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LitvakSIG in the Beginning

By Davida Novek Handler, March 2018

To new researchers – LitvakSIG and the All Lithuania Database (ALD) are a given – and seem to have always been there, but – where and when did it all begin? How did we get to almost 3 million records in a searchable database today? My favorite quote is from Rabbi Tarfon, in “Pirkei Avvot” - who said "it is not incumbent upon you to complete the task .... but neither are you free to desist from it." This has been LitvakSIG’s credo since the beginning.

This history was compiled from old minutes, LitvakSIG Digests, personal journals, and a huge amount of correspondence with those who were involved with the conception and birth of LitvakSIG, as well as the growth years. For me, it has been a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

During the 1994 IAJGS Conference in Jerusalem, Ed Cohler called a meeting to invite interested parties to form a NW Lithuanian SIG. Among the attendees were Ed Cohen, Carol Baker, Len Yodaiken, Harold Rhode, Saul Isroff, and me. Ed had acquired some Preumeranten (Pre-Publication) lists of Rabbinical books and began to distribute the translations to us on floppy disks in 1994, 1995, and 1996.

It was not until 1995, when Lithuanian Archivists Laima Tautvaisite and Galina Baranova attended the IAJGS Conference in Washington, D.C., that we heard that many of our Lithuanian ancestors’ records had indeed survived. Suddenly, we realized it might be possible to document the lives of our people by accessing the books and papers housed in the Vilnius and Kaunas and otherarchives throughout the former Soviet Union and Israel.

In 1996 at the IAJGS Conference in Boston, Carol Baker asked if I had any interest in trying to acquire some records from Šiauliai (formerly Shavel, the district where both of our ancestors had lived). We agreed that should these be available we would each contribute $500 to get them. Although we were unsuccessful, this was the first year that a few Litvak researchers wrote requests to the Lithuanian Archives – and some received isolated records relating to their families.

In 1997, Susan King, the founder and President of JewishGen, sponsored a research trip to Lithuania, to follow the IAJGS Conference in Paris.

Before signing up, I naively thought that I could simply walk into the various Lithuanian Archives with a list of names and be able to access or order documents relating to my family. It occurred to me that there might be others who would like to have their family records picked up, and so I posted a notice on the JewishGen Digest, saying that I would try to do the same for anyone who contacted me. Within a week, emails arrived from more than 100 interested parties, and I realized that this was going to be a far larger project than I could handle alone. It was then that the idea of forming a SIG (Special Interest Group) to encompass all of Lithuania was born, and David Hoffman agreed to co-coordinate with me. I called an initial breakfast meeting during the Paris Conference that was attended by about 20 people, and we explored the various ways that we could move forward. Among those present were Saul Issroff, Ed Cohler, Carol Baker, and Judith Diamond.

Early on the morning of July 18, 1997, a diverse group of seventeen assorted Litvaks began our emotional journey to Lithuania as almost total strangers from several different countries. We were:

  • Edouard Bialot, a retired French economist who was a “hidden child” in Paris during WWII
  • Chana Luntz from England
  • Mike Tobin, a computer engineer who was currently living in Amsterdam
  • Libby Rosenthal, a 90-year-old woman from Washington, DC, who was born in Virbalis returning to Lithuania for the first time, accompanied by her mathematics professor son Eli
  • an Israeli couple and their teenage son
  • two octogenarian cousins from Chicago
  • Ed Cohen, a rabbi from Connecticut
  • a sister and brother, Judy Rabinovitz and Lew Goldfarb
  • Harold Rhode, a Pentagon specialist from Washington, D.C.
  • a Californian, Sarah Leiber McKenny
  • the founder of JewishGen, Susan King from Houston
  • and me, a transplanted Irish Litvak now living in Iowa and planning to start our new SIG.

Although we had read some material on Lithuanian Jewish history, we felt it was important that we walk in the footsteps of our ancestors to try to understand and document their lives before we attempted to publish records (if even possible.)  We called ourselves “The Shtetl Shleppers!”  We were there to confront our past. What we were not prepared for were the emotional impact that we would experience, that would impact our lives forever.  We knew that the 19th and early 20th century pogroms – and subsequent emigration – haddestroyed a large portion of the Eastern European Jewish population – and then, during WWII, more than 95% of our remaining Litvak relatives were slaughtered – many by their fellow Lithuanians.  The community was decimated.

