In Glendale, where I grew up, most families were of Irish, Italian or German descent. My last name, Lego, was curious to people. Once we got the Lego toy question out of the way (sadly, no relation), I was often asked, “What nationality is that?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. My parents were ethnic Germans from the former Yugoslavia. My mother was born in Belgrade and my father in Mokrin — both part of modern-day Serbia. They spoke German at home and in school. Each of the many ethnic groups that settled in that area during the 17th and 18th centuries maintained its language and customs. When my parents had to flee during World War II, they were taken by German soldiers to Germany, settling in Bavaria where they spent their teenage years.
We didn’t look like other German families in Glendale, with their tall frames, blond hair and blue eyes. My dad, about 5-foot-7, with his olive skin and brown eyes, was often mistaken for Hispanic by co-workers and subway riders who would address him in Spanish. My mom, 5-foot-2 with brown hair and hazel eyes, also didn’t have the classic German look.
We didn’t speak Hochdeutsch, “high German.” My parents spoke Schwowisch, a dialect evolved from the German people in Yugoslavia that sounds a lot like Pennsylvania Dutch spoken by the Amish.
Growing up, however, there was clearly a reverence for German language, music, and culture in our home. Our Blaupunkt, a German stereo system, was always tuned to the German radio station on Sundays. My dad couldn’t get enough of oompah music. My mom made traditional German dishes like sauerbraten and rouladen. They splurged on German beer. We went to Bavarian festivals, Mom and her sister dressed in traditional dirndls.
Fast forward to the 1990s/early 2000s: Dan and I are raising two children of our own, teaching them about the two sides of the family. Dan was born in Palermo, Sicily, as were both his parents, and their parents and grandparents before them. His mom’s maiden name was Campisi, and his dad’s surname, Maniscalco — no ambiguity there. The kids call them Nonna and Nonno. They call my parents Oma and Opa, and were exposed to the same language, traditions and food that I was. We have a cute photo of our son Jason in lederhosen at his first Bavarian festival, age 2. From 2003 to 2015 we had family gatherings every year at the Oktoberfest in upstate Cairo. We arrived wearing matching Germany T-shirts, and all the ladies wore dirndls to the festival, including my Italian daughter-in-law. My kids know all the words to the traditional German drinking song, “Ein Prosit,” and many other German words, including landsman, which means fellow countryman. Jason called hockey goalie Olaf Kolzig my landsman, and Justin said the same of tennis player Tommy Haas. “Hey Mom, your landsman is playing.”
Justin has always been fascinated by our family history, an interest he shares with my sister, Tina. Ancestry.com offers opportunities to connect with people who may be family members, something Justin expressed he’d like to do, so we got him an Ancestry.com DNA kit for his 25th birthday. It showed his top two concentrations of DNA: 67 percent from the Italy/Greece region which includes all the countries of the former Yugoslavia; 15 percent from the Scandinavian region of Denmark/Norway/Sweden — may explain why he’s 6 inches taller than anyone else in the family. Third place was tied, 4 percent from Great Britain and 4 percent Western Europe — including Germany.
What? Only 4 percent German! I didn’t expect it to be 50 percent, but 4 percent was shockingly low. Yet, somehow, I was relieved. It explained a lot. I have dark-brown hair, green eyes and olive skin. I don’t like beer. I hate sauerkraut. Does this mean we were a bunch of Serbians crashing the Oktoberfest all those years?
Recently, I was watching tennis when Justin called. “Hey, Mom. Whatcha doin’?”
“Watching my landsman — Novak Djokovic.”