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The State Historical Archives in Vilnius - Lithuanian Roulette

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The State Historical Archives in Vilnius - Lithuanian Roulette

The collections of the Lithuanian State Historical Archives clearly reflect the geopolitical history of Poland and Lithuania, countries connected by a union lasting centuries. The parts of Lithuania with the largest numbers of Poles were the areas of Vilnius, Kaunas, Hrodna (now in Belarus),  Trakai, Marijampole, and Merkine [Polish names Wilno, Kowno, Grodno, Troki, Mariampol, and Merecz, respectively]. That accounts for the presence of popular Polish surnames on the pages of metrical registers and for the frequent visits of Poles to the Lithuanian State Historical Archives.       
     
My first, brief visit allowed me to familiarize myself generally with the functioning of the archives and their holdings. I was surprised at the time by the number of metrical and other databases. It was a good signal to plan for a longer visit. Half a year later, I showed up once more at 10 Gerosios Vilties street in Vilnius; this time, I stayed in Vilnius for two weeks. The knowledge I acquired will be particularly interesting for readers whose roots are in the current territories of Lithuania, northeastern Poland, and the borders of Belarus.

The fact that the archives possess large collections of metrical records cannot be denied, but ... Well, actually, there are several buts. There are issues that can put a damper on researchers' enthusiasm and discourage them from a long and costly expedition.

In the first place, the research rooms cannot serve all those who want to use them. Every day, from Monday to Friday, the research rooms are completely full, and latecomers wait in the corridors, hunting for free spaces. There are two research rooms in two wings of the building, one for books-it has 20 one-person tables the other for microfilms, with 10 readers (usually one or two broken). If we want to be guaranteed an open spot, wehave to show up at the archives punctually when the research rooms open at 8:30 a.m. Unfortunately, the archives do not accept appointments or reservations for spaces in the research rooms. Researchers from other countries have no special privileges here (unlike the Polish archives, where traveling researchers receive more attention).

Secondly, the system for ordering records and having those orders filled limits and determines potential research output opportunities. You can order 10 units at one time, but you can order more only after returning them. The materials are processed ccording to the user’s place in the ordering sequence. If you place an order for books before noon, the order is filled no sooner than the next day after 10 a.m., and more often, in the afternoon hours or even the day after. The accompanying awareness of time wasted and the feeling of futility are very irritating. Fortunately, microfilms are provided much more quickly, within two to three hours. I quickly worked out a system to make maximum use of my time in the archives. I placed orders at the same time in both research rooms, and I spent the long time waiting for books on work in the microfilm area. Obviously, I took care of my place in the other work area,which I reserved by leaving sheets of paper with a pen.

Photo 1 - A research room at the Lithuanian State Historical Archives, filled to capacity. All photos courtesy of Iwona Dakiniewicz.

What this means is that if we plan, for example, on five days for research, we will be able to examine no more than 50 books. A certain number of them will contain sets of baptism, marriage, and death records compiled annually. From roughly the 1870s on, separate books were kept for births, marriages, and deaths; this arrangement means our daily limit will restrict research to a period of three years. In view of these restrictions, dilemmas arise: which yearbooks and which records to designate to make our research as effective as possible. The records for one parish consist, on average, of about 200 signatures. To examine all the possible units for a given parish, we would have to remain in Vilnius for a whole month. That's not even taking into account cases in which ancestors came from more than one parish. For an experienced researcher, this is like a blow to the heart, because such a researcher is capable of examining 50 books in a single day!

But that's still not the end to the obstacles. Another trap awaits when we select items from the standard inventory. Every item has to be checked against the "black inventory," which contains a list of items excluded from access owing to poor technical condition. It turns out that, on average, every second or third unit is on this black list. One of the key records in my case was a marriage record from before 1885, and the years 1880-1884 were on that list. In addition, the archives routinely exclude successive units, which in practice means that we may receive part of the materials we ordered. It's a kind of roulette. The practice of genealogy has taught me patience, so I quickly consoled myself with the thought, "Maybe next year." Unfortunately, that hope vanished the moment I heard one of the staff explain that items on the black list are awaiting restoration, and that may not happen for dozens of years.
 
