Journey back to her roots sprouts new connections

by Britt Aamodt

Contributing writer

For 40 years Sharon Tracy has lived in Elk River. And for most of that time, she’s carried a promise she made to herself: One day she’d travel to Croatia and visit her mother’s birthplace.

ubmitted photos Josie Pergl Layman always dreamed of going back to Croatia but died before she could. So February 2013, her youngest daughter, Sharon Tracy of Elk River, made that journey for her.

ubmitted photos
Josie Pergl Layman always dreamed of going back to Croatia but died before she could. So February 2013, her youngest daughter, Sharon Tracy of Elk River, made that journey for her.

Her mother, Josie Layman, was born Josipa Pergl on Jan. 13, 1906, in Croatia. A bare three months later, baby Josipa and her parents boarded a ship and steamed to America. The immigration officials at Ellis Island altered the family name to Berger and it stuck.

“I wanted to go to Croatia because my mother was never able to,” said Tracy, a lifelong educator who spent much of her career teaching in Coon Rapids.

Her mother was widowed at 45 and raised five kids on a factory salary.

One of Josie’s dreams was to see her homeland. But when she died at 73, the dream went unfulfilled. That’s when Tracy, the youngest of her children, decided that if she ever had the opportunity she would make the journey.

St. Josip Catholic Church (seen in the distance) in Grubisno Polje, Croatia, hasn’t changed much—on the inside—in the 107 years since Sharon Tracy’s mother was baptized there.

St. Josip Catholic Church (seen in the distance) in Grubisno Polje, Croatia, hasn’t changed much—on the inside—in the 107 years since Sharon Tracy’s mother was baptized there.

Her opportunity arrived last summer when a group of friends, “world travelers,” Tracy calls them, announced they were taking a cruise to Croatia. Did she want to come?

Tracy talked it over with her husband. An international cruise, not to mention airfare to get there, was spendy.

“But Harvey encouraged me. He said, ‘When are you going to get the opportunity again?’” she said.

So Valentine’s Day of this year, she took an afternoon flight out of Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport to Zagreb.

Sharon Tracy’s second cousin Zdravko acted as chauffeur, translator and guide. He took her to see the house where her grandfather grew up (and where family members still live) and here to Velika Barna, her grandmother’s village.

Sharon Tracy’s second cousin Zdravko acted as chauffeur, translator and guide. He took her to see the house where her grandfather grew up (and where family members still live) and here to Velika Barna, her grandmother’s village.

Tracy had signed up for the cruise, but she arrived ahead of schedule so she could make her pilgrimage to her mother’s village far to the west.

Curiously enough, before she left Minnesota, she’d been introduced to a distant relation living in Florida. Tracy was interested in finding out how to get from the airport in Zagreb to tiny Grubisno Polje. He’d been there three times. Could she hire a driver?

“He said, ‘I’ve got a better suggestion. I can call your second cousin and he can pick you up,’” Tracy remembers him saying and wondering at the idea of having family back in the Old Country.

It was this second cousin, Zdravko, and his two sons, Jan and Tin, who met Tracy at her hotel and drove her through the bullet-ridden villages, reminders of the Balkans war of the 1990s, that dotted the countryside.

Sharon Tracy didn’t know she still had family in Croatia. During her visit, her second cousin Zdravo and his family, (Left to Right) Jasna, Tin, Zdravko and Jan, hosted her in their home in Virovitica.

Sharon Tracy didn’t know she still had family in Croatia. During her visit, her second cousin Zdravo and his family, (Left to Right) Jasna, Tin, Zdravko and Jan, hosted her in their home in Virovitica.

Zdravko’s wife Jasna welcomed Tracy with open arms and food—good Croatian food like Josie used to make.

The next morning, after Jasna’s homecooked breakfast, Tracy and Zdravko set off for the church where her mother had been baptized 107 years before.

St. Josip Catholic Church hadn’t changed much. The baptismal font was in the same spot. The priest produced a church ledger, and in the slanting cursive script, Tracy made out the name of her mother.

“I sobbed my heart out,” she said. “It was about fulfilling the promise I made. And my mother had been in that church.”

Later, Zdravko took her to see the farmhouse where her grandfather was born and the village where her grandmother grew up. The journey seemed complete. But there was still one surprise left.

Sunday morning, the day Tracy was to leave to join the cruise, Zdravko suggested they make one last trip. This time it was to see a white-haired gentleman named Franjo, who as a boy had corresponded with a Croatian family living in America. Zdravko thought that family might have been Tracy’s.

Tracy had compiled a family history, which she took with her to Franjo’s. The old man took one look at the photo of Tracy’s uncle and exclaimed, “I know this picture. I wrote to this man.”

He’d also written to Tracy’s grandfather, asking him to send an American fountain pen. Franjo never got a response.

Over half a century later, his eyes welled up as he told Tracy, “I thought I had asked for too much.”

In fact, Tracy’s grandfather had died.

So, when she returned to Elk River in March, she bought a fountain pen and mailed it to Franjo with the message, “I know my grandpa would have wanted you to have this.”

Tracy went overseas to discover her mother’s homeland and returned with an expanded Croatian family.

Of her journey, she said, “This is not going to end. We correspond by email.”

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