With such a huge diaspora, more and more people of Croatian origin around the world are becoming interested in trying to trace their family history back in the ‘old land’. With Croatia having such a rich and vast history, a lot of people who are looking at discovering their family history do not know how or where to start.
We spoke to Croatian genealogist Sanja Frigan Ciuha, who helps people trace their family roots in Croatia through her genealogy service Croatian Roots, to give us an insight in to what can be a very rewarding field.
Born in Zagreb, Sanja graduated from the University of Zagreb with degrees in history and the Russian language. She soon became a teacher, teaching history in a high school in Zagreb. After initially doing genealogical research as a hobby, tracing her own family tree down to the year 1699, she started working as a professional genealogist, researching family trees of hundreds of customers of Croatian origin spread out all over the world (USA, Canada, Australia and South America). She is also one of the founders of the Croatian genealogical society “Pavao Ritter Vitezović“.
Hello Sanja, can you tell us how you got into genealogy?
Good day. My brother went to live in the United States back in 1988. It was from him that I got the idea to trace our Frigan family tree. That was back in 1994. We did not meet either of our grandfathers, I barely remember one grandmother, and our parents never told us about our family history. So I started exploring our family first, and it was of benefit to me as a history teacher. At my brother’s initiative, there was even an advertisement about me in the Zajedničar newspaper. So people started to find out about me. And so, I’ve been dealing with genealogy for 25 years.
Can you tell us a bit about services you offer people who are interested in tracing their roots?
It is well known that Croatia has had major migration waves throughout history (especially at the turn of the 20th century and after the Second World War). The descendants of the then emigrants are interested in exploring their genealogy tree and linking it to possible relatives in the old homeland.
I offer these people research on birth, marriage and death registers, I write letters to people with their surnames to find living relatives, sometimes visit local archives in case there are no sources in Zagreb, search for original birth certificates or certified birth copies of their ancestors from local archives or birth registry offices, sometimes I drive them to their hometown.
What is involved in researching a family history?
My research is very narrow and focused on searching the registry books page by page. When I come across important information, then I take a photo of it and send it to clients.
In genealogy, one can still explore military books, cadastral maps, search travel documents, lists of church tithes. However, my time is very limited because I work full time in a high school in Zagreb. Therefore, I do not extend my research to these areas.
How far back can you usually trace?
In order to go as far as possible in the past, the main prerequisite is that there are registers. If the books exist, then you reach the first half of the 18th century, sometimes it goes into the 17th century. Aggravating circumstances can be things like unreadable manuscripts, damaged books, in some coastal places Glagolitic script was used which I am not able to read.
When did Croatian surnames originate and what is the connection with the ending ‘ić’?
The registers began to be kept from the 16th century in response to the Catholic Church’s reformation, it was necessary to enumerate the population from which the Church tithes were collected. They are our main and rich source of Croatian surnames.
Some surnames are associated with matrons (female names Kate, Mare, Bare), so the surnames Katić, Barić, Marić were created, then with patrons (male names Jure, Šime, Bartol, Lovro) so the surnames like Jurić, Šimić, Bartolić or Lovrić were created.
The ending “ić” has the function of emphasising that it is “the little one of Jure” or “the son of Bartol”, etc. A lot of surnames were connected with people’s professions – Kovač (blacksmith), Kuhar (cook), Stolar (carpenter), whilst some surnames indicated that in the past the child was abandoned eg Nahod, some surnames reflected physical characteristics such Čosić, Debeljak, Žutić etc. There are also very funny surnames that exist like Salata (salad) and Kupus (cabbage).
Do you have any interesting stories from your work tracing family roots and finding ancestors?
Of course, I researched the last name Peteh from Žminj (Istria) a long time ago. Peteh is a rooster, a cock. And all was well and then somewhere in the 20s they lost track, Until I realised that Italians, during the fascist rule in Istria, had completely changed their last name to Gallo, which was rooster in Italian.
It was quite interesting when no one answered my letters that I sent to individual addresses after researching the surname Pavelić. Then I went to Mirogoj and to one grave, which I knew belonged to this family, put a letter in a plastic envelope in the hope that someone would find it. It wasn’t long, a lady from that family answered. And the consequence is that Barb from America met a large number of her family here in Zagreb. It was an honour to spend the day with them.
What advice would you give someone wanting to know more about their family roots in Croatia?
I think they should first collect all the possible information about their family (about place, age). The more data you have, the more likely you are to succeed. It is also useful to use Ellis Island because it is through this port that many people come to America. There is also an online version of Family Search books today, so people can research their genealogy themselves, then sites like My Heritage and Ancestry, etc. Although, some of these sites also contain incorrect or approximate information.
How do most people get in contact with you?
Most often through my site www.croatianroots.com. However, I also gained a large number of clients through Mr. Robert Jerin, who brings Croatian-born Americans to Croatia every year. Well, this is the second time this year. He is the creator of the Facebook page Croatian Heritage and Genealogy where people exchange experiences, ask for advice, write Croatian recipes etc.