The following post was written by Berklee student Ziga Pirnat, a communications assistant in the Berklee Global Initiatives office who participated in the Berklee Mentorship Program.
Coincidence can sometimes be startling. That is usually my first thought when I remember a peculiar series of events that began in the fall semester of 2011. That was when I was accepted into the Berklee Mentorship Program and was connected with my mentors John and Teresa Howe from Belmont, Massachusetts. It would be unconceivable for me if someone told me at that point that, less than two years later, I would be witnessing a stirring sight of John’s sister-in-law hugging her second cousins in a remote town in Slovenia—long-lost relatives who had never known about each other before and might have never met if Berklee hadn’t assigned John and Teresa to be my mentors.
Indeed, Jane, Joanne, and Ingrid from the President’s Office did a wonderful job connecting me with the Howes. John and I first met at the opening meet-and-greet event of that year’s mentorship program, at the house of one of the mentors in Winchester. After a few words—not knowing anything about each other beforehand—we were astonished by how much we had in common. Before coming to Boston from my native Slovenia, I completed a degree in international relations and Indo-European languages, and worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. John, on the other hand, had studied international relations as well and was about to enter the world of diplomacy before choosing a different career path. He also shared my love for languages and, most of all, music. A singer and cosmopolite, he had travelled to many places around the world and was even familiar with my part of Europe. By the end of the evening, it felt like we were some old friends who had known each other for years.
I met John’s wife Teresa at their family home a few weeks later when they invited me over for dinner. As was the case with John, I was immediately overwhelmed by the kindness and warmth she was irradiating. I remember President Roger Brown once mentioning that the purpose of the mentorship program is to connect Berklee students with successful professionals from the Greater Boston area; an opportunity to learn valuable things one cannot learn in school and, last but not least, to offer a “home away from home,” a family environment or even just a warm meal from time to time (which, to be honest, is frequently neglected in the wild tempo of our college).
I definitely got all of that from John and Teresa. I spent my first Thanksgiving with their family and friends, which was an unforgettable experience. Many such gatherings followed. John and Teresa saw me perform at the Cafe 939, took me to the Museum of Science, the MFA, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; they took me out and invited me over for dinners, lunches, when I was overwhelmed by my school workload, and truly enhanced my Boston experience. What began as a mentorship program, evolved into a genuine friendship which, I am certain, will continue even after I complete my studies at Berklee.
And this is where the beautiful story I mentioned earlier begins. John had mentioned to me a couple of times that his brother’s wife, Lisa Verhovek, presumably had Slovenian ancestors. Her grandfather apparently immigrated to the United States on the eve of the First World War from what at that time was Austro-Hungarian Empire and dissolved into several new nation states after the end of the war. One of them, Yugoslavia, dissolved further in the 1990s, and one of its successors today is also my home country, Slovenia. My mentor’s sister-in-law having Slovenian ancestry could be considered a surprising coincidence by itself. Slovenia is a tiny country (about the size of New Jersey), squeezed in between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea, next to Italy and Austria, with about 2 million people (less than a third of the population of Massachusetts) who speak a language that is only spoken by them and (some of the) few hundred thousand people of Slovenian descent scattered in the neighboring countries and around the world.
There are probably about 300,000 people of Slovenian descent living in the U.S. today, which is only about 0.1 percent of the total population. What were the odds that one of them was my mentor’s in-law?
This May, Lisa decided to visit the country of her ancestors. During a trip to Europe, she, her husband Sam (my mentor’s brother) and their friends Tim and Joni stopped in Slovenia for a few days. Lisa was hoping to learn more about her grandfather and his family, which had thus far been a genealogical mystery: Ignac Vrhovec came to the U.S. alone and died before Lisa was born, so she had very little information about him or his roots, neither could her ill father help her. Ignac apparently didn’t like to talk much about his family or the country he had left in a time of great poverty and the scent of war (and draft) in the air.
