The Best $7 I spent in New York

Because Thanksgiving is traditionally a time to reunite and celebrate with family, I’d like to share with you a thrilling discovery I made about my family last November while visiting Ellis Island. Did you know that 100 million Americans alive today can trace an ancestor back to Ellis Island?

Visitors to the National Park (E.I. is a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument) IMG_2338can tour the beautifully restored great entrance hall where 12 million immigrants passed through between 1892 and 1954.

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Me and Joy in The Great Entrance Hall

Downstairs you can research your own ancestor’s arrival in the American Family Immigration History Center. Your $7 buys you an hour to search their computer data base that contains ship passenger manifests for arrivals during that historic immigration period. Over 7 million manifest pages! The data base also includes information on some 6500 ships that brought these immigrants to America, primarily from Europe.

I was thrilled to find my Czech grandfather, Karel Kamis, on the passenger manifest of the SS Kalserin Auguste Victoria that sailed from Cuxhaven, Germany, on April 17, 1913, arriving in New York on April 26th.

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Third Class manifest of the SS K.A. Victoria 4/17/1919

The detailed manifest notes on these 3rd class “steerage” passengers are incredible, all hand written I might add! Personal information documented for each passenger as they embarked included: age, occupation, ethnicity,village, relatives, literacy, how much money they had in their pocket, and whether or not they were anarchists.

I also discovered a second immigration by my grandfatherHe sailed on the SS Niagara from Bordeaux, France on Sept. 20, 1919 and arrived in NYC on October 1st. The cool thing was that upon his first arrival in 1913, his nationality was listed as Austrian and his ethnicity Bohemian because before WWI there was no Czechoslovakia, the old Kingdom of Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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My grandfather, Karel Kamis

Upon his second arrival in 1919, after the War, his country of origin was listed as Czechoslovakia, because that was when those lands became an independent country. History documented before my very eyes!

Interested in doing your own Ellis Island ancestry search but no plans on the horizon to visit NYC? No problem! You can search online at LibertyEllisFoundation.org. This Thanksgiving, if your family relations are less than stellar and it’s difficult to find dinner conversation that everyone can agree on….try generating some enthusiasm for making a family history discovery. You might just start a new tradition.

Dear readers, do you have some family history and/or heritage you would like to share? We would love to hear about it! Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

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My Nazi Legacy Trailer | Video | Independent Lens | PBS

On Monday night I watched a video on my local PBS station that was both fascinating and depressing. You know the kind. The images replay through your mind as you drift off to sleep and linger the next morning like a kind of cloudy malaise.  I don’t mean to suggest that the film is full of gruesome death camp photos, but that the subject matter’s stark and disturbing reality weighs heavily on the human psyche.

For me, there is even a personal connection. Although my family is not even a little bit Jewish, my paternal grandfather’s brother died in Dachau concentration camp. He was a Czech border guard who refused a Nazi officer’s command to shoot people escaping across the border. He was sent to Dachau as punishment and he never came out.

From the PBS Website: “My Nazi Legacy explores the relationship between two men, each the sons of high-ranking Nazi officials, and internationally renowned British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose family perished in the Holocaust. Sands met Niklas Frank and Horst van Wachter while researching his book East West Street, and as the three travel together on an emotional journey through Europe and the past, the film explores how each of them cope with their own devastating family history.”

www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/my-nazi-legacy/

 

How It All Started

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One day while rummaging through a box of my mother’s old photographs and documents I found her parent’s Certificate of Marriage. My maternal grandparents were Czech immigrants to America in the early 1900’s. Both were from small villages in the region of Bohemia. They met in Chicago and were married there on September 15, 1923. Stamped on the bottom corner of the certificate was the seal of the “CoIMG_2244ngregation of Bohemian Freethinkers.” Curious about who this congregation was and what they believed, I began a search to learn about them and in so doing to learn clues about the stock from which I had sprung.

I never knew either of my grandparents. My grandfather died before I was born and is buried in Chicago. My grandmother remarried and moved to California but she died when I was only a year old. My mother told me little about her parents except that they owned and operated a “cigar and candy store” along with my great aunt. It was located on the south side of Chicago, a part of the city with a high concentration of ethnic Czech neighborhoods. They liveIMG_2535 (1)d behind the store as was common in those days.

My mother rarely referred to her family or herself as Czech. Instead, they were “Bohemians” and they spoke “Bohemian.” Like many Europeans who had officially been citizens of large empires through the centuries, my ancestors had always identified themselves by their ethnicity and language.

When she did speak of her father, it was with pride in his active involvement within the Czech community. She remembered him organizing all sorts of musical programs and parade marches in which she participated. He helped to found a Czech school which my mother and her sister attended. Grandfather believed that it was important for Bohemian children to learn Czech history, culture and language. I now know that his efforts were in orchestration with the efforts of a larger community institution, the Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers.

Founded in 1870 in Chicago, the Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers was formed by the large number of Czech immigrants in the city who abandoned the organized church when they reached America. As an alternative, they formed a secular institution that functioned in many ways like a church. The Bohemian Freethinkers built an extensive social network of schools, benevolent socieIMG_2245ties, and fraternal groups that provided a sense of community, belonging, and support.

Besides creating educational and cultural programs, they also provided public forums for political debates and avenues for social action. Freethinkers stayed connected through the publishing of Svornost, their own Czech language newspaper. The Congregation performed civil wedding ceremonies, as in the case of my grandparents, and secular baptisms for their children. They even founded the Bohemian National Cemetery in 1877 as no church would allow Freethinkers to be buried on church grounds.

At some point in their history together, my grandmother found her way to a Protestant church but my grandfather did not follow her. And sometime after that they divorced, though my mother never spoke of it. Perhaps this explained, at least in part, why she told me so little about her parents.

Learning the history of the Bohemian Freethinkers has indeed brought me a greater understanding of my grandparents. But it is my grandfather to whom I feel most connected. He was a poet who promoted the aIMG_2532rts. He was proud of his heritage and loved its history and culture. He was open-minded and brave enough to be independent in thought. I am a writer and a musician. I am dedicated to life-long learning and cultural enrichment. The older I get, the more individuated I become and the more willing I am to embrace change. The more of a Freethinker I become.

I regret that I never knew my grandfather. But even the little bit that I do know explains some of who I am, how I think, and what I love. We are much alike he and I and it is comforting to think that a little bit of him lives on in me. So it is to him that I dedicate this blog’s journey.