Friday, July 31, 2009

Reflections on Our First Week

I was following lines upon the ground. The lines moved apart slightly as I stepped upon them. Then I realized that they were the edges of interlocking puzzle pieces. I was not alone. In front of me and behind me, walking in a line, were other people all walking with bowed heads in a meditative calm. The line of people swayed slightly as it moved along the path. I awoke this morning, startled by my alarm, but still in a dream-like state. Part of me pulled back wanting to stay in the dream and make sense of it. The other part knew I needed to begin to prepare for the puzzles of the day.

I often describe myself as a puzzle solver. Whether it is finance, genealogy, art or language, those are the skills that I bring to bear. Apparently I even do it in my dreams. I’m very much in the midst of solving multiple puzzles so it is no surprise that it is the subject of my dreams. Language is a puzzle, but also a key to solve other puzzles. I’m trying to build a framework to absorb a new language that may provide some understanding of the culture from which my family came. At the same time, I ‘m trying to solve genealogical puzzles as I synthesize data and find connections. There is a process to solving puzzles. You don’t get everything all at once. Sometimes you come at the same information at a different point in time and see something significant that you totally missed previously. I often find in my genealogy work that organizing information allows me to recognize patterns and connections that otherwise would be obscured in disarray.

We are seeing some parallels in learning Yiddish. We’ve just finished our first week of classes with two different instructors, each with a very different teaching style. While we’ve spent 15 hours in actual class time, we’ve spent an equal amount doing homework as well as taking advantage of various cultural events. We’ve actually learned quite a bit in a week. We can quickly take notes in cursive Yiddish. We’ve learned pronunciation, verbs, sentence construction and a whole new vocabulary. We’ve spent hours perusing a Yiddish dictionary searching for words that often look like hieroglyphics and it has been a challenge to learn a new alphabet with a different ordering of letters. When we come upon Yiddish plaques within the city, we feel a sense of satisfaction when we’re able to decipher them. Tonight we translated one which marked the spot of Theodore Herzl’s visit to Vilnius in 1903.

While we’ve learned a lot, we are swimming in information which cries out for organization to integrate it into our knowledge base. One of the tasks that we plan to do this weekend is organize our information into an easily accessible structure.

Today was a rather amusing lesson as we discussed responses to the question of “ Vos hairt zik?” which is the equivalent of our “What’s new?" but actually translates to “What do you hear?” The responses ranged from “the grandmother gets older” to “the brain spins”. The time when we feel most competent in our Yiddish abilities is when we read Yiddish sentences in a 1947 first grade primer where Sarala and Berala play the roles of Dick and Jane.

This contrasts with our feeble attempts to formulate Yiddish sentences in actual conversation with others.

There are a few things we did this week that we haven’t yet shared. One evening we attended an outdoor film, “The Partisans of Vilna” shown in a monastery courtyard in what was once the old ghetto.

The film told the evolution of the partisan unit as they struggled to survive and resist the occupation by the Nazis. It brought to light the daily struggles of the ghetto. It also highlighted the battles the partisans fought on multiple fronts. When aligning with the Soviets to fight the Nazis, some saw them as enemies of the Lithuanians. On the other hand they had to literally watch their backs to protect themselves from friendly fire. Given the fact that today’s Lithuanians had filed charges against well-known partisans, we were curious about the response of the audience, but didn’t have the opportunity to find out.

Today was a very rewarding day on the genealogical front. The records that I found at the archives and had shared with other researchers received warm and appreciative responses. I am a firm believer that good genealogical deeds create good karma. I never expect anything in return as it is satisfying just to share information with others. Nonetheless it is especially exciting when they are able to provide information to me in return. This week I received a number of translated Revision (census) list documents for one of the shtetls that I am researching. I had sent photos of the original records to a fellow researcher and she in turn shared her information with me.

This afternoon we saw the film Ivan and Alexander which portrayed life in Poland in the early 1930s. It reflected how stressful economic conditions can fray the fabric of relationships across national and religious boundaries. Later this evening we attended a Shabes Tish (Shabbat Table) at the Jewish Community Center. The prayer over the Shabes lights was recited and then a young man from our group chanted the blessing over the wine and challah. His voice was strikingly beautiful and made the occasion feel very special. We had a small meal and the group soon moved into Yiddish and Hebrew songs which increased in energy as the bottles of Lithuanian vodka diminished. Our evening ended with a fireworks display over the red tile roofs viewed from our living room window.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Archives Take II

It is very difficult for me to admit defeat so I didn’t like the idea of abandoning my archive research. I did decide however, that it was time to draw on reinforcements. I contacted a guide who had been highly recommended to me. I had established contact with her briefly from the States, but then had difficulty connecting with her by e-mail. I noted in the schedule for the Yiddish Institute that she was our guide on a day trip so decided to take another run at establishing contact. This time I met with success and received an e-mail reply with her phone number. I called her and learned that she would be able to go to the archives today!

I then had to call over to the archives to see if they would pull some files for me in advance so we would have something to work with. I am always a little hesitant to use the telephone here as I am never sure if the person at the other end speaks English. After a long pause, the archivist seemed to be grasping my English. I mentioned that Regina would be accompanying me and could hear a change in tone at the mention of her name, probably relief at not having to deal with an American who doesn’t know their system.

Regina Kopilevich and I agreed to meet at a location near the University where we would take the trolley together to the archives. Not only would I learn another route by trolley, but we’d have an opportunity to talk in route. As I sat by the bell tower, I heard my name called by a woman wearing a floppy hat and a welcoming smile.

Regina guided me to the nearest trolley car where we got on a #12 which took us past a striking green domed Orthodox church. It dropped us at the Gerosios Vilties stop, the street on which the archives are located. Aboard the trolley we chatted with one of my classmates, a Belarusian who was doing research at the archives as well.

We entered the archives where I was now familiar with the drill. I traded my researcher card for a locker key and brought my computer and papers into the reading room.
We began with the 1875 census that I had reviewed for Glebokie. I had two of my own family names, but four additional names that I had received from others who were researching the region. I told Regina that while my two were the priority, if we saw the other names, I would like to take a photo of the page and get it to the researchers. Regina went through each page reading the names quietly as we rapidly flipped pages. I asked her why there were cutouts from the census and she told me that they were receipts that were provided to the families.

We first found a name from one of the other researchers. I took a photo and recorded the information in my notes. The second name looked like it might be Sher, the maiden name of my great-grandmother. The first letter was a “C” which has an “es” sound, instead of what we expected, the letter which resembles the Hebrew shin and has a “Sh” sound. Regina studied it and then went to get a friend’s opinion. She then proceeded to ask three other people in the room who were proficient in Russian and returned to report that they all believed it was Sher, but people from that region sometimes wrote it differently.