Our tour guide was Regina Kopilevich who met us at the airport with flowers, whisked us off to our hotel, and arranged for guides/translator/drivers to take us to our individual ancestral shtetlach.

We dropped our luggage at the hotel, and with barely time to splash water on our faces, were whisked away by Harold and Regina for our privately arranged appointments at the Vilnius Archives – something that two or three years before would have been totally forbidden. Prior to 1991, the Lithuanian archives were inaccessible to most people.  

In addition, the documents were all in foreign languages – and besides – who really knew what they were looking for? Did our ancestors come from Kovno or Vilna Guberniya?  Did we believe that they were probably descendants of the Vilna Gaon?  Did we think they may have lived near Shavel (the old Yiddish name for Šiauliai)? Was it simply that a great-aunt might have married someone from around there?  Did we know what their name was in the “old country?” And the zinger of all – were we told that they came from “Russia” but always said that they were Litvaks? Perhaps they really came from Latvia or Belarus? Could we really visit our ancestral shtetlach? The possibilities were staggering!

We had all sent inquiries to the Vilnius Archives ahead of time, to see if there were any records available there that mentioned ourancestors, Before the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991, very few, if any of us, had real documentation of the lives of our ancestors in Lithuania. At best, we had stories handed down through the generations, and those were frequently modified depending on the narrator’s memory. For most of our immigrant relatives, their past was so painful that they refused to ever talk about it again. Getting information out of them was like pulling teeth. Plus, most of us believed that the records for our towns and our families in Lithuania had not survived the ravages of Pogroms, the Shoah, and/or decades of Soviet control. At the Archives, we were greeted warmly by Laima Tautvaisaite, the Director, who gave us a detailed and comprehensive briefing of the archival history and holdings. 

Laima was joined by Galina Baranova, the Head Archivist, who had located some family records for us, and suddenly, there were possibilities to order others.

  

I discovered that Galina had located 17 Noyek records for ancestors previously unknown to me! Later, I was able to access records going back to 1740. Others had similar findings. A huge sense of excitement began to fill the air, as we all placed further orders, and then were invited to tour the Archives – something totally unexpected. During the Soviet era this would not have been allowed. Lithuanian Jewish research was about to begin, and we hoped that in this new era of cooperation it would continue. 

We were taken into restricted areas and even allowed to handle old Jewish record books written in old Cyrillic, many in extremely fragile condition.  Galina translated some pages on the spot.

  

The “stacks” at the Vilnius Archives

We were shown Centuries old record books– most in very poor condition – some in old cursive Cyrillic – some in Yiddish - obviously before translation. We hoped to be able to acquire copies eventually.   

(Remember, this is how the original records were inscribed BEFORE the ALD was even a dream).       With so much excitement and anticipation in the air that we spent the rest of the day at the Archives until they closed.

That night, following dinner at a local restaurant where Regina had arranged for Lithuanian musicians to play Jewish music for us, we all fell into our beds but were mostly too excited to sleep.

The next morning Regina  took us on a walking tour of old Jewish Vilnius.  The community dated back to the early 14th century.  In the early 20th century, about 40% of Vilnius was Jewish.  The 1920s-30s was a high point for Jewish culture.  Six daily papers were published in Yiddish and Hebrew.  

Pre-WW2 Vilnius once had 105 synagogues and Jewish prayer houses, but only the Choral Synagogue, a very ornate shulbuilt in 1903, still stood. It had survived the war onlybecause the Germans used it as a medical store.   The Synagogue was being restored inside but still retained a great deal of its original beauty. 

  

L to R: Some of our group on the steps of the synagogue: Lew Goldfarb, Edmond Bialot, Susan King, Sarah McKinney, Libby Rosenfeld, Davida Noyek Handler, the three Israelis, and Susan King’s aunt.

  

At the tomb of the Vilna Gaon, we recited Kaddish.  

Rachel Kostanian, the director of the Vilna Gaon State Museum,  gave us a personal guided tour of the Museum and a history of Jewish Vilnius.

During the Holocaust, several Vilnius streets were the sites of two ghettos, which were sealed on September 6, 1941. Ten thousand ghetto Jews were taken to and massacred in the Paneriai Forest, some ten kilometers from the city. Thousands more (perhaps 70,000 in all) suffered a similar fate. The remaining survivors were herded off to death camps in Poland and concentration camps in Latvia and Estonia. 

The Paneriai Forest Memorial 

Paved paths led into the woods to the three pits – natural depressions excavated deeper by the toiling men, women, and children who then occupied them.   Each pit was marked by a low circular wall, about 20 yards diameter. Our visit became a tear-soaked, gut-wrenching experience. We visited the Jewish Museum. toured the cities and the countryside, witnessed the desecrated cemeteries, and sidewalks which the Soviets paved with Jewish tombstones.

 

Following the Holocaust, a post-war 1944 census showed only 600 Jews left in the city, and in 1997 there were certainly fewer.

It became even more imperative to all that that we attempt to document and memorialize the lives of those lost to us forever. May they never be forgotten.  

Within days we would berepeating the Vilnius Archives experience at the Kaunas Archives, where we met Juozas Rimkus, the Director,  and Vitalija Gircyte,  the Head Archivist in charge of Jewish Records. . There, we received a similarly warm reception, and tour of the stacks.  It was the beginning of our strong relationships with both Archives which still exist today. 

While there, two of our group – Mike Tobin and Ed Cohen – found that they were researching the same family and discovered that they were close cousins! Neither had known of the other before that day! They both contacted these relatives upon their return home. Harold Rhode also videotaped as many Panevezys births as possible for later transcription into an Excel database.

During our tour of the city we drove by the former Elhanan Spector orphange for Jewish children . Thereafter, we visited the 9th Fort Memorial at Kaunas where during the Nazi occupation over 50,000 people were executed, including more than 30,000 Jews.

    

We broke up into smaller groups and were assigned to various guides and drivers, to visit our individual shtetlach. We sought out the oldest people in these towns for our guides to interview about their memories of the Jews who once lived there. We even saw some of the homes formerly owned by our ancestors.

Before we left Lithuania, we former strangers became a very tight group, shared shtetl visits, family stories and our reasons for making this trip, learned about our ancestors who had lived in Lithuania since the 10th century, bonded together, cried together, discovered what a treasury of Jewish records had survived, and realized how much work would be needed to make them available to Litvak researchers. LitvakSIG had become a mission. Personal accounts of these shtetl visits will be written by individuals who were on this historic trip.

In September 1997, we received permission for the LitvakSIG Digest to be hosted on JewishGen. Here I must add a huge “thank you” to Stanley Diamond, the founder of “JRI-Poland.” Stanley mentored me through many of our initial ventures and was always available for advice on any aspect of our development.

Our first moderator was Carol Coplin Baker, with Judy Baston and Jackye Sullins serving as backups. Judy later became our longest-serving moderator.

We formed our first board and began to conduct our meetings on AOL Instant Messenger. A lot of Sundays were spent glued to our computers, participating in those International conferences. Because we were building “from scratch” there were multiple phone calls and emails in between. And since we needed to “set up” arrangements with both Lithuanian Archives, we also made many overseas phone calls at the beginning. (Later on, this would all be accomplished via email.) Our articles of incorporation were registered in Iowa on December 8, 1997, and we received our Federal Employer Identification Number as a 501(C)(3) Non-Profit Organization.

LitvakSIG began pooling information and resources in late 1997, and in 1998 we began raising money to purchase and translate records to place into our "All Lithuania" Database (ALD), which incorporates data from many different sources, compiling the largest number of translated Lithuanian Jewish records on the Internet, making them accessible to Litvak researchers. At first, we received translations of family records donated by people who had ordered them from the Lithuanian archives. Later, because this data was only excerpts, we decided to accept only full lists. (Much of this information can be accessed on the LitvakSIG website.) JewishGen allowed our databases to be searched from their website, and Warren Blatt issued a set of guidelines for input. The “All Lithuania Database” which became known as the “ALD” was born. By then, we had developed a large list of paid professional translators, volunteer proofreaders and database inputters.

We formulated agreements with both the Kaunas and Vilnius Archives permitting us to place translated records into the “ALD.”. In June 1998, we made agreements with several Lithuanians to translate written “eyewitness accounts” of the atrocities committed by Lithuanians on their Jewish neighbors. Painful reading indeed, but soon to become part of our LitvakSIG Online Journal.

