Sunday, May 28, 2017

How should I record the given names of my Czech ancestors?

No, should I record the given names of my Czech ancestors?

I used to think that the only way to record a given name was strictly by what was written in the record. I even went so far as to claim that any deviance from this method was “fiction.”

Let me clarify. I am not talking about how to transcribe a name from a specific record. I’m talking about how to choose which form of a name to use when I assemble and correlate all the records together and record a person’s identity in my own database. Should I record my Czechs with their German names? Should I record my Czechs with their Czech names? Spelling wasn’t standardized until the mid-19th century, so which spelling should I use?

Please note: I still believe that most of the time, most researchers are better off just recording their Czech ancestors by the name listed on one of their important records, for example, their birth record. I am not criticizing researchers who choose to record their Czechs this way.

However, my opinion about how I will record my own Czechs has slowly shifted over time. I see an increasing importance in knowing and preserving their actual identity. All my Czechs were either from the Beskidy mountains (Wallachians) or from the villages around Ostrava (Silesians and Moravians, depending on which side of the river their village happened to be).

It is really important to me to tell their story accurately.

They weren’t Johann. And while maybe to their close friends and family they actually went by the diminutive Honza (or Honzík, Honzíček, Jenda, Jeníček, Jeník, Janíček, Janek, Jéňa, Ješek, atd.), the Czech form of their name - Jan - is a better representation of their identity because they spoke Czech, not German.

Franziska? No, she was Františka. Wenzel? No, he was Václav.

My Czechs were Czech, and I should preserve their Czechness in how I call them.

Here is how I came to this conclusion:

Let’s pretend that history had been slightly different, and Texas became an occupied Mexican territory. Let’s say that the President of Mexico declared that all the names throughout the land should be recorded in Spanish. My parents are native English speakers. I was born in Lubbock, Texas. My English-speaking parents named me Katherine Elizabeth - BUT my official birth record lists me as “Catalina Ysabel.”

Perhaps my official government ID, my school report cards, census records, etc. might list me as “Catalina Ysabel.” But does this name really do justice to representing my identity?


Then again, nobody has ever called me Katherine, not even as a very young girl. I have always been Kate - and by the way, I am not and never will be Katie, which is a perfectly beautiful name, just not on me!

But is Katherine closer to Kate than Catalina?


How will my descendants 200 years from now know what to call me when all the records that remain of me are my official government records*? Will they call me "Catalina Ysabel" or "Katherine Elizabeth"? Does it really matter, since the name I actually used is “Kate”?

It does matter. My parents chose “Katherine Elizabeth.” I am an English speaker. It is a part of my identity. If my descendants called me “Katherine Elizabeth” it would make me smile, because that is the official name my parents chose for me. “Catalina Ysabel” adds a political layer to my identity that was not there before. It distorts my actual identity. It does not preserve my story.

Let’s pretend that the socio-political problems in Texas were so terrible that they drove my parents to emigrate with me and my brother and sisters to Estonia. In order to assimilate into the community, we all assumed Estonian names. My name on the official documents became "Katariina Zabel". But maybe friends called me Kadri. My parents might still have called me Kate at home, where we probably would continue to speak English for at least one or two more generations.

200 years later, my descendants find me listed on many different official government records: my birth record in Mexican-occupied Texas where I am listed as "Catalina Ysabel", and all my other government records in Estonia, like my driver’s license, my diploma, my interstellar-space passport, etc. On these other documents, I am “Katariina Zabel.” Which name do you think does a more accurate job representing my identity, the one on my birth record (when, because of my infancy, I was not even consciously aware of being present), or the one which I was actually might have signed myself? Maybe I didn’t use it commonly among friends and family, but if my own hand wrote my name, don’t you think that name is a more appropriate choice to use as an identifier for me?

Let’s pretend that 200 years later, Russian has become the dominant world language. Certainly, we can all agree that it would be categorically wrong for my descendants to record my name in Russian, as “Jekaterina Elizaveta.”