It listed the names of two brothers, Leyzor and Fishel, sons of Yankel as well as their ages. The youngest son was reported to be 16, but in another column it noted that he looked like 12. I wondered if that addition was for the purpose of determining if a son was of draft age, but masquerading as younger than his age to avoid conscription. The census also reported that the older brother had a house in Glebokie. I asked if it provided an address and we flipped back to the beginning of the section to locate the name of the street. As I will be in Glebokie, it will be interesting to see if the street still exists.

We continued through the book and although I found no more of my family names, there were several for other researchers as well as many Shapiros who seemed to dominate the town. I also found a family name for one of my fellow students who had told me that her great-grandmother came from Glebokie. And for those who may contemplate such research, it took us about an hour to get through the book with a fluent researcher reading every name as we sought six surnames.

We reviewed one other book which stood at least two feet tall on fraying parchment. Within it was the 1834 census for Dunilovichi. I took photographs of each page of that section with the hope that I may find someone to translate it more thoroughly.

We then moved to the microfilm room where we again tackled the “reel-less” rolls of film. I asked Regina why they weren’t on reels and she noted that they were quite old. 

 “Couldn’t they put them on reels?” I queried. 

 “We are not looking for the easy ways,” she replied with a chuckle.

On film we reviewed the index for the 1858 Dunilovichi census. Only the index is available as well as many of the files of supplemental census data. While we found several names for my fellow researchers, I did not have additional success with my family names. Nonetheless, I was grateful to have expanded my scope so as to have a greater sense of success. I think it is likely that as I try to map relationships across the shtetl, I may find relationships with other families that may make some of these discoveries personally meaningful.

On the way back to town, I queried Regina about her background and family. I learned that she trained as an engineer, but had worked as a volunteer for a Jewish cultural organization. Prior to Independence, families weren’t permitted to go to the shtetls to visit family graves. Part of her work was in facilitating this. She then got interested in learning Hebrew and gradually made a career shift. I recalled at the panel discussion the day prior, the panel had noted that Independence had brought much more freedom to practice the Jewish religion.

Despite the discovery of only one of my family names, today felt much more successful than my first attempt at archive research. Regina was able to move past irrelevant information for other towns and focus on a broader list of names than I could do alone. And she could do it in a fraction of the time it would take a non-native speaker to do so. She was aware of resources that would likely not have been available to me and was able to use our three hours in the most effective way possible. As we bid farewell, she mentioned that she would be at the International Jewish Genealogy Conference next week in Philadelphia. With a smile she said, let me know if you need anything from the States.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Vilnius Jewish Community

After we finished our Yiddish classes we regrouped to walk to the local Jewish Community Center. On the way we were chatting about family history and I discovered another student shared family in Radom. As we spoke, a French student overheard us and offered that she had family from Radom as well. We began to excitedly share family names wondering if perhaps we were cousins. We plan to gather tomorrow to share information on Radom.

Fran also had an exciting piece of news on the genealogy front. Her art instructor is in Moscow and kindly offered to try to locate a long lost relative of Fran’s. Relatives from Paris had come to the United States, but ultimately gone to Moscow. Her mother had maintained a correspondence with them, but the most recent record Fran had was a return address on an envelope from 35 years ago. After Fran provided the patronymics to her friend, she was able to access a database in Moscow to locate Fran’s relatives and speak with them. Now Fran has an address and a phone number so will try to reach them.

Getting back to our day, when we arrived at the Jewish Community Center we were ushered into a room with a panel of speakers from the Jewish community who represented Jewish organizations in Vilnius and Lithuania.

Many interesting points were raised during the presentation including the survival and welfare of the Jewish community, the reclamation of Jewish property, the history and current status of anti-Semitism and the view of partisans.

One of things I did not fully appreciate prior to this trip was the impact that the Soviet occupation had on both the Jewish and non-Jewish community. For Jews, it often offered a double victimization, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Ironically the deportations to Siberia by the Soviets may have saved some Jews from the Nazis. The Lithuanians often viewed the Jews as allied with the Soviets and to blame for their plight. This is ironic in that 7% of the Jews were deported by the Soviets. The historical record is often distorted, with fiction overriding fact. This is best illustrated in continued efforts to prosecute partisan heroes who fought the Nazis. While elsewhere they were lauded as heroes, in Lithuania they have been threatened with prosecution. Only recently the charges have been dropped due to inadequate evidence to prosecute. The concern is that charges could be reinstated at a future date.

We have often wondered about reclamation of property as we wander down the streets, gazing at the buildings in the Jewish quarter. We learned that property can only be reclaimed by Lithuanian citizens which becomes challenging when 95% of the Jewish citizens were murdered.

In discussing anti-Semitism, the panel gave examples of the continued teaching of a childhood nursery rhyme victimizing Jews to slow government response to acts of anti-Semitism. They hastened to add that there were many priests who understood the Jewish community well.

While the panel discussed many serious topics there was also humor. They talked of a show that was held in town on six famous American Lithuanians. Of the six, five were Jewish and they weren't quite sure about the sixth who was a baseball player. They said with a chuckle, if there weren't Vilnius Jews there would be only one famous American Lithuanian. I am guessing that one of the six was Jascha Heifetz, the violinist, who attended the Vilnius School of Music.

We were especially heartened by the energy of the panel and the active involvement of young Vilnius Jews in nurturing the Jewish community. The exuberant and passionate Director of the Center talked of the goals of protecting the well-being of the Jewish population, sustaining Jewish culture, providing a range of services for all ages and fulfilling its sense of moral obligation to honor the memory of those slaughtered here during WWII. It was amazing to watch how easily he translated between Yiddish, Russian, Lithuanian and English.

After the presentation several of us met at a local café over cappuccinos as we completed our Yiddish homework. It is a challenge to resume the student role at this stage in our lives, but it is also invigorating.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Learning Yiddish and Spinning my Reels

Today we began our Yiddish classes with a very colorful teacher, Dov Ber. Dov Ber has a full beard and curly dark hair with a perpetual twinkle in his eyes. Dov began by asking us our names and where we were from and then proceeded to write our replies phonetically in Yiddish. The program stresses the importance of getting comfortable with cursive Yiddish and this proved to be good practice in doing so. It also allowed us to add a few more nationalities to the group, Italian, Lithuanian, Finnish and Russian. The Russian language which I’ve studied proved to be a good preparatory experience. Because neither Russian nor Yiddish consists of a Latin alphabet, it forces an extra step in the learning process. First one must transliterate the alphabet, recognizing both its look and sound. After this becomes familiar you realize that you are no longer transliterating it on a conscious level, but seeing it and hearing its sound simultaneously. Had I not gone through that learning process with Russian, I think I might find this more intimidating. Not to say that it is simple, but I realized that I already know more than I had acknowledged and I need to trust the learning process.

