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A trip through time: Bemidji couple looks to reconnect with relatives in Czech Republic

Monte Draper / Bemidji Pioneer Joy and Jim Wheeler this summer spent a month camping in Europe and hiking in the Bavarian Alps, but the trip was highlighted by a one-day visit to the Czech Republic to visit places where Joy's ancestors lives before they emigrated to America.1 / 4
Submitted Photo Joy Wheeler's maternal grandmother, Marie Kupka emigrated to America in 1907 with her then-2-year-old daughter, Mary.2 / 4
Submitted Photo Joy Wheeler, right, was welcomed to the home where her maternal grandparents had lived in Rejckov, Czechoslovakia, by her genealogist, Jiri Osanec, left. Greeting them at the home were home's current occupants, Marie and Jarislov Balicek.3 / 4
Submitted Photo Joy Wheeler, left, embraces Marie Balicek while visiting the Czech woman in June. Marie, who lives in the Bohemia home where Joy's aunt Mary was born, tried on a babushka for the first time in years.4 / 4

After hiking in the Bavarian Alps and camping throughout Europe, the highlight of a Bemidji couple's recent excursion was a daylong visit to the Czech Republic.

Jim and Joy Wheeler spent one day touring historic Bohemia, visiting places where Joy's ancestors lived before emigrating to America.

"The best part of the whole trip was when we got to the house where her aunt was born, and the genealogist unfurled this sign, 'Welcome home,' and to just see Joy (react), it was the best part of the whole trip," Jim said.

Joy said her family never much discussed their roots, knowing only that her maternal grandparents were from Bohemia.

"We never talked about it; my mom never talked about her family that way," she said.

About three years ago, Jim began searching for some of Joy's family's history, first plugging names into the Ellis Island database. After trying Joy's grandmother's name, Mary Kupka, he came up empty, but upon realizing that Marie is the Catholic version of Mary, he got a hit: a Marie Kupka emigrated to America in 1907 with her 2-year-old daughter, Mary.

"The key to it was where they were going, Alexandria, Minn.," Jim said, "to meet the father, Frank, who was (Joy's) grandpa and that's where (Joy's) mom was born."

About a year later, while visiting Washington state to hike in Olympic National Park, the couple met with Joy's cousin who offered Joy her aunt Mary's baptismal papers and her grandfather's military records.

Using those documents, Jim reached out to the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society in St. Paul as he sought additional information. A Montgomery, Minn., woman was able to determine that Joy's grandfather, Frantisek "Frank" Kupka was from Podmoky and grandmother Mary was from Rejckov.

"The church were (Joy's) aunt was baptized and her grandparents were married was in Caliste," Jim said.

Jim then reached out to genealogist Jiri Osanec in the Czech Republic as the couple made plans to go overseas. The ultimate hope was to link Joy with distant relatives still living in the area, but she figures she was about 30 years too late, with the connections since lost.

But Jiri was able to track a considerable amount of information, offering a detailed history of her grandparents' lives, including marriage and baptismal records, military details and more.

Frank was an infantryman, serving three years in the army, from March 3, 1898, to Dec. 31, 1901, and then seven years in the reserves. Upon his discharge, he lived in many places, "everywhere for a short time only," Jiri reported.

"Her grandfather was a Catholic laborer," Jim said. "They had no money and moved around."

"They didn't (have money) here either," Joy said. "He just farmed, had some pigs, a vegetable garden. They would pay, like a doctor's bill, with sauerkraut."

The couple married on May 3, 1904, in Kaliste, Jiri reported, offering, too, the names of their parents, the priest and the witnesses.

"Both the groom and the bride were Catholics, he was 27 and she was 29," Jiri reported.

With Jiri's report, which detailed the records of other family members as well, Jim and Joy went to the Czech Republic, met Jiri the genealogist and together they all visited house No. 50 in Rejckov, where Frank and Mary made their home.

They did not own that house, Jim said, but occupied on small room on the back side of the dwelling, with a stove, a bed and a table.

The current occupants, Marie and Jarislov Balicek, warmly welcomed the couple into their home.

"I was fascinated by those people," Jim said. "They were so kind and loving. They didn't want us to leave."

The Baliceks, married more than 60 years, took them through the home, and talked with them through Jiri, offering them food and drink and any memories they could recall.

On the wall, in Czech, it was written, "Where God is farming in this place is good living."

Jim and Joy saw the room where the Kupkas had lived, which presumably is where Joy's aunt Mary was born. Jim said the home was reminiscent of how Joy's grandparents had decorated their own home, full of color.

Marie Balicek, whose grandmother was said to remember some of Joy's distant relatives, and Joy both put on babushkas, a headscarf tied beneath the chin.

"(Marie) put hers on and she was giggling, she hadn't put one of those on in years," Joy said.

The babushka reminded Joy of her aunts, who as cleaning ladies here often tied red-and-white-checkered handkerchiefs around their necks.

Later, they left the Baliceks' home and visited the home where Joy's grandmother was born. In another village, they visited the home where Joy's great grandmother was born, and in Caliste, they visited the church where Mary was baptized and where Frank and Marie were married.

In Habry, they visited Frank's birthplace, but the original dwelling is no longer standing, having been replaced by a new, much larger home in 1936. A neighbor said the home once was owned by the famous pianist Rudolf Firkusny.

They also visited the house where Joy's great grandfather was born, a home that a neighbor said he lost in a game of cards.

The June 30 visit was a whirlwind, yet the couple beamed as they talked about the houses and churches they saw, the cemeteries they visited as they searched, unsuccessfully, for deceased relatives.

And even though she never was able to connect with a distant relative, Joy said the single-day visit to Bohemia was a definite highlight of the couple's European adventure.

"It was my best part," she said.