There is one more significant and specific factor influencing the effectiveness of research. This is the collective system of keeping records; the records of various parishes were compiled annually by deanery. For example, the yearly registers of the deanery of Merkine/Merecz optimally would contain records from 21 parishes: Alove, Alytus, Birstonas, Butrimonys, Daugai, Dusmenys, Jieznas, Marcinkonys, Merkine, Nedzinge, Nemajunai, Nemunaitis, Onuskis, Perloja, Pivasiunai, Punia, Ratnycia, Rudninkai, Stakliskes, Valkininkai, and Varena. We have to take into account changes in diocesan administrative structures for a given period. It's worthwhile to make use of schematisms (overviews of a given diocese's structure, churches, properties, etc.) if we have them. This deanery system of records has its pluses and minuses. It gives us a chance to examine records from neighboring parishes; on the other hand, it severely limits the number of available books for a specific parish connected with our ancestors.
 
The indexes that genealogists value so highly appear in many books, but there was no rule that they had to be there. Thick volumes without indexes demand thumbing through over 1,000 pages-although the practice at the time of entering surnames in the margins greatly facilitates the research process. Surname spellings can baffle you with their variability, and for that reason, it is worthwhile reading every record with any surname that resembles the one we want in sound or spelling. Names took on different spellings, depending on the nationality of the priests and the influences of Polonization and Russification. For example, the surname Czurlanis was registered as Ciurplete, Ciurlonis, Czarlonis, Cirlanin; in the Polish version Cierlewicz or Ciurlewicz; and in modern transcriptions by archive staff, Ciurpelyte.

And here is a curiosity: the Lithuanian Archives do not give the original names in official transcripts. In documents from the 19th century, I read Iwan Petru lenis, Ekaterina Samujlewicz, Matwiej Kukowski; but in the Lithuanian transcripts, they appear as Jonas Petrulionis, Kotryna Samuilauiciute, and Motiejus Kukauskas. Such documents have only the hallmark of transcription and are, speaking frankly, forgeries. The irony of this procedure lies in the fact that it is prescribed by Lithuanian law. Formally imposed spelling of surnames has even become a bone of contention in the political relations of Lithuania and Poland. To this day, governmentnegotiations and complaints before international justice and human rights tribunals have not helped.

Photo 2 - List of years [metai] of records available for parishes in Trakai deanery [Traku dekanatas]. Thus for Alytus, records for 1797 begin on sheet 50; for Daugai, records for 1701-1797 start on sheet 93, and so on.

Historically speaking, PolishLithuanian conflict has been going for ages and ages. The mutual animosity began as early as the 16th century, when Poles regarded themselves as a nation at a higher stage of development than the "wild" Lithuanians. Conflict was also due to differing concepts of ethnicity, different languages and cultures, and separate ethnic identities. The Lithuanians deny any ethnic connection with the Slavs, identifying themselves as a Baltic people. Yet Lithuanians underwent Polonization in all stages of life-national administration, education, and religion-and even borrowed social habits. After the period of Polonization, Lithuanians revived their language and, during the period between the World Wars, cleansed their language of all Slavic loan words. At present, Poles constitute the largest group of ethnic minorities, and the Polish language can be heard most often in Vilnius.

Returning to the Historical Archives in Vilnius, I would like to end by praising its directorate highly in two regards. One is for the free access, without charge, to digital copies, so that each user can take photographs to his or her heart's contentas long as no flash is used. The tables are equipped with lamps, and the daylight is excellent by the broad windowsills. I want to praise even more highly, with a deep bow, the initiative for digitizing metrical records and making them available online. There is hope that the Polish archives will follow the Lithuanians' example.

Photo 3 - This is page one of an alphabetical index to 1865 births in Merkine parish. Note that the names are given in Lithuanian versions, not the Polish or Russian versions that appear in the actual records. The individual entries are listed surname first followed by one or more given names, and finally a genitive-case form of the father's first name, ending typically in -0 or -aus. So the first entry is for Viktorija Akstinaite, daughter of Dominykas [Akstinasj. The sixth entry, Karolis Anteneviciu», son of Benediktas, may have been a Pole, Karol Antoniewicz, son of Benedykt.

Iwona Dakiniewicz, Łódź, Poland genealogy@pro.onet.pl

[with translation assistance from William F. Hoffman]

 

 

 

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Last Updated on July 6, 2017