For as long as I can remember, I’d heard the story of my mother’s youth in Großraming, Austria (a name that summoned the same giggles from Zara as they did from me 35 years ago) and had pored over the handful of black and white photos she had from this period, where her family of six stood somberly dressed in home-made clothes against the backdrop of Großraming’s verdant and rolling hills.  It was a part of my heritage I was eager to explore and as I entered adulthood, I dreamed of one day being able to visit it with her.  And yet, life happened, years passed and we never seemed to find the time.  So when my dream of this year of travel first took root, one of my priorities became to finally take my mom to Austria.  And in the end, the long delay was worth it, as being able to share this heritage with Zara and Jonathan made the experience even more memorable.

My mom was born in Upper Austria, in the throes of WW II, to parents who had been driven out of Yugoslavia after Hitler invaded (first sent to Poland and then to Austria).  She grew up speaking Serbo-Croatian at home and learning German at school, until her family finally had the opportunity to immigrate to Los Angeles in the mid-50s.  Life for them after the war was difficult (as it was for most) — they lived in former army barracks with one bedroom shared amongst the six of them and a communal bathroom down the hall, yet my mother’s memories of that time were fond as I suspect her parents shielded her from the real worries.  I knew several of her relatives had stayed in the region and raised their families there, but contact with them over the years had been very limited.

After picking up my mom in Vienna, we drove the back roads into Großraming on an unusually hot afternoon, through rolling hills and other small villages and across the river Enns, to the family-run guesthouse in the village where we’d booked a room for two nights – Kirchenwirt Ahrer.   It was located across the street from the church were my mom had her first communion and as we sat in the hot sun enjoying a refreshing beer in the outside garden, Zara grabbed my mom’s hand and dragged her across the road so as to the the first to explore the church cemetery and locate the Gabaldo family plot.  

The next two days were filled with strolls down memory lane, getting to know family I’d never met and sketching out a complicated family tree on Jonathan’s iPad.  My mom’s cousin, Tomislav, was our primary tour guide, and his 17-year old granddaughter served the dual (and equally critical) roles of translator and companion to Zara.  We were invited into their homes for dinner, where we shared plenty of laughter even when divided by a language.

We visited the site that had housed the former army barracks they lived in (now a power plant), the hydroelectric dam where my grandfather had worked, the tiny train station from which they departed for the boat that would take them to America and the site of her old school.  And Zara formed her own ties to Großraming by getting her ears pierced at the jewelry store where Tomislav worked and buying an authentic Austrian dirndl which she insisted on wearing even in the 90 degree heat.

After Großraming, we drove 30 minutes north to Styer, where some of our other relatives lived.  Helga, my second cousin, went out of her way to show us around and we were invited to a lovely barbecue at her brother’s place one evening.

Before we visited, I’d been so excited about the sites I’d visit from my mom’s youth.  Once we were there, however, what became most meaningful was connecting with this long-lost side of my family, hearing the stories of our shared history and better understanding the tapestry of my own life.

My mom (girl on left) and her family in Grossraming, Austria

My mom (girl on left) and her family in Grossraming, Austria

Christmas, 1948, in Grossraming

Christmas, 1948, in Grossraming

Grossraming!

Grossraming!

Location of old barracks where my mom lived

Location of old barracks where my mom lived

Train station from which her family departed Austria for America

Train station from which her family departed Austria for America

Zara playing with my mom's cousin's granddaughter, Theresa, our trusted interpreter

Zara playing with my mom’s cousin’s granddaughter, Theresa, our trusted interpreter

With Mom's cousin Tomi and wife Anni
With Mom’s cousin Tomi and wife Anni

The crowd that accompanied Zara to her ear piercing.

The crowd that accompanied Zara to her ear piercing.

In front of Kirchenwirt

In front of Kirchenwirt

At the Gabaldo family plot in Grossraming cemetary.

At the Gabaldo family plot in Grossraming cemetary.

More Grossraming

More Grossraming

Barbecue at my mom's cousin's son's house in Styer

Barbecue at my mom’s cousin’s son’s house in Styer

My mom and Helga
My mom and Helga

My mom's cousin, Mira, and her daughter, Helga

My mom’s cousin, Mira, and her daughter, Helga

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