Schönau: Reporter searches for his roots in remote Transylvanian town
The Romanian people can trace their roots beyond the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, where the Dacians of southeastern Europe migrated before the birth of Jesus.
So can I. That’s also where my family is from. Well, part of it.
I know embarrassingly little about my heritage other than my family tree is more like genealogical kudzu, stretching from Ireland to England across to Germany and into Finland and Romania.
When I made a trip to Romania this summer to write stories about the U.S. military base near Constanta, I began looking into my family history and plotting a trip to visit the area of my late, ethnic German relatives.
The details are sketchy on my lineage, but I do know that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother came from a small village in Transylvania before immigrating to America in the early 20th century. I don’t know what town they came from before traveling to northeastern Ohio, but I discovered a place called Sona on the Internet.
What interested me about the town is that it was once inhabited by German Saxons, who referred to it as Schönau.
Could it be that my family came from this village, which shares my last name? I didn’t know, but I marked it as destination I had to visit. At the very least, I thought, it has to be near where my great-grandparents lived.
The journey would take me through the Carpathians and into the heart of southern Transylvania’s Saxon villages, but I had no idea it would test my meager navigational skills and stamina.
The history of the Saxons in Romania goes back hundreds of years. Saxons from Germany, Luxembourg and the Moselle Valley went to Transylvania as immigrants in the 12th century. King Geza II of Hungary invited them in hopes that they would defend the kingdom’s southeastern border. Well-respected for its agricultural skills, the Saxon population grew.
In 1902, my great-grandfather, then 18, left Transylvania for the greater Cleveland area. Other Saxons also left, settling in Ohio. The fall of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship drove tens of thousands of ethnic Germans out of Romania, leaving only a fraction of its population behind.
I left the Black Sea city of Constanta, which is near the military base, with hopes of seeing what is left of these Saxon villages and my family. The 320-mile trip would be split into two days.
My first stop was in Brasov (pronounced Brah' shov), a medieval town north of Bucharest. It is a popular tourist destination in Romania, partly because of its history, trendy restaurants and beautiful town square.
But people also go there because it is centrally located in Romania and is a good launching point to other sites. It is, for example, a short drive to Bran Castle, which many people refer to as Dracula’s Castle.
There is plenty to do and see in town, but my time was limited.
Early the next morning, I departed for my next stop, Sighisoara (See ghee swahr' ah). The official Romanian tourist office bills it as “one of the most beautiful and best-preserved medieval towns in Europe.” The area has been inhabited since the sixth century B.C., but the German Saxons founded the town in the 12th century.
It is the birthplace of “Vlad the Impaler,” the Wallachian ruler who was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula character.
The day I was there, the residents celebrated their heritage with a festival.
Vendors sold crafts, children dressed in traditional Saxon clothes danced in the streets, and revelers drank beer and wine while eating local specialties.
I found a bed-and-breakfast near the square that also had a wine cellar built by German Saxons more than a century ago. Shortly after I arrived at Teo’s Wine Cellar and Bed and Breakfast, the owner insisted on showing me the cellar.
“You must have some of Romania’s best plum brandy,” he said, proudly displaying the awards to prove it.
For those who have never had plum brandy, it can best be described as a stiff drink that has a taste that many people will not acquire. It is as smooth as a shot of lighter fluid. It is not for the faint of heart or those who skipped lunch, like me. It is customary for hosts to offer a brandy to their guests. I took the glass and drank it down so as to not be rude. I tried not to wince.
Then, he poured another.
“This won the top award,” he said.
When in Romania, do as the Romanians. I gulped it down.
“Yes,” I told him, trying to keep it down. “It tastes … like a winner.”
When he tried to pour a third glass, I didn’t care about breaking with tradition. I stopped him before a drop could reach the glass. I didn’t need a Balkan hangover, especially on the night before reaching my destination.
The next morning I was greeted with the table outside my door already made up for breakfast. It included sausages and various cold cuts in addition to some fresh bread from the baker with jam. The owner’s wife offered some coffee and then, without asking, plopped a bottle of plum brandy on the table with a clear shot glass. Apparently, it is customary to drink brandy in the morning.
My stomach churned.
“I’d like some coffee, please,” I told her, skipping the Romanian Breakfast of Champions.
That morning, I set out in search of the village of Schönau. To get there would take some navigational skill. I had a map and GPS, but I later found neither was much help in rural Romania. It would take four hours of driving down some of the worst potholed roads I have ever seen. And I say this with a bit of authority: northeast Ohio is notorious for its poor roads. Perhaps there is a connection.
The drive took me into the center of old Saxon country, through small villages where farming is still the livelihood of residents. I passed donkey carts, women with pitchforks and farmers tilling their fields with rudimentary equipment.
Romania might be part of the “New Europe,” but the drive took me back to what seemed like Old Europe. It was like traveling back in time. Driving through the area can best be compared to traveling through Amish country in the United States.
I don’t know what my great- grandparents did when they lived in southern Transylvania. But I wondered whether they worked these fields and relied on the land much as the people do today.
As I drove the seemingly endless two-lane country roads, I came upon a sign on the side of the road. It read Sona in big letters. Below, it said: Schönau.
I had finally made it. I reached what possibly could be my homeland. I drove around, slowly cutting through the afternoon mist looking at the houses.
The long drive offered the time to concoct crazy images of how I might be welcomed.
Perhaps, my family was once well respected in the village. I imagined meeting a family who would be struck by the fact that I came all the way from the United States in search of my roots, and they would invite me into their home and spin tales of my great- grandfather or other relatives. I dreamed of finding somebody who could talk about the history of the area and help link my heritage to this farming town.
None of that happened.
It was Sunday, starting to drizzle and the streets were deserted. I walked into a tiny grocery store, and a teen-age girl managing the store forced a smile. I probably looked slightly confused but enthusiastic.
I tried to strike up a conversation, but she didn’t speak English. So, I whipped out my driver’s license in hopes that she would be surprised to see my name in print. This is so cool, I thought.
“I think my family is from this town,” I said. “Look, at my name. ‘Schonauer,’ ” I added, pointing.
She didn’t understand. Or if she did, she wasn’t impressed.
She gave me this look that said, “Yeah, that’s great. My family is from here, too. Now, buy something or get the hell out of here before I call the local militia.”
I made several attempts to talk to people on the street, but I couldn’t find anyone who could speak English or could understand why I was there. They all gave me this look as if I had arrived in a spaceship, asking for directions to another planet.
I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never felt so foreign.
I walked to a bar across the street. The I’m-an-American- and-my-family-is-from-here routine didn’t impress the bartender, either. So, I ordered a beer and walked to the nearest cemetery in hopes of finding the gravestone of some relative.
It never crossed my mind that swilling a bottle of Romanian beer and walking through the cemetery in the rain might be an odd sight. So, I continued.
As the rain became heavier, time slipped by. I took a few photos, but never did find gravestones with my family name. But, at times, I felt closer to my ancestors. Even if they weren’t from this small town, they came from the same area.
No, there wasn’t an emotional, spiritual connection that some people get when they visit their ancestral lands. But I felt as if I had achieved a better understanding of where a part of my family had come from.
While I still have a lot of questions about why they went to America and what it must have been like for them living in eastern Europe, I have a better appreciation for where I came from. The trip has given me a stronger desire to research my roots.
With Romania crossed off my ancestral map, I just have to visit the parts of Europe the rest of the family kudzu touches.