Researching Your Family Tree

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Local Genealogist Offers Advice

Within the first five minutes of arriving in Sopron, Hungary, Gary Gabrich felt his ancestors calling to him. A retired architect and third-generation Hungarian-American, Gabrich had spent countless hours pouring over records in libraries, courthouses and churches, surfing websites, and talking to relatives to fill in the gaps of his family tree.

He recalled, “When I was in my 60s, I began to contemplate my humanity. I was raised in the Hungarian culture in South Bend, but I didn’t know anything about it. So I thought, gee, I’m going to do a little genealogy.”

Gabrich’s research eventually led him on the first of several pilgrimages to the home country of his maternal grandparents. Soon after settling in at his hotel in the village of Sopron near the Austrian border, he strolled into the old town square to take in the sights and sounds of where his ancestors once walked. There, he noticed a blind man playing a violin. As Gabrich approached, the musician began a tune that nearly stopped him in his tracks.

“It was a love song. I started to sing it in Hungarian and the violinist joined in. I had tears in my eyes. It was the only song my grandmother and grandfather had taught me,” he said.

Researching one’s family tree can bring all kinds of surprises and delights, as Gabrich discovered. Denise Crowel hopes her journey is as successful.

The owner of Monkeyhouse Marketing in Mishawaka, Crowel publishes Wedding Day and Life+Spaces magazines. She, too, is a lifelong resident of South Bend, whose Kuzmich (paternal) and Papp (maternal) ancestors emigrated from Hungary.

With her first Hungarian trip planned for June, Crowel is working with Gabrich to learn about the country of her ancestors and how to research one’s family tree. In the first of many meetings between the two, Gabrich shared a map of Hungary, a ship’s manifest and other documents he discovered during his research. He pointed out the villages where Crowel’s ancestors came from, talked about his visits to Hungary and the history of the country, and advised Crowel on how to begin her research.
First off, he told her, start at the St. Joseph County Public Library, where patrons can visit www.ancestry.com for free. (If accessed from a non-library computer, the website charges an annual fee.) On ancestry.com, Gabrich found an abundance of information, including census data and ships’ manifests.

Gabrich also recommended searching the South Bend Tribune death index at the library for names of one’s ancestors, then scrolling through newspaper obituaries that can be found on microfilm.

“Through the obituaries, you can see who the parents and children were and other family members. You can begin to put your tree together,” he said.

Family members can be an excellent source of information, as well. Gabrich searched out and contacted aunts, uncles, cousins and others to find out what family information they had. He also asked each of them if they had letters written between the immigrants and those who stayed behind.

“The only means of communication between the old country and here was letters,” he pointed out. “You can get a lot of good information from letters.”

Other genealogy sources are the Northern Indiana Center for History, local church records and the Family History Center at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Mishawaka.

Gabrich explained that the Mormon church has been microfilming records from all types of churches around the world. At Family History Centers, a searcher can look up a microfilm number relating to one’s ancestral village or town. That microfilm reel can then be requested from the church’s main Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Anyone is welcome at the Family History Center, which has limited hours. Gabrich pointed out that the microfilm records for every Hungarian village is kept at the Mishawaka church, due to South Bend’s large wave of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Mormon church also maintains a website called www.familysearch.org, which offers free family history, family tree, and genealogy records and resources from around the world.

Gabrich acknowledged, “Genealogy either bites you or it doesn’t. It becomes like a jigsaw puzzle—you want to fill in the missing pieces.” He admitted, “It takes a lot of digging to research your family tree.” But for him, the journey has been worth the time.

On his first visit to Hungary, Gabrich connected with a distant cousin, with whom he had previously spoken.

“She was only 20 years old, but through phone calls we got comfortable with each other,” he said. “I told her when I and my wife were coming over. When we got there, she connected me with aunts and uncles.”
He added, “You’re on such an emotional high during a trip like this. It’s like being an adopted child and finding your birth family. Many times you have tears in your eyes as you see the streets where your ancestors walked.”

Come June, Crowel likely will be shedding a few tears, too.
This article is the first in a three-part series. In the second article, Life+Spaces will profile how one prepares for an overseas genealogy trip. The third article will follow Denise Crowel as she makes the journey to Hungary.