The Effects of Lithuanian History and Language on Research

by William F. Hoffman

I originally became involved with genealogy when some of my wife’s family asked if I could translate some old letters in Polish from relatives back in the old country—my wife is descended on her father’s side from ethnic Poles living near Alytus, Lithuania. I found I could translate the letters; my in-laws recommended me to others who needed similar help; and since then I have become more and more involved with Eastern European genealogical research.

Over the years I have worked more with descendants of Poles than anyone else. But anyone involved with eastern Europe soon realizes that no language or country can be studied in isolation from the others around it. I have never forgotten that, from my first involvement with genealogy, I found myself dealing with Poles who lived, not in Poland, but in Lithuania.

As I learned more and more about eastern Europe, much of what I read came from Poles, and inevitably had a Polish slant to it. It’s only been in the last few years that I realized there was a side to the story that always seems to get overlooked: the Lithuanian side! As I work now to become more familiar with the language, culture, and history of that country, I become more and more aware that these subjects are fascinating and deserve to be better known.

Lithuanian-Americans do not find it easy to get access to good, reliable information on their roots. There are some good sources—Lithuanian Heritage magazine, for instance—but more are needed. I would like very much to do my bit to help Lithuanian-Americans learn more about their ancestors, which is why I agreed to edit Protėviai for the Lithuanian Global Genealogical Society, until its demise due to lack of material. I did so partly because I’d like to see simple justice done. But I’ve also come to realize that knowledge of Lithuania’s history, and some basic knowledge of its language, can help enormously in tracing the roots of those who come from this small but fascinating country.

General Research Considerations

In general terms, doing Lithuanian research is much the same as doing research for any other European country. You have to dig through family papers and hunt for documents—census records, naturalization papers, ship passenger lists, etc.—till you find something that gives you the fundamental info you must have for the ancestor in each line who left Europe to settle in North America. You need his or her original name; date of birth; and place of birth. Until you get that data, it is almost impossible to make that jump back across the Atlantic. Once you know exactly who to look for, and where to look in the old country, you can hope to find your family.

All this is true of any European country. But each country has its own history, its own language, its own culture, and these obviously play some role in research. Doing good genealogy involves learning how to apply the general rules while taking into account specific factors connected with the individual countries involved.

In the case of Lithuania, its history and language have a direct impact on genealogical research. I hope to acquaint you with some of the basic points of relevance in this discussion, so that you can put them to good use in your research, and thus improve your chances of success!

A Brief Overview of Lithuanian History: Before the Union with Poland

In the ninth century, when there was no nation of Poland or Lithuania, just a bunch of tribes fighting with each other, Kiev began to develop as a powerful center of civilization in eastern Europe. The geopolitical entity of Kievan Ruś, as it was called, grew richer and more powerful, largely by trade with Byzantium, until it began suffering the attacks of invading hordes of Tatars. In 1240, Tatars under the leadership of Genghis Khan’s nephew destroyed Kiev. A power vacuum developed; the principalities once ruled by Kiev continued to exist, but they missed the overall leadership Kiev had provided.

In the mid-13th century Mindaugas, the founder of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, began uniting the tribes of Lithuania into a nation. Decades later, his successors Gediminas (ruled 1316-1341) and co-rulers Algirdas (1345-1377) and Kęstutis (1345-1382) began to exert more and more control over the area that used to be Kievan Ruś.

By the early 15th century, the Grand Duchy ruled from Samogitia in the northwest down to the Black Sea. See the map below, which gives you some notion of the relative size of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as of that time. (It is based on information from Atlas historyczny Polski, Państwowe Przedsiębiorstwo Wydawnictw Kartograficznych, Warszawa, supplemented with information from Paul Robert Magocsi, Historical Atlas of East Central Europe, 1993, University of Washington Press, ISBN 0-295-97445-1.)

