Finding the Formans in Eastern Europe

A few years ago, Ed’s second cousin, Shep Forman, suggested, “Let’s go to Eastern Europe to try to find the Forman roots.”  We thought, “that sounds fun … let’s plan it!"  As a result, we spent ten days with Shep and Leona Forman exploring Latvia and Lithuania--searching for Forman roots. Shep is the cousin of Ed’s father, and is the youngest member of that generation.

Specifically, we were looking for the birthplaces of Simon Forman (Shep’s father) and Samuel Forman (Ed’s grandfather) and their parents -- Michael Forman and Maria Zimina. Shep’s father had told him that he was from Riga and records showed that Maria was from Kanaus, Lithuania. Shep’s father also said, “I’m Litvak”… which Shep assumed meant that he was from Latvia.

The Forman family emigrated to the US in the early 1900’s. Ed and Shep had researched their relatives on before our trip, and they came equipped with some online records and documents. US Census data listed Simon and Sam as being born in “Russia”. (In the early 1900’s, Russia controlled all of Eastern Europe including the Baltic countries which are now Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.)

Riga, Latvia

Ed and I met Shep and Leona in Riga, a very cosmopolitan city, with many green parks and open spaces. At the Jewish museum of Riga, we met with a historian, who referred us to an expert a the Latvian archives. We made an appointment with her to meet the next day. This historian also commented, “I’m 100% sure that Maria Zimina is a Russian Orthodox name. This means that she was not Jewish. Instead, she was probably Russian Orthodox.”  This news was disconcerting to both Shep and Ed, as they had never imagined that there were Christian roots in their backgrounds.

At the Latvian archives our historian Rita could find no record of the Formans in Latvia. But she said, “often, people said they were from Riga, if they left Eastern Europe from Riga … even when they didn’t live here.”  (It was a major seaport and a gateway to the west.)

We were a bit discouraged by this data, but we enjoyed our stay in Riga anyway. We loved touring the old town and sampled “Black Balsam” … the native liqueur of Latvia. (If you ever need a really effective cough syrup, try Black Balsam--highly recommended!)

We attended the World Premier of the opera, “Rose of Turaidas” performed by the Latvian State Opera. Since we bought tickets in advance (for the sold out performance), we’d learned that it was a black tie event and packed appropriate attire. Ed and I bought our jackets and my scarf at the "Gold Mine" thrift store in Ketchum, Idaho since we received the news about "black tie" after leaving SF for Ketchum. This was the first time Ed ever put on a size "44 long". But for $5, who can complain that the length goes below his second knuckle (!).

Little did we know that our seats for the opera would be five rows behind the President of Latvia and his wife. We learned this because the President’s beefy bodyguards (with earpieces) sat in our row! The lighting and staging of the opera was very innovative, and even though we couldn’t understand the nuances of what was going on in the opera, we enjoyed the performance.

Kanaus, Lithuania

After four days in Riga, we drove our rental car to Kanaus, the town where we hoped to find records for Mary Zimina who at this point could be characterized as our Russian Orthodox great grandmother. As we entered the town, we were not impressed. We saw rows and rows of Soviet-style dreary apartments and confusing traffic patterns. We checked into our hotel and after a lovely dinner at the Dia Restaurant, attended Yom Kippur services at the Kanaus Choral Synagogue, the only surviving synagogue in the city. It was a traditional Orthodox service, with melodies unfamiliar to Ed and Shep.

The next day we drove to the Museum of the Ninth Fort, on the outskirts of town. We were sobered to learn that this location was a killing field for 3,000 Jewish people from Kanaus who were marched here and shot in 1941. This picture in the museum illustrated the horrors of the period.

This monument was placed in front of the mass grave to honor the legacy of those who perished.

Vilnius, Lithuania

We traveled to Vilnius, a bustling, charming city with a vibrant spirit and lively Old Town. On our second day, we met with Regina Jopilevich, a local expert on Jewish genealogy and Lithuanian history. We took her to the hotel's computer and she instantly started researching in online databases.

After about an hour of work, she had an ‘aha’ moment …. and found the birth records of both Sam and Simon Forman!

We learned that Sam, Simon, and their sisters were all born in Kanaus, Lithuania. And, Maria Zimina, was not really “Maria”, but Mariausha, daughter of Moshe …. These are all Jewish names, so the idea of some non-Jewish relatives was put to rest. Shep and Ed breathed a sigh of relief!  Jan just smiled with acceptance.

It was quite an exciting moment to see the records of all the Forman Family members. Regina was an expert at looking for different spellings of names (Fuhrman vs Forman, etc.). Also many of the children had Hebrew names, which were changed to American names when they moved to the US. The key to her genealogical research was finding the same names in previous generations, but because of the differences in the records between Hebrew, Russian and Lithuanian names, it truly took an expert to figure it out.

While researching, she found that Sam’s wife, Rose Fanger, was born in Moletai, a nearby village. (This town is also called  Malat and Malata... which adds to the confusion to the genealogy for the uninitiated.) So, we got in the car and drove to her village. We had a lovely lunch in a local cafe … complete with dumplings and herring.

After lunch, we met this 85 year old resident of the village who described her life in Moletai.

She invited us into her home (which had no running water). We imagined that Rose (Ed’s grandma) and her family could have lived in a similar home prior to emigrating to the US in the early 1900’s.

We met her husband, and were impressed with his US Air Force hat!

In this painting of Moletai's past, we imagined Ed's relatives strolling the streets.

In his role as "paparazzi", Ed took photos of other houses in the village.

In Moletai we also visited an old Jewish cemetery by entering  through a hole in the fence.

On the outskirts of Moletai, we visited a somber sight where 2,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust. Recently, over 2,000 people were present for a commemoration and a screening of a  documentary  for the 75th anniversary of this atrocity. The memorial was in a relatively small space and we are told it was incredibly impactful when 2000 people surrounded the memorial in 2016. To provide perspective, the Jewish population in the region of Vilnius was in the hundreds of thousand before WWII and is less than 2000 today.

On our second day of research in Vilnius, we visited the Lithuanian Archives, where we searched for records on microfilm and ordered paper copies of documents. Leona was impressed by the  original birth records for the Fanger family.

And Ed and Shep found records from the SS Emory, the ship that carried the Forman family to the US in 1905.

During this research, Ed discovered that the aunt he was named for, Aunt Henrietta, was born in Kedainiai in 1874. We were also able to flesh out more of the details of Ed’s family. This was the Block family -- Ed’s great grandma and great aunt on his mother’s side. So, we were off to Kedainiai where the Block family lived.

Kedainiai, Lithuania

We visited Kedainiai on our way back to Riga. This village can trace its heritage back to 1372. At one time in the past, Kedainiai hosted a large Scottish community. (Who knows, perhaps Jan’s ancestors crossed paths with Ed’s family in this village.) We saw many wooden homes. Maybe Henrietta lived in a house like one of these:

Our trip wrapped up back in Riga. Both Ed and Shep were very satisfied with our research results. It’s wonderful to know the connection with Lithuania. We celebrated our good fortune  during our farewell dinner. We were able to trace the Forman, Fanger and Block branches of Ed's family back many generations and to gain perspective on their lives in Europe. We felt very lucky that most members of our families were able to leave early in the 20th Century, well before the Holocaust.

So, here's a toast to Ed and Shep for a wonderful trip! All four of us hope to return to these beautiful countries in the near future.