In late summer 1972, my Grandfather Michael passed away and he left it to me to find a letter written in the Lithuanian language hidden among his effects. In an earlier post, I described how I found it and secreted it away hoping that it was a link to another part of Europe, locked away behind the Iron Curtain at the time.
I first learned the contents when my roommate Saulius Peter Valiunas at Tufts University, bilingual in English and Lithuanian, read me the letter some 6 years later. It was written by my Grandfather’s niece, Eugenija, (Dad’s cousin) who was writing him cold and out of the blue. It was a perfect introduction to the lost family.
Here is the written translation, annotated by me, provided by my friend Dr. Giedre Kumpikas. Please note that Eugenija was mindful of the Soviet censors monitoring mail out of and into the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic:
June 22, 1957
Our Dear Uncle,
This is your brother Pranas’ daughter Eugenija writing to you from Rudnia (a small town in Lithuania, southwest of the capital Vilnius), so, my dear uncle, although I do not know you, I wanted to make your acquaintance if possible. I therefore greet you and your family and ask that you not ignore my letter but give me an answer.
My beloved uncle, my father said that you are not writing letters because our empty letters are not interesting, but that is not at all true. We are not writing so that you would write us a full letter, but we are writing because you are so loved and a person from such a respected, faraway land. For so many years there was no news, and now, when we heard your first word, we became very elated and now, not only we, but also others are receiving letters from America and are very proud. Therefore, uncle, please do not forget us with your letters.
I am living not badly. It is six years that my husband and I have two children, Irutė (meaning “little Irena”) and Vitukas (meaning “little Vytaytas”); the girl is 5 years old; the boy 2. My husband is Adomas. At first it was more difficult because we were just starting out, but now it is a little easier. We built our own house. By city standards, the house is not much, but in the village, there is possibly no better one. Although we work and I have been on my own since I was 17, I have seen much, although, even now, we have not organized everything, because to start from nothing is more difficult. My husband is a tailor and I can sew also, but I have little time because the children are small. But they grow year by year and we hope that, if we are healthy, they will not be the last. Dear uncle, I am asking you, if possible, to send your photograph. I would really like to see yours and your family’s. In ending, I ask you, once again, to write me a letter. Goodbye, uncle, I will wait for an answer.
(Mrs.) Eugenija Juknevičius
Her letter drew for me the beginning of a family tree, connecting her to my Grandfather through his brother Pranas (in English, “Frank”). Of course, I had no idea I had a Great-Uncle in Lithuania!
In early 1981, I wrote back to Eugenija at the address she provided in 1957. Naturally, I wondered if my letter would reach her as she was certain to have moved, probably several times. In my response, I told her how I found her letter, about my Grandfather’s passing, my father, and my studies.
I did not have to wait long for a reply – she must have written this response overnight upon receipt of my letter. This is the English translation done for me by Mr. Josef Boley who tutored me in Lithuanian later on.
March 15, 1981
My dear kinsman:
First of all I send you and your family my most heartfelt greetings. My dear, can you imagine my joy and astonishment when I received your letter? So much time had passed since the days when I wrote to your dear [Grandfather] dearest James. Writing to you now is the same Mrs. Eugenija Juknevičius who had written 23 years ago.
Your genealogical tree is very correct. Now, I will tell you about myself. I am now 47 years old. I have a husband and four children. Two girls and two boys. The oldest is my daughter Irena. She is 28. She is married and has one son who is 10 years old. My son Vytis is 25 years old. He is married and has a son who is 1 years old. My second son Gintautas died this year. He was 21 years old. He was a student at Vilnius University studying history.
My youngest daughter is Angele. She is 19 years old. She is studying computer programming. Therefore, dearest James, I think it would be more interesting to you to write to her since you are both students, both young, and maybe your outlooks are similar.
Dearest James, give my greetings to your father Bernard Arlauskas, his wife, and to his daughter. Your father is my actual cousin. My father, Pranas Arlauskas is still living. He is 73 years old. My mother Mrs. Antanina Arlauskas died 6 years ago. She was 62 years old.
My dearest, what can I write to you about how we live? I work as a seamstress. My husband Adomas works as a laborer. Our income is small. I do not know if you will receive my letter, therefore I do not know if I should write something more. Therefore, dearest, when I receive another letter from you, I will then write you some more.
Dear kinsman, we would be very happy to see you here in Lithuania. Should the opportunity present itself, we ask you please to visit us, you will find here many good friends.
I am writing to you in Lithuanian, maybe it will not be difficult to translate. I can write to you in French, since my daughter Angele is studying the French language. If you can, write to us in French, although to us, if it is better for you, you can write to us in English, French, however, would be better.
Darling James, tell your father about me. Perhaps, he too would be interested to know what is happening in his father’s birthplace, Lithuania?
From the bottom of our hearts we thank you, darling James, for your desire to become acquainted with your kinsman in faraway Lithuania, and that you found the time t do so. For all this we are very glad.
Dearest James, on the occasion of your birthday we send you our most heartfelt greetings and felicitations.
We ask that you please send us your photograph and your family’s photograph. We will definitely also send you photographs of ourselves. I ask that you write letters to us in my name, or you can also write to us in my daughter’s name Miss Angele Juknevičius. Your letters we will all read together. We are very much waiting for your letter. Your letters always bring us happiness.
In Lithuanian, James is “Džeimsas.”
This was a lovely letter, of a type and style one does not receive often.
Dad listened attentively to my stories and I was even able to coax out of him a few words in Lithuanian which proved to me that he could understand (and speak) the language (although he never did, preferring Yiddish for any and all kinds of colorful expressions). As I have written previously, Lithuanian was the language of his unprivileged childhood, something he escaped from. Accordingly, he listened attentively — as if I were describing a prison escape — when I described my correspondence but took no further initiative of his own. He did not of course explain that to me explicitly; this was something I had to figure out for myself.
So I corresponded with Eugenija and 4 years later in 1985, I went there and met the entire family – including a visit to the cemetery in Varena to see the grave of my second cousin Gintautas (I am still not sure of his cause of death). I have travelled a lot and I have to say that that trip was one of my most memorable anywhere. As soon as I can find my stash of pictures, I will write up and post.
While in Vilnius (the capital city), I met her brother Stasys (In English, “Stacy”) and his family. I remain closest with his branch, in particular, Arunas who is married to a French Professor at the University of Gent in Belgium. They have a busy household with 4 kids running all over the place. And like my maternal Grandfather, he is an architect. When at his house, we watch videos of Keith Richards (in Lithuanian “Keitas Richardas”) together.
Copyright © 2015 by James B. Olcott