Come forth!

Readers and relatives – come forth! 

The time has come to confess. Writing a blog is much more difficult than one might think. It can also be quite boring if no one provides feedback. Throwing your thoughts out into the ether is easy enough, but realizing that they linger there, lonely and cold, can be a deterrent to sending any further envoys. I can see both sides of the equation and provide a multitude of excuses for both readers and potential respondents, because I am guilty of using them myself: summer, laziness, other projects, work, family, travel.

The lesson is: never give up. As in any project, initial enthusiasm may wane if no relatives respond to a Facebook page you have set up to unite them and make your plans accessible. Have I actually contacted some or any of them to tell them clearly what my expectations are? As in any form of teamwork, I am responsible for providing some leadership, guidelines and examples.

Bertha Mikenas - in Southern Ontario tobacco field

My sister’s sister-in-law Birute Mikenas on her parents’ tobacco farm in Tillsonburg, Ontario

Even while a project simmers on a back burner, inspiration may come in strange and unsolicited ways. Research on an article for Lithuanian Heritage Magazine about Lithuanian tobacco farmers in Southern Ontario renewed my interest in refining information about my own ties to that area – I spent most summers of my early youth there with an aunt and uncle. When someone mentions Delhi, it creates an immediate understanding of a whole other lifestyle than I knew in the city. It evokes seeing vast fields of giant-leaved tobacco plants, the unforgettable smell of tobacco drying in kilns, and praying for rain, but please – no hail…

This in turn encourages me to write down the names of the people I knew, talk to others who knew them, tell their story before it’s too late. Many of our elders are gone, so we rely on cousins and old acquaintances to help remember or connect the sketches of our past. Why is it important? Most likely because our true roots are overseas, and we have little or no “proof” of it in our hands, as do some of our friends whose families handed down homesteads and histories in what seems to be the here and now as opposed to a distant, foreign past. We lack a real connection with it, unless our parents made supreme efforts to educate us about that past and gave us opportunities to go back there.

The question then is — why do we search for our roots? Why is it important? I offer this as a starting point for a discussion. In my view, for children of immigrants living in a country of immigrants it is particularly meaningful to have a sense of connection to something more permanent than ourselves, something unique. The desire for permanence may be particularly important to the children of refugees. A person born and raised in Lithuania does not have to prove they are Lithuanian – it’s inherent, like the colour of their eyes. In Canada, Lithuanians are judged by whether or not they speak Lithuanian and how well, which wave of immigration they hail from, and how they are connected to the Community. We strive to display or explain our heritage and our interest in it. Why? One reason may be a need to portray our uniqueness in a giant mosaic of ethnicities, or – in a mass of average Canadians (if there is such a group, referred to in the US as “Middle America”).

Finally, and mostly, defining our connections with our family network and history can give us and our children a satisfying context and a sense of inclusion in a vast anonymous world.

 

 

 

 

 

Mousing Around for Details

Bring out the pipe, the hat with earflaps, and be a Sherlock!

At some point, the photos and documents your have in your family records and memorabilia box may not be enough. You know where your parents lived, that is – wherever you grew up. Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Boston… You have pictures of some relatives, sufficient information for a good start on a Family Tree. The wheels have begun turning in your head and you realize that you want to know the whole family story from as far back as possible. No one else in the family is as excited as you are, because a) they’re too young, or b) they’re lazy, or c) they don’t know how to go about it. Apparently, you can hire someone to do this, but it’s much more fun to do it yourself, because it’s interesting and educational detective work (also known as research). All you need is your computer (and mouse, if you still use one)!

For example, you may have met or heard of cousins, as I have, with whom you can compare family trees, but the connection is not crystal-clear. From our latest conversations, I now know that the cousins in question found relatives in a town called Rokiškis. Contacting them would be the simplest way to discover how our fathers are related. You may also write to the local museum (find it on the city‘s website) to ask for a link to any available archives. Official archive services (archyvai.lt) may require an application form and a fee. Cemetery records are available via the internet, however the date of death is usually required, as I found out from my query to a cemetery in Kaunas.

Delving into archival websites such as birth/death records and immigration is not simple. There are a great number of websites, and one needs a substantial amount of time and patience to find what you need. However the journey can be fascinating. If you are interested in dog-paddling through the internet, www.cyndislist.com has a comprehensive list of worldwide genealogy sites, (Lithuanians are not featured prominently). The site www.dpcamps.org gives a vast list of sites which require some navigation skills, but I found nothing relating to the DP camp my parents were in (Regensburg), which I will pursue further. However I did find a concise history of DP‘s by Mel Jay at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Lithuanian-Diaspora-A-History-of-WW-2-Lithuanian-Displaced-Persons, with suggested reading, and an article from „Lituanus“ by Linas Saldukas titled „Culture in Adversity: the Lithuanian DP experience“. These are the things that distract me from my task, but they‘re so interesting…

If time is limited, your first line of questioning should be directed at any and all existing relatives. Write to them, call them, ask for photos, dates of birth, marriage, death. BEFORE IT‘S TOO LATE!

