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INTERVIEW: Genealogist Lidija Sambunjak Talks About Tracing Croatian Family Roots, Surnames & More

historyWith such a huge diaspora, more and more Croatians around the world are trying to trace their family history back in the ‘old land’…

With Croatia having such a rich and vast history, a lot of people looking at discovering their family history do not know how or where to start. Croatia Week spoke to leading Croatian genealogist Lidija Sambunjak, who helps people trace their family roots in Croatia, to give us insight in to what can be a very rewarding field.

Hi Lidija, can you tell us how you got into genealogy?

16 years ago I met an interesting American, who was a descendant of an immigrant from a village my grandmother was from. They carried the same surname and I just wanted to see if we were related anyhow. About a month later, we knew we had the same pair of great-great-grandparents and that started a marvelous journey for me.

Can you tell us a bit about services you offer people who are interested in tracing their roots?

Most of the times people contact me with hopes of getting to know more about where their last known ancestors came from. But it is also very common for people to try to find living relatives as well, and this projects make me really happy. Connecting families together that didn’t know of each other is one of the greatest rewards of this business. Not that searching for documents which later help people apply for Croatian citizenship don’t matter, of course.

Newfound cousins share their old photographs

Newfound cousins share their old photographs

How do most people get in contact with you?

They usually hear about me from former clients or Facebook pages. But there are also those who specifically search for a professional in Croatia and find me through our webpages. Me and my husband also developed a website www.croatian-genealogy.com where we wanted to gather information which might help people in doing their own genealogy and where people can find enough data to get them going.

What is involved in researching a family history?

Lots of patience, for sure. Croatian history is rich and full of events that help someone establish a bigger picture of how their families lives and where they came from. But when researching personal histories, one needs to rely on written documentation which was, most of the times, written by local priest in church vital books, school directories and some in secondary historical documentation.

How far back can you usually trace?

Usually until the church vital books run out. So it merely depends on the quality and year range of church vital books for each of the parishes people came from. For example, if someone was from north-east part of Croatia, they can usually trace their lineage back to 17th or 18th century, but if they were from Lika area, or specific parishes in Lika, a beginning of 19th century already counts as a success.

A parish birth book from the parish of Svetice near Ozalj

A parish birth book from the parish of Svetice near Ozalj

You wrote an article on your website about popular surnames. When did Croatian surnames originate and what is the connection with the ending ‘ic’?

Surnames as we know them today didn’t exist until 16th century when it was set as such with Trident council of Catholic church. But noble families had surnames or nicknames even prior to that. Lots of Croatian surnames that end with ‘ić’ have that as a statement of someone’s lineage. For example Marković means ‘Marko’s son’, or Božidarević means ‘Božidar’s son’. So ‘ić’ could be the same as Mac or Mc in English-speaking languages.

Do you have any interesting anecdotes from your work tracing family roots?

Every research is a story for itself and there are many of those that made me cry and those that came as a surprise. But once I had a family from America who were looking for their living relatives. After I found them and contacted them, the lady thought I was a solicitor and just wanted to get into their house to sell them stuff. Imagine her surprise when I showed at her doorstep with four of her long-lost cousins she had never even heard of.

What advice would you give someone wanting to know more about their family roots in Croatia?

Start with the research in your own country first. Do as much research as you possibly can on your own, and once you have gathered all the information you can contact a professional. There are also many church books from Croatia published online at www.familysearch.org, so visit that as well, and see how it might help you. Sometimes people’s expectation are too high. Not every Croatian was from a noble family and most of the times photographs of their ancestors cannot be found. So when you start your journey, expect the unexpected and be happy even with little things you find.


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