Some years ago, Madeleleine Albright, the Czech-born American Secretary of State, learned that although she had been raised Catholic, all four of her grandparents were Jewish. Not every Czech family tree contains such a big surprise, of course, but almost any Czech who digs into their family history will learn things they did not know or expect. To help them, the Czech Genealogy and Heraldry Society in Prague has just launched a new course.
One recent evening, dozens of adults gathered in a primary school classroom in Prague's Vinohrady neighborhood with the same purpose: to learn how to research their own family history. Vaclav Hasek is the Czech Genealogy and Heraldry Society's expert on reading old documents.
"It's detective work. If you go step by step through the past, at some point you arrive at a crossroads, or you come across something that surprises you.
"There are all kinds of sources. If someone has noble ancestry, the documents may be very old indeed, for instance, records of aristocrat's property transactions. The very oldest sources are city records. Municipal files may go back as far as the 11th or 12th century."
Working on his own, electrical engineer Jiri Stach has already entered more than 1,000 members of his lineage into a database - and his research has turned up some interesting information.
"I have found a few surprises. For instance, I always knew we were a family of farmers, but I had no idea my ancestors had received privileges from prince Vaclav of Tesin, and were free farmers."
Vaclav Hasek says the first step for any amateur genealogist must be interviewing one's own family members. But when accountant Lenka Seidlova tried to help her daughter draw a family tree for a school assignment, she found her relatives were of little use.
"I realized nobody knew anything more about our ancestors than who were grandma and grandpa. So I began to get interested in genealogy. And I found out plenty of interesting things. For instance, I live near the city of Tabor. And I found one branch of the family in the 17th century lived just 20 kilometers from where I live today. Which is amazing to me. I feel as if my own ancestors have pulled me back to my roots!"
If you've got Czech ancestry and want to find out more, you can visit the Czech Genealogy and Heraldry Society in Prague at their webpage www.genealogie.cz.