The first “works in progress” spreadsheet was developed by Devera Witkin and restructured when Carol Coplin Baker became Research Groups Coordinator. The Uyezd or District approach was adopted because that was how the lists came in. Carol continued this work until 2006. Information about our District Research Groups was originally available at http://www.jewishgen.org/litvak/researchintro.htm (now at https://www.litvaksig.org/) We have been blessed with an incredible number of devoted District Group Coordinators over the years who have been the lifeblood of LitvakSIG.

LitvakSIG’s Website was launched in December 1998. Judith Langer-Surnamer Caplan became our Online Journal Editor in March and served in this capacity for about 10 years. Judi was on a Sabbatical from teaching high school English when she noticed a post on the LitvakSIG digest stating that an Online Journal was “in the works” and needed an Editor. She figured that since she was on Sabbatical, she could give that a try. The rest is history! One of Judi’s most vivid memories is of sitting in the Nassau County Court House, waiting to be called for jury selection, working away on the three talks by the Lithuanian Archivists submitted after the 2001 London conference. Her remarkable work and the impressive list of articles that she has been able to bring to us can now be seen at https://www.litvaksig.org/information-and-tools/online-journal/.We received the first of a series of “Eyewitness Reports” translated and sent to us by Rimkus (a retired schoolteacher in Uzventis) for the LitvakSIG Online Journal.

As we purchased and translated more complete lists, and incorporated other types of databases, The ALD continued to grow. Ed Cohler, Vitalija Gircyte, David Hoffman and I developed the Shtetl/Uyezd/Guberniya table now available on the LitvakSIG members’ site. (the current and updated list can be found at https://www.litvaksig.org/research/map/ - including an interactive map and a downloadable full list of Lithuanian shtetlach that once were, in their current Lithuanian and former Russian and Yiddish spellings, along with their coordinates. Since many geographic changes have occurred since the 1800’s, a shtetl that may have been in one of the Guberniyas covered by LitvakSIG may now be in a country other than Lithuania, such as Russia, Poland, Belarus, or the Ukraine. The “Shtetls of Lithuania” website provided additional information about the areas and times in which our ancestors lived. Ed Cohen developed the Vilna Ghetto List - a searchable index of the names and addresses in Volume One of the Vilna Ghetto   Prisoners enumerated in the Lithuanian Census of May 1942. This index to the Vilna Ghetto Prisoners List is now in the ALD for all to search.

In 1999, David Hoffman resigned from the board to pursue other activities. I was elected President.

We signed a historic agreement with the Lithuanian Archives and Family History Library in Salt Lake City in December 2000, to translate Lithuanian Vital Records that they had filmed in Vilnius. They would supply us with the disks. We would give them the translations, and they would allow us to publish them in the ALD.

Our LitvakSIG website was now providing links to all kinds of information to help with research, including papers on genealogical resources in Lithuania by archivists from both the Kaunas and Vilnius.

We began working with the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, acquiring some communal and kheder lists.

In 2000, in Salt Lake City, LitvakSIG was honored when the IAJGS presented the “All Lithuania Database” with its award for “best Internet resource” and recognized the “cooperative energy” that went into its creation. .

Because of a medical situation in December 2003 I took a leave of absence for the best part of a year – missing my first IAJGS conference since 1991! Judy Baston and Carol Baker took over the running of LitvakSIG, until my return. In July 2006, I resigned as President.

It has been an honor and privilege to have been the catalyst and birth mother of LitvakSIG – it will always be my baby – and I know that it remains in good hands. May its history continue to be written and may its volunteers continue to go from strength to strength.

Davida Noyek Handler, Co-founder and Past President, LitvakSIG

 

 

 

 

about the author
Davida Novek Handler

Co-founder and Past President, LitvakSIG. Davida Noyek Handler was born in Dublin, Ireland – the granddaughter of Litvak immigrants from both her maternal and paternal sides.  Her paternal grandmother was the first member of her family to be born in Ireland.  Although both grandfathers died before she was born, she constantly “pestered” her maternal grandmother for stories of the “old country.”  This curiosity finally led her to co-found LitvakSIG in 1997.  Her personal database (8 family branches – 4 each for her husband Jim’s and her maternal and paternal ancestors) reaches back to 1740, with more than 6,000 entries.  Davida and Jim have travelled worldwide to meet and gather information on as many descendants as they have identified.  They live in Henderson, Nevada.