Ancestry: Digging Up the Family Tree

Who am I? Where am I from? These are questions everyone asks. People want to know that they belong and that they are part of a bigger community. Even though Americans might have been born in America, our ancestry most definitely came from elsewhere.

Many immigrants came from Europe, Asia, and Africa, and from who-knows-where. It’s a fascinating adventure to find out where we did come from. For some, the records are clear. Lineage can be traced back hundreds of years due to proper record-keeping. Some people can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower or some other early American migration. Some might be descendants of royalty in some European country. But, for many, the story is a bit murkier. For those of us whose ancestors hailed from Eastern Europe, the facts of the matter may not be so clear.

The name Macharyas, I always understood, was Hungarian. The name itself connotes the very essence of Hungary: Magyarösz. But, an interesting thing happened during ancestry research. Although many of my ancestors came to America in the late 1800s from Hungary (or Austria) they were really from other parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and were not necessarily either.

I lost contact with my father when I was seven years old, and along with him, the entire Macharyas family. For many years, my sister and I wondered what had become of them. Maybe they moved to another country, or had died, or got rich and forgot us. It was not until 1993, when I asked my uncle’s wife to do some checking.

My uncle was a private investigator and had access to DMV records. Since this was 1993, they were able to access this information from a computer! It took only a few minutes and she came up with a name and location. She had found my grandmother in New Jersey. I called her and she confirmed that my father was still alive and living in New York. He had had a hard life. She did tell me one shocking thing though: I had another sister! We all agreed to meet. My wife is from Upstate New York and during a visit there we stopped for a Macharyas family reunion in Kingston, New York. It was an awkward situation, but I did get to see my father and meet my sister and other relatives.

Years ago, I asked a co-worker who had come from Hungary during the Soviet crackdown in 1956, what my name meant. He was the one who told me it simply meant Hungarian. That seemed to make sense and I accepted that explanation.

My father’s family was from Hungary (or so I thought). His mother’s side was Slovakian. My mother’s side was from Minsk, Belarus and from “Austria.” Her father’s side was from “Austria,” too. Well, not really. Confused yet?

A Trip Into the Time Tunnel

My son and I began genealogy research on Ancestry.com. We purchased the trial membership several times and searched around. We were able to pinpoint my mother’s father’s side fairly easily. However, they were not “Austrian.” The area they come from is now Ukraine. Horodenka, to be precise. The paperwork that accompanied them listed them as either Austrian or Galician. Both would be correct for the time. Galicia was the area controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It would seem, that by saying ancestors came from “Austria” they might have well be listed as coming from “Europe” or “Earth.”

We were able to trace back to the mid-1800s and followed the lineage and travels of Wolf Schweiger. We are certain we have the right person because of his connections with other people, some of whom I have met in person.

Chuck the Russian

My great-grandfather, Charles Minkowitz, was from Minsk, Belarus. He came to America in 1904. His papers refer to him as being a citizen of the Russian Empire. He referred to himself as Russian, but, more precisely, he was from the current nation of Belarus.

He married Beatrice Schwarzfeld. I always understood that she was from Austria. Since we cannot find any trace of that family, that may or may not be correct. We think she was probably from Galicia as well. Since “Austria” encompassed such a wide area, it is unlikely that she was from Austria-proper, but it is possible.

Canary in a Coalmine

My father’s side was a fascinating find. I knew his mother was “Czechoslovakian.” I assumed that really meant Slovakia, since the country split in the 1990s, this area could have been Slovakia, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Austria-Hungary, etc. As we found out, Slovakia was correct.

We were able to trace her family directly to Bratislava, Slovakia. My great-grandfather, Robert Benyak, was a corporal in the Austro-Hungarian Army in the late 1800s, before he came to America. The Benyak family migrated to the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania coal mines, which was a common destination for Slovakian immigrants.

The Macharyas side was a bit trickier to figure out, but it was the most important since it’s my last name. We were able to trace the name back to a Valentine Joe Macharyas, who might have been born in 1879 or thereabouts. Here again, his point of origin is listed in several ways. We did find a census form, where his son, Anthony, listed his parents as being from “Czechoslovakia.”

After reading a lot of history of the Pittsburgh area coal mines and the “Magyarization” of the Slovakians, we concluded that Macharyas is most likely a Magyarized name with Slovakian origins.

Magyarization

My great-grandfather was in the Austro-Hungarian Army in the late 1800s. He was from Bratislava, Slovakia.
Cpl. Robert Benyak

From 1867 to 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire constituted most of Eastern Europe. In fact, it was the second largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire, and the third largest in the world. Many current-day countries were part of the Empire for that period, including, of course, Austria and Hungary. But, along with these were Slovakia, Czech, Serbia, Croatia, Poland, Ukraine and several others. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, was the sixth largest city in the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Magyars (or Hungarians) ruled the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that included present-day Slovakia. The Magyars perpetrated ethnic cleansing upon the Slovaks. Slovakia.org describes the process quite well:

It was in 1878 that active Magyarization of Greater Hungary reached its climax. Further, one must realize that Magyarization was not just about the forced use of the Hungarian language. The doctrine’s supposed justifications have root in the then Hungarian notion that a native of the Kingdom of Hungary could not be a patriot unless he spoke, thought, felt and totally identified as a Magyar. Slovaks who remained true to their ancestry, and it must be remembered that the Slovaks were in the region long before the Hungarians tribes arrived, were considered deficient in patriotism. The official political view was that a compromise with the Slovaks was impossible; that there was but one expedient, to “ethnically cleanse” them, to wipe them out as far as possible by assimilation with the Magyars.

Slovak names were changed to become more inline with Magyar spellings. Again, from Slovakia.org:

Even Slovak family names were Magyarized, and any vocational advancement was only given through Hungarians channels.

The Butcher of Slovakia

I believe the original Slovak family name to be Mäsiar, which means “butcher.” The Magyarized form of this name would be Mészáros, which is butcher in Hungarian. In both cases, the audible pronunciation is very close to the pronunciation of Macharyas, which is “muh-SHA-riss.” However, my son was told, when he was in Romania recently, that the name is derived from St. Macarius and really means “blessed.”

I’m going with Slovakian. The most fascinating aspect of this project was not only finding ancestors but finding out how they lived and why they did what they did. I had no idea that my ancestors were Slovaks who migrated to Pittsburgh to mine coal, which was a typical thing to do at that time. I was fortunate enough to know my great-grandfather, Charles, from Belarus, who told me of life growing up Jewish in Minsk in the late 1800s. It was not a good life and he, and many others, migrated to America and made a go of things. He was never rich, but he did OK as a tailor and dry cleaner in Brooklyn. My great-grandmother, from “Austria” died of cancer in 1973, but Charles lived to a full life of 95.

Dig Up the Family Tree

If you find yourself following the journey backward through time and you encounter relatives you never knew, find out what they were up to, what their motivation was and why they became what they did. You will have to dig past the family tree on Ancestry.com to find out. It may require some extra research on trades, geography, geo-political history and customs. But, the trip is a fascinating one.

Veľa šťastia!

Please follow and like us: