Stories from the Muddy

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Meining/Preikschat and the Lithuanian Connection

By Naomi Lewis

Betty Louise Meining Gentry Lewis
Betty Louise Meining Gentry Lewis always thought her father Otto Meining's family came from Germany.  In the 1970's while I was researching different family lines in Salt Lake City, I told an aid at the Family History Center what my great aunt Emma told me, that her folks, John Meining and Emma Snyder, spoke Litosh.  The woman said if they spoke Litoish, they were from Lithuania.  There was a great deal of confusion in my mind about Germany, Prussia, and Lithuania.  The area has a very complex history.

Otto Albert Meining Betty Louise's Father

            Aunt Emma Gates, Otto's sister, and the wife of Grandma Gentry's brother, Herschel, gave me the address of her cousin Gertrude Abrat, in Dayton, Ohio, who was in possession of the family Bible.  I wrote her a letter to learn what I could about that part of the family.

Emma Snyder Meining

            In 1976, I was in Columbus, Ohio, staying with my friends Rosa and Larry Stolz, waiting for my second album, "Seagulls and Sunflowers," to be pressed in Cincinnati. One fine day, Rosa and I drove to Dayton to visit Gertude Abrat.  Gertrude was the daughter of Anna Preischat and Christ Abrat.  Gertrude and her sister took us to lunch and we visited.  From Gertrude, I learned a little bit about the Meining's and first heard about the Preikschat family.  I found out my mother's great grandfather, John Preikschat, was born in Smalininkai, Lithuania.  Now the Litosh, Litoish, East Prussia, Lithuania story was coming together.  John Meining's wife was Emma Snyder Meining.
John Meining

            In about 1870, while John Preikschat was in Kaiser Wilhelm's Navy and on his ship, the SMS Weissenburg, a Brandenburg class battleship, Emma delivered their first son and named him John Meining, keeping her maiden name as his surname.  John and Emma's later children, Albert, Bertha, Anna, and Maria were surnamed Preikschat.  I found pictures of the Brandenburg on the internet.  In the summer of 2006 while at the family history center in Salt Lake City, I found John and Emma's marriage certificate, John Preikschat and family immigration papers, and John Meining's naturalization papers

John Preikschat on the SMS Weissenburg
            According to information given to me by Gertrude Abrat, John Preikschat died in a Russian prison camp in 1916.  I wish I knew these details.  Did they immigrate to America, then John and Anna and one son, Albert, go back to the homeland?  There is a story here because Anna Meining Preikschat died in Germany in 1935.

            John Meining immigrated to Dayton, Montgomery, Ohio at the turn of the century.  I don't know if he met Emma in Europe, or after he arrived in America, but they were here by 1904.  Otto Albert, my mother's father, was born March 4, 1904, in Dayton, Montgomery, Ohio.  His siblings were Frank Gustav, Emma Bertha, our Aunt Emma, Herman August, Ida Mary, John William, and Paul.  I found several census records of this family.

John Preikschat
             While I was in Europe in 2006, I was determined to visit the village where this family originated and find something out about them.  Visiting my friend, Monika in Poland, I discovered my young friend, Jacek, Monika's brother, had supervised several construction projects in Lithuania, knew his way around, and was willing to take me.  The seven hour drive included some of the worst roads through Poland one can imagine.  Roads are better after crossing the border into Lithuania, but by the time we drove into Smalininkai, the jostling ride had done its worst on my neck and I was feeling quite ill.  The village probably hasn't changed much since my family left there more than a 100 years ago.  It was a beautiful land of green fields and trees lining both sides of the road, but there wasn't much to recommend the town.  It felt bleak to me.

Road into Smalininkai, Lithuania
           With spritzing rain all day, there wasn't anyone around.  The library was closed, and our prospects of finding out anything in this small village looked impossible.  But as is proven over and over again, nothing is impossible to the Lord.

            We drove through town one more time.  Two men who hadn't been there before, were now on the sidewalk. We stopped the car and I asked through the window if there was anyone in town who spoke English.  As one of the men leaned toward me, I smelled alcohol on his breath.  I made a snap judgment for which I hope the Lord will forgive me, that this was a lost cause, and how stupid could I be to come clear to Lithuania to find traces of a family that hadn't lived there for over 100 years.  I just wanted to go home.  As I sat there paralyzed, Jacek, who was such a blessing to me, got out of the car.  I wanted to say, "Let's just go.  Forget it, I want to get out of here," instead, I wrote two family names on a piece of paper.  "Meining, Preikschat," I said.

            The man's eyes lit up.  Nodding, he said the name, Preikschat.  To my surprise this wobbly man disappeared and reappeared moments later with a woman in tow.  I asked her if she spoke English, she told me no, but she spoke German and I understood enough German to communicate. I understood there was still a Preikschat in the village.  Our new friends piled into the back seat of the car and led us to a house. 

Old Preikschat home
            It was one of the old family houses and the woman explained to me that they built a new house and after several tries, we found it.  I was so exhausted and ill, my heart wasn't in knocking on a strangers door, but the locals did that for me and explained to the older woman who answered who we were.

            To my surprise, she indicated for us to enter her home.  I didn't want to.  It was so hard for me to walk down that dark hallway and track mud into her house.