We met for an hour and a half with Dov Ber and then had a half hour coffee break. Regrouping, we then spent another hour and half with another professor, Anna, a striking Estonian linguist. Anna drilled us still further in the cursive alphabet. Having three hours of classes each day is a new rhythm to which it will take a while to adjust. In the afternoon there was a lecture in Yiddish about the fate of books during WWII. Fran decided to attend even though she would understand little if any of it. She hoped that hearing the language would enter her brain by osmosis. Another student who understood some Yiddish described the talk as depressing as it described the systematic destruction by the Germans of Yiddish and Hebrew books. I departed to head to the archives and see what I might learn.

The archives are on the other side of town and there was no easy way to get to them. The directions by trolley bus were quite complex so I decided to take a cab on this first day. The cab was costly from the old town and dropped me in front of a rather neglected building in an uninviting area of the town. I entered the archives and asked for Galina, the one English speaking archivist. They directed me to her office at the end of the hall. I began to knock on the door only to realize that it was padded. Knocking apparently is not encouraged. Instead I tried her door only to find it locked. She opened the door shortly after this attempt and I introduced myself. Galina escorted me down the hall where I was given a locker in which to put my coat as well as deposit any carry case big enough to walk out with documents. She then directed me to the reading room. There, people sat at small tables where they reviewed documents. She indicated that they had the original of one of the documents I requested, the 1875 census from Glebokie, but the rest of the documents were on microfilm. Before providing me with the documents they filled out an information card on me.

The 1875 census was quite crumbly with sections cut from it. I’m not sure why that was and Galina was no longer there to ask. It was in columnar format and the Russian script was better than some with which I’ve worked. As a result I was able to recognize a number of first names. I had written out the surnames I was researching in handwritten Cyrillic so I could look for names that might resemble them. Both names were short, Sher and Gold, so I thought they would be easier to locate. When I found names that resembled their initial letters I took a photograph as I wasn’t sure if there might be an ending added to the name which could lengthen it.

Having exhausted the census with some remote possibilities, but no Eureka moment, I then found my way to the microfilm room down the hall. They brought out a tray of microfilm, but only one was on a reel. Apparently those without reels had to be wound by hand. They set me up on a machine that didn’t seem to allow for enlargement of the image. Each time one rotated the reel it blurred for a minute until it came into sharper focus. That made for a slow and unwieldy process. The document was the census from 1834 and unlike the columnar form I had reviewed for 1875, it appeared to contain paragraphs, a format I would not have expected for a census. After winding through one of the reels, I concluded with disappointment that I’d be spinning my wheels and reels to continue down this path.

The archives closed at 4:30 so I decided to find a way to take a trolley car back to the center of town. I soon realized that the stop named for the street which housed the archives wasn’t the correct one as each trolley car passed me by. The Savanoriu stop listed the buses going to Pylimo, a stop from which I could find my way home. As I was dropped across from a large park, I pulled out my map and traced my path through streets that changed names frequently until I found Fran and one of our classmates at a nearby café. They had been hard at work on our homework which I now need to catch up on.

I have concluded that unless I can identify someone with more Russian skills to assist me in my research, I will abandon my attempt at archive research. The archivists are no longer available to assist in research and the difficulties in communication proved somewhat daunting. I plan to e-mail a researcher who I had contacted originally and ask at the University if someone might be available to assist me. Otherwise I will have to rely upon our Belarus visit to learn more about that segment of the family.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Program Beginning

This morning we went to Vilnius University to register for our Yiddish program. The registration process began in the library filled floor to ceiling with Yiddish books. We then met with two staff people whose job it was to decide what level we should be at in the program. Each person went in individually behind closed doors and was queried about their knowledge of Yiddish. Fran likened the experience to auditioning for American Idol.

Deciding to short circuit the experience, I noted, “This should be easy. I don’t know any Yiddish so I am clearly in Level 1.” The gentleman looked a little concerned as he noted that he didn’t speak English. After a brief exchange between them they circled level 1 and said “Zye Gesunt.”

 “I know that one!” I exclaimed.

The group that is in the program is quite international. While there are many Americans, people were also there from Germany, France, England, Poland, Israel, Belarus and Austria. We believe there are about 60 people in total in the program. Fran found two “lansman” from the same shtetl of Washington, DC. The attendees range from college age to mid-60s. About half are staying in the dorms, while the balance have gotten apartments or other living arrangements. Even though the dorm offers congeniality and opportunities for socializing, it is not a convenient location as it requires 30 minutes of walking and riding a bus. We were especially grateful that we found the living arrangement that we did.

When we exited the University we heard drums and realized that we had come upon the Sunday ritual of the changing of the flags at the President’s Palace. We observed soldiers and sailors changing the colorful flag of Lithuania.

Behind them several men attired in Monty Python garb stood at attention.

After the ceremony ended we went in search of a flea market where I secretly hoped I might find some relics of the ghosts of Vilnius, old Kiddush cups, Hebrew books or photographs. Unfortunately the only treasure I noted was an old Rolling Stone album. The city is beginning to feel smaller as we explore different segments and realize how they connect.

We later joined the scheduled tour of Vilnius. We learned that many of the buildings were constructed in the 16th century by Italian architects accounting for the prevalence of baroque architecture. We also had a brief discussion of the politics of modern day Lithuania where the current president is a 53 year old woman. The prior president, who was quite popular, grew up in Chicago. Its recent history also included Europe’s first presidential impeachment which became a gripping reality TV show for the Lithuanian public.

Our guide noted that Jews settled in Lithuania in the 14th century. She talked about how it was an open society where Poles, Russians and Jews could comfortably live side by side. A discussion ensued among our group as to the incongruity of referring to a people who lived here for six centuries by its religion, when talking about them in the context of nationality. Carving Jews out of the nationality within which they live contributes to the isolation and subsequent targeting which occurred in WWII and occurs with many other groups today. We are realizing that coming to another country which was deeply affected by the Holocaust, heightens our awareness of these lingering and painful issues.

In the evening we attended a welcoming event with the introduction of the key instructors. We had an opportunity to socialize with some of the attendees and had a particularly interesting conversation with a young Austrian man. We asked him what brought him to the program and he replied that he was working at the Jewish Museum as part of his Austrian national service. All Austrian males are required to enlist in the army, perform civil service or serve in the Gedenkdienst program. Gedenkdienst means Remembrance and involves working in a Holocaust memorial institution. The program was started by a political scientist who adopted the idea from the German Action for Reconciliation. The young man noted that it was in working at the museum that he became interested in learning Yiddish and has been studying with a private tutor.

On the way back to our apartment we stopped to listen to a concert in the plaza of a Lithuanian folk tale modernized into a rock opera complete with strobes and smoke.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Acclimating to Vilnius

Today was an unscheduled day for us to get our bearings in the city in which we’ll be living for the next month. We began our day with brunch at an outdoor café in a central plaza in the old section of the city. There we learned that the Lithuanian national dish consisted of baked bowels with mashed potato stuffing, and decided to opt for more traditional fare.

It was a good vantage point from which to people watch. We looked up in amusement when we saw a Volkswagon with clanking tin cans announcing a newly married couple as they ceremoniously circled the plaza. This was followed by the arrival of an antique convertible bedecked with flowers out of which elegantly stepped another bride and groom who proceeded to pose for photos in front of the central fountain.