This final piece of the analogy would be like me, an English speaker, angliflying my 6th cousins’ names - people who emigrated from Czech-speaking Trojanovice to Portuguese-speaking Brazil. It would be wrong to do that. More to come about those guys in the next few months, by the way!

The question then becomes: how do you know what language your Czechs spoke, so you can know which language to record their name in your database?
Though you may not be able to ask your great x grandparents directly, you can start to find clues about the language they used by learning about the history of the region. Did your ancestors live in the Sudetenland? Was German a language which people spoke in that time and place? There are maps of German speaking regions, for example:

Other hints might be to look at the language used in the matriky and land records over time. Did it consistently stay in German? Did it revert back to Czech in the 19th/early 20th century?

If you are lucky, you can find clues hidden in the signature of your ancestors. Did they sign their name in Czech?
Here is a great example of signatures from a late 19th century Frenštát marriage register. Notice that some of them also wrote their occupations, for example, the top signature of Frant Reček “suset Tkadlec” aka “soused tkadlec” or “citizen weaver.” Note that he even wrote his occupation in Czech. He did not write “Bürger Weber.”

A few pages later in the same marriage register, notice that there are three little x’s next to Martin Bartoš’s name. This represents his mark, meaning it was not his signature. Probably he was illiterate and could not write his name. But notice again that his occupation was written here in Czech as “tkádleč suset” aka “soused tkadlec”. He probably spoke Czech.

If you can’t find these clues for your ancestor themselves, perhaps you can find them for their descendants. If their descendants spoke Czech, their ancestors probably also spoke Czech.

I know that the spelling becomes the major limiting factor for most researchers. They look at the plethora of ways in which people spelled given names - both in German and in Czech - and they get so discouraged that they throw up their hands, pick a record (usually the birth record) and decide that will have to be enough. What is the difference between Waclaw and Václav, anyway?

Or perhaps the hang-up is because his name was never recorded as “Václav” on any official record; how do I justify recording him in my database in a way that does not exist in the records? If he spoke Czech before the Czech language assumed a standardized and codified alphabet, should his name be spelled with modern Czech standards and conventions?

If he spoke Czech, then I think there is a strong and compelling argument that yes, we should record our Czechs in Czech, because it captures their identity better. The onus is on us to find clues about which language they used and to document our conclusions.

I currently only use FamilySearch as my lineage linked database - and yes, I know that I need to have a static, closed system to record just my research - but frankly I haven’t gotten around to it yet. That is one of my genealogy goals for this year.

Anyway, I love how there is a way to add alternate names in FamilySearch.

I think from now on, I will try to discover what language my Czechs spoke. I will then record my Czechs by the language that they spoke. I will also record all other name variants which I find under “alternative name.” I think this will give a more accurate representation of my Czech’s actual identity, while also recording the other spelling variations for future researchers to review.

FamilySearch always prompts users to enter, “reason statements.” “Why do you believe x is true?” I will also be very clear in my reason statements about why I believe they should be known by their Czech or German given name. For example:

This village is historically a Czech-speaking place. This person’s descendants all signed their names in Czech (for example, here are some links). Parish registers and/or land records from the early 16th century for this place were written in Czech (for example, here are some links). Later 19th century records for this place were also written in Czech (for example, here are some links). Based on this person’s geographic location, this person’s descendants’ native language, and the linguistic reversion in the records from Czech to German to Czech, I believe this person was a Czech-speaker. Therefore, I believe a Czech name better represents this person’s identity. The standardized and official spelling for this Czech name today is such-and-such, therefore that is how I have chosen to identify this person in my records. Please note that all alternative spellings are listed under ‘other information’.”

Yes, I did just write this reason statement out so that I can copy and paste it into familysearch when I enter my Czechs by their names. I will probably start crafting reason statements tailored for each village and family. I know this is perhaps being a little bit over-the-top, but I think it's really important to explain this name change logically, especially when no record preserved from their life records their given name in Czech.