Considering the fact that “Vrhovec” (pronounced [vur – hoh – vetz], but Americanized upon Ignac’s arrival into “Verhovek”) was a rather common last name in Slovenia (originally meaning an inhabitant of a vrh, i.e. peak, summit, hill) the odds of learning more about the Verhovek-Howe family history were pretty slim. Lisa, however, managed to acquire an important piece of information prior to her arrival. It turned out that Ignac Vrhovec was listed in an Ellis Island ship manifest from 1913 as a 22-year-old single male of “Slovenian race.” As the nearest relative in his country of origin, Ignac listed his mother “Mary Vrhovec” from “Solo, Visnja Gora” (pronounced [veesh – nia goh – rah], literally ‘Sour Cherry Mountain’). This turned out to be the main clue that later helped us discover Lisa’s origins.
However, when John let me know about his sister-in-law coming to Slovenia, I was pretty skeptical about the chances of finding anything conclusive given the short amount of time I had before Lisa would come (we got in touch a week or two before her arrival) and the general lack of information on her grandfather.
Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try. The first thing I did was to go through the phonebook and look for Vrhovecs living in the tiny old town of Višnja Gora. I couldn’t find any place named “Solo” in Slovenia; there was, however, a hamlet of about 20 houses in the hills above Višnja Gora called “Sela.” No people with the last name Vrhovec were living there according to the phonebook, but I did find four Vrhovecs with an existing address in Višnja Gora. I wasn’t sure whether that was actually where Ignac was from; he could have, for example, listed Višnja Gora as his hometown simply because it was the administrative center of his region, or the entry might have been a mistake which was common for such extensive lists with people coming from many distant places of hard-to-spell foreign names.
Either way, I dialed the number of the first person on the list, Silvo Vrhovec, who turned out to be a friendly 50-year-old man. Silvo was really taken aback by my call and the strange enquiry. As I had presumed, all the other Vrhovecs in Višnja Gora were his relatives—two brothers and a father. Silvo said he knew very little about his family history past his grandfather. He remembered hearing stories of some relatives immigrating to the U.S., but never heard of Ignac or Nace as it would probably be shortened in everyday speech (pronounced [eeg – nuts] and [nah – tzeh] respectively). Silvo’s mother had passed away a few years earlier and his father was bedridden and did not remember much.
The next day, Silvo called me back. Having spoken with his father and their relatives; he told me that none of them remembered anyone named Ignac, although they could recall stories of many people who had left Slovenia and moved across the ocean. I was given some further contacts for other Vrhovec families in the neighboring villages and towns, which might have been Ignac’s relatives.
I spent the next two days calling the numbers Silvo gave me and went through the phonebook again. To no avail. Ignac Vrhovec was nowhere to be found. I checked several other people with the last name Vrhovec who immigrated to the U.S., in case Ignac had changed his name, but did not find anything useful—the year of emigration or approximate age of the emigrants did not match the one from the ship manifest.
There was, however, something that bothered me. Silvo seemed quite skeptical about any possible kinship with the lady who was on her way to Slovenia at first. Honestly, it did sound highly unlikely, as there was simply too little information and most of the people who could tell us more had already passed away. Nevertheless, when I mentioned “Solo” and how I believe that it could be a misspelling of “Sela”, Silvo immediately said that his family originates from that tiny hamlet and they only moved to Višnja Gora around 20 years ago. He still remembered trudging through the deep snow for an hour or more to get to school from the hilly Sela. Vrhovecs still owned a small property in the village, with a barn and an old house that had belonged to Silvo’s father and grandfather before him and had been empty for two decades now.
That was my last resort. I had to reconstruct the history of the old empty house at the address of Sela 1 and hoped that my instinct was right. After hectically looking through old birth records for the region, I finally found the 19th century church registers for Višnja Gora in the archives of the Archdiocese of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, on the day before Lisa was to arrive.
As if turning two-century-old pages wearing gloves in a special room with strict supervision wasn’t exciting enough, after an hour of trying to get through the old manuscripts, mostly written in Latin, old German, and old Slovenian, I found the entry: Ignac Vrhovec, born 11. 12. 1881, at Sela 1, to Anton Vrhovec and Marija (born) Garvas […]. It was a perfect match. Marija would be Mary in English, as was written in the ship manifest. The year of birth of 1881 meant that Ignac would be 22 in 1913 and “Solo, Visnja Gora”, could then only be Sela (at) Višnja Gora – strong evidence that I indeed found the man who left Slovenia in 1913 to make a home in Minnesota and start a family, with his granddaughter later connecting to another Slovenian through Berklee Mentorship Program!
