On Thursday (July 9, 2015) I'll be in Lithuania and meet up with two Swedish women. We'll go to Siauliai, the region where our grandfathers lived during a possibly charmed and exuberant era in Lithuanian history when life was free and good after WWI. Agricultural cooperatives were being formed, farming was booming, they were seeking and exploring new innovations. A Lithuanian farm and estate hosted a Swedish family who consulted on building the country’s capacity to farm and export.
We’ll visit some plain old buildings, spread through the region that used to comprise the multiple homes of my aristocratic forefathers. How grand is that? I’ve seen them, and buildings don’t come alive unless you can picture people in them. We don’t have many photos of our people. The buildings have been converted into schools and offices. Not too exciting.
What we know about the period (1920 to 1940) I’ve learned from my grandfather’s memoir, which was written during the Soviet occupation and thus may have been carefully composed. It’s fairly impersonal by our modern confessional standards. It's about the development of agricultural cooperatives and exports, not much about the personal life of the family or opinions about conditions in Lithuania after the Soviet occupation. Very factual. We do learn, however, that the family liked to hold musical evenings (in times before radio and TV), and many played instruments and entertained gatherings in the manor house.
The Zubovs (our noble line) started a number of schools in the region, especially schools for girls. The communists might say that the peasants on estates were a near step to slavery, but my picture is benign: health, welfare, and education of the whole community were tended. The aristocracy built community and enjoyed life. My grandfather was a committed socialist.
We won’t see any of that when we visit. My hope is to recover the feeling of friendship, comradery, maybe even hope, between my family and the Swedes’ ancestors. We are two generations removed. The affinity of our grandfathers during 1920-1940 is echoed two generations down the road.
How did this happen? My grandfather wrote a short memoir, maybe 50 pages, in Lithuanian. My mother and her siblings had a copy and had it published (1997) by a local museum, which sought to recover the history of the region, especially after Lithuanian independence in 1991. I received a copy from my mother with no information about context—when was it written, how did it come to be published, where was it distributed, etc. How anybody felt about it?
However, my mother taught me to read Lithuanian a little past “kitchen talk." She spoke to me in Lithuanian until she died in 2013.
When I retired in 2006, I traveled to Lithuania to work on a translation. My friend Erika took me to a bookstore on Day 1 and I bought a giant Lithuanian-English dictionary. (I’ve studied five other languages and loved translation.) During 10 days, while staying in a former convent, I looked up every word I didn’t know and hand-wrote a translation. My uncle and mother in America checked it and repaired some seriously wrong interpretations. (There are others in the family who know English and Lithuanian better than me, but I am a happy translation drone.) I never met my grandfather and it was a way to get to know him.
In my early discovery of do-it-yourself-publishing, a technological and financial milestone, I put together the little book and published it “open to the public” thinking mostly family would pick it up. Over 50 people around the world have picked up the 99-cent PDF.
One of them was in Sweden. She emailed; we Skyped. I visited for one day during which we talked for 10 ½ hours. We decided we should travel back in time together. I think we both want to recover a sense for our grandfathers and their lives during a good period, before WWII ruined everything.
This isn’t going back to my past life or my early life. It’s going back to my grandfather’s earlier life—back to 1920 and on, through the window of 2015. It’s also the period of my mother’s childhood. We’ll look for clues, atmosphere, scenery, cultural vibes. The year 1920 is nearly one hundred years ago, so there aren’t many witnesses.
A lot of Jews go back to places in Europe with a similar wish: to see the life of their ur-families when it was “normal.” Maybe even “flourishing,” although we’ll never know the whole truth. There were Jewish families flourishing in Siauliai at that time too. Most of them lost everything including their lives.
My grandparents were not murdered. They were locked away by the Soviet occupation and died before I could meet them.