18 July 2008

Vilnius: A search for family roots

The New York Times' Matt Gross is on the Grand Tour of Europe as the Frugal Traveler. His 12-week odyssey around the continent - and on less than 100 Euros a day - is "in search of cool hotels, memorable meals and contemporary culture," with videos and photographs. Each story will be posted on Thursday.

This week, the story here focused on his visit to Vilnius, Lithuania in search of his own family roots for information about his great-grandfather Morris Gross who left for the US about a century ago. Along with tips on hotels, food, transportation, sites, there are photos and a video. To help, he hired Regina Kopilevich, well-known to many Jewish genealogists searching their roots; she had previously worked at the Lithuanian State Historical Archives for 15 years.
It was in one such cafe that Regina Kopilevich sat across from me last Thursday and asked the question I had been waiting a lifetime to hear. Placing her hand atop the pile of papers in front of her and opening her clear blue eyes extra wide, she leaned forward and said, in slightly accented English, “Would you like to know your name?”

A simple question for most, but for the descendants of Eastern Europeans who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the last century, it can be a fraught mystery. Eager to assimilate, our ancestors shortened their unpronounceable alien monikers into names that would be easier on American ears and tongues. In the New World, the Old World was irrelevant.

For my family perhaps more than some. My great-grandparents were born
in the 19th century, in the lands then referred to as Russia but that
encompassed Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and beyond. And all somehow decided, as
they embarked on new lives, never to discuss the past with their children.

Growing up, I heard but a single story about our family: that my mother's great-grandfather owned a mill, and broke his neck when his beard got caught in its works. Other than that, I had only my name, Gross - which my elementary- school classmates kindly ensured I would never forget.

But my name, it turns out, is not Gross.

It’s Grossmitz.
Do read the complete story about the old and the modern city, its pre-war Jewish community and much more. If you're thinking about such a trip yourself, Gross' travel tips may provide assistance in addition to his research experiences:

The recorded history of the Grossmitz family begins on Feb. 9, 1829, with the marriage of Mowsha, son of Berko and Freyda Grossmitz, to Dobra, daughter of Berko and Sora Braskowicz. On Dec. 15 of that same year, their daughter Freyda was born, beginning a 20-year run of babymaking that produced Abram Itzko, Berko, Gabriel, Esther, Liba and Jankiel Judel.

Every fact, no matter how insignificant, was a nugget to be savored. Mowsha, potentially my great-great-great-grandfather, was a tailor! His nephew Chaim a shoemaker!

We traced the lineage through the decades, inching closer to the 1885
birth of Moshe Grossmitz - that is, Morris Gross, who at the age of 16 would
leave Marijampole and wind up in Bridgeport, Conn. But after 1874 the trail ran
cold. ...

There's much more, including comments and experiences in synagogues, Marijampole, Jewish cemeteries, and the horrors of the war years.

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