As we watched, this scene was repeated at least seven or eight times. We seemed to have stumbled into the main photographic venue for every wedding in Vilnius.

Our next stop was at a nearby grocery store to get some basic provisions for our apartment. We soon discovered that most packaged goods were described in Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Russian and on rare occasions even English. When we couldn’t translate what was written we relied on photographs or package illustrations. We began to feel like natives as we trundled our shopping bags several blocks back to our apartment.

Our afternoon exploration was locating the University where we are supposed to meet tomorrow for registration and orientation in the Yiddish program. The University is just a few minute walk from our apartment. We learned that the University is the oldest one in Eastern Europe, founded by Jesuits in 1570. Its attendees have included many well known artists such as Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz.

Riga to Vilnius

We didn’t think we’d have much to report in our blog as we spent almost five hours on a bus today. It was a rainy day in Riga and we needed to get our bags across trolley lines and a busy street to get to the bus station. We successfully navigated those obstacles and boarded our bus, a very modern vehicle. It provided comfortable seats, air conditioning and a cappuccino dispenser. The countryside could as easily have been in the Midwest and there was little that made it distinctively Latvian or Lithuanian. It was a little disappointing that there was nothing that marked the entry into Lithuanian and we never knew when that transition had actually taken place.

Upon arriving in Vilnius we looked around for our landlady Gaiva who had e-mailed us that she would be there to meet us at the station. We realized that we did not know what she looked like and we saw no welcoming signs upon our arrival. As we waited we simultaneously commented about the differences in appearance between the Latvians and the Lithuanians. While the Latvians had a rather Nordic appearance with a disproportionate number of slender, long legged blondes, the Lithuanians had darker hair and were often shorter.

When we failed to locate Gaiva, Fran turned to the local policija who loaned us the use of their cell phone to contact her. When we finally met her, we immediately felt comfortable as she was very open and friendly. As she drove us to the apartment, she shared that her husband was a professional artist. They had a summer home and rented out their apartment while they lived in their other home. As we neared the apartment we took a circuitous route through the quaint streets of the old part of Vilnius.

At the apartment we had an opportunity to see a wide variety of her husband’s work. Most paintings were quite large and had some figurative aspects, but also elements that reminded us of Paul Klee. If you want to see examples of Vytenis Lingys’work go to We feel fortunate to be able to live for a month surrounded by his artwork.

The apartment is located on 10 Gaona which is in the area that was once the Jewish ghetto and is named after a famous rabbi of Vilnius. It is located across from the well- known hotel Stikliu and surrounded by open air restaurants and cafes.
Unlike Riga, cars are allowed in the old part of the city. Our apartment is two blocks from the University where we will go for our language classes. The first meeting will be on Sunday, so we will leisurely explore the city tomorrow to get our bearings.

We walked around a bit last evening looking for traces of what used to be here. The Austrian Embassy is down the street in what used to be an old prayer house. There is a plaque that tells the history. There is also a sculpture of the Vilna Gaon, the famous Rabbi for whom our street was named. Aside from that there are few traces of the community that once lived here.

Gaiva showed us several areas throughout the apartment where when they redid the walls, they found layers of what used to be here. Being artists, they left them intact so they appear like paintings on the walls throughout the apartment, ghost-like images of the prior residents. One spot appeared to have some Hebrew lettering. Gaiva noted that there was a lot of blue in the prior wall coverings as the residents had been Jewish and blue was an important color. It is chilling to think that those residents were deported and murdered.

The area now consists of galleries and charming restaurants, all very gentrified. As we walked around last evening we found ourselves wondering about the stories behind each building.

A little history lesson on Vilnius….Once referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, Vilnius was home to 100,000 Jews who made up 45% of the population. There were a total of 240,000 Jews in Lithuania and 90% died in the Holocaust. Today Vilnius is home to 5,000 of the 6,500 Jews remaining in Lithuania. The 105 synagogues that existed prior to WWII have been reduced to one. During the German and Soviet occupations virtually every trace of Jewish life was removed. Blocks were razed and cemetery tombstones were used to pave sidewalks. A sports stadium sits atop what was once a Jewish cemetery.

It is hard to walk these charming streets without thinking about its past inhabitants.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Riga Recap

Today is our last evening in Riga until our return home. For the first time since our arrival we ventured out of the old town, leaving its cobblestones and automobile free streets. It felt like a shock to have to dodge automobiles again and we were very conscious of the intensified pace.

We walked across a large park in the middle of town to Elizabetes Street where the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings is located. About a third of the buildings in the central district are in this style, many designed by Mikhael Eisenstein. The buildings contained many intricate architectural details and beautiful coloring.

We also did a stop at the Jewish Museum which chronicled Jewish life in Latvia from the 18th century until the present. From a thriving community of 95,000 in 1925, only 1,000 survived after the Holocaust. Today there are about 8,000 Jews of which 7,000 are in Riga. The museum is housed in what once was the building for the Yiddish Theater. It also serves as a community center and a social gathering place for many Holocaust survivors. The museum reinforced some of the stories which Michael Freydman had shared about the destruction of the Choral Synagogue where 300 Jews were locked in as it burnt. It is difficult to comprehend how a people who today are so cordial, charming and helpful could have participated in such atrocities in the past.

Other experiences today included a visit to some beautiful parks along canals, walking through a fragrant flower market, and encountering a special Orthodox Church Mass celebrating the 20th year of a priest’s service there. There were many babuska’ed women, people bringing floral tributes and many black-robed nuns and other Russian priests attending the ceremony. The church was decorated with gold and Russian religious icons and quite beautiful.

We had hoped to attend the evening Rosh Chodesh services at the synagogue, but had erred on the day. However, it gave us another opportunity to visit with Michael who recommended several books, Shlepping the Exile by Michael Wex and A Dictionary of the Jewish Family Names and their History by R’Ben Zion Kaganoff.

As this is our last evening we thought it would also be a good opportunity to share our overall impressions of the city. Riga is a charming town with a well preserved old section. Cars are not allowed in this part of the city, streets are cobblestone and there are many pedestrians of all ages and nationalities. There were many street musicians. We saw and heard flutists, cellists, saxophonists, guitarists and accordion players. Most people spoke fluent English. The big products for sale in this region are amber jewelry and finely woven linen. We were surprised to see elderly men and women begging, but learned from Michael that Latvia has had very difficult economic times and cut social security/pension benefits and other services for those in need. The synagogue does its part by providing a soup kitchen for its congregants. Even our waitress spoke of the difficulty of finding a financial way to meet the cost of university she hoped to attend soon.

