Never Judge an Archival Collection by Its Description
The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in NYC (15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011; Tel 212-246-6080; fax 212-292-1892) has a hidden cache of valuable data for genealogists with roots in Lithuania, though not necessarily what or where one would expect it. The collection I am referring to is titled "Lithuanian Communities in the Interwar Period" (Record Group 2). For a period of time between the first and second world wars, Lithuanian Jewish communities were allowed some measure of autonomy over their local affairs. This collection is comprised of those original documents the local community governments received from, and sent to, more central governments and other communities, and records they maintained to manage the affairs of their local community. Like everything else, large sections of these records are missing, (presumably destroyed in various wars or lost with shifting authorities), or damaged, but enough remain to give us a glimpse of the communities in which our ancestors lived and if we’re lucky, perhaps a document or two with a familiar name on it!
The collection is organized by reporting community and there is a not-so-detailed guide to the collection, both in English and in Yiddish. Each community’s papers are grouped in a series of semi-logical folders. Some communities have one folder, some have many; my family shtetl of Pikeliai has 7 folders comprising 192 pages (or unique sides of paper). It is important to understand that a reporting community might include other, smaller communities. It is not clear to me whether these smaller communities actually had their own local governments or not or whether this grouping was done in the interest of organizing the collection by the YIVO staff. The implications are that when researching in the collection, you might need to look for more than just the actual shtetl you are researching. Since the guide does not usually list the towns which are covered by a particular reporting community, this may involve some level of creativity and detective work on the researcher’s part. Thus, I only found records of the shtetl Akmene by diligently searching through the community records of Mazeikiai after reasoning that it was the most likely place for the records since it was a relatively large town nearby. Common sense can prevail! In addition, the "Titles" on the folders can be somewhat misleading; sometimes inter-community correspondence is only listed under the community in the possession of the documents or a folder titled "Vital Records" may only contain a single document.
To obtain particular files, you first review the collection guide, find the folder reference number, and then make a request for the documents by filling out a form. You will be working with the original documents, not copies, so it is important to be very careful when handling them. The YIVO staff (archivists, remember) are very particular about how many files can be opened at once and how the documents are handled. Be sure to ask how to properly work with the collection. The documents are almost exclusively handwritten, on various sizes and types of paper, and in Lithuanian, Russian, and Yiddish. Many are very difficult to read because of their age. Even my Lithuanian friend, obviously fluent, had a very difficult time reading and comprehending many of the official documents (all of which were handwritten - and which one would expect to be clearer than most given their official nature). Some of the documents (very few) are actually typed on Yiddish/Hebrew typewriters! In other words, there is quite a variety. This variety makes researching in the collection slow going. It took me a whole day to review the 192 documents on Pikeliai just skimming for familiar names and topics (I can read Yiddish and Hebrew but am far from fluent). It is important to remember that while the YIVO staff are there to help, they are not there to be full time interpreters or research assistants for you. If you are not comfortable with the languages in the documents, you should plan to bring a translator along with you. YIVO will make photocopies of records you are interested in for a modest fee on the spot, but it took me many trips before I had copied the entire contents of the Pikeliai file since it was so large.
1) Official Notices from Mazeika or Kaunas (Vilnius, at the time was in a disputed territory and under Polish control) - These are mostly hand written documents in Lithuanian. They include rules for running local elections; rules for nominating electoral candidates; notifications of when taxes were due to be remitted to the authorities; and various mandates for business owners. Some examples of the latter include mandates for business owners to change their signs to the Lithuanian language; orders for jewelry business owners to mark all their products with their unique brand; requirements for restaurant and bar owners to normalize their serving sizes and test their scales; etc. These notices hardly ever mention individuals. Once in a while there is the equivalent of an "IRS" inquiry about where a particular individual might have moved to or the occasional notice of persons who won an election.
2) Lists with Individuals’ Names - There were a few lists of people in the files on Pikeliai. One appears to be a list of heads of households because it was a list of last names, first initials, # of males and # of females (presumably residing in the household). Occasionally there are handwritten notes next to a person’s name like "Blind" or "Moved Away." Sadly, there was no title or date on the list, though one of the YIVO archivists noted on the file that it was probably taken around 1923. Even without the exact date, this is a valuable find for those researchers with families who stayed in Lithuania past WWI or whose families returned. There were a total of about 60 unique family names, some with multiple listings. Another list seems to be similar, only it is organized by actual street address. This has the added dimension of providing clues about the relationships between different families and might help build some sort of concept of the layout of the town.
