As a child, all I knew were the Croatian curse words.
While I possessed a very “San Pedro-like” last name ending in “ich,” the extent of my exposure to Croatian culture was limited to my grandfathers’ cooking during the holidays, those choice curse words, and infrequent visits to San Pedro’s legendary Croatian restaurant Ante’s. My disconnection to my Croatian ancestry led to several awkward, albeit humorous, moments.
Life in San Pedro meant knowing many friends who grew up in households where the primary language was Croatian, Italian, Spanish or even Greek. It was common for friends to frequently visit the Old Country and enjoy staying with relatives. I was always intrigued by how deeply ingrained and important many of my friends’ ancestral heritage and culture were in their modern lives. Perhaps I was a bit envious, but mostly these observations simply drove my curiosity to learn and discover more about my own family history. Little did I know that this curiosity would lead to an amazing journey of discovery, new friendships, a magical adventure abroad, and a definitive silencing of that nagging sense of disconnection.
Sometimes negative events or experiences act as catalysts that inspire us to do something productive and positive. Not long after my 100% Croatian paternal grandfather Andrew and my father Andrew Jr. both passed away just four months apart, I sadly realized what a lost opportunity it was to not seek out more of their memories, stories, and insights about their life experiences and our family history. Although priceless family history had been lost forever, I still wondered if I could still discover and learn. When did my Croatian ancestors make their courageous voyage to America? Who were they? Why did they leave? How was “cousin so and so” and I related? It was time for me to take action and begin exploring my Croatian roots to find these answers.
In 2009, I decided to research my genealogy by signing up with Ancestry.com. I quickly discovered many interesting facts that answered many of my initial questions. My great grandfather Joseph Vitalich (Vitaljic) had emigrated from Croatia (then part of Austria) in 1903 and settled in Tacoma, Wash. Over the next decade, his siblings followed him to Tacoma. Joseph and his Croatian immigrant wife Lucy moved to San Pedro around 1919, presumably for the opportunity provided by the tremendous growth of the tuna industry in the area. Now I was getting somewhere. Fact after fact poured in as I continued my online research. History was coming alive as I laid my eyes on fascinating documents like census records, World War registration cards, and naturalization applications. I was gaining a wonderful perspective on how my family history mirrored the classic American immigrant story.
In Dec. 2009, I received an email from a guy in Seattle named Steve Vitalich. Steve had decided to reach out to me after viewing my family tree on Ancestry.com and determining that we were cousins. Turns out his grandfather Louie was brothers with my great grandfather Joseph. We were indeed second cousins. In an interesting twist, Steve had coincidentally begun researching his family ancestry at about the same time I had. His genealogical curiosity was piqued after receiving several messages of condolences after a person he didn’t know named Vitalich had passed away. Steve had also felt that sense of disconnection with his Croatian roots and had finally decided to sign up with Ancestry.com to get some answers.
Steve and I began communicating frequently and filling in each other’s gaps in family research. Then in a scene right out of a Harry Potter movie, Steve discovered an old shoebox in his attic that belonged to his aunt labeled “Vitalich Family Archives.” The box contained several letters from Croatia to relatives in America, the 1940 death certificate of my great great grandfather Andrija who had lived and died in Croatia, and several remarkable black and white photographs of Andrija’s funeral procession and burial in Komiza, Croatia. Thanks to Steve’s meticulous research utilizing rented microfilmed birth, marriage, and death records obtained from his local Mormon Family History Center; we were slowly able to identify Croatian ancestors back to the early 1700s.
Steve and I finally met for the first time when he visited San Pedro in the spring of 2011. I gave Steve the grand tour, taking care to weave in San Pedro’s fishing history with that of our family. We also squeezed in time to visit family burial sites at Green Hills Memorial Park and at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles where many Catholics from San Pedro had been laid to rest in the early part of the 20th century.
