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Encouragement to go

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I recently visited my Croatian family for the first time in September 2002. My great-grandparents, my grandfather and great aunt emigrated from Netretic' (near Karlovac) in the 1920s, although I have since discovered that my great-great-grandfather had lived in the Pittsburgh area for several years on a couple of occasions before finally returning to the village. My grandfather had returned to Netretic' in 1980 for a visit before he died in 1998. Strangely enough, he told me sometime before his death that all our relatives had probably died and that there would be no more Netretic's in the village of Netretic'.
Since shortly before my grandfather's death, I'd been trying to gather as much information as I could about our Croatian roots and history. Unfortunately, my grandfather was more than a little senile by the time anyone actually realized he knew much about the family. He never talked about his childhood or family, having changed his name from Stjepan Netretic' to Stephen Netrick as soon as he was legally able to do so. (My great-grandfather retained his name, Petar Netretic' with the exception of adding an "h" to the end. Grandpa was always very anxious to be thought of as "American" and did his best to assimilate as quickly as possible. In all the years I knew him, I never heard him utter a single Croatian phrase. My father said the only time that he could remember my grandfather speaking Croatian with when he visited my great-grandfather, who never learned to speak any English; or when my grandfather was really mad and he would swear.
The Internet has been a godsend to people like me who want to research their genealogy and have almost no information with which to begin. I started with a Yahoo! search on the name "Netretic" to see what came up. To my surprise, I got about 5 "hits." Two of those led to the Federation of Eastern European Family History Societies (FEEFHS) website,   After surfing around for a bit, I found various Croatian genealogy websites and posted a message asking for any information on either the village of Netretic' or the family. A Croatian man in Zagreb saw my posting and offered to help me find my family. Within a couple of emails, he directed me to the Croatian phone directory and Voila! I had the names, addresses, and phone numbers of 7 people with the surname Netretic', 5 of whom had addresses listed in the village of Netretic'.
I have to be honest, it was so thrilling, but so intimidating to find these names so quickly that I didn’t contact them for about a year. I just didn't know where or how to start. Finally, a totally unexpected opportunity arose and I found myself about to attend a conference in southern Serbia. At that point, I had to write to them and see if they'd be at all interested in meeting me. So I sat down and explained who I was and that I might (or might not) be a relative and asked if I could meet them if I came for a visit. I mailed the letters and much to my surprise, about 2 weeks later I received a letter from my cousin Ivan in the village. Ivan is the family patriarch and lives on the property owned by the family. In fact, the garden between Ivan's house and the house where my great-great-grandfather lived is the very spot where my great-grandfather’s house stood before his emigration. My grandfather was born in that house. Ivan explained that his father and my grandfather were first cousins, so that we were also cousins. Ivan lives with his wife and their grown son, his wife and their two small sons. Ivan also has a sister, Jana, who lives down the road with her family. Her daughter Katica is married to the local police chief. Of course, they all invited me to come and meet them. They explained that there wasn't much to the village these days, but that they'd be happy to meet me. Later, I received an email from another cousin, Zlatko, who is with the Croatian Army and lives in Rijeka with his wife, Vesna, and their two college-age sons, Josip and Dalibor. They were simply thrilled to hear from a cousin and invited me to Rijeka to stay with them in their home for as long as I wanted.
I had a colleague who is a Bosnian Serb call my family to confirm when I'd be in Croatia and that I would like to visit. They let her know that I was welcome to visit, but that they couldn't really put me up in their home since they had 3 generations already living there. They also explained to my friend that there wasn't much to see or do in the village, so not to expect too much. She got the distinct impression that they were embarrassed, but that they were fairly poor. Ivan is a retired sheet metal worker who worked in Germany and would return home on weekends. His son Ivica is unemployed with a wife who works in a small store in Karlovac. Because of all these circumstances, I opted to only visit for one day and to stay in a hotel. That worked out well, although the next time I go back, I know I will want to stay longer.
The gentleman from Zagreb who had helped me find my relatives and who had served as a faithful translator for my letters picked me up at my hotel and drove me to the village, which is about 8 miles SE of Karlovac. Gjuro ended up being in the same profession as me, so we have become fast friends over the past few years. Although I had told my relatives I’d be arriving after 1:00 in the afternoon, they were expecting me early in the morning. I never figured out why that was, but anyway I arrived and met them all and we had a wonderful visit. We went to the two churches in the area since the family seemed to attend both at different times and looked at the tombstones of my relatives. I was absolutely astounded to learn that my great-great-grandfather had lived into the 1950's and that he had married a much younger woman late in life. His stepdaughter, Katarina, still lives in the house he built shortly before his death. As I mentioned earlier, this house stands next to Ivan's house with the garden in between. Katarina is an old lady now, but she had photos of my great-grandfather's house before they tore it down and planted the garden and she also had pictures of my great-great-grandfather. Katarina's daughter, Marija, happened to be visiting from her home in Salzburg, Austria, so I was lucky enough to meet her, too. She invited me to visit her in Salzburg and gave me her address there.
I had made sure before I arrived that they knew I wanted to take them all out to dinner, so we all went into Karlovac to a lovely restaurant. We sat and ate and drank toasts to our family and to meeting one another, and also to my friend Gjuro who had been such a tremendous help in getting us all together. It was after midnight before we said our farewells and I went to my hotel in Karlovac while they went back to the village.  While I had been very nervous about meeting them, they made me feel like part of the family immediately and there were tears at our parting that night. I also got teary-eyed talking to my cousin Ivan because he resembled my father, who had recently died, that it got me choked up at times to look at him. If people think that they won't look like their relatives when they meet them, they're in for a big surprise. Here's a photo of Zlatko and me (on the left).
The next morning, I took a taxi to the train station and then took the train to Rijeka. My two college-age cousins picked me up at the station. I recognized them because they had told me in an email that they were very tall, and both of them were well over 6' when I spotted them. These cousins are not sure about how we are actually related. But Zlatko considers Ivan his cousin, and since I'm Ivan's cousin, then we must be cousins, too, to Zlatko's way of thinking. Zlatko and Ivan were the best man ("kum") at one another's weddings, and in Croatian tradition, that makes them family. Interestingly, Zlatko, his son Josip and I all had a strong family resemblance. We all had the same coloring and round faces. While cousin Ivan looks a whole lot like my late father, Zlatko could pass for my brother. So, in the end, we don't know the particulars on the family tree, but it was fairly obvious we are blood-relatives.
In Rijeka, I stayed in the apartment with my family. Rather than feeling really strange, it felt quite natural to be immediately accepted and blended into the family. We visited all the important sites around Rijeka, ate the best fresh seafood dinner at a restaurant they were dying to take me to, and spent an evening on the beach together. We had a marvelous time and I hated to leave when the time came for me to return to Zagreb to fly home. Since then, we've all kept in regular contact and they keep inviting me back to visit again. In fact, Zlatko and Vesna want me to retire there and live with them.
My advice to people who find their Croatian relatives is to take the plunge and go visit them. The Croatian people I met, not only my family, but all the Croatians I encountered, were courteous, friendly and very down to earth. At last, after a lifetime of wondering about my lost roots, I have found them. All I can say is that the feeling of knowing where I came from and where I belong is wonderful.
Lorraine Netretic'