What do you think about how to handle Czech identity? How do you name your Czechs in your own records? Why do you do it that way? 

*This is not going to happen, because I will not only leave a sizeable footprint of online records (facebook, blogger), but I intend to leave a really awesome written legacy for my descendants in the form of an interesting, well-organized, indexed volume of journals.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Getting Better at Czech

So. Much. Czech. 
I sometimes think my brain will explode. But this weekend I proved to Lukáš the usefulness of my Czech study by doing a little comparison of my transcription ability in 2013 and now. Here it is:
Transcription attempt 11/10/2013:
leta pane 1790, dne 15th Marcza povolenim
Arvzeneho, a Misocze vzneseneho Pane Ondřeje Zelinky
den čast Vrchniho vysoce knížečy arži biskupskeho
panství hochvaldskiho. Za fořta Karla Hilssera
au žadnich Jozeffa Horečky, Jozeffa Kuřza,
a Jana Mužniho, a čeleho au žadu Pasek Trojanowič.
Popaussžy Jann Shablatura Sciencvy Karlocoj
Shablaturedecj paseku pvan jmenem Skypalky,
kter aussto roku 1727. dne 17. dětod : Otec Jakob Shablatura
od Sedeho Předka Wačlacva Murasa před
lety u kau pil, a Scidwj Janovy niny Otcovy Karla
Shablatury zanechal za sumu....72 fhř
Exact transcription attempt 5/21/2017:
Karel Ssablatura
Leta Panie 1790, dnie “ 15ho Marcza spowolenim
Arzemeho, a Misocze wznesseneho Pana Ondřeje Zelin”
ký, ten žast Vrchniho visocze knižeczý Arczi biskup”
skeho panstwý hochwaldsiho. Za fojta Karla hil”
“ssera, auržadnich Jozeffa Horeczký, Jozeffa Kuřzcza,
a Jana Mužniho, a czeleho auržadu Pasek Trojanowicz.
Popausscžý Jann Schablatura Sinowj Swemu Karlo”
wj Ssablatruowj Paseku swau jmenem Skýpalký
Kteraussto Roku 1727. den 17 Octod: Otecz Jakob Schab”
latura od sweho pržka Wacžlawa Muraja přzed
letj ukaupil, a sinowj Janowj ninj Otczowj Karla
Schablaturý zanečhal za sumu...72 fř
Czech attempt 5/21/2017:
Karel Šablatura
Léta Pane 1790, dně “ 15ho Marca s povolením
uřozemého, a Misoče vznešeného Pana Ondřeje Zelinký,
ten čast vrchního visoče knižecý archibiskupského
panství Hochvaldského [Hukvaldského]. Za fojta Karla Hilšera,
uředních Jozeffa Horečký, Jozefa Kuřza,
a Jana Mužniho, a celého uřaduů Pasek Trojanowic.
Popauščý Jan Šablatura synovi svému Karlovi
Šablaturovi paseku svou jménem skýpalký
kteroužto roku 1727. den 17. Oct od: Otec Jakub Šab”
“latura od svého předku Václava Murása před
letyi ukoupil, a synovi Janovi nini otcovi Karla
Šablatury zanechal za sumu...72 fr
There are still mistakes in my Czech, but most of them are with diacritical marks and i vs y. This can actually be confusing for native Czech speakers.
The point is: my efforts to learn Czech are helping me *in a very concrete, measurable way* to be able to transcribe my precious land records.
No automatic alt text available. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Johann Černoch and his two wives named Petrová

My brother found a discrepancy in a Texas death record and wanted for us to research it further. So we spent the afternoon together researching this ancillary Czech line of ours. How are they related to us?

  • Anton Černoch married Filomena Kobersky.
  • Filomena Kobersky is the daughter of Anton Koberský and Marianna Vašíčková. Notice that I decided to put diacritical marks on their names, since they were born in Moravia.

Actually, to be honest, I am really not sure how I want to record Czech names in my database. There are good, logical arguments going many different ways, and this debate all centers on the question, “What makes up one’s identity?” But that is a post for a different day.

Marianna Vašíčková was the sister of my 2x great grandfather, Josef Jan Vašíček. The Vasicek family and all its complex intermarried lines are of great interest to me, because “Vasicek” is my maiden name.

Here is the death record my brother found:

But according to familysearch, his mother was Barbara Petrová.

We very quickly found out that, indeed, his mother was Barbara Petrová. He was born 17 June 1866 in Tichá 1833.

Actually, notice that Josef was the illegitimate daughter of Barbara Petrová, but later in 1870 he was legitimized.

Zde co otec uvedený Jan Černock úctivě žádal, aby Jozef syn Barbory Petrové, s níž dle Kop. matriky Tom. pag.  dne
jejž s dotýčnou matkou pro onatkom manželským splodie, a jejž teto za visé dítě njnává co jeho vyznačen a tak letgitimován byl u přítomnosti spolupodopsaných svědku Jak se stalo v Tiché dne 17 ledna 1870 pobdržálek svědek  Jan Tiček Jakubík předek

My guess is that he was legitimized because the family was already planning on emigrating, and they needed his birth record in order to apply for his passport. But wow, that would be really far in advance; according to the 1900 census, the father immigrated in 1873. The parents Jan Černoch and Barbora Petrová were married on 12 November 1867 in Tichá. Why wait 3 years after the marriage to officially legitimize him?

So, it’s really weird that Josef Černoch is listed on the death record as being the son of “Mary Roznousky.” Until you realize that Jan Černoch married again to someone named Marianna. According to unsourced data in Familysearch, the marriage took place in Texas.

Well, there was no Catholic church in the Dubina area until 1885. I have a transcription of those “early” records (hey, it’s early for Texas - quit laughing, my Czech friends!)

On the 1880 census, for example, we get an interesting clue about the identity of his second wife, Marianna.
This record shows that Johann Chernoch was married to a Maria, and the following children were his:
  • Joseph (13)
  • Franz (11)
  • Agnes (8)
  • Johann (5)
  • Mathias (3)
  • Anton (2)
  • Franziska (1)

Also living in the house were his father in law Johann Peter and his step-daughter Maria Peter (11).

Two confusing things:
His first wife was Barbara Petrová. So, was this Johann Peter his first wife’s father?
But then who is this step-daughter? He and his first wife had a daughter born 18 August 1868 named Marianna. Why would she be marked as a “step-daughter” with the surname Peter? Hmm.

Well...our current thinking is that Johann Černoch’s second wife was also named Petrová, and that she also had an illegitimate child Marianna born in Tichá the same year as Johann Černoch and Barbora Petrová’s Marianna, who probably died young. We think this because Johann Peter is definitely not Barbora Petrová’s father, but he is Marianna’s father. Maybe they were cousins.

I wish that I owned the other books written by Dr. Šimíček. I think there is a volume about Tichá emigrants, and it would probably illustrate this nicely.

According to the 1900 census, Johann Černoch emigrated in 1873, while Marianna came in 1874.

I could not find Barbora’s death in Tichá. I guess she probably emigrated and died between 1873 and 1880. I do not think there are very many good sources for vital records for that period and place in Texas, unfortunately. Again, the nearest Catholic church was not built until 1885 or so...actually, according to a local history, church services were held on the Vašíček property before the church was built.  

The findagrave entry for Jan Cernoch only references his marriage to Mary Peter.

It also quoted his obituary. Weirdly, when I went to the database to search for it (the Weimar Mercury is available for free through the Nesbitt Memorial Library via it did not turn up! I think the OCR must have had some problems, or something. Eventually I did find it by manually navigating to the reference on findagrave, and you can maybe understand a little bit why it did not show up in my search results:

The next steps will be to find the death record for Barbora Petrová and the second marriage to Marianna Petrová. And since they are both Petrovi from Tichá (at least, I am pretty sure they are both from Tichá, but to be honest, that is relying on somebody else’s unsourced information which they input into Familysearch) - well, then how are these women related to each other? Did Johann Černoch marry cousins, second cousins, or something even more distant?

