Monday, May 12, 2008

"My Jewish Journey to America" at SDGS on Saturday

I attended the San Diego Genealogical Society meeting on Saturday. The speaker was Dr. Franklin Gaylis on "My Jewish Journey to America." But the talk was more than about his journey to America, it was a wonderful story about researching his Jewish ancestors in Lithuania and Latvia.

Dr. Gaylis used the computer setup to show slides and video clips from his family's genealogy trip to the Baltics, where they found several ancestral homes. His ancestral family left Lithuania around 1900 to settle in South Africa, and his family migrated to the USA about 20 years ago.

Dr. Gaylis explained how access to the Baltic countries, which had been almost impossible before the fall of the Iron Curtain, became possible in recent years. He hoped that they could learn a little bit more about the little towns where their ancestors lived until they were encouraged or forced to leave because of persecution. Many who remained were killed in the Holocaust. His family didn't know if they had lost family in Latvia or Lithuania. All they knew were the names of the shtetls (little towns where Jews lived) where the family had lived. With the Internet, information about Lithuania and Latvia became available to them here in America.

The family trip to Lithuania and Latvia took several years to plan. Dr. Gaylis showed views, and videos, of their very first day after arriving in Latvia - finding the abandoned synagogue in Ludza, and even some records inside the building. They found the home of his great-grandparents, and they met some cousins there. They were welcomed by the President of Latvia, and a Professor at the University of Kaunas in Lithuania in other meetings.

This was not the typical "finding your ancestral home" story. The amazing part was finding that there was still family in the area and they found them the first day - while they were still jet-lagged! They have video of their guides conversing with local people, and showing the family homes and local buildings.

This program took the first hour of the SDGS meeting. In the second hour, we had a "Question and Answer" session with five of us on the panel answering questions "cold" from the audience. Phyllis Quarg, Dona Ritchie, Pam Journey (who acted as moderator), Peter Steelquist, and I answered questions from the audience. This was difficult without any notes or computer helps! My cold and laryngitis made it difficult for me to speak coherently, I fear!

I really enjoyed hearing this "not your usual family" genealogy hunt and hearing about this emotional family story of discovery in Eastern Europe.

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