My grandparents’ homestead in Kalniečiai, 1938 (Rokiškis area)

Also, you can launch a second line of attack: today I created a Facebook page to reach out to relatives who are already on FB or have emails. Anyone can be invited, but the page is „secret“, that is – only invited members can see it. I kept thinking about the best way to reach out to relatives in Europe, South America and here in North America, and decided to jump in. I put up a photo of our grandparents‘ homestead, and I hope to get some responses. At least it will be something interesting to read on FB…

 

But seriously…

A new year – and with it, fresh resolve to get organized!…

Your papers and photos are collected (hopefully in some kind of order that is clear to you), and you are ready to take your next step. What will it be? This depends on several factors. You need to ask yourself, and perhaps your family, a few questions. First of all, what is your goal?

This is actually the key question for the entire exercise, which will require a real time commitment. Why are you doing this? If you have very few relatives – or none, you may want to find some. It’s very exciting to discover new “people”, someone who is connected to you through your ancestors. An example is my third cousin in Pennsylvania, who connects me to an earlier historical time than the post-war DP story that I knew about from my parents. There was in fact a pre-war exodus of Lithuanians who left their country to make a better living working in the mines in Pennsylvania. To have actual cousins emerging from that era is fascinating. It means I am connected to more than just my parents, my sister, and their immediate families. I am part of a clan.

Because of our background as children of DP’s, many of us may feel that we don’t have a concrete sense of place or history. I would like to follow the thread of belonging not just for myself, but for my children and their children. In our “later” years, it seems, we tend look for those threads and find meaning in them. Laying out the thread and weaving it together makes us feel part of a larger, more important, more meaningful tapestry.

So as we delve into our family ties, we need to decide whether we want to set up a) a family tree, b) a family history, c) a network of living relatives, or maybe – all of the above. Probably the simplest approach is to start with the family tree.

A sample family tree template

For a family tree alone, you can use a template (www.familytreetemplates.net), which is quite straightforward. Most allow entries for family member names, surnames, dates of birth and death, with a variety of layouts diagramatically showing relationships. These are not the same as genealogical programs.

Programs provide more features. A Lithuanian-language website that I found (although it may be dated) http://www.polia.info/Genealogija/Programos.htm outlines a number of genealogical programs. The best seems to be http://www.myheritage.com/genealogy, which allows you to create a family tree on the internet, or download the Family Tree Builder http://www.myheritage.com/family-tree-builder. It is free, and supports Lithuanian language for names and surnames with our specific diacriticals (special signs on letters such as š, č, etc.). These would be important even for non-Lithuanian speakers, because correct diacriticals make the names authentic. Other features are error recognition (warnings when dates do not align, for example), and search tools.

The family tree is a good starting point, because it does not require any more information than name/surname, relationship, date of birth and date of death. Simple. What if you don’t know these dates (or can’t remember them, or… can’t find the scrap you wrote them on)? Maybe there is a photo of grandfather’s headstone somewhere in the pile. Especially in the early post-war decades, they were often sent to us by relatives in Lithuania, together with the ghastly shots of everyone with sadder than usual faces standing around the open coffin of the deceased. If there is no photo of the headstone showing d.o.b. and d.o.d., contact the cemetery (e.g., St. John’s Lithuanian Cemetery, Mississauga). If there are no relatives you can contact in Lithuania to find out where someone is buried, a search may be possible through the municipality. For example, there is a listing of cemeteries in Kaunas and contact information for each. I was informed by one cemetery office there that queries must include the year of death, name and surname is not enough.

Turning your attention to your genealogical tasks for just half an hour a day or even an hour every few days will bring you satisfying results – and there’s no exam!

SPIT AND TELL

Listen to your parents – and record their stories!


It’s amazing what you may find once you start digging! Put it all together, then start sorting… You can do it!

 

Earlier this year, I pounced on an online discount on DNA analysis for ethnic origin by Ancestry – one of the most widely known companies who do ancestry searches. I received a kit in the mail, spit a few times in a little bottle, sealed it and sent it off to Ireland. It took at least two months, but I was rewarded with the revelation that I am 99% Lithuanian and 1% Finnish-Northwestern Russian. How fascinating to know! The test also enabled me to register on the Ancestry site with parents surnames and other details.