There are many open air restaurants which provide blankets for chillier nights. Although we had the opportunity to eat the local cuisine of blood sausage, sauerkraut and pig shins, we opted for less ethnic choices. We did enjoy the dense black bread of the region. Two restaurants which we particularly enjoyed, Velvet and Domini Canes, were located on Skarnu Ilea across from St. Peters. Our hotel, the Monte Kristo, was very convenient and charming despite the street noise. The breakfast was more than ample and the location at the edge of Old Town allowed for walking to and from the bus station as well as to many of the tourist spots. We would recommend asking for a room that does not face the street where an open air café generates considerable noise. We were close enough to walk to the bus station (Autoosta) to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s journey to Vilna, Lithuania. It is adjacent to the biggest food market in Europe.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Last Synagogue in Latvia

Fran, my traveling companion, is the author of today’s blog on our day in Riga.

This is incredible as this blog is being written while listening to downloaded Klezmer Music. It is more relevant as we started this day searching and successfully finding the only synagogue in all of Latvia. Easily missed, we located our destination by finding Michael Freydman, the caretaker, standing (with yarmulke) within the courtyard.
Michael was friendly and funny, greeting us warmly, and telling us about the status of the structure. He jokingly referred to the permanent apartment of the police who guard the building 24/7 after a bombing there years ago. The “apartment” consisted of a van up on blocks. He informed us that the building was under renovation and we couldn’t go in, but agreed to let us see the small downstairs hall currently in use for services. Michael was born in Riga and described speaking Yiddish growing up. He laughingly offered to teach us Yiddish when we told him we were going to the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius. He read us a Yiddish commemoration plaque for the memory of the Jews massacred by the Nazis during WWII. The plaque was written in Yiddish so it would be familiar to the (Orthodox) congregants as they only use Biblical Hebrew for praying.

While the main synagogue was burned, the priests from the nearby church protested to the Nazis that burning this synagogue would do too much damage to the area, thus it alone survived. Inside the sanctuary we saw dedicated seats donated by descendants of a Jewish family that were slaughtered at Rumbala. Michael translated the Hebrew at the front of the Synagogue as “The house of mine will be the house of prayer for all nations.” Laughing he told us that American Jews have a few additional commandments to the standard ten. #ll Don’t be pessimistic, #12 Look on the bright side, #13 Elbows akimbo (have an attitude), #14 Buy low, sell high. His humor seemed very Jewish and easily spanned geographic distance. Visiting the synagogue was a very poignant and moving experience and our conversation with Michael added considerably to the experience.

We found this interesting article about the synagogue in the Baltic Times.

As we departed the synagogue we noticed a life size image of a scantily clad woman holding out an apple which seemed like an ironic contrast to the synagogue.

Next we went to the Doma area and found a large fountain around which were located a number of unusual buildings. The focal point was the Blackheads House which was originally built in 1334 and renovated since. The Blackheads were an association of unmarried merchants. The name came from their patron saint, the Moor Maurice.

Next door to that was the somber grey building housing the Museum of the Occupation that told the story of Russian/Nazi control of Latvia and the attempts by both regimes to destroy the culture, infrastructure and spirit of the Latvians. It showed life in the gulags in Russia where many were deported. A small section was devoted to the Holocaust and the impact on the Jewish community. It also described how the Russians blamed the Jews for the policies imposed by the Russians. The difficult conditions under the Russians caused many Latvians to be receptive to the Germans.

We stopped at a café for a cold drink before heading back for an Eastern European nap (sounds more like a cultural experience that way), before going out once again. We have been searching for the Art Nouveau section (Elizebetes Iela) but never seem to make it there. We keep going in circles but found new sights and sounds anyway. Today we saw an art class sketching at St. Peter’s, two flutists, and several street musicians. We also came upon another center, populated by a younger crowd where a rock band would play later. We had been looking for another church concert, but couldn’t find it. That allowed us time to meander and find some beautiful architectural adornments to the facades of buildings.

We ended our day returning to last night’s restaurant, this time eating outdoors as the threat of rain no longer haunted us. Oh, I forgot, in our wanderings we found a scrumptious dessert/coffee place and had a decadent chocolate delight. Of course, now we are back at the hotel, recapping the day and planning for tomorrow, our last full day in Riga. We definitely are going to the Jewish Museum along with the intent on finding Elizabetes Iela (Street).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rainy Day in Riga

My first full day in Riga began at 4:30 AM with the scent of cigarette smoke wafting in my open window as two men carried on a conversation outside. Realizing I was not going to fall back to sleep, I gathered  my Magic Jack and my computer, quietly got dressed so as not wake Fran and went out into the lobby. With an eight hour time difference from home, I knew I could probably catch up with my fiancé Marty. He and I had communicated electronically upon my arrival, but we still had yet to speak by phone. At home we had successfully experimented with chatting with a web cam, but we needed to replicate that effort from abroad. After a number of false starts, we finally got the audio working and were able to have a conversation complete with video. I even got a video hello from our cats. We used an Acrobat site that Marty located.  It is actually a meeting site, but worked well for the webcam. It also enabled me to allow him access to my screen or control of the screen. We’ve also been able to communicate on Google Chat with a web cam with slightly better reception. Through both of these vehicles we were able to converse on-line without a phone.

An alternative for phoning less technology savvy people is the Magic Jack which is a small device that plugs into a USB port. It has a US number and allows me to call the US as if it were a local call and without additional cost. I forwarded my cell phone to it so it alerts me by e-mail if I get any calls to my cell phone or Magic Jack number while I’m gone. I can then use it to check my voicemail. The only requirement is an Internet connection in order to work. Technology plays an important role in my travels, allowing me to easily stay in contact and share information.

When Fran awoke we went to the dining area, an arched brick room reminiscent of a wine cellar. The breakfast was sumptuous– fresh yogurt and honey, banana blintzes, baked eggs, ham and a Mediterranean vegetable salad. It lasted us until dinner. We then ventured out to explore Riga only to realize that it was cool and verging on rain. As we began to walk the skies opened up and torrents of rain descended. We walked in the rain and found St. Peter’s church where we saw a notice for a concert later in the day which we planned to attend.

We had set out for a walking tour until the rain deterred us. Our focused destination dissolved into a meandering walk through the city as we admired its architecture. Here are a few of the buildings in the streets close to our hotel.

Riga is known for its Art Nouveau buildings with the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in all of Europe. .We found the Cats’ House, a yellow Art Nouveau building, atop of which stands a feline statue.

The story is that prior to WW I a merchant who owned the building was refused entry to the guild as he was Latvian and only Germans were admitted. In retaliation he put two statues of black cats, their backs arched and tails raised, on the roof and posed them so their backsides faced the guildhall. He finally was admitted to the guild and then turned the cats around.


As the rain intensified we sought shelter in a coffee shop as we watched the parade of umbrellas. When the rain finally ceased we wandered through the streets, taking pictures of the reflections of the buildings in the large puddles. I had done a series of paintings based on reflected images so am always looking for such source material as it allows for a collage-like effect in paintings.

When the rain began again we headed back to our hotel for a long nap. We ventured out in the evening to the concert at St. Peters. A lovely blond Latvian flautist together with several pianists performed the concert which was hauntingly beautiful. We have noticed the typical Latvian woman is rather Nordic, often statuesque and blonde.

