Your Jewish roots in Lithuania
Why do people go to these places?
Well, it is a good question. Most probably they want to learn about the history and heritage of these places and also to see picturesque nature sights? Is that all? No, they want to find out where their families came from. They want to find Jewish ancestry paths and lands.
Who are we and what do we do here?
We are tour guides Daniel and William. We are here for you. Our goal is to help you to trace your Jewish roots in Lithuania. Meanwhile, if you have no family story here, we would be more than happy to make your virtual or real visit to Litvakland as meaningful as possible.
We are going to launch soon our new YouTube project Travi. The idea is to make videos in the shtetls and create an online presence of the places which don’t exist on usual travel maps. Originally, we thought to target Jewish audience, interested in heritage. But, while developing the battle plan of the project, we told ourselves it could be interesting for everyone.
Where do we go?
Lithuania and around
There are hundreds of shtetls we want to visit in Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, and other places too. I would like to emphasize the meaning of Shtetl? It is a non-official term used by Jews to define a townlet or a village with a sufficient percentage of a Jewish population. Does it exist now? No, usually referred to Eastern Europe and time period would be from late middle ages throughout to the early 20th century.
Why do people go to these places?
Well, it is a good question. Most probably they want to learn about the history and heritage of these places and also to see picturesque nature sights? Is that all they wish? No, they want to find out where their families come from. They want to find Jewish ancestry paths and locations.
Many people realize that they will not find any Jewish life in a shtetl, since all the Jews left or were killed during WWII. But they hope to find the grave of a family member and thereby close the circle – to reunite with the past.
Well, to tell you the truth, it is not easy to find graves. Some are illegible, some are stolen, some just sank in the ground. But sometimes we are lucky. I have been аn eye-witness to many cases when people did find the grave. Try to imagine emotions of such a discovery.
Another reason to visit Lithuania and search for roots could be getting Lithuanian citizenship by descent. This is a nice thing to have. But you have to find facts and records first. Then you have to hire a lawyer to deal with the local authorities, and after some time – voilà, you have one more passport in your pocket.
What are the main barriers people face searching for their roots in Lithuania?
The first difficulty is that people have no idea where to start. They even do not know correct names, as many Jews changed their names when they came to the registration office at Ellis Island. Thank G-d, you can find online lists for the Lithuanians here: https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger
But even here you can face a dead end. The name would be spelled differently and the place of birth would be indicated as Vilna Gubernia, Kovna Gubernia or any other gubernias. Gubernia is a Russian for County. And it would be quite difficult to find any footprints of your family without having more precise information.
Some useful links to use, when you research your family roots
Maybe your grandfather has told you once where did he really come from, and it was a name hard to remember. Then you have a chance. Try to search in the JewishGen database.
Another useful link gives you a Jewish surname search and Lithuanian surname database. It is a free, searchable database that currently has more than 2,000,000 records and is updated quarterly.
You have found the first piece of a puzzle
For example, you have found the name Zosle. Then you have to make a match with the current name of the place. Zosle is a Yiddish version of Lithuanian Zasliai. That is possible to find on JewishGen web page database.
When you have a current name, it is easy to find it on the map. Zasliai is located on the way from Vilnius to Kaunas. So you know the place, where to ask questions.
The second common question is a Litvak surname. They could be by the name of the place like Vilnius – Vilenski, or Kaunas – Kovner. They can be by the name of the profession like butcher – Shochet, Glassblower – Glazer, and so on. You can check this in the dictionary of Jewish surnames of Eastern Europe. They can be patronymic, matronymic, place names, personal trait names, religious, medical. Some “funny Jewish last names” were even insulting ones. I am going to elaborate on it in a separate article.
Can I find the address?
If you are going to make all the long way from a “new world” to Lithuania, you really want to see at least something there. Well, it is not an easy task, and it is very difficult to find an address online.
There is a central archive in Vilnius. It keeps all the country’s records which are older than 75 years. You should email them your request to find any information about your family and possibly, in one of the documents you will be lucky to find an address. We can help you with this. We work with people who make such archival searches.
In the archives, you can find birth and death certificates, marriage and divorce records, Lithuanian emigration records, all kinds of applications, real estate records. Also different documents, people provided for getting travel certificates. All that is contained in huge old books. The records usually were kept in two languages – Yiddish and Russian, or Yiddish and Lithuanian.
To summarize all, written above, I would like to tell you, that it is all about enriching your emotional world. Finding your Jewish roots in Lithuania will make you proud, as you will discover the world, which was hidden from you by the distance of over hundred years. You will be proud of your nation and its tribute to the world. Also, you will be very grateful to your ancestors that they were brave enough to leave the shtetl and to move to the new world.
And it is not only about poverty and the old-style way of life, which you will see here, but it is also about finding a much better and safe place for the family, avoiding all the troubles of the 20th-century in Europe.
Your Jewish roots in Lithuania are also a very good reason to Travel and to arrange a broad family members reunion.