The highlight of Steve’s visit was our family feast at Ante’s Restaurant celebrating my brother Mike’s birthday. Steve had never experienced Croatian food before and was in wide-eyed in amazement when he realized the giant painted mural on the restaurant wall was our ancestral home – the tiny island fishing village of Komiza located on the island of Vis. The friendly waitress happened to be from Vis and she enthusiastically shared some wonderful memories about her early years and life on the island. Then the jovial owner, the late Tony Perkov, came by to say hello. Soon I was the one in wide-eyed amazement as Tony began recalling several entertaining stories involving him and my grandfather. Remarkably, Tony even remembered my great grandfather Joseph sitting in his wheelchair mending fishing nets down by the tuna boats circa 1950. This was the first time I could recall hearing any story about Joseph.
In July 2011, I travelled to Seattle to visit Steve. We visited an abandoned building in downtown Seattle where Steve’s grandfather Louie had started a successful bowling alley. We also took an interesting drive to nearby Tacoma where our ancestors had first settled in America. Tacoma is very similar to San Pedro in that it is a port town with a rich history of Croatian immigrant fishermen. Tacoma even has a Slavonian Hall. (How many towns have one of those?) Another interesting highlight was visiting a remarkably well-preserved 120-year-old two-bedroom cottage located in a well-kept historical residential district. My great grandparents and great aunt and uncle had once lived there together circa 1917.
I also met for the first time my other long lost cousin, Steve’s sister Andrea. It wasn’t long before the three of us over a bottle of wine expressed an interest in planning a trip to experience Croatia. Let’s take this family history thing all the way, we proclaimed. The table had been set for the next phase of our genealogical adventure.
In October 2012, the three of us embarked to Croatia. Although our itinerary included fascinating Croatian destinations such as the capital city of Zagreb, the coastal towns of Zadar and Split, the extraordinary natural beauty of Plitvice Lakes National Park (the Yosemite of Croatia), and the amazing walled fortress city of Dubrovnik, our mecca would clearly be Komiza since at least six generations of relatives had called this island village home.
As we stepped off the ferry onto the island of Vis we were overcome with surrealism. How cool was this? After decades of hearing vague family references to Komiza, years of online and field research, meeting long lost cousins Steve and Andrea, and months of planning our travel, we were now walking in the footsteps of our ancestors.
Komiza has a special connection with San Pedro. Thousands of San Pedrans can trace their roots back to this sleepy fishing town of perhaps 700 people. This fact couldn’t have been any clearer than upon arrival at our first destination, the Komiza cemetery. Walking in the shadow of Komiza’s main landmark the St. Nikola church, the names inscribed on the graves were quite familiar: Bjazavic, Bogdanovic, Bozanic, Mardesic, Marinkovic, Stanojevic, Vidovic, Zuanic. Was I reading a San Pedro yearbook or walking around Komiza?
I had this naive expectation that we would find a cool gothic headstone with a large “Vitaljic” inscribed on it, say hello and give our respects at the burial site, and then pose for some memorable photographs. Not to be. We did find some Vitaljic graves but not those of our particular bloodline. We knew it was unlikely to find any current living relatives in Komiza; they had left for America long ago. So we were determined to at least find our deceased Komiza relatives. Wandering the quiet cemetery confused as how to find our relative’s gravesites, I decided to approach the only other person I saw. Hoping the gentleman would understand at least some English, I hesitantly greeted him and explained in slow simple English our dilemma. He responded, “Oh hey, I’m Frank Biazevich. I live in Everett, Wash. but am moving back to Komiza, it’s where I grew up. Vitalich? You from San Pedro?”
What were the odds?
Steve and Andrea trekked 6,000 miles from Seattle to Komiza and the first person they meet lives just 30 miles from them. The four of us enjoyed a friendly chat. Frank gave us his phone number and promised to ask around for any information about our family. He also recommended we travel across the island to Vis Town to visit the Registration Office where the old public records were kept that might help in our ancestral quest.