The generous lady
              As the little man was leaving, he asked me in German if I spoke English better than German.  When I told him, yes, I was American, he stumbled out of the house.  I don't believe he had ever met an American before, nor could he figure out what I was doing there.

The Generous lady invited us to sit at a table and I quickly learned that she didn't speak English, either, so we communicated with my very rusty German. I said a silent prayer, "I don't know what to do.  How can I explain what I need to her?  Help me."  Jacek, who hadn't said a word before, began to speak to her in Polish.  She visibly came alive.  She had lived in Poland for five years and spoke fluent Polish.

            Jacek was able to tell her we wanted to find a genealogist and were interested in the family history.  She was a widow and told us her husband's uncle had gone to America. I believe that is my family line.  She went to the cupboard and came back with an envelope with an address for the office of vital records in Vilnius.  We thanked her and got up to leave.  When we arrived at the door, she called us back and went to the phone.

            She made a call to the priest who had several parishes in the area under his jurisdiction .  She coincidently worked in his office.  The priest, Father Mindaugas, spoke English and German and I was able to tell him why I was there.  He sadly explained that the Smalininkai parish records had been destroyed.  It was hard to hear after coming so far, but was information I needed to know.  Where the Lord closes a door, he opens a window.  Father Mindaugas suggested to me that some of the family records could also be in Taurage, which was under his jurisdiction.  Now I had a contact for researching the Lithuanian side of my family.  I went back to Poland believing what had happened in Lithuania was a miracle.

            In Kaunas, I rented two rooms for $36.  They were plain, but sufficient for the night.  I had probably 
Hotel room in Kaunus, Lithuania
the worst night of my whole European adventure in Kaunas.  I couldn't find a comfortable position for my neck, worse for the wear of the road and the stress of trying to communicate. 
            I felt very far from home that night.  I was very far from home.  As far as I ever hope to be.  Taking a shower was a challenge in a tub with a hand-held rubber hose.  What fun washing my hair with one hand.

            All the young people in Lithuania spoke English, unlike Poland.  Jacek took me to a restaurant where we had a traditional soup made of cabbage and caraway seeds.  It was delicious and scalding hot.  The bread roof over the bowl was delicious as well.  We both drank bottled water.  The whole meal cost three litu's, about $4.  Things were very inexpensive in Lithuania.

Pedestrian mall in Kaunus, Lithuania
             The next morning at Kaunas, I walked out into a huge outdoor pedestrian mall.  Two rows of trees were lined up down the middle with stores on both sides of the mall as far as I could see. I thought it must be safe to venture out with a Nivea poster shining down on me and Matthew McConaughey bigger than life smiling down from a poster for his new film, Sahara.

Mall in Vilnius, Lithuania
             We were in Vilnius by lunch time and Jacek knew a great place to eat.  The mall could have been Ceasar's Palace in Las Vegas, modern and beautiful.  We ate at a buffet where we paid for each item separately.  I couldn't get enough of bigos - (I'm not sure about the spelling) well -cooked sauerkraut with tiny pieces of sausage - a consistently delicious dish wherever I ate it.

            I fell in love with Vilnius. When all the restorations are complete, I believe the city will rival Gdansk on the Baltic coast of Poland.  I wish I could have spent more time in Vilnius.  I would rather have been there for the night than at Kaunas.

Church in Vilnius

Boats at Trakai, Lithuania
            We drove to Trakai late in the day and enjoyed the beautiful castle and lake.  The boats looked ancient and very unique, like something I would imagine sailing the Nile. 
Trakai, Lithuania

Mustard colored house


            Lithuanians are fond of mustard colored houses.  I wonder if it goes back to a time when the people worshiped the sun.

            I saw many of the Soviet farm complexes are now in ruin.  When Lithuania won its independence, the giant Soviet farms were split into family farms, but I didn't see any fences anywhere in my travels.  Farmers don't take their cows to a barn to milk them, they bring their stools and buckets to the field where their animals are tied to a stake.  When the grass is eaten  off around the stake, they move the stake.

Beauty outside Vilnius
             As we traveled in Lithuania, I realized why we're commanded to meet together often.  One lamp can light a room, but many lamps light a house, a city, a country, a world. 

           The fields were so artful and beautiful.  Golden grain was planted on all the hills and the low areas were left bright green.  It was stunning. 

            It was time to head back to Warsaw.  As we stopped for construction, I took a sunset photo of Lithuania.  I missed so many great

photos in Poland and Lithuania because there wasn't room to stop.

            Before I left the country, I saw a man raking his hay with a horse in the traditional way.

            Jacek was a trooper.  He drove us clear home to Wasrsaw as I dozed.  We arrived back at Monika's at .

            I was a little worse for wear when I returned from Lithuania.  The miles had done their worst on my neck.  I wondered how I was going to endure to the end of my journey with six weeks still ahead.  I had a fervent desire to finish what I set out to do and to go home on the date I had planned.

            I awakened that night so distressed with my neck, I thought, if we tortured our children, the way we are tortured, it would be called abuse.  It was Sunday morning, and at the Warsaw first ward we sang, "How Firm A Foundation," and I felt one of the Lord's tender mercies to me. "I am thy God and will still give thee aid, I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand."

           The Sunday School lesson came from Doctrine and Covenants Section 98:  "He giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good."  Could I have received a message any clearer or more personal after my thoughts in the night?  I believe God is aware of us as individuals in our individual needs and challenges.  

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