On the anecdotal side – my sister was crushed… We knew that our mother’s grandmother had a Polish surname, and we delusionally harboured secret aspirations to a shred of Polish nobility – as opposed to our actual flaxen agricultural roots… Alas we could not lay claim to a forgotten castle in the Carpathians.

The very day after registering, I was excited to be contacted through the Ancestry site by a person living in Pennsylvania wondering if I might be a third cousin on my mother’s side. He mentioned several familiar names including my mother’s younger brother, whom we knew well. He had emigrated from a DP camp in Germany, being sponsored by their uncle in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and later made his way to New Jersey, where he lived with his wife Birute and had a son, Remigijus John, with whom we are all still in contact.

The discovery of more possible cousins on my mother’s side in North America was a complete surprise. Though we knew of my Dad’s family, our mother’s relatives were always more of a mystery. Or was it? Perhaps we were just too preoccupied to ask Mom for details about her family tree, or to listen attentively when she talked about them, and while she still remembered. That may be the most important stepping stone in this journey of discovery.

About 40 years ago, I did come across another set of cousins living in Argentina. One of them, Estela, found us in Toronto during a Lithuanian Song and Sports Festival she participated in. We’ve kept in touch, met one of her brothers, and are going to see her in Buenos Aires when we travel there next year. Apparently our fathers were cousins. An interesting coincidence for me, as a retired editor of Canada’s Lithuanian weekly Tėviškės žiburiai, was that Estela’s father, Kazimieras Kliauga, was the editor of a newspaper called Pietų Amerikos žinios back in the 1940’s. The regime of the time was not tolerant of the ethnic right-wing press, and the family suffered certain repercussions. Luckily, a short time after I met them, I asked for their family tree. Now I just need a magnifying glass to decipher it, and begin fitting everyone together.

Ancestry.com or .ca is just one of the firms that analyze DNA – and it costs more the deeper you delve. There are also sites that will analyze your DNA for genetic health issues. The most common, besides Ancestry – are My Heritage, 23andme, and NextGenDNA. Discounts can sometimes be found on Groupon or other discount sites.

PHOTO CHAOS

How to organize your pictures and avoid photo panic

As we all know, any project must be undertaken in a series of steps, optimally in accordance with some kind of timeline. If, like me, you “work best” when up against a deadline, you may have to engage the services of a friend, relative or frenemy to make you promise to sort your photos by a certain date, visit or season. The best advice is to dedicate an hour a day or per week to the task, and you’ll be done before you know it. How to categorize photos is also a puzzle – depending on the number of family members, branches, events, trips or other criteria that make sense to you. The key is to stick to the plan. This is unfortunately also true of digital photos – witness desktop icon photos, my pictures, my favourite pictures, family pictures, miscellaneous, trip photos, year photos and others in my directory.

My conscience forces me to disclose the chaotic state that my family photos have been in for many years. I will simply say – learn from my mistakes. Collecting, inheriting and organizing photos should be a work in progress, not a spasmodic, feverish or temporary enthusiasm. Here is the evidence of my folly:

Photo Chaos

There were two more boxes on the floor… but I couldn’t lift them to take the picture

Long gone, obviously, are the calm days of taking, developing and inserting photos in a series of albums (according to children, trips or other categories). Taking my own advice, that is, first gathering everything in one place – I took that picture and was appalled at the number of boxes I had been hoarding. (In my defense, we’ve lived in the same house for almost 40 years; I inherited many pics from my parents; et cetera.) After lying down for a bit to recover from the shock, I did attack those same boxes and within a day, sorted them into a more manageable mass. Those six boxes of various sizes had lived under futons, behind a giant armchair, in several closets, and finally the basement. I hid them in a different place each year before my sister’s annual visit, embarrassed that I had done nothing with them. They were, in short, a plague. Today, there are many albums on a bookshelf, but as a result of that day’s work, there is now one box, containing neatly labelled file folders.

prganized photo archive

No more chaos. One box and one box only!

On the down side, no one may ever have the time or desire to look through the albums with a teary eye or keep any of them. All the more reason to select only the best and favourite. Our offspring are obsessed with downsizing at an age when we had a lust for accumulating – in the heyday of consumerism as well as a part of our post-refugee mentality. Now we see our children’s counter-reaction.

Next: imagine the convenience of keeping and passing on just a few discs! Ideally you (and I) will scan the selected photos in an orderly fashion. For me the most compelling and poignant reason to begin a schedule of selecting-scanning-digitizing is the memory of going to an estate sale and seeing family photo albums in a heap on the floor beside sundry mementos, china and kitchenware. Use or get rid of all that stuff now! Unburden yourself and your children, and live in peace with only the things you love.