When did these people emigrate?

I would also like to flesh out the identity of this other Marianna Petrová. What happened to her? She probably married - who?

As usual, for every question answered, ten more are asked….

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Last night I watched the 2003 Czech film Želary. I wanted to write about it here because of how it added to my background knowledge and understanding of my ancestors.

Spoiler alert!

Would I recommend this film? Yes, but with a big warning: it is really graphic and violent. I am sure that the language itself mirrors this, but fortunately I’m still a really long way off from understanding cursing and foul/disturbing language in Czech. I looked away during the really graphic parts, or rather, I tried to. I don’t need those images scarring my nightmares. But some of the very graphic parts came without very much warning, for example, the priest getting shot by a machine gun took me completely by surprise, and was very disturbing to me.

The basic plot of this movie is that there is a young woman who works as a spy during World War II, and her identity is compromised so she has to go into hiding. It’s arranged for her to go with Joza Janda into a tiny mountain hamlet in the Beskydies where she can disappear. Oh yeah, surprise surprise, in order to be accepted into the community, which hasn’t changed much for the past 100 years, she has to marry him - a complete stranger.

She goes, she marries him, she suffers from depression, she learns to appreciate the place and Joza himself. Meanwhile, she interacts with other characters who have problems in this tiny place. Lipko (I think that was his name?) is the bastard son of a woman who married a drunk sprosťiak. He is physically and emotionally abused by his father and also by the schoolmaster in the neighboring village in the valley where the kids go to school. He basically becomes a beggar who hides out on his own in an abandoned ruin across a river with some kind of dangerous quicksand.

Another character is a spunky little ~8 year old orphan girl with a goat who doesn’t have any fear of adults. Other notable women include the girl who may or may not be a whore who gets raped, the wife of the jerk who constantly beats her who has some kind of problem (it was unclear to me if it was related to childbirth or physical abuse) and then dies, the woman who had a baby who died and who nursed Lipko, who she then called her “milk baby.” There were some other interesting characters, like the Priest who feels really conflicted about saving Eliška/Hanulka’s life by lying about her identity - through performing the holy sacrament of marriage, no less. He probably feels really relieved when he sees how they actually have grown to love each other, and that their marriage is not a sham. There is also the schoolteacher who feels really ashamed at his hatred to Lipko, and tries (somewhat halfheartedly) to confess to the Priest.

Some observations:
The tongue-in-cheek moral of the story is don’t let your watchdog get shot, and never ever be naked, alone, and female if you want to not be raped. Also, life would be so much easier and less terrifying if people would just all agree to not drink. That would have solved at least a third of the major problems in the story.

My friend Petra’s tongue-in-cheek observation is that anorexic actresses are great choices for war films, since everybody was starving.

I thought it was really, really interesting that they used, “Emigroval!” (he emigrated) for a euphemism for, “He died.” (or rather, he was murdered by the Gestapo). Was emigrating really perceived with such a...I don’t know...with so much terror? I suppose emigration would be pretty similar to if a relative actually did die, especially in the earlier years of Czech-American emigration (starting in the ~1850’s, at least from Moravia). But in the 1940’s? Really?

I could really relate to Eliška as she was transported “back in time” to this place. She experienced major culture shock, especially when she discovered that there was no electricity in their home. By the way, the home was just some random abandoned home which Joza fixed up. They referenced abandoned houses. I have heard about Czechs abandoning their homes (after they emigrated, because they could not pay the mortgage, etc.) I have also seen first hand that the registration of abandoned homes in the land records. It was really interesting to me to visualize what that might have looked like.

