother of the writer who contacted me.
Both this recent writer and another gave me information about an immigrant, Albert Nemec, who traveled in steerage on another ship (the Columbia, out of Hamburg via Southampton) with a nine-month old child, Frank. The ship – according to company flyers, was “the gem of the ocean” was another of the Hamburg-American Packet Company’s fleet, had reduced the 3,049 miles trip between New York and Southampton to 6 days, 18 hours and 20 minutes. They arrived two days earlier than Bertha, on August 10, 1894.
According to the ship’s manifest their destination was Port Chester, New York as was Bertha’s and her mom and brother. Pieces were beginning to come together for me: Albert gave Hungary as his origin and stated that he was Hungarian. Byram, Connecticut was known as East Port Chester for many years, and the women who wrote me said the Nemec family eventually had a farm in Byram and there is a family burial plot in Rye, New York, of which Port Chester is a village.
Last week I found myself trying to locate information about Bertha and found a copy of my mother and father’s marriage certificate. The document contains so many errors that I wonder how anyone can believe anything that one finds pertaining to one’s family history. Here are the errors:
- My mother’s birth year was recorded as 1924 on the certificate – if it had been 1924 she would have been eight years old at the time of the ceremony – she was born in 1914
- Her family’s last name is misspelled Romain instead of Romaine, which was the legal spelling for that line of the family at that time
- My father’s mother’s last name is given as Newnab instead of Nemecz
- My father’s father’s middle initial is given incorrectly
- My mother’s mother’s name is given as Servina Kralager instead of Leonora Krattiger
- The location of the ceremony is given as Cold Sprung instead of Cold Spring
Now, I understand that Nemecz might have been spelled Nemetz or Nemets or Nemitz or Nimitz or Niemecz or Niemetz or Nemecany or Nemcova or any of the various iterations I’ve seen, but Newnab?