Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Search for Roots

I’m determined, before I die, to learn as much as I can about both my mother’s and my father’s side of our family and to take our family tree as far back as I can go.
by Charlie Leck

It keeps me busy – this search for my roots – and I get elated when there are new discoveries and I feel beaten up when I keep running into dead ends.

Have you gone searching for ancestors in an attempt to build a family tree? I have spent the last four years working on this project. First I traced my wife’s family all the way back into the early 1600s and even a family member or so into the 1500s. It was hard work, but the digging was made easier by little clues various family members left laying about when they departed this earthly sphere. My family seems to have left very, very little. So, I pick the memories of my siblings and a couple of cousins and I then dig and dig as best I can.

There is no question that Ancestry.com is a valuable resource – though certainly not cheap. I’ve also tried FamilySearch.org (and didn’t like it) and FamilyLink.com (didn’t get much of anything).

Looking at census records has been the most helpful, but one needs to be careful about them. There is a great deal of human error and there is very imprecise spelling and also poor handwriting. Yet, sometimes, when you find a census report on members of your family and you look at the names of the people living in the household, it is almost as if you are there, in the room, with the census takers and those they are interviewing. And, you often find really big suprises.

My maternal great grandparents, Vaclav and Annie Vavra, lived at 337 East 97th Street in Manhattan according to the 1900 U.S. Census. With them, at the time, lived my grandmother, Emma (age 10) and two of her siblings, William (age 18) and Salma (a sister, age 12). That put them on the very northeast edge or corner of a Manhattan neighborhood called Yorkville. This was a popular neighborhood for German families after Little Germany (Kleindeustchland), down on the Lower Eastside, began to decline in the late 1800s. (I wrote about Kleindeustchland in an earlier blog).

A portion of Yorkville was known as Germantown and another section of it was known as Irishtown. German Boulevard as it was known to the local population was 86th Street, all the way from Carl Schurz Park on the East River to the magnificent Central Park and Fifth Avenue. My grandmother loved to tell us about the fun that could be found in Germantown. There were some terribly popular restaurants there – Café Mozart, Die Lorelei and the Gloria Palast (that also had a movie theatre on the street level). One could count on some mighty fine music and plenty of dancing in all these eateries. The Ideal Restaurant was a popular German style coffee shop and the Kleine Konditorei was a successful little pastry shop.

My Grandma, Emma Svejda, loved having a good time and partying into the wee hours of the morning. My grandfather, Frank Svejda, used to shake his head when she began telling these stories. It was clear that he had a difficult time keeping up with her. German bands played with gusto in many places around the neighborhood and there were always German festival days to recognize and celebrate. Unfortunately, there were strong pro-Nazi sentiments in Germantown during the 30s as well.

Today the Heidelberg Restaurant is still open at 1648 2nd Avenue, between 85th and 86th Street. And, the Steuben Parade still takes place in this neighborhood every year. A couple of German bakeries are still in existence there, too – Orwasher’s and Glaser’s.

Grandfather Vavra and his wife were cigar makers and they plied their trade right out of their home. In the 1910 census, my grandmother, the hot-party-gal, Emma, married then to Grandfather Frank Svejda, was living out in Queens. My Grandpa’s occupation is listed as a fireman; and Grandma listed herself as a “cigar maker.” Clearly she learned the trade from her parents and, perhaps, she dabbled in it.

My grandfather Svejda’s mother, Mary Doubrava Svejda, lived as a widow in that same Germantown neighborhood according to the 1920 census. Her parents, John and Marie Doubrava, lived with her. Mary had arrived in America in 1877, at the age of 12, along with her parents. She married my great grandfather (whose name I haven’t been able to come up with yet) sometime in the late 1800s and had five children: (1) My grandfather, Frank, of course, in 1887. (2) Anna was born in 1883, (3) Louise in ’89 and (4) John in ’92. That fifth child is unaccounted for. Sometime between 1892 and 1900, my great grandfather Svejda died and left Mary, a quite young widow, to raise her brood. So, it was sometime between my grandfather’s 5th and 12th birthdays that his father died. I can remember him telling stories about how difficult it was. At a young age he had to chip in and find ways to make money to support the family. He did everything – from mopping up in the bars at night to selling firewood in the winter. He knew nothing but hard work for almost all of his life. I remember visiting him on his deathbed and regarding how tired and worn down he looked in those last few days and he was significantly younger than I am now.

Family trees are remarkable puzzles to piece together. The effort that goes into the work is awesome and sapping. Yesterday, I spent over 10 hours at the computer – reading, searching, probing!

I won’t burden you with much more of this information – at least until the next big discovery – but, as you know, this is why I write here. This blog is for my grandchildren and for nieces and nephews – that they may one day have some genealogical information to work with in case they want to go deeper.

I have a trip to Germany in mind for this November, to search there, in Bremerhaven (at least) for clues. Family names will dot the labels given for this blog just in case googlers out there are looking for family names that might connect them to me.


or you can sign-in to post a comment on the blog
or you can click on “follow” in the top right hand corner


  1. I haven't seen that picture since I was about 10 years old. I'm searching now also. My name is Don Fecher, I'm 54 and my grandmother was Helen Leck. The people I remember were Aunts Anita and Mattie. Also an Uncle Gus too. I believe your dad was my grandmother's sister. I live in Jersey, but originally from the Bronx. Really interesting reading.

    1. Yes, you've found the right thread... Gud and Madeline Seidel, Anita and Pomp Ciriani. I remember Aunt Helen very well. My father was crazy about her, his sister.I'd like to talk some more. My email is: chasleck@gmail.com