This journey began in 2016 with the passing of my great aunt, my grandmother's sister, Elena Čiurlytė Barnet (1923 - 2016).
When my mother's cousin, Ona, was cleaning out her mother's apartment at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, New York, she came across an old battered suitcase. Inside the suitcase there was a pile of marble covered school notebooks from the 1950s with handwritten entries in Lithuanian and a tiny New Testament. On the cover of each notebook, written in Lithuanian, was the name of my great grandfather, Jurgis Čiurlys, and "Atsiminimai Tremtyje" (Memoirs in Exile). The notebooks were numbered. Some of the notebook's pages were filled with entries written faintly in pencil, and others in ballpoint pen.
Ona immediately called my mother, and my mother hopped into her car and sped across the George Washington Bridge into New York City from New Jersey to retrieve the suitcase. She guessed as to what was inside. After World War II, my mother's father, Consul General of prewar Independent Lithuania, had managed to bring his father-in-law, a former official of the Ministry of Transport, and one of the engineers who helped create the Lithuanian railroad after Lithuania's independence from Czarist Russia in 1918, to the United States by securing him a position at Indiana University as a Professor of Engineering. Elena and Jurgis Čiurlys, and their daughter, Elena, fled Lithuania in 1944 and ended up in a displaced persons camp in Austria as war refugees. As intellectuals - both had studied in St. Petersburg, Jurgis Čiurlys engineering and Elena Bilminiūtė Čiurlienė piano at the Conservatory - they would have been deported by Stalin to Siberia. Their elder daughter, Janina, my grandmother, had been living in New York since 1936, when she married my grandfather and they both set sail to New York on his first diplomatic posting under Consul General Jonas Budrys at the Consul General of Lithuania in New York.
My mother remembered that her grandfather had suffered a stroke, and because he had lost the use of his right hand he could no longer teach and returned to live with their family in their tiny house in Laurelton, Queens. Before he died in 1959, Jurgis Čiurlys spent his days writing out his memoirs using his left hand. Determined to record what he could remember of the formation of the Lithuanian Railroad, from memory he recreated technical drawings of the carriages and other aspects of the railroad, wrote down the budget, shared details of the formation of the railroad. My mother also remembered that my great-grandfather, who as a man of science and the new age of the 20th century, and a social democrat, had been an atheist his entire adult life. As his days on earth were waning, he read and studied the New Testament every day.
When my mother arrived at Gramercy Park, she was intrigued that yes, indeed, the suitcase contained those long lost notebooks! She had not seen them for over half a century. She brought the notebooks home and she and I began to read their contents. The handwriting is cramped, and his writing style is terse, yet the notebooks reveal beautiful descriptions of his childhood in the countryside, growing up in the village of Jutkonys, in the Kupiškis region. He describes the village system of herding the livestock, his first days in school, and then his life as a young man and a student in revolutionary Russia. His very first entry describes his first memory as a three-year-old child, gazing at his father's dead body, who died of overwork, laid out on the kitchen table, as his body is prepared to be laid to rest in the village cemetery. His describes his intense sadness and fear. His father is soon replaced by a step-father, the younger brother of his father.
In October, 2017, when I was invited by Neringa Danienė to come to Kupiškis to see her play about Matilda Olkinaitė, "The Silenced Muse," and to translate Matilda's poetry from Lithuanian into English, I was excited to travel to the region because it was the same place where the family of my great grand father, Jurgis Čiurlys, had resided since as far back as the collective memory of the family extended. In his diary, Jurgis Čiurlys lists his ancestors, and the last one he could remember he writes had lived "when Lithuania was independent and free," meaning before the division of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the oppression of the Russian czars.
Matilda's town, Panemunėlis, is only 33 kilometers distant from my great grandfather's village of Jutkonys. At that time I met the local historian, Violeta Aleknienė, who shared with me her research on the Olkinas family's lives, and their murder during the Holocaust in Lithuania in the summer of 1941.
Violeta promised me she would show me my ancestor's village and graves.
However, as it turned out, I spent the next few years researching and writing about the life and poetry of the Litvak poet, Matilda Olkinaitė, and did not find the time to visit Jutkonys. It was only after I translated Matilda Olkinaitė's poetry and diary, and two books of her collected works had been published, that I was ready.
This week, finally, after many postponements due to weather and other circumstances, Violeta and I set out to Jutkonys, where we bounced down a rutted road through a pasture filled with nervous bulls, to visit the small cemetery in the forest, along the edge of the fields. There I saw my great great grandparents grave for the first time. Having grown up in the United States, it was a powerful moment for me to connect with my ancestors on their own land, through the expanse of time. All Soul's Day, when Lithuanians visit the graves of their ancestors, pray for them, light candles for them, is approaching in just a few days. The time felt right.
My grandmother and great aunt's generation was raised not to talk about family history and family achievements out of a sense of polite modesty. This emphasis on what Lithuanian's call "kuklumas" has resulted in my generation knowing very little about the lives of our great grandparents and other relatives. I've learned more from reading my great grandfather's notebooks than my grandmother ever shared with me. Therefore, I am very grateful to the Virbališkės retired teacher and local historian, Kazimiera Danutė Vilkaitė Sokienė, for arranging a private lecture for me in which she shared every mention of the Čiurlys family in Jutkonys over several generations. We sat, heads together, in her cozy farm house and read through pages of history. She herself is the compiler of a book that records the histories of families with roots in the Kupiškis region. Danutė is a person who in Lithuania is called, "kaimo inteligentė," meaning the "intellectual in the village," or rather, a village leader, a person who records for posterity the community's collective memory and cultural history.
Of course, the family history lecture came after a lovely lunch shared together with her sister of buttered bread, homemade jams, grapes from the garden, and coffee.
I took some time to revisit my beloved Matilda's story in Panemunėlis. The train station that brought Matilda to Kaunas and to Vilnius to study French and Russian Literature at the university is now boarded up and condemned.
But the church where Noachas Olkinas donated an oak confessional still stands, and the road leading into the town still fills me with a mix of horror over what happened to Matilda and her family, but also with delight remembering her exuberant childhood poems about the fields, butterflies, and forests of her beloved Panemunėlis.
And so, now I am left to consider how my ancestors lived parallel lives just thirty kilometers distant from where Matilda skipped through her childhood, worshipped her beloved Sun, composed her poems, and returned home from Vilnius in June 1941, after the German occupation, to her parents, to face her death together with them.