More than a century ago, a Hungarian teenager took a different path than his siblings, and that made all the difference.
Jonas Szegetkoze immigrated to the United States. He settled in Granite City, got married, reared three sons, worked in a corn syrup factory and enjoyed a life of peace and freedom.
His siblings stayed in Hungary. They lived through brutal wars, political upheaval, economic devastation, Soviet occupation and periods of communist rule.
“My grandfather (Jonas) always said he was not a good son because he never wrote,” said Randall Sigite, 78, of Salem, Missouri, formerly of Granite City. “He didn’t keep in touch with his family.”
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Perhaps communication was too difficult in those days. Perhaps looking back was too painful. Whatever the reason, Jonas’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren are making up for lost time.
Five years ago, Randall’s wife, Alyce, was searching an online genealogy database when she discovered the family had relatives in Hungary. They went to visit them twice and recently hosted one couple on a nine-day trip to Missouri and Illinois.
My grandfather always said he was not a good son because he never wrote. He didn’t keep in touch with his family.
Randall Sigite on immigrant Jonas Szegetkoze
Nearly 20 people met for breakfast one morning at Uncle Linny’s in Pontoon Beach. Randall fought back tears when talking about getting reconnected with his second cousin, Istvan Szigetkozi, who also cried.
“His birthday was (May 1),” said Hungarian interpreter Dora Szakonyi, 45, of Budapest, speaking for Istvan. “He turned 66, and he will remember this all his life.”
Istvan is the grandson of Jonas’ brother, Sandor Szigetkozi. The Hungarian side of the family spells the name differently. Jonas somehow ended up with “Szegetkoze” after the U.S. immigration process. He later went by John Sigite.
Randall’s parents, John Jr. and Minnie, legally changed their family name to Sigite in 1953, when they needed passports to go on vacation.
“I was always known as Randy Sigite,” said Randall, a retired civil servant. “I didn’t even know that my birth certificate said differently until I was about 12 years old.”
Bound for America
Jonas grew up in the village of Kompolt, Hungary. He was 16 when he boarded a ship for America in 1907. His father paid for his ticket and gave him $80, which covered the $60 train fare to St. Louis with a little left over.
According to Jonas’ stories, the ship was lost at sea for 20 days after waves punched a hole in the hull during a violent storm. The mentally unstable captain died while locked in the brig.
“For years, Pop wouldn’t eat fish or potatoes because that’s what they ate on the ship,” Randall said.
Once in Granite City, Jonas stayed with a family from Kompolt and got a job hauling water to workers laying pipe for Wood River and Roxana refineries. He later worked 40 years at Union Starch, a factory that made corn syrup.
Jonas married Clara Kaldi. Their reception at a community center called the Hungarian Home was a wild one, lasting three days.
This is the kind of anecdotal information that the Sigites had when Alyce, a genealogy buff, started researching Randall’s family tree. Right away, she faced challenges.
“In all the census records you looked up, there was a different spelling of the name, so it was difficult to follow, except I knew what street they lived on in Granite City,” said Alyce, 77, a homemaker.
Alyce found evidence of the Hungarian relatives in Kombolt at www.familysearch.com. Daughter Susan Wykoff mentioned this to her sister-in-law, Laurel Trzaskoma, who was living in Budapest while her professor husband, Stephen, taught at a university.
Stephen knew Dora, coordinator of an international exchange program, and Dora’s best friend lived in Kompolt, so she was able to make contact with the Szigetkozis.
“It was just a really odd coincidence,” said Laurel, 47, a real estate agent in Exeter, New Hampshire. “People being in the right place at the right time.
“If we had not been in Hungary, and my husband had not been at this specific university where Dora was working, this never would have happened.”
Randall traveled to Hungary in 2014 with Susan and another daughter, Jackie Sigite. They drove from Budapest to Kompolt to meet their Hungarian relatives, including four of Sandor’s grandchildren.
After an emotional reunion on the side of a highway, they visited the church where Jonas was baptized and cemeteries where family members were buried.
Randall returned to Hungary last year with the rest of his family and spent more time in Kompolt.
“(Istvan and Monika) couldn’t believe it,” Dora said, interpreting for the couple. “They still can’t believe that it happened to them after so many years, that they could come together.”
The Szigetkozis arrived in St. Louis on April 29 with Dora and her 11-year-old son, Matthew.
They came bearing gifts, including bottles of palinka, a potent brandy that Istvan made with homegrown grapes and bottled with his own labels. He’s a retired blacksmith. Monika is a county office employee.
About 15 people greeted the travelers at Lambert airport. They held posters that read “Welcome Szigetkozi family” in Hungarian and gave them American flags.
“Everybody was crying, and everybody was yelling ‘Welcome,’ including people we didn’t even know,” said Randall’s sister, Connie Cornelison, 72, of Granite City, a retired school secretary.
The nine-day visit was a bit hampered by rain, but the family still took the Hungarians sightseeing. More than 40 people showed up May 6 for a family reunion in St. Jacob Township Park.
The Americans were particularly moved when the Szigetkozis asked if they could take photos. (Hungarians had to get government permission under communist rule.)
Istvan and Monika found the Illinois and Missouri landscape beautiful and the people friendly and kind.
“People are more relaxed,” Dora said. “Hungarians are very stressful. They are very negative, very pessimistic. It could be because of the times they live in. It is so different.”