We ended our evening with a delightful dinner at an elegant restaurant across from St. Peters. We are splitting meals so we can try a greater variety of foods. Duck seems to be plentiful and we’ve enjoyed it in several meals as well as seafood from the Baltic. The menu was in Latvian, English and Russian script which allowed me to practice reading Cyrillic script.I found that many words translate to English words if one can read the Cyrillic. My new Russian vocabulary includes such words as mozzarella, Rhubarb, Tagliatelli and Tiramisu. I am working on speaking fluent “Food” although I don’t think it will help me much in the Vilnius archives.

We’ve located where the synagogue and Jewish museum are and plan to visit them tomorrow. The main synagogue was destroyed in 1941 and the one we are going to visit is the only operating synagogue in the country.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Arriving in Riga and Tales of Radom

I sigh with relief. I am sitting on my Baltic Air flight from Amsterdam to Riga after a bit of an ordeal. My flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam was on Northwest/KLM, now Delta. They booked my connecting flight on Baltic Air as well. When I arrived at the Baltic Air counter I saw Fran, my traveling companion from Virginia. I met Fran doing genealogy research in Utah and after several Utah trips and a genealogy conference, feel pretty certain that we will travel well together. Fran is a seasoned traveler with recent trips to India and China. She has a comforting calm to her that put me at ease with her immediately. I, on the other hand, run on adrenalin. When things go wrong, calm is not my M.O. My contribution to our trip is my planning skill. I build the itinerary, research the hotels and communicate with our contacts in Vilnius and Belarus.

Seeing Fran, I assumed that the rest of the trip would be smooth sailing. We met up and were on the same flight to Riga. What could go wrong? First, my carefully organized carry-on was deemed too large to carry on the smaller plane. I quickly switched critical items with my smaller carry-on as the line behind us grew. Then the Baltic Air staff decided I needed a paper ticket from Northwest and after an hour passed with many phone conversations in rapid-fire Dutch, they sent me to the Northwest ticket counter to get a paper ticket. It was beginning to look questionable as to whether I would have time to make the flight. Running with my bags, I cultivated the right amount of panic and excitability to engender immediate responses from airport staff. They came through beautifully and after three expedited stops I had my paper ticket and went careening with my luggage cart back to Baltic Air with ten minutes leeway to check my bag.

I went dashing off to the lengthy security line, when the woman from Baltic Air came running after me with my baggage claim number. Taking a look at the length of the line, she led me to the front, said a few words to the security staff who again expedited me through. Things were looking a little more promising with a half hour before my flight was to leave. I soon realized that I would need every minute of that time to cover the distance to the gate so again shifted to hyper-adrenalin mode. I arrived at the gate just a few minutes after my traveling companion and learned that they had upgraded me to first class for the remaining flight. So a challenging start, but everyone was very helpful in resolving the situation.

And now after a lovely meal I am sipping that wonderfully strong European coffee with a fabulous chocolate covered marzipan treat. Ooh, they just gave me two more of them. I’m a happy traveler.

But enough of travel travails. While I await the beginning of my adventure in the Baltic States, let me report on some interesting genealogy encounters over the past week. About a week ago I received an e-mail from an Israeli relation. I had located his father last year after I spent a week in Bad Arolsen, Germany working with the Holocaust records of the International Tracing Service (ITS). From those records I identified survivors who were descended from the sister of my great-grandmother. They had landed in Paris and in Israel after WWII. I had been successful in locating them and by e-mail provided a family tree linking the families of my new Paris and Israeli cousins and another Israeli cousin who I had located some years prior.

Lior was contacting me because he was trying to obtain a passport and needed information on his grandfather. I went to my voluminous files and found the entire file from the ITS on his grandfather, encompassing 91 documents. It detailed each camp he was in during the Holocaust and his addresses since. I had also just received the identity paper from 1942 for his grandfather complete with a photo of him in his early thirties. Befriending Lior on Facebook, I noted the resemblance between him and his grandfather. I had also received the originals of the Radom Book of Residents which went back to his great-great grandfather and showed each family member since.

Lior was interested in getting some additional records from Radom. Some time ago I had developed an e-mail friendship with an Israeli who was also researching Radom, Poland. I had shared information with him and he helped me with my first order to the Polish Archives. In fact he had helped me track down Lior’s father a year earlier. I recalled there were some unique issues in doing wires to the archives from Israel and put him in contact with my friend to guide him through the process.

I learned from my friend that he had just been to Radom and worked in the archives. As I hope to go there, I was pleased to hear that he was able to be productive without a guide. He reported an interesting tale. In one small village he contacted a Polish woman who had helped another Israeli in the past. She invited him to her home and her husband showed him around town. While he was there her 80 year old mother kept looking at him and asking questions in Polish. When they told her his family name, she started talking and didn’t stop for ten minutes. Apparently my friend looks like his grandfather and one of his brothers. The woman was only ten at the time, but had clear recall about his family. His great-grandparents helped her family in the past and when they moved his family to the ghetto, her parents sent her to bring them food in return. She showed him the house where they lived and the house where they lived in the ghetto.

He also reported that when he was taking photographs of the buildings in which family used to live, the police were called. Apparently many Poles are fearful that Jews will return to claim the buildings which were appropriated after their families were murdered. He asked me the addresses of where my family lived and when I provided them, he sent me photos in very close proximity to them. It turns out our families lived very near each other in Radom.

Now off to dinner in Riga where we have arrived at our hotel. Here's a picture of the Baltic Sea.

We got to the room and I saw two packages of something yellow by the side of the bed. I thought, ooh a Latvian treat. I picked them up and they were soft, kind of like those orange marshmallow peanut looking candies. Then I realized they were ear plugs!

Not a good sign. In fact they are playing frisbee outside our window and we're on the street level.

Ah well, hopefully the street noise will blend to a low roar of white noise.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Trip Preparations : Using the Vilnius Archives

While I’m in Vilnius I hope to do research in the Vilnius Archives. I’ve done research in foreign records, but not in an actual archive. I will have language classes until 1:00PM each day and then there are cultural events that start around 4:30PM. That gives me a window of several hours on most days to do research.

My starting point was to go to the database within Miriam Weiner’s Routes to Roots Foundation. Here I discovered that the Revision lists for Dunilovichi and Glebokie, the two shtetls where family came from, are held at the archives for years from the late 1700s to well into the 1800s. I believe everything in the 1800s is in Russian. I’ve been studying Russian and am hopeful that I can decipher names in the handwritten Cyrillic. I’ve been developing a resource page with family names in text and cursive for both Russian and Hebrew. Frequently records contain both languages in cursive. The text should also prove helpful in translating tombstones. It is a multi-step process to develop my name guide. With the aid of, I first enter the name in English and get text spellings of it. Then I enter the text into another model on his site and translate it to cursive which I copy into my spreadsheet.