15th Century Map – click to enlarge

We see a fascinating thing here: the Lithuanians were, by historical standards, very odd conquerors. They didn’t cram their language down the throats of the Eastern Slavs they now ruled; in fact they adopted the Slavs’ use of their language—a mixture of old Belarusian and Ukrainian—in their legal records. Nor did they force the Slavs to renounce Christianity and worship Lithuanian gods. Noble Belarusians and Ukrainians who had had clout under the old regime could have clout under the new one, as long as they accepted Lithuanian authority and cooperated with it. What kind of self-respecting conquerors didn’t brutalize and repress the peoples they conquered?

One could spend a lifetime studying this question and never arrive at a definitive answer. But I suspect one factor was that the Lithuanian leaders were practical people, who had no taste for the needless aggravation that would come with trying to convert Slavs into pseudo-Lithuanians. Also, it seems to me Lithuanians have never felt any compulsion to march and sing “Lithuania über alles.” Their land and language are theirs, and they are proud of them—why extend to a bunch of foreigners membership, as it were, in a really splendid private club?

I might be wrong, but I wonder if the Lithuanians were smart enough to ask themselves a question that never occurred to most other conquerors: why would we want to force our ways upon others? As long as we’re on top, aren’t we actually better off letting foreigners do their own thing? (Always assuming, of course, that the foreigners never forget who’s the boss!)

If that is how the Lithuanians saw things, it was an impressive insight—one that looks all the better by comparison with the behavior of their neighbors, the Germans and Russians, who invested enormous time and effort trying (in vain) to suppress the ethnic identities of those they conquered. This tolerance did, however, have an unfortunate consequence: Lithuania, its language, and culture, never really gained much recognition among other nations. The Grand Duchy never registered on the radar screen of historians. And since the Lithuanian language was not forced on millions of subjects, it never attained the recognition and prestige that, for instance, Latin, French and English historically gained from being the languages of conquerors. This complicates things for descendants of Lithuanians, as we’ll see in a moment.

The Commonwealth of Two Nations, Lithuania and Poland

While the Grand Duchy was expanding east and southeast, Poland went through turbulent times. Mieszko, who was baptized into Latin-rite Christianity in 966, was recognized as the first king of Poland. For centuries after him, division and turmoil ruled in the regions inhabited by Poles. Not until the mid-14th century did Poland consolidated into a powerful, united country.

Poland and Lithuania fought each other often. By the late 1300s, however, they realized they had a dangerous common foe, the powerful Order of the Teutonic Knights, which had a stronghold in the lands that would later come to be called “Prussia.” The Poles and Lithuanians sometimes found it expedient to team up against the Knights, despite their mutual dislike.

In 1385 Poland faced a crisis of succession: there was no royal heir other than a 12-year-old girl, Jadwiga. The Lithuanian leader Jogaila (in Polish called Władysław Jagiełło) offered to marry her, convert to Christianity, and become King of Poland. With their union began a slow joining of Poland and Lithuania as one geopolitical entity, “the Commonwealth of Two Nations, Poland and Lithuania.” Westerners have had a sloppy tendency to call this entity “Poland,” but the Grand Duchy of Lithuania actually kept its identity and legal autonomy. In fact, it was the larger nation, since for a long time it ruled Belarus and much of western Ukraine.

In 1410 the Poles and Lithuanians fought the Teutonic Knights at Grünwald and defeated them decisively. This made the Polish-Lithuanian nation de facto the most powerful in eastern Europe—even though its subjects were a potentially volatile mix of Roman Catholic Poles, pagan Lithuanians who came to accept Roman Catholicism, and Orthodox Belarusians and Ukrainians.

How the Commonwealth of Two Nations Became “Poland”

In Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, Polish language and culture became dominant, perhaps because Poland’s contacts with the West made it seem more cosmopolitan. Remember, too, the Lithuanians agreed to convert to Christianity, and Poland was the conduit through which contact with Rome passed. Lithuanians did not like or admire the Poles, but they did like some of the ideas of Western culture—and those ideas came to them via Poland.

