It was May 2012; my wife and I were visiting villages in the Czech Republic where parts of my family had lived 120 or more years ago. The mayor of one of those villages, who (lucky for me) was knowledgeable in history and skilled in genealogy, suggested we return the next day so he could "do a little research" on my family that evening.
When we came back the next day, he drove us to another village only 2km away, and knocked on the door of a farmhouse there. At his office that morning, the mayor told us that the Czech regional archives had records for my great-great-great-grandfather Jan Polívka, born in a house on this property in 1803.
When the door opened, the mayor introduced us to the Kalous family, the current owners of the house and property. The funny thing? The maiden name of Mrs. Kalous was Věra Polívková - the feminine version of Polívka, an uncommon name now. We could be related - but how?
I had studied my family history only occasionally, and worked on it even less, only for a few weeks at a time about once a decade. Fortunately my mother had been much more diligent, organizing paper and photos and data given to her by her parents and other relatives, and doing her own research within the family and by mail (and later, by internet) for over 40 years. In early 2012, she said it was time for me to carry some of that burden.
My mother's father was born in Nebraska, to immigrants from the Austrian Empire; his father came from Bohemia, his mother from Moravia. He grew up in a farming community with many Czech families, and was very proud of his Czech roots (even though he fought in France against Germany and the Austrian Empire in WWI).
My mother built and maintained our family tree, for both sides of her family and both sides of my father's, equally; having a measure of Czech pride herself it had always been a bit frustrating that we we knew less about her father's family than any of the other branches.
So in 2001, she hired a researcher in the Czech Republic to take the family lore about names and places, and look for records and real family history in the old country. Mr. Kovalda did an excellent job; looking through the parish records, he found birth records for my immigrant great-grandparents, their parents and siblings, and partial information a generation further back; we finally had a real connection to Bohemia, and a sketchy connection to Moravia.
In 2002, my parents planned a trip to Europe which included visiting the two villages in which my Czech great-grandparents were born. I was working in England at the time; my wife and I joined my parents for the village visits, and were thrilled to stand on the ground in those places.
Another decade passed. When my mother handed the family tree to me, I decided to concentrate on records, to back up and refine the data she had assembled, and to try to fill in a few blanks.
I started with US census records for all branches of my family. But my wife and I were living for three months in Kraków, so I took advantage of our proximity to plan another visit to the Czech Republic.
An ordinary internet search for the Bohemian village of Podolí led me to a newly-published village history book written by a local historian; the mayor's office website said the book was available for sale. I wrote to the mayor's office and made an appointment during the few days we would be in the area; I don't speak Czech, so it was Google Translate and some humor to bridge the gaps in understanding.
After setting a date to meet, the mayor wrote me to ask about my family connection to the village. When I told him my great-grandfather was named Kálal, he replied that the name was common in the area, and did I have any other info. I sent him a copy of my Czech tree, and then worked on travel arrangements.
When my wife and I arrived in Podolí a month later, Mayor Michal explained that while there were several Kálal families connected to the village, there were no descendants of my own family still in the area. But he did have a very happy surprise for us: he had been on a new website for the Czech regional archives, and he found copies of the parish records Mr. Kovalda had looked at a decade earlier, plus additional records which added another generation of information to all of the branches of this family.
But he did more than that: With his assistant Blanka translating to English for us, and using a bit of French as shared second language so we could query the mayor directly, he took us to see three places in Podolí where my family had lived for a time, including the house where my great-grandfather was born. A doctor from the nearest large city (Písek) owns the house and land now, and has done a remarkable job rehabilitating the house since he bought it.
With lots of new information and my head spinning from the things we had already seen, Mayor Michal sent us off to visit other towns and villages in the area where parts of my family had lived, and raised families, and died. And he suggested we might want to return the next day, as he had something he wanted to research for me that evening after work.
So there we were the next day with Věra and her husband and son, in the nearby village of Olešná, looking at photos she brought out to explain her own family history. And she described a chronicle of the house her family had owned before and after the Soviet period. I wrote down as much as I could of the information she shared with us, and poor Blanka tried to handle three simultaneous conversations in Czech and English, with good cheer and a lot of humor, while I stood dazed by the possibility that I had met a "distant" cousin. We parted with a promise to stay in touch, and to try to clarify our relationship.
Věra's information included names and dates for her parents, and names of her grandparents, including her grandfather Josef Polívka. A couple of months later, after my wife and I had moved to Paris as a base for family research in Europe, I mailed her a letter to thank her for her hospitality and to let her know I would be looking in the online archives to try to find our link. She replied by letter also, adding some key info from the house chronicle: three Polívka owners in sequence of the farmhouse in Olešná in the 18th and early 19th century, though not connecting to her grandfather. This was an important clue in the chain of family between us.
For the rest of 2012 I worked on other projects, researching and gathering records for all of my family branches. But in early 2013 I began experimenting in the Czech regional archives online; for February and half of March I worked exclusively on the connection between my Kálal family and Věra's Polívka family.
It was interesting working on these two families; my Kálal family was rather transient, as farm laborers with no owned land, so they moved where they could find work, and lived on land owned by others. The Polívkas were much more stable, owning and working one farm in Olešná for more than 200 years (there were other Polívkas in the parish, but the Olešná Polívkas were easy to spot in the records for much of the documented period).
I found the common ancestor between my Polívkas and Věra's: Jakub Polívka, listed in her farm chronicle as the fifth farm owner. Jakub had two sons, the older František stayed on the farm in Olešná, while the younger Jan moved to Podolí, where his daughter Marie married a Kálal and later emigrated to America to join her sons, including my great-grandfather Josef Kálal.
In the Czech regional archives I was able to follow Věra's line from Jakub Polívka down four generations, but no further, and I could not connect to her grandfather Josef. The available Czech records end around 1900, and I had a half-generation gap I could not close with any records. I thought I had identified possible siblings of Věra's grandfather in the records, and there was a man with the right name and right parents in the records, but he was married to the "wrong" woman and didn't fit the expected profile for her grandfather. I had encountered occasional errors in the parish registers before, but not like this; I didn't want to connect the family across this gap.
I decided to send Věra what I had, and ask for help. I printed a descendant chart from the oldest Polívka I had found (Jiři, born around 1660) down 11 generations on my side and about as many on Věra's, with the unresolved gap between her grandfather and the rest of the family. And I explained the problem I had trying to close the gap. Although we had not been able to connect via email before, I included my email address again.
Four nights ago I received an email from Věra; she had received my letter and the chart, and she had a correction for me: in our initial meeting in 2012, I had misunderstood the name of her grandfather, which should be František, not Josef. And she had a birthdate for her grandfather. I checked the archives again, and was amazed: somehow I had missed this one child in a family of eight in my earlier research. František was the missing link, and now Věra and I were at last connected.
So we know now that Věra is a fifth cousin to my brothers and me; my nephew and nieces are sixth cousins to her sons. And with the help of the mayor of Podolí and the remarkable Czech regional archives, we are not "distant" relatives, but family. We are hoping to make a family reunion in Olešná and Písek later this year...