I’m not too optimistic that I’ll find anything as I’ve not found my family name in the translation of the 1850 census for Dunilovichi. I’ve also had a researcher review the 1852-55 additional revision lists with no success. My limited translation skills may prove to be a further obstacle. Still, I’m in Vilnius with free afternoons and an archive that could hold answers to family mysteries. My puzzle solving gene won’t allow me to pass up that opportunity.

I began with a lot of questions. When are the archives open? Are there any obstacles to getting access to the archives? Can I make copies, take photographs? What does it cost for copies? What is the process to order a census? What is the time frame to receive them? Does anyone speak English? And last, but certainly not least…how do I get to the archives from where I am staying?

After much Internet searching and a post to the JewishGen Special Interest Group, I located an English speaking archivist and a person who had done research in the archives. I gradually pieced together a broad outline of what to expect.

Galina Baranova, the head of the Jewish records at the LVIA (Historical Archives), speaks English. I tracked down an e-mail address and received a response from her confirming the availability of the records on my shtetls. I was advised that Galina will help pull the records I need and answer questions, but I would need to do the research myself. Once I have the books I need, I can have the archives hold them for me at the desk under my name so I can easily retrieve them on my next visit. I was advised to ask the security guard for Galina when I arrive.

I learned that the archives have a complex system for copies. Costs vary by the century the document is from (older is more expensive) and the size of the copy (large 11X17 sheets for revision lists are a bit more). There is a different cost for foreign researchers than for local researchers. Copies cost the equivalent of a few dollars.

I believe I can take photos, but was told to confirm that when I arrive as the rules have changed over time. There are rules about only ordering 10 files per day. Records have to be ordered by 10am for same-day delivery, otherwise one gets it the next day. That concerned me as I would be in classes in the morning, but worked with the archives to arrange to have the initial files pulled ahead of time and then I’ll order new files as needed.

I learned that there is more than one archive in Vilnius and the one I wanted was the Lithuanian State Historical Archives located at Gerosios Vilties 10. This archive is the main repository for records from the 13th century through 1918. Because the borders changed quite a bit over time it also contains records from Russia, Belarus (current home of my shtetls), Poland, the Ukraine, Latvia and other countries. The Archives also maintain vital records books (birth, marriage and death) of the different religious communities and churches of today’s Lithuania dating up to 1940.

My final challenge was a practical one, how to get to the Archives. I learned from my contact at the Institute that it was a trolley car ride from where I am staying. I then used an on-line link to pull up an interactive map to see where the Archives are located. I found a site with the trolley schedule where I located several trolleys that went to the street on which the Archives are located. The site conveniently translated to English and allowed me to input my beginning and ending stop to find the optimal route.

So now I’m ready to go. I’ve reviewed my Russian and contacted Galina to advise her of the files I’d like to explore. My first day at the archives should be towards the end of July and Ill report back on my experience in this blog.

Lithuania State Historical Archives  
Routes to Roots 
JewishGen Litvak SIG 
Trolley Schedule 
Interactive Vilnius Map 

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tombstone Rubbings

When I am in Dunilovichi and Glebokie I plan to try some tombstone rubbings. The photo that I have of my great-great grandfather's tombstone is not particularly legible so I hope to bring back a more readable document. Never having done this before I first read about the procedure and decided to try my hand at it locally before my arrival in Belarus.

Several sources recommended interfacing as used in sewing rather than paper. I found it in a fabric store for about $2 a yard in bolts that were 20 inches wide, sufficient for a tombstone. I estimated about a yard per tombstone which proved reasonably accurate. I asked for a non-fusable medium weight interfacing. Fusable interfacing has a heat-activated adhesive on the back. It was also recommended that one try to get one that doesn't pill, forming little tufts of loose fabric. The advantage of interfacing over paper is that it is more durable, less likely to tear and will pack easily if traveling, an important consideration for me.

It is recommended that one bring a soft brush and water to clean a tombstone first and ones which are fragile or covered in lichen are to be avoided out of concern for damaging the tombstone. I may find that the tombstones I wish to do rubbings of don't lend themselves to the procedure for these reasons.

For my practice run I went to a nearby cemetery where I had done some research for a client whose great-grandparents came to Minneapolis/St. Paul in the 1880s. I had taken photos of these tombstones for her and thought she might be interested in the rubbings as well. The tombstones had Hebrew writing on them so were similar to what I expected to find in Belarus.

My basic tool kit was a roll of interfacing, scissors, artist tape (masking tape would work as well) and an inexpensive set of oil pastels (crayons would work also). I called ahead to the cemetery to ask if it was all right to do rubbings. Some cemeteries don't allow it for fear of damaging tombstones. This particular cemetery said it was OK.

After finding the tombstones for which I wished to do rubbings, I cut a piece of interfacing to fit. My estimate of a yard was almost exactly right for the tallest one. I then taped it to the tombstone on all sides. The sides of the tombstone were left rough so it was hard to get a good seal. As the day was windy, getting the fabric taped on was the biggest challenge. A second set of hands would have been helpful to hold it taut while I did the rubbing.

I then used the side of the oil pastel, moving it in one direction to go over the letters. The image of the tombstone began to magically appear. I experimented with some different colors to see the effect. While I attempted to go over the image several times the looseness of the fabric against the tombstone made it difficult to do so without obliterating part of the image. When I returned home, I ironed the fabric face up with an old towel on top. I pressed down, rather than moving back and forth, to set the wax into the fabric.

So what did I learn?
1) Keeping the fabric taut is critical to getting a good image. Bring another person with you to help hold the fabric taut. I didn't go over some of my images as the fabric wasn't taut and it began to obliterate part of the image.
2) It is rather messy. My hands were covered with oil pastels so I added two things to my travel kit- a pair of plastic gloves and a plastic garbage bag to put the finished rubbings into.
3) One tombstone can use up most of one oil pastel so I need to bring enough of the colors I want to work with.
4) I also found that the interfacing that I got did pill and that can affect the clarity of the image.
5) I will be flying and just bringing carry-on luggage so can't bring a pair of scissors. Perhaps they'll let me keep a small pair of nail scissors. Otherwise I will need to purchase a pair of scissors there or ask my guide to bring some.

I've included an image of my trial result. You can see the result of fabric that isn't taut against the stone in the word "father."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Discoveries from Radom, Poland

With my trip looming two weeks away I’m finalizing my trip planning, I’m trying to travel light and to that end have purchased a netbook and a Kindle. The Asus 1000HE netbook is 10 inches, weighs about 3 pounds and gets about 7.5 hours of battery life. I can bring it to class and to the archives and I am envisioning pulling it out in the cemetery to locate tombstones by their photo. The Kindle will replace the 5 books I would typically bring with me. In my pre-trip planning I’ve learned how to load files from my computer onto the Kindle. I’ve downloaded the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which I plan to recite at the tombstone of my great-great grandfather. Somehow reading it from a Kindle in an old Jewish cemetery in Belarus seems like the ultimate in new meets old.