This was particularly evident with the Lithuanian nobility. Once again, the Lithuanian upper classes accommodated themselves to the customs and language of Slavs. They became almost completely Polonized, speaking Polish, calling themselves by Polish names, bearing Polish coats of arms, and so on. Writers claimed by Lithuanians as their own, such as Adomas Mickevičius—or as he’s better known, Adam Mickiewicz—wrote in Polish, because that was the language of culture and literature. It was the language one had to write in to reach an educated audience.

Of course, the peasants went right on speaking Lithuanian all along. But they received little attention from the cultural, spiritual, and educational elite of either Poland or Lithuania.

To anyone who wasn’t familiar with the Lithuanian view of things, it appeared that the Grand Duchy was the junior partner in the alliance, and the Poles were the ones who really counted. I’m not saying that was an accurate assessment of the situation—but that’s how it looked. If educated people in France, Italy, or Britain ever met a native Lithuanian, he was almost certainly a nobleman, and he spoke Polish. It’s not surprising most Westerners got in the habit of calling that part of the world, not the Commonwealth, not the Grand Duchy, but “Poland.”

Many nations went through similar flirtations with other cultures. There was a time Rus­sian nobles, for instance, admired all things French—much of the first chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is in that language! In the Middle Ages, the Poles were strongly influenced by the Czechs. Many peoples have gone through a period of infatuation with another culture, but outgrew it as their own culture developed. The natural development of Lithuanian culture was interrupted, however, when Russia seized control of the country during the partitioning of “Poland” in 1772. Not until after World War I did Lithuania experience independence; and of course that was snuffed out during World War II, not to reappear until the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Do History and Language Matter?

In the case of Lithuanian research, I’d answer this question with a firm “Yes”—not just in an idealistic sense, but in a very practical sense. Due to the vagaries of history and its leaders’ tolerance, Lithuania never really got the recognition it deserved; so generations of Lithuanian-Americans have struggled with being misidentified as “Russians” or “Poles.” Find the passenger lists of the ships your ancestors came on, and odds are your ancestors are classified as “Russians” or “from Russian Poland,” because no such country as Lithuania existed from 1772 to 1918. I’ve had people ask me about their “Polish” names Kalwajtys and Wanagas; they had no idea these were Polonized spellings of Lithuanian Kalvaitis (“smith’s son”) and Vanagas (hawk). It’s hard to research your Lithuanian roots if you have no idea you’re Lithuanian!

Furthermore, lack of familiarity with the Lithuanian language has had a dreadful impact on Lithuanian surnames. Practically any educated European customs official or representative of a passenger ship line had some familiarity with German names, French names, Italian names, in some cases even Polish names; there was at least a fighting chance they’d spell the names more or less correctly. Rare was the one who had a clue about Lithuanian names! Or one who could even recognize that a name was Lithuanian, for that matter. So when your ancestors’ names weren’t Polonized or Russified, they were often misspelled phonetically. Some typical changes are:

ai -> Polish aj, German aj or ej, English ay or i
č -> Polish cz or German tsch or English ch
i -> Polish y
j -> English y
š -> Polish sz or German sch or English sh
v -> Polish or German w
y -> Polish or German or English i
ž -> Polish ż or English zh

Thus I have seen Lithuanian Šnipaitis rendered in Germanized form as Schneppat; Jančaras Anglicized as Yancharas; and Jonaitis Americanized as Unitas. The ancestors of John Gielgud were actually Gelgaudas; the Radziwills bear a Polonized form of Radvilas. The Polish World War I hero Piłsudski actually descended from a Lithuanian family Pilsudskis. And so on.

So I advise all researchers with roots in Lithuania to learn at least a little about the history and language of their country. There are good practical reasons to do so; such knowledge can save you a lot of aggravation. But a beneficial side effect might be a greater appreciation of what amazing people your ancestors were!