3) Town to Town Communications - These were official communications about inter-town business, including transactions or shipments of goods between the towns or a correspondence about problems. These sometimes have town officials’ names or citizens’ names. It is in these documents that one sometimes finds other towns mentioned which are not the primary town listed on the folder.
4) Jewish Community Records - These are official records of proceedings of the town ("Minutes of the Vaad HaKahal") and financial records of the community. There were a number of "statements" or "representations" of the costs of various town functions, such as delivering the mail, emptying the toilets or waste facilities (50 Lita seemed to be the going rate, far less than delivering the mail!), etc. Some of these documents have individual’s names in them, but by and large, there are few individuals mentioned in these. When people are mentioned it is most often just a signature and often the same people are mentioned over and over (usually community leaders signing official documents).
5) Interwar Period, Contemporary Vital Records - There were a very few actual, contemporary vital records included in the collection. However, the few that were included were quite detailed summaries of a particular individual’s family, his/her spouse, place of marriage, place of birth, parents, occupation, and age.
6) Miscellaneous Documents - I found one photocopy of a woman’s passport. There was no indication why it was in there, but it included a photo. There are also other kinds of documents which look like doctor’s bills or personal correspondence, but there are not that many of them.
When I first started researching in this collection, a number of people correctly pointed out that most of our Jewish families left Lithuania (many were expelled during WWI) before the time frame of this collection. For example, according to the book Lithuanian Jewish Communities by Nancy and Stuart Schoenburg, in 1897 there were 1206 Jews living in Pikeliai, fully 68% of the population. By 1921, there were only 286 Jews left in the town. And, the population continued to decline rapidly during the Interwar Period, leaving only 30 Jewish families left in Pikeliai by the start of the Holocaust. With this in mind, I was skeptical about the value this collection to my personal research interests and I did not examine this material the first few times I had the opportunity to do so.
Thankfully, fate intervened. Last winter, while returning home from a trip, I was trapped in NYC during a snow storm. While there, I explored YIVO’s holdings. The last kind of record I found in the Lithuanian Communities collection proved to be the most surprising and the most interesting of all.
7) Affidavits - During WWI many community records were destroyed. This apparently posed a problem as people returned to their towns and started to reclaim property, residency rights, etc. The most intriguing documents in the collection are a number of personal "affidavit-style" documents confirming information about individuals (ie -births) and their relationship to each other (i.e., familial relationship) and the community (i.e.,-residency). Some of them are simple but some are very elaborate. Most are signed or witnessed by multiple people, presumably elders or leaders of the community who had personal knowledge of the people involved.
For example, one document, dated 24 February 1924, (YIVO #37466) states "We signed below, citizens of Pikeliai, certify that Eta Shulmaniene, who was born as Slezio, the daughter of Girso-Elije Slezio, is 37 years old and she was born in Traumburg town. In 1897 she came with her parents to Pikeliai and lived there until 1915. In 1915 they were sent to Russia. In 1919 they came back to Pikeliai. In 1920 she married with Leibo Shulman, a citizen of Skuodas. Undersigned K. Neiman and J. Taitz." Another document (YIVO #37495) of this type, written in Lithuanian, and dated 25 May 1924, states "We know that Kalman Zingeris, the son of Moisio, was born in 1907 in Pikeliai that belongs to Zidikiai in the Mazeikiai state. Signed H. Leibovitz, J. Taitz, K. Neiman."
Clearly this restating of earlier data and facts about people’s lives, in a collection from the 1920s where you would least expect it, could be a real benefit to individual genealogists who happen to find their family members mentioned. Truthfully, the information on individuals in the collection is small relative to the volume of documents (in my experience), but at the very least, this collection gives us the chance to understand more about the social, political and economic circumstances in which our ancestors lived and for that reason alone it is worth exploring further.
Preliminary data extracted from the documents from Pikeliai and Mazeikiai can be seen on my private web site and more will be available as research continues.
[ NOTE: The information provided above is based on my personal use of the records mentioned. Though I have not thoroughly surveyed the collection in its entirety, I think the parts I worked with are probably representative of the large part of the whole. The research I have done would not have been possible were it not for the assistance I received from fellow Pikeliai researchers Aviva Neeman and Raya Lubavitch (both of Israel); they were instrumental in translating and helping clarify the data I found at YIVO. Their language skills and perspective on Lithuanian history helped tremendously in understanding these records. I could not have done, nor continue to do, this particular research without them. In addition, the YIVO staff were very helpful in my research efforts, particularly the archivist Marek Web.]