I always try to read on the theme of my trip, so have identified a number of books that fit that requirement. I couldn’t restrain myself and already finished one book which I highly recommend called The World to Come by Dana Horn. It is fiction, but melds a true story of a heist of a Chagall painting with Yiddish literature and Jewish mysticism. Horn artfully weaves characters from modern day New Jersey with Russian Yiddish writers during the time of Stalin. It has a very magical quality and draws heavily on Yiddish literature. The author won the National Jewish Book Award for her first book and is working on a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish Literature at Harvard. She has a solid grasp of her material and it helped to lay some groundwork for my upcoming adventure.

Genealogy has also been in the forefront this week as I received information from both Belarus and Poland. From Belarus I got a CD with photos of the tombstones in the Dunilovichi cemetery which I am busy labeling with the tombstone inscription. I am also arranging for a transcriber to work with me in translating the tombstones in the Glebokie cemetery. When I return from my trip I will be doing Shtetlink pages on those two communities for Jewish Gen where I plan to include that information. I am convinced that with the use of immigration records, Holocaust records and the tombstones, it may be possible to map out large segments of the community and their interrelationships just as I did with my great-great grandfather. Immigration records state nearest relative in Europe, Holocaust records frequently state parent’s names and tombstones both here and in Europe offer the father’s name. Then it just becomes a sophisticated match game. The research that I plan to do at the Vilnius Archives may help to connect some dots.

There is one mystery in the Dunilovichi cemetery that I hope to solve. The earliest burials with legible tombstones were in 1761. There were no burials from 1939 to 1943 and it was in November 1942 that the Jews of Dunilovichi were murdered by the Nazis. Then there is a burial in 1944 and the final one in 1950. I was particularly curious about the last one. Who buried him? Was he in fact the last Jew of Dunilovichi and why did he come back and why did he stay? When I found the photo of his tombstone I discovered that it was in Russian.
All of the other tombstones from 1761 forward were in Hebrew. I assume there was no one left who knew how to inscribe a Hebrew tombstone. I’ve asked my Belarus contact if he knew the story of the last Jew of Dunilovichi and will share what I learn.

This week I also received a CD from the Radom Archives with documents that I ordered from the Radom Book of Residents (a kind of census), metrical records (birth, marriage and death) and identity papers. It is a complicated process to order, communicating in English, getting responses in Polish and then wiring money to the Archives. I posted several of the death records on Viewmate on the Jewish Gen site and was fortunate to have several people assist in translations. I learned that I had in fact located the death records for my 2nd great-grandfather and 2nd great-grandmother. To put this in context the Dunilovichi 2nd great-grandfather is on my paternal grandmother’s side. Radom, Poland was the home of my 2nd great-grandparents on my paternal grandfather’s side. The grandchildren of these couples from Radom and Dunilovichi married and became my grandparents.

From the record I learned that my Polish 2nd great-grandmother was born in 1812 and died in 1904 at 92, a pretty ripe old age for the 1800s. Her death record confirmed the parents’ names that I had already learned, but for whom I’ve been unable to locate further information. When she died she was living with her son’s family and the address was the same in both her record in 1904 and the 1881 record of her husband’s death. With Google Earth newly loaded on my netbook, I found their address with a satellite view of Radom complete with several three dimensional buildings as reference points. When technology meets genealogy, amazing things happen.

The record of my 2nd great-grandfather’s death gave me some important new information with the names of his parents, Berek and Hai. For several years I have been going out to Utah to the Family History Library where I’ve built databases and collected scans of records of family names from the Polish/Russian records. Now that I had the names of my 3rd great-grandparents, I had only to turn to my database to see if I had stumbled across them previously, but not had sufficient information to identify the relationship. A search for the names revealed that I had a death record for Berek Rubinstein from 1839 and two marriage records for Bayla and Rocha Rubinstein from 1824 and 1825, each indicating Berek and Hai were the parents of the bride. The death record indicated that Berek died at age 65 which would put his birth date at 1774. Jews in Poland didn’t get last names until the 1800s and they aren’t in much evidence until 1822. Prior to that time they went by patronymics, an ending added to their father’s name.

With the names of both spouses, I was curious if I might find a record of the couple with patronyms. I reviewed data I had from that period and found a record in 1811 for a birth of a son Israel to Berck Herszkow age 40 and Haia Herszkow Berckowiczowna age 36. There is a later death record for the infant. My hunch is that this is the correct couple despite the lack of a surname. It is the only record of a couple by those names. Berek’s birth date is within 3 years of the date generated by his death record, close proximity at a time when correct ages received little attention. It is not uncommon to find a different birth date in every record for the same person. If his patronymic was Herszkow his father, my 4th great-grandfather was named Herszk. Looking down the family tree I see that Berek Herskow had a grandson named Hersz Berek born in 1842, three years after his death. He was his son's first male child named after that child’s great-grandfather and grandfather, exactly what one would expect based on naming patterns. My next step will be to get the records translated that I have on hand and to secure a copy of the birth record from 1811 when I next visit Utah. In a matter of weeks I’ve learned the names and burial place of my 2nd and 3rd great-grandfather in Dunilovichi. I’ve identified my 3rd great-grandparents and 4th great-grandfather in Poland (6 generations back). I’ve learned that my 2nd great-grandmother died at age 92 and I’ve identified siblings to my 2nd great-grandfather. This is what we call a good week in genealogy circles.

One other piece of information from Poland intrigued me. During the early 1940s the Germans required Jews to take out identity papers. Frequently these include a photograph and parents’ names. I have no pictures of family from Radom. When they perished at Treblinka, any family keepsakes were long gone. I was curious about these family members who I had researched so thoroughly and hoped to secure photos from the only record that was still maintained, the identity paper required by the Nazis. I had requested a list of names and received a handful of records. One in particular intrigued and saddened me. It was of a lovely young woman named Szajndla Wajnberg, age 19 in 1941. She was my second cousin, named for the great-grandmother that we shared.The photo was set in an oval and looked much more like a keepsake for a boyfriend than what one would expect on an official document, a document to identify her existence so she could be murdered by those same Germans one year later. Her signature still had the precision of youth. For some reason the staple mark on the photograph made me wince, symbolic of the destruction of the person obliterated save for a photograph and a youthful signature. I never was given a Hebrew name, but have often thought I would claim the name Szajndla for my own. I believe Szajndla is the diminutive of Sheina and actually is a Yiddish name, not unlike the Yiddish derivative "Susela" that my father used to call me as a child. As the name of my great-grandmother, it would have been my likely name. Perhaps that is why I felt a sense of identification with Szajndla Wajnberg. My grandfather, the youngest brother, immigrated to the United States. His oldest brother, her grandfather, stayed in Poland. And it is with that twist of fate that my branch of the family survived and hers did not. I hope to find a way to work with this information in a collage or painting, so more to come.