Home - History-1900+ - Our Lithuanian Roots: for Genealogy Legwork, You Need Legs (Lggs)

Our Lithuanian Roots: for Genealogy Legwork, You Need Legs (Lggs)

By Tom Gregg (Grigonis)

2002-03-15-LHERITAGE-01

Not all professional foot – ball players are motivated outside of athletics. But as the 2001 National Football League season wound down, Joe Jurevicius had not just one big offseason plan but two. First, he would return to college to complete studies for his Fiuman Development degree, as he had long intended. Then— and you have to love this, coming from a 26 year-old kid— he would arrange for a Lithuania trip accompanied by his mother. “I want to see where I come from,” he told an intrigued reporter, who had probably heard every vacation story before except this one.

The star wide receiver shares an interest in his roots with an ever-growing number of people, Lithuanian and not: genealogy’s popularity advanced greatly in the 1990s. One can cite numerous reasons. The rise of the Internet, which offers helpful albeit scattered family research info; the 1991 Soviet Union collapse, which opened previously unavailable social records for many of Eastern European descent; the aging of Baby Boom generation Americans, who in 1996 began to expand the 50-up age bracket to which genealogy strongly appeals. And maybe too, given the nature o f modern urban American life, folks just like trying to connect with unknown relations, some from a simpler, friendlier place like Lithuania.

In any case, the typical LithuanianAmerican family search can be challenging. The family’s U.S. roots may span a century or more, and these roots have to be uncovered to pick up the trail in Lithuania. There’s no shortage of potential sources for the necessary names, places, and dates; the data can come from any mix of federal, state, county, city, church, military, or family-based records. But even after one understands some of the options and taps them, one often finds— as every historian does— that sources conflict or confuse. Maybe you can figure out that grandfather’s birthplace is Šiauliai misspelled. But would you recognize Lithuanian city names by a Polish or Russian equivalent? Cities commonly go by any of three names in records because of Poland and Russia’s historic influences. Cities also frequently stand for provincial areas in old paperwork. Thus “born: Kaunas” may in fact mean “born: Kaunas area”. Worrying for researchers too, if immigrant names haven’t been Anglicized intentionally (say, Gregg for Grigonis), they can have been variously rendered due to phonetics and the 31 character Lithuanian alphabet. A Shilakis may end up hunting for the derivative Šileikis and U.S. relations with five other variations of the original.

Sandra Savickas McDonald understood that all this can be daunting to those not versed in Lithuanian language and history, not to mention genealogy. And she didn’t see any single book, group, or web site addressing the diverse problems particularly well. So in 1999 the Utah entrepreneur and amateur genealogist started the Lithuanian Global Genealogical Society, fronted by an Internet-based mailing list, web site, and a semi-annual club newsletter called Proteviai (Forefathers). Several of the organization key players she came to the dance with, like resident genealogy pro/new sletter editor William Hoffman and current president Arleen Klimkiewicz Gould. Most of the others arrived soon after via the electronic list. None of them is getting rich off the LGGS production; subscription to the e-list service is free, access to the society web page at www.lithuaniangenealogy.org substantially free. Only the hardcopy newsletter unequivocally requires a recipient to join the society and pay its modest $15 dues.

The numbers on its e-list seem equally modest: 600 plus subscribers, posting about 100 messages a week. Listers are encouraged to stick to genealogical business, and although nobody crashes your computer when you ask for— and get— a kugelis recipe or travel advice for a Jurevicius-type Lithuanian trip, people generally respect the genealogy only rule. Llence the relatively low and manageable traffic rate. Probably half of the subscribers are inactive, and viewed across the list’s three year existence there’s a transient quality about the cast. It’s like a college town, and for the same reason: people make contacts, learn, and leave. And like with a college town, it works because the educators tend to stay. Ask the veterans anything (see accompanying story); even make it exotic. Lithuanian settlement in Scotland or South America, Lithuanian social groups in Arizona or Australia, an address in Michigan or central Illinois to contact for church records. Almost always, somebody out there helps.

All 15,000 e-list messages appearing to date are available online to proficient Internet navigators, and a complete run of 3,000 bulletin board messages at www.lithuaniangenealogy .org offers a similar function. They’re nice occasionally, but it’s doubtful many think of this paperless paperwork in long range terms. In contrast, there are hopes for much of the web site material to serve as a permanent reference source. Volunteers methodically add to the site’s transcriptions of U.S. cemetery records and Draugas and Naujienos (Lithuanian language newspapers) obits. The 1936 Chicago Lithuanian phone book, also online, seems like the height of insane trivia to the untrained eye. But Depression era addresses can greatly simplify the search of 1930 U.S. census data, whose 2002 release is probably the genealogical event of the year. The one members-only service here is the ability to enter names in the surname database; anyone can read the surname data and contact whatever club member made the original entry.

Circulating essentially to a subset of the e-listers on a shoestring budget, Proteviai is better than one would expect: editor Hoffman and layout man Bill Succolosky do such work for a living elsewhere. The features that they flatter generally fall into discrete types: how to research on both sides of the Atlantic, “my search for my ancestors” pieces, immigrant and Lithuanian history, and drier academic-produced material on such things as name origins. Thus there have been multi-part stories on Lithuanian settlement in Chicago and Cleveland to date, a piece on Lithuania’s guerrilla wars of the 1940s-c50s, and Succolosky’s own polished account of his search for and ultim ate m eeting with relations in Lithuania. The latter type, in addition to its value from a travel and human interest perspective, is instructive for students of researching technique. In the how-to category, a piece by a professional genealogical researcher in Lithuania was the best overview we’ve read on research particulars over there.

