Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Whole Town of Spretnaks

Sister and I at the outskirts of Petrovina, Croatia
Those of you with "normal" last names will not understand this post, so if you want to skip ahead to the next post, that's OK.

Monday, September 8, was an interesting day as my sister and I (along with the B-I-L) visited the town from where our paternal grandparents came: Petrovina, Croatia.  We went to Petrovina in search of Spretnaks.  Our people.  So how does one go about finding Spretnaks in a little village where one does not speak the local language?  You look for Spretnaks in the one place where the language barrier is likely to matter least.

To the cemetery!

Which was easy to find in a town this size.  We followed a sign with three crosses, thinking that might be the sign to the church cemetery.  And it was.  And, sure enough, we weren't there more than 15 seconds, before we started seeing Spretnaks,  Except that in Petrovina, Spretnak is spelled the pre-Ellis Island way of "Spretnjak."

Spretnaks everywhere!

I could even see some family resemblance in this fellow:

Stevo Spretnjak

(The family resemblance would be to my father.  Not me.  I got no Spretnak in me, looks-wise.  I'm all Grisnik, my mother's side.  Blame them.)

Petrovina is a small village, surrounded on all sides by cornfields.  It has a population of 236.  And it is absolutely lousy with Spretnaks.

Those of you from Beaver County will understand the comparison when I say it is the same size as Fallston, where my father grew up, although with a population of 266 it is bigger than Petrovina.  For Nevadans, I will compare it to Lund, on the way to Ely, with a population of 282.  Which also is a bigger than Petrovina.

If the day ended right then and there, it would have been a great day.  For the first time in life, I was in a place where "Spretnak" was not an unusual name.  In fact, except for my parents (until they passed) and my sister (until she got married and de-Spretnak-ed), I don't think I've ever been anywhere where there have been other Spretnaks.

So we are getting ready to leave.  Some men who appear to be cemetery caretakers walk by.  They go up several rows of graves,  Then Sister and B-I-L notice that they are tending to one of the many Spretnjak graves.  So we go to talk with them.  I mean, "what the hey."

I speak the best Croatian of the group, with a vocabulary of four words, so I take the lead and ask if they speak English.  The two men know enough English to shake their heads no.  Then I ask, in English, "Are you Spretnaks?"

They nod their heads yes.

I point to me and say, "I am a Spretnak."

They understood.  And smiled.

Meet Stjepan and Darko Spretnjak:

Darko (L) and Stjepan (R)
Stjepan is a year or two older than me.  Darko is his nephew.

Spretnjak Family mini-reunion in the Petrovina cemetery
Stjepan looks in some ways like a heavier set version of my father, especially around the eyes, nose and mouth.  We told him the names of my fathers' parents (best I could remember) and when they would have left for the United States, but nothing was ringing bells.  Finally, Stjepan suggested that we look in the books at the church in "downtown" Petrovina.

To the church!

St. Peter's of Petrovina
Crkva Svetog Petra, or St. Peter's Church in English.  Petrovina is, of course, named for THE St. Peter himself.

Crkva Svetog Petra, only in wider view
The church was simple, small and beautiful:

View through the locked gates
But, alas, no one was home.  Oh well.  We won't get the chance to check the Spretnjak genealogy in the church records.  No problem.  It's been a great day.  Not only did we get to see the village where my paternal grandparents came from, we got to meet some actual living Spretnjaks.  This was a great little detour from the road to Zagreb (where we flew into Croatia from Munich) to Split (where we will be spending our first three nights).  But we really needed to head off to Split, which was about four hours away,

Then Stjepan drove up.

We explained, best we could, using monosyllables and loud voices, that the church was "closed" and that there was "no book."

He asks us to wait.  He is on his cellphone.  After a couple of minutes, he walks us over to the house next door to the church, which is the rectory for this functioning parish.  The priest spoke no English.  This is a town of 236 in the middle of Croatia, so that is not unexpected.  But a younger priest from the next town north (farther into the hinterlands!) was there and he spoke perfect English (all the while apologizing for what he insisted was poor English).

He told us the history of the town and the church.  The town was found in 112 by the Romans.  That explains the name "Petrovina" which sounds more Roman-Latin than Croatian-Slavic.  The site of the church was a pagan temple.  The church now standing was originally constructed in the 1200's.  He unlocked the gate and gave us a full tour:

Church entrance
Off to the side

And the other side
The priest noted the particularly old baptismal font:

Baptismal font
It was little more than a nook that would be barely big enough for a kewpie doll, let alone a squirming baby.

The whole gang in front of Crkva Svetog Petra
Stjepan invited us back to his house for drinks.  We declined, of course, because we still had a long drive ahead of us to Split.  He asked a second time.  We reiterated our reluctant decline.  He asked a third time and we quickly said yes.

We met Stjepan's wife and his brother Eli (Darko's father).  The communication was aided by the fact that I finally got around to bringing out the Croatian phrasebook that I had in the car.  We ate homemade blintzes.  When I say homemade, I don't just mean that the blintzes were made fresh, which they were.  Eli milked the cows and made the cheese from which the blintzes were made.  And they were delicious, with a ricotta style cheese inside and a melty cheese over the top.  We had homemade white wine that Eli also made, cut with store-bought mineral water.  Stjepan told us that he had a daughter in Hamilton, Ontario.

So there's another spot on the globe with Spretnjaks!  Good to know.


  1. I'm a Spretnjak too from the Chicago area. Mijo (Michael) from Petrovina was my paternal grandfather. He came through Ellis Island in April of 1912 and settled in Chicago. He married Anna Klobucar of Slovenia. We may be related.

  2. You ate Croatian PALAČINKE not Polish blintzes!
    My great grandmother was from Petrovina Jelena Štetner!