A Journey Forward to Seek the Past

By+Kathe Brunton

Life+Spaces Editor travels to Europe to find family and history

On a day of dark clouds and pouring rain, 5,000 miles from home, in the parking lot, of all places, a McDonald’s in Vienna, Austria, Denise (Kuzmits) Crowel met up with her past.

Stepping out of her rented Ford Fiesta, she approached a man she’d never met, but whose face held familiar lines and features.

“Martin?” she asked.

“Denise?” he replied.

And so the circle was complete. The journey that began when Denise’s curiosity was sparked by a family chart had now culminated in a long-anticipated “reunion” with the family she never knew.

“I can only liken it to what it must be like for an adopted child to meet his or her birth parents,” Denise said. “To know someone is out there with the same DNA and then to finally meet them, it’s indescribable.”

The story actually starts in 1912 with Denise’s grandparents, Frank and Katherine Kuzmits. Frank arrived in America as a stowaway to escape the war that was to come. Katherine followed in 1913, traveling by train from Hungary to the German coast, where she boarded an ocean liner and set sail for her husband and a new life in America. Both left behind their families, including Frank’s brother Joseph Kuzmich (Frank changed the spelling of the family name shortly after arriving in the US), never to return to Hungary. Three generations and 98 years later, the two halves of the family once again looked into each other’s eyes. “It was like a movie,” Denise recalled. “Martin stepped out of his car and we embraced. I felt a sense of completeness, that I had reached an ending point. There was a sense of peace and an understanding that they are there and we are here and we’re now officially a worldwide family.” As Joseph Kuzmits’ great-nephew, Martin is a second cousin once removed to Denise, making him a third cousin to Denise’s 20-year-old son Colin, who joined her on the trip.

The month-long journey in June had been in the planning stage for a year, as Denise researched her family tree, interviewed aunts, uncles and cousins, researched and planned the overseas trip, and made initial contact with Christa Toth of Eisenstadt, Austria, also a second cousin once removed.

“Christa was my one and only lead in Europe, and all that I had to work with was a cancelled envelope from a Christmas card she sent to Aunt Rose,” Denise said. Rose continued to stay in touch with Christa after Rose’s visit to Hungary over 30 years ago. It was Christa who put Denise in touch with Martin.

Denise added, “Several months had passed before Christa had the opportunity to reply to my letter because of her busy teaching schedule, and I became more and more anxious to hear from her.” After several months of emails back and forth, the trip finally arrived.

“In New York, we were basically tourists. I didn’t yet feel the impact of what was about to happen,” she said. Denise and Colin boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Brooklyn bound for Southampton, England. “It all started to become more real. I told myself, from here is a new journey into the past. What an incredible experience it was on the QM2 as it departed New York Harbor and passed by Ellis Island, where my grandmother first arrived, and the Statue of Liberty. What an experience that must have been for her.”

In Southampton, they caught a train to London that continued on to Belgium, where they rented a car and drove through Germany to Vienna, the first official family visit.

Denise intentionally arranged the journey via ocean liner and train because she wanted to experience what it was like for her grandparents when they immigrated to the U.S.

“Of course, I’m sure we had better accommodations on the QM2 than they did,” she laughed.

On the autobahn and as they approached Vienna, she and Colin got bogged down in stopped traffic. Rain was hammering the car as she pulled out her phone to place her first call to Martin.

“I remember the anticipation of dialing his number and hearing his voice for the first time,” Denise said. “We both were very cautious to speak slowly and clearly and hung on each word being said. Martin’s native language is German but he works for an American company in Vienna and is slowly learning English. We definitely gave him a crash course as neither of us spoke German!”

In Vienna, from under the glow of the golden arches, Martin led Denise and Colin through the maze of streets to meet his mother, aunt, brother, sister-in-law and nephew. Only Martin, his sister-in-law Inge, an elementary school teacher, and her son Daniel, spoke English. With the others, Denise said, “We smiled and laughed alot.”

At this point, “The whole experience of the trip began to engulf me,” she said. “I began to notice the similarities in traditions and way of life that I experienced as a child. We were gathered in the kitchen at Martin’s mom’s house and I found myself thinking, this all feels so familiar. I remembered how, every Sunday night, all the aunts, uncles and cousins would go to my grandmother’s, where the kitchen was the central point of our socializing. I felt like I was racing backward in time.”

A burning issue for Denise was to seek an answer to the question of “Why?” Why did Frank and Katherine leave their homeland and travel several arduous weeks to make a new home in South Bend, Indiana? Why didn’t Frank’s siblings Joseph and Maria immigrate to America, too? What would compel a person to leave behind loved ones, knowing they may never see each other again?

In her research prior to the trip, Denise found out that Hungary, like much of Europe, was economically depressed in the early 20th century. With abundant opportunities in the United States for new workers, representatives of the Cunard shipping line traveled from village to village in Europe, encouraging people to seek their fortunes across the ocean—by way of their ships, of course.

However, Martin and his family seemed puzzled by Denise’s question.

“After talking about it among themselves, Martin’s sister-in-law said, ‘It was out of love.’ I thought about this later and realized they were saying that love for his wife Maria was the reason Joseph stayed behind,” Denise recalled.

Saying their goodbyes to the Vienna branch of the family, Denise and Colin joined Martin on a half-hour drive to the family village of Kroatisch Geresdorf, Hungary, to meet her 93-year-old great-uncle Josef, son of Joseph and Maria.