My next task was to connect Lisa and Ignac to the Vrhovecs living in Slovenia today. It was clear that Silvo and his family were definitely among them. Although he didn’t know the exact year of birth of his grandfather Anton, he knew that he had died in 1954, at the age of 80-something. He was also born in the same house at Sela 1 that had been the family home for at least the last 150 years. And indeed, there was an Anton Vrhovec, born in 1873 at Sela 1 to Anton Vrhovec (Sr.) and Antonia (born) Groznik. That helped me connect the two family lines in Slovenia and America: Anton Vrhovec (Sr.) was married twice and had 13 children. Two of them were Ignac Vrhovec, Lisa’s grandfather, and Anton Vrhovec (Jr.), Silvo’s grandfather, who were therefore, half brothers.
The next day, a rented car stopped at a parking lot in the middle of an old medieval town in Central Slovenia. Four Americans and one Slovenian stepped out trying to figure out if they were at the right place. The Slovenian made a short phone call and a few moments later another car drove in from the opposite direction. A man in his early 50s, with dark wavy hair jumped out. A moment of uncertainty followed, as the Slovenian introduced the newcomer to one of the American ladies standing next to him. But that ended immediately, as, after the introduction, the couple fell into each other’s arms. The long lost family was re-united.
We spent the afternoon talking, laughing, and tasting the delicious homemade food and beverages at Silvo’s house. He sells and repairs hairdresser accessories and is doing pretty well. Next to his newly built house, there were three more buildings where his siblings have made their homes. They all stand on a large parcel that their father bought, in order to provide better opportunities for his children than the remote hamlet of Sela, their old house and the “poverty up there” could give them.
Silvo’s siblings, two brothers and a sister (his third brother who had moved out of Višnja Gora was missing), joined us after we had arrived to Silvo’s house. My initial task was to interpret from Slovenian to English and vice-versa, as only the kids in the family could speak English fluently and the main foreign language of the older generation was still German. But half an hour later, there was no need for me to be an intermediary. A strange thing happens when people feel close and want to share things and talk to each other—language barriers seem to gradually disappear. Lisa, her husband Sam, and their friends Tim and Joni were talking to the Vrhovecs in a mix of English and Slovenian, using facial expression and gestures when falling short of words and were communicating without a problem in no time.
We looked at old photos and admired the striking resemblance of Lisa and Silvo’s grandfathers, suddenly noticing that Lisa also shared many distinct “Vrhovec features” with her Slovenian cousins. Later on, we drove to the cemetery and then to the old hamlet of Sela, where Lisa could see the old Vrhovec house and walk on the same lawn and pastures, where her grandfather had been running around with his many siblings as a young boy 120 years ago. One of the most memorable moments for me, however, was when Lisa visited Silvo’s ill, bed-ridden father. Despite his dementia, he seemed clearly aware of what was happening. When I was telling him the story of his lost uncle Ignac, whom he had never known, and Ignac’s granddaughter, who was standing next to him, holding his hand, he uttered “Really?” smiled and looked at Lisa. There was a special something in his eyes at that moment and I’m sure I saw a flash of teardrops reflecting the dim light in the room.
An abundance of coincidence. We talked about it on our way back from Višnja Gora. “Do you realize that we are visiting this town exactly 100 years after Ignac left?” said Lisa’s husband Sam. She was making notes on the family tree I printed out for her and the Vrhovecs. Both families exchanged invitations for more visits in the future and—as it is common in the modern era—emails to stay in touch in the meantime. It was a very special experience for Lisa to do this trip and find about her origins at the time when her father was bidding farewell to this world. As Silvo’s father was in a similar situation, it was truly a humbling experience to have the opportunity to reveal a forgotten part of their family’s history to them and bring them comfort. A peculiar coincidence. No less remarkable than the fact that the Berklee Mentorship Program helped re-connect family ties across the globe that had been lost for more than a century.