The next morning, we eagerly walked into the musty Registration Office. We were fortunate that the first person we encountered was a nice lady who spoke decent English and was quite willing to help. After we explained that we were from the U.S. and looking for our Komiza family records she perked up and smiled; rose up out of her squeaky chair and immediately walked over to a large cabinet full of old records. In another Harry Potter movie moment, she pulled out this enormous book that looked hundreds of years old, blew off an inch of dust, and began slowly turning 150-year-old pages of crinkly parchment. Within minutes we were gazing at small handwritten birth, baptismal, marriage and death records of our ancestors. It was an amazing moment. I felt like Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code pouring over century old secret manuscripts. Steve and I enthusiastically posed with the heavy book for a photo and we graciously thanked the office lady for her help. I then asked forgiveness for not asking earlier for her name. “My name is Sanja Fiamengo”, she replied. Of course, it was another familiar San Pedro last name.
Without public records to dig into during the weekend, we immersed ourselves in exploring Komiza and the surrounding parts of the island. Because the island of Vis was off limits during the Cold War due to its strategic military location, Komiza has been fairly untouched by commercialization. Komiza did welcome an increasing number of sun loving tourists in the summer. But the pace of life here was generally super slow-motion, posted store hours were more like vague estimates, the food and wine were excellent, the natural beauty of the place inspiring, soothing, peaceful.
We wanted to avoid the tourist season in order to experience a Komiza more like what our ancestors would have recognized. Mission accomplished. It was usually quiet enough at any point in the day to hear goats and donkeys chatter blocks away from our apartment balcony.
We walked the Riva, the main street along the shoreline where all the fishing boats were moored, and explored all the small narrow side streets and beaches of Komiza many times over to soak it all in. It became a running joke that almost every single person we met had the same reaction; “Vitalich? You from San Pedro?” Then they would suggest we meet a guy in town named Frank who could help us with our research. Yes, the same Frank who was the very first person we had met by chance that first day at the cemetery.
On Monday, we rejoined the quest to find our relatives gravesite. We eventually confirmed my theory; the grave was there but unmarked. A cemetery worker graciously gave us a ride from town to the cemetery and showed us the exact location. A blank headstone was not terribly unusual; people were poor and couldn’t always afford an engraving. It crossed my mind to pay for an inscription right then and there. The guy who drove us to the cemetery happened to also be the one who actually did the inscribing. I decided to hold off on the engraving, as I wanted to be certain that adding an engraving to the headstone wouldn’t unintentionally encroach on any customs or beliefs I wasn’t aware of.
Our five wonderful days in Komiza felt like a trip back in time. We left Komiza to spend another week along the scenic and spectacular Croatian coast in Split and Dubrovnik. Steve, Andrea and I enjoyed our last night at an outdoor pub in Dubrovnik where after three days of being pub regulars the friendly bartenders had come to memorize each of our drinks of choice. After two weeks immersed in Croatian culture we had become old pros at socializing with the locals, especially servers and bartenders. Steve had studied up on his Croatian in preparation for the trip and was particularly impressive, drawing compliments from many natives during our journey.
Ask, Listen, Learn
We had experienced life in Croatia as best as any novice Croats from America could do. While we certainly learned much about our heritage, we had also grown to know each other better. Steve and I certainly got along great, but Andrea and I hadn’t really known each other at all prior to this trip. Within days we had become best buds hanging out into the wee morning hours at smoky Croatian dive bars blaring Guns N’ Roses to “Gangnam Style.” Casual bonds between distant cousins had evolved into closer relationships.
This adventure was only possible because two people in far away cities were curious enough to begin researching their family history. Genealogy brings history to life. It helps us gain perspective on where we came from and who we are. When we learn about our own family’s past, we make better connections to the broader history taught in school. Our past becomes more relevant to our present.
I urge everyone to research their past; even if it only means simply talking to your parents and grandparents about their lives. Do it before it’s too late. Listen to them, ask questions, learn. I certainly have much more to learn about my ancestry and heritage, but that nagging feeling of disconnection has been replaced with a solid sense of accomplishment. I had taken a giant leap towards understanding and experiencing my Croatian ancestry. The memories of this amazing journey and the friendships that grew between cousins who hadn’t even known each other just four years ago will now last a lifetime. spt