“Meeting Josef for the first time, holding his hand, seeing his face—I can’t describe the feeling of connection that flowed through me, the concept of invisible threads that connect us all,” Denise said. “I looked into his eyes and thought about the fact that Josef is my dad’s first cousin, but they never met and now I have the opportunity.”

With Martin as translator, Denise shared with Josef the family chart put together by her now deceased uncle Leo Wallisch after one of several trips he made to Hungary. The chart is what had spurred her on this journey. With Josef, at age 93, unable to connect with or read any of the names listed, Denise asked Josef and his son Otto, with whom he resides, if they had family photos to share. Otto brought to the table their very old family albums, where Denise and Colin found a few surprises.

Over the years and decades since 1913, the American family knew that Katherine Kuzmits had diligently kept in touch with the family in Hungary, sending letters, photos and care packages to Kroatisch Geresdorf. The link between the two halves of the family faded after Katherine’s death in 1985. Still, Denise was grateful for the legacy her grandmother left behind, including one item in particular that held a bit of mystery: a yellowed envelope postmarked “1912 South Bend” between the pages of the album, but inside no letter or clues as to what made it special.

“Why someone kept that, I don’t know,” said Denise, “but it was fascinating to see it all the same.” She was also delighted to find old photos of her aunt Rose, her father’s younger sister and Uncle Leo’s wife, and their family at various family celebrations. “I was truly among family—there was no doubt. The proof was in the photos,” Denise said.

Denise also came across photos of German military and pondered the family’s connection to the historical world wars of the 20th century.

“I later learned that my father’s brother, Emmanuel, who resides in South Bend, fought in WWII and most likely against Josef and the Germans,” she noted. History tells the story of how the advancing Nazi military swept the towns and villages of Hungary and forced those unable or unwilling to flee Hungary to fight.

Then, “We were slowly flipping through one of the albums, page by page, looking at very old photos of unfamiliar people and places, when all of sudden I found myself drawn to a baby picture,” Denise recalled. “I immediately felt a strong connection to it. There was an incredible resemblance—and surprisingly, to me! All those thousands of miles away, in my family’s homeland, to see a picture of me as a baby—it was incredible. I was just astonished. I knew then that this trip was destined to be!”

With her emotions already at a high point—“I really didn’t think I’d cry as much as I did,” she recalled. “My eyes were constantly red”—Denise and Colin also took time in Kroatisch Geresdorf and nearby Nikitisch to walk through the local family cemeteries to search for the gravesites of family members.

“I had no idea to expect so many familiar names. One right after the other, nearly every headstone had my family’s name,” she noted.

Denise wanted to sit and savor the moment in that quiet place. “But thunder and lightning was rolling in over the hillside so we became anxious to wrap things up,” she said. “but we didn’t want to. Again, it was like being written into a script for a movie, so surreal.”

From a friend who had previously visited Kroatisch Geresdorf, Denise heard of a street named after South Bend in honor of the many villagers who had immigrated to the River City. Sure enough, as they turned a corner perusing the village streets, she and Colin found the street sign that simply read: “Sofbend” on the side of a building.

Reluctantly leaving family behind, Denise and Colin spent their last few days in Budapest, the capital city that is steeped in history and Hungarian culture. They took a tour bus one day, and the next attended mass at the 105-year-old cathedral across the street from their hotel.

St. Stephen’s Church is a massive, towering neoclassical structure in the heart of Budapest. Housing a reliquary that contains the “Holy Right,” the right hand of revered King Stephen, St. Stephen’s is the second highest point in Budapest.

During the 10:00 a.m. mass, Denise recalled, “We were surprised by a symphony accompanying mass in the back of the church and the music was overwhelmingly incredible. I was so moved by the music and the acoustics in the cathedral and the emotions drawn out from the mass. The two hours felt like 10 minutes. The final hymn was that of the Hungarian national anthem, which brought out emotions within the entire congregation. And even though Colin was right beside me the whole time, it wasn’t until we walked out that we both realized we were in tears. To have the experience myself and to know that my 20-year-old son was affected the same way, I just couldn’t put a price tag on it.”

From there, it was back on the road to Eisenstadt, Austria, for a first visit with Christa, who is also a second cousin once removed to Denise. Eisenstadt, just across the border from Hungary, is capital to the area called Burgenland. Located there is the famous Esterhazy Castle and the Bergkirche, where famous composer Joseph Haydn is buried.

The journey home was bittersweet as Denise and Colin were excited to share all they had experienced with family at home, but they also wanted more time to spend with their newfound family and continue their research.

Denise and Colin reversed their route, driving the autobahn back through Germany on to Belgium, taking a train to London and Southampton, and boarding the QM2 back to the States, carrying not only souvenirs and hundreds of photos, but also memories indelibly etched into their minds and hearts.

“Sailing back into New York Harbor had so much more meaning to both of us,” Denise said. “It felt so good to be back in America—home again! We were also touched by the British visitors on the ship and their visible emotional reactions to seeing the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline for the first time.”

Yet her journey continues.

“Once was not enough,” Denise said. “I’m now anxious to research my maternal grandparents’ family tree as they also came from the same region of Hungary. I want to go back in a few years and take a group with me. I learned a lot about the area and how to do a genealogy trip. I want others to experience this, too.”

In journeying to seek her past, Denise has opened up a bright new world for her future.