And of course, to visualize the home itself. It was actually bigger than the Trojanovice home in the open-air museum which we visited. But it was also very similar, and the stove was straight from a Josef Lada illustration.
All in all, I really loved this film. Oh yeah, I should mention that I only watched the first half with English subtitles. For some reason, the only subtitles I could find were split into two files, and I couldn’t find an easy way to append the files together. So I just watched the second half of the film in Czech, and I think I understood most of it, at least the gist of it, anyway.

I think at one point the Gestapo thinks they have caught Eliška’s trail, but then they can’t find her because she blends in so well, so...they decide to shoot the witness point blank in front of everybody? What!?

What I didn’t understand very well was basically anything involving the Russian soldiers (I think they were Russian...they seemed to say, “Na zdrovya” instead of, “Na zdráví!” when they were drinking. But I think this is because I don’t really know very much about this part of history, and it’s true, it’s like a black hole in my knowledge, learning about Russian relations with the Czech world.

Here’s what I think happened: the Russian soldiers come to the village. Everyone is excited and serves them. I don’t really know why. They get insanely drunk and crazy. They start shooting their guns. Everybody goes home. One of the Russian soldiers decides to rape one of the villagers. He is shot by another villager (and she - with her brand new baby! - is rescued by Lipka), and the Russians go crazy shooting everybody? Um...what? Why? The villagers all run and hide, and try to treat their wounded. Joza is shot in the process of trying to save the guy who originally killed the first Russian, and he loses so much blood that he dies.

The other thing I didn’t really understand was the very, very ending. But then I talked about it with Petra, and I think I get it. We never really know what happened to Eliška, but the ending is 20 or so years later, after she has obviously gone back into the “real world” again. She’s wearing 1960’s clothes. She goes back to Želary, meets one of the old women who remembers her when she was Joza’s wife, she’s totally shocked that she’s still alive, and then they both start laughing like crazy people. But...why? Petra says it’s just black Czech humor, to laugh when you should be crying. I guess I do understand that; I just wasn’t sure if I had missed something.

I think you could watch the film and see just the story (which by the way, is apparently based on a true story!?) You could also watch it and see some interesting symbolism. Something about how the poor, small, miserable, weak, and oppressed can still accomplish really great feats of heroism and courage, and how this symbolizes the Czech/Moravian spirit. Maybe some other symbolism in how the Catholic church, which was the cornerstone of morality and stability in society, was completely obliterated by communism, just like how he was shot to death suddenly by a machine gun, for no logical reason whatsoever. There were also some serious themes of forgiveness, when Joza, the biggest hero of the whole story (and a little bit of a Gary Stu trope) goes back and saves the life of the jerk whose arm he broke (and rightfully so; he was trying to rape his wife! Actually, I don’t know...maybe he succeeded...I didn’t see...I guess he probably did not).  

Here are the questions I have now that I have seen this film:
  • Just how out-of-the-way of World War II were my ancestral mountain villages?
  • I know my ancestors drank. I know that my great great grandfather Bedrich Michna died of something related to alcoholism (another really excellent reason for me not to drink). How did alcoholism and excessive drinking affect my ancestors’ daily lives?
  • Rape. There was a lot of it in this movie. How common was it, and how were victims perceived/treated?
  • They did not spend a lot of time showing how Eliška would not be accepted into Želary. It was briefly alluded to, and then she was *poof* immediately besties with the other women. I wonder how small village life and its gossiping and nosiness would have actually been like for a woman in this situation. Would she have made friends easily?
  • The orphans were just kind of free to wander wherever they wanted. The one little girl seemed pretty pleased to do it, and her pastoral happiness seemed to be over glorified. It would have sucked to have been in her position. I guess that is what makes her such an obvious choice for a symbol if the Czech spirit of resilience in the face of huge obstacles.
  • I liked how the movie portrayed the Priest as “the good guy.” Too often, Priests are vilified. What would a priest back then have really been like?
  • Life there seemed like a lot of backbreaking physical work. In the most beautiful place imaginable, though. How would my Czechs have felt to leave this place? They would have had complex feelings of longing to both return to their mountain and stay in Texas. How can I learn more about this?