A Hungarian Odyssey of Family Discovery

“To my granddaughter, who asked…

That was the way my grandmother began her letter to me. It was 1996. I was 23, in the Peace Corps in Senegal, West Africa, a long way from my Bay Area home. In those sultry days in the village, away from the distraction of modern-day America, I discovered a deep curiosity about my family. So I wrote to my grandmother and asked.

She was everything a grandmother is meant to be, warm and kind, a great cook and an artist. She also had something not quite as typical, a playful spark, a spunky smile and a glimmer in her eye. I loved hearing stories of her carefree days with girlfriends at UCLA before she met my grandfather, a handsome Texan in a military uniform who won her heart.

Mail was quite slow, and a month later I received “Chapter One,” 82 pages written in her carefully sculpted handwriting. The first page was a hand-drawn family tree dating back to the 1700s on her paternal side and the 1600s on my grandfather’s. Her mother’s ancestry was missing.

Mercedes Etelka Ruth, or Jane as she liked to be called, was born in Los Angeles in 1920 to a banker from Pennsylvania and his wife, a woman of Hungarian descent who died giving birth to my grandmother. Her father remarried and rarely spoke of his first wife—so Jane’s maternal history died there.

After my grandmother died, the intrigue of her family’s ancestry faded until several years later when I became friends with a woman from Hungary. When I mentioned that I, too, had Hungarian heritage, she excitedly asked about the family, prompting me to reread my grandmother’s letter.

Other than her great-grandparents’ names, “Odenburg” was the only hint, written under the name of Louis Winkler, her great-grandfather, and next to it, 1849, his year of birth. It didn’t seem like much to go on.

Undeterred, I turned to the Internet. “Odenburg” was listed as the German name for a Hungarian town, Sopron, on the Austrian border. That’s where I would start. I located a Hungarian genealogist, János Bogardi, and with a leap of faith in my grandmother’s diligence, booked a flight to Budapest and a rental car.

Onward to the Past

The country road meandering along the Austrian border to Sopron felt like driving back in time. Tiny villages of brick houses with white picket fences. I could almost imagine my ancestors as the ones driving simple horse carts down the country lane.

Despite the peaceful rural scene, I grew more nervous with each kilometer. What if I was wrong?

I intended to meet János in the town’s main square. “You can’t miss it,” he had told me on the phone. “Meet me in front of the church, near the statue, at 4 p.m.” The weather had changed from dreary to heavy, plump rain. I looked at my guidebook map again, twisting and turning the page to try to get my orientation with unpronounceable street names.

I dashed through an arched alleyway, the medieval city jutting up all around. Rows of beautifully preserved old houses in rich colors, cobbled paths, narrow passageways, churches and spires in every direction and finally a statue and a main square. Hiding in the shelter of a nearby building, János waited patiently.

We spent the next several hours plotting our research in a warm pizzeria over decent pizza and good beer. The city archives were open from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. We would be there when the doors opened.

In the morning, city hall loomed over the main square, ominous in the bleak weather. Queasy with anticipation, I followed János to the archive room. Towering wooden shelves covered each wall of three small rooms, filled with ancient books. The archivist piled large tomes on our table after János explained to her our mission in a hushed voice. Our search would begin in the mid-1800s.

Prior to 1856, important records were kept by religious institutions. Births, marriages and deaths were noted each year in a volume, signed and witnessed. In Sopron’s case, these were the Catholic and Lutheran churches and the local synagogue. Without knowing the religion of my ancestors, we began looking for any record of the Winkler family name, starting in 1849, the reported year of Louis Winkler’s birth.

When the Catholic records produced nothing, we turned to the synagogue’s, which held a few Winkler references, but names that did not match those of my family. As we turned to our last pile of books, that gnawing feeling of doubt returned: what if I traveled all this way to find a dead end? What if “Odenburg” didn’t really refer to where Louis Winkler was born?

Each hand-bound volume of delicate yellowed paper held a clue. We surveyed each entry carefully for any note of the Winkler family name. The writing was scripted in black ink, beautifully cursive, like painting. The language changed from Hungarian to German with the years, evidence of the multilingual and ethnic city that was Sopron.

Each turn of a page brought a history lesson. In medieval times, Sopron was a trade city along the Amber Route and, after 100 years of struggle between the Hungarians and the Austrians for control over the city, became a royal free town by the 1300s. Free from pressure from feudal landlords, a strong, self-determined middle class of artisans and merchants emerged, making Sopron a center of science and education, continuing to modern time.

So unique was this middle class that following the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which effectively ended World War I with the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these independent citizens were allowed to decide their status as part of Hungary or Austria by a local referendum. Sixty-five percent voted in favor of Hungary, winning Sopron the title of Civitas Fidelissima, “the Most Loyal Town.”

I paged through volumes 1845-1850; János took 1851-1855. With no more efficient way of discovery, I began to slow and enjoy the process. I noticed the ages at which people died and the ages at which they married. Some lived until their late 70s, but many died in childhood. Then, there it was, December 1849, the birth of Louis Winkler, to Fredrik Winkler and Erzebet Gut.

It seemed unbelievable. I had really put a piece in the puzzle and found the birth record of my great-great-grandfather. There were also many clues about the other Winklers from Sopron, their lives, spouses, children, and professions.

We left the archives exhausted and elated. I strolled the streets of Sopron with a different eye. I belonged here. My ancestors walked under the bell tower, through the marketplace, and around the old walled city. I wondered what they wore, how they spoke, what they were like. In the Lutheran church, I found a pew with the Winkler name. The Lutheran museum held a framed list of heads of congregation on which Winkler had four entries. The Sopron museum displayed a unique pair of boots, typical of the horse-riding kind of the 18th century — the kind I now knew early Winklers had made.

Another clue from the city archives connected me to a set of Winklers who still live in Sopron. More online research led to Oskar Winkler, who was born in Sopron in 1907 and was a famous Hungarian architect and professor of architecture. He died in 1984, but his children remained in the area. Soon we were calling Barnabas Winkler, Oskar’s son and an architect as well. He happened to be traveling to the Sopron area that day and we set up a meeting.

At noon the following day, I met Barnabas in my hotel lobby. He was a silver-haired man, dressed in black, and wore artsy black-rimmed glasses. He wasn’t particularly tall, but quite handsome, in his early 60s. He looked every bit the architect.

He was also the spitting image of my father. I could barely speak.

While János did most of the talking, I tried to compose myself, but I couldn’t stop staring. His nose, mouth, even ears were my father’s. And then the hands—short fingers, strong and thick. They were working man’s hands, ones I had seen my whole life. There was no doubt this man was my relative.

Barnabas seemed a bit nervous as well, and eagerly looked over the family tree I had drawn. We smiled and spoke in broken English. He told me of the family, all of them artists and musicians — a part of my grandmother and myself I had never found in the rest of my family—and offered to show me the Winklers’ Sopron.

We visited the family plot at the Lutheran cemetery, the university to see a statue of his father, and several of his father’s buildings. Two hours went by in a blur, but my cheeks hurt from the smile I must have been wearing.

That afternoon, I walked through Sopron again, the gray sky no longer gloomy or ominous, but reassuring and familiar. I felt the walled city around echoing footsteps of my ancestors and a deep sense of comfort in having found a piece of myself in this distant land.

CAPTIONS: (middle) János, the Hungarian genealogist. (bottom) Barnabas Winkler and János Bogardi analyzing notes.