Hoffman eventually hopes to take his publication quarterly, which is partly dependent on the success of the current membership drive primarily in the hands of president Gould. It doesn’t require a business consultant to see her two biggest problems. One, the organization obviously favors the Internetconnected. Acknowledging the ten dency, Gould intends to beef up the member mailing list she recently introduced to include “who’s looking for/ found what” information to facilitate member communication for non-Internet and Internet users alike. Com ­ munication, after all, is what the organization is all about. Simultaneously she addresses the other problem, which is exposure. This isn’t necessarily a complex dilemma, either; rather, it only obliges one to think of all the various places Lithuanians congregate— and globally there are a lot— to spread the word about LGGS.

Given her high energy level, there’s no reason to think that she won’t succeed in finding them. And given the essential value of the LGGS, the unusually strong ethnic awareness of her fellow Lithuanians, and the continued popularity of genealogy, there’s no reason to think people won’t be receptive when she does.

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It’s the grand new tradition of the Internet: spread across the world, the twelve people closest to the core of the LGGS operation— ten past or present officers— have never convened in the flesh. It’s no easier to get them all to submit to interviews, but half of the twelve made themselves available for comment during this article’s preparation. The respondents:

Like the majority of the twelve, Sandra McDonald has Chicago connections, having been raised in the area. The initiator and quiet force behind the society, the one-time skip tracer has begun to distance herself from the management picture of late because of work commitments. Arleen Gould was installed as president #3 in late 2001, succeeding Mary Guler. The Chicago Marquette Park native has traced her roots back to the 1780s, and hopes to have similar success increasing the society’s membership and helping them do the same. Australian Vytas Levickis has been the club’s vice president since day one. He’s visited Lithuania five times, speaks the language fluently, and applied for and was granted Lithuanian citizenship last year. As for Lithuanian pride, we’re guessing he’s into it. Native Texan William Hoffman is an anomaly: non-Lithuanian, not especially interested in his own roots but in helping others uncover theirs, a surpassingly good writer for a man with postgraduate college background. As McDonald knew he would when she brought him aboard in 1999, the author of several standard genealogy volumes provided LGGS with instant credibility. Jay Zane served as first LGGS president 1999-2001. A Pennsylvania lawyer, he drew up the club bylaws viewable on the web site. The Pennsylvania immigrant history articles thereon are his too, and the Pennsylvania cemetery data his again. Family and job considerations have forced him to cut back on society involvement. Rick Goštautas, a civil engineering graduate student at Kansas, is former secretary and assistant web designer to McDonald. H e’s traced his lineage all the way back to 1342. One-three-four-two, yes.

Combined, they have over a century’s experience in genealogical research, working on problems of their own or those of LGGS contacts. We asked them a few questions they hear constantly, and one or two they don’t get as much.

Recent developments, like the Internet, have undoubtedly boosted genealogy’s popularity. But what constitutes the hobby’s intrinsic appeal? The element of challenge was nominated a lot. “It’s the ultimate jigsaw puzzle,” Goš­ tautas says. “Sometimes you lose a piece which can make getting anywhere very difficult, but when you find it you move further along in creating a picture of your family’s history.”

How far backward in time can one reasonably expect to trace their roots? Goštautas is nobly descended and had considerable aid within his family on the research besides, so his case can be judged atypical. But both Zane (1829) and Levickis (1817) have done nearly as well as Gould. “It’s hard to put a number on it,” Hoffman states, “but I’d say at least half of those who stick with it can expect to get back as far as the 1700s.” “I really think everyone can do this,” Gould maintains. “But people might need to use alternate methods in locating information.” Of which, as we’ve noted, there are ample.

How much is genealogy likely to cost the hobbyist? It can get expensive very quickly if you’re hiring out the work, it was observed. But commissioning a professional genealogist to help on your hobby is like jogging with somebody else’s legs; LGGS is predicated on one’s being a do-it-yourselfer. Record copies typically cost $5-$ 10, and even a query off to the Lithuanian State Archives— for all that potentially buys you— may run only $75. In the age of the $50 entertainment event ticket, this all doesn’t sound too bad.

Any advice for the complete novice? Talk to known relatives, the panelists said practically in unison. “They are the BIGGEST source of information and can be quickly lost during a time of passing,” Goštautas says. “My grandmother, born in 1909, has seen and told me more than any history book. Same goes with learning about your family.” Rick and several panelists also cautioned against becoming discouraged when the detective work bogs down. “On the whole, everyone will run into a brick wall,” Goštautas observes. “Time will help resolve all or at least most of the questions.” Levickis alone among the group exhibited an awareness that even today many are not Internet-sawy. Learn how to use it, he urges; the benefits are huge.

Bearing in mind that a sizeable portion of LGGS services are free and Lithuanians are notoriously thrifty what are the prime benefits of a $15 Society membership? Bill Hoffman’s Proteviai, obviously. Several respondents also encouraged Lithuanians to think of a membership in terms of an investment, insofar as the society is the only one building up a (hopefully) permanent database on the ‘Net. Gould makes a vital point. “A person can get the basic ‘how to’ from joining any genealogy group, but when you need detailed information it’s time to find a forum that deals with that nationality.” The reader’s support helps insure that the LGGS forum will be there for that time.

For further information about the Lithuanian Global Genealogical Society, write to LGGS, P. O. Box 109, Redondo Beach, CA 90277.