I began this trip to Central Europe because of my family history, which I know only in its broadest outlines. When, as a child, I asked my mother about my grandparents’ background, she told me they were from Austria. I knew they had come to the US from another country, that they didn’t speak English very well, or write it for that matter, and that they spoke German to each other and to most of their children. I had learned enough about European cultures to realize that Austrians spoke German, so my mother’s observation led me to believe that part of my family background was Austrian.
Many years later, after I had actually travelled through Austria, I spoke with my grandmother about how much I had enjoyed Vienna. Vienna, she let me know, had been very far from where she grew up, and the way she described the distance suggested that she and my grandfather were from some place much to the east of Vienna. I knew enough of European geography to know that any place east of Vienna was not in what we now know as Austria. If I were to claim my grandparents ethnic identify, it could not be Austrian. What I figured out was simply that my grandparents had been citizens of some part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, before they immigrated to the U.S. I never learned more from my grandmother about her origins other than it was a small farming village.
Once I began cooking for myself, I researched some of the foods that my mother had made and learned quickly that the most basic family dishes I remembered, paprikas and goulash, heavily laced with paprika, were Hungarian, as was my favorite desert, “palascinta,” rolled, jam-filled crepes. Stuffed cabbages and stuffed peppers were represented in the cuisines of many other countries in this part of the world. My grandparents were not Magyars so I assumed they must have been influenced by that culture, an influence which extended into the many countries of central Europe. Piecing these bits of family information together gave me just the smallest glimpses of my grandparents’ background. I cultivated an interest in Hungarian culture and the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and I planned some day to visit Budapest and revisit Vienna.
I did finally learn more specific information about the background of my parents. My grandfather had written a memoir, late in his life, in German. An uncle managed to have it translated into English and presented copies to many in the family. I learned that my grandparents had grown up in a town named Erdevik in what is now Serbia. At the time he and my grandmother (and many other relatives and friends from the same area) left that part of the world and ended up in southeastern PA. Erdrvik, before the breakup of the Empire after after WWI, was in Vojvodina, an area fought over by Hungarians and Turks throughout the 19th century. It was also a hotbed of Serbian nationalism. In his stories of growing up there, my grandfather emphasized his Germanness and was not shy about emphasizing his sense of difference from the Serb polpulation.
So, the real story was that by grandparents were born in an area that is now Serbia but they maintained a German identify in a contested multi-cultural state. As background for my trip I brought with me Between the Woods and the Water, vol. 2 of a 3 volume travel narrative by Patrick Leigh Fermor, tracing his walk from Holland to Constantinople in 1934. As he passes through Hungary and Rumania, he describes in intensely romantic and heroic language the fading Hungarian culture. The empire had been disassembled in 1918, after WWI. The ’30s were about to erupt; memories of a golden age would be irrevocably debunked. Though museums would remain. Fermor taught me that throughout this region were pockets of Germans, whole communities, some of whom had settled after the Thirty Years War and had retained their German culture, architecture, and language, while living among local cultures. Ultimately, my grandparents’s story may just be another version of ethnic conflict and immigration.