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Online genealogy took me to Lithuania

Robin Esrock travels to the small Lithuanian town of Kupiskis to learn about his family history.

Robin Esrock

If you think Facebook is addictive, try looking into your own lineage.

With the evolution of online genealogy tools, the thrill of discovering the past now appeals to more than casual hobbyists and professional researchers. Genealogy tourism has become one of the busiest traffic segments on the Web, as dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers become private investigators looking for unlikely connections, unusual stories and answers to questions of their origins.

I knew my grandfather was born in Kupiskis, in northern Lithuania. I knew, too, that his parents had emigrated to South Africa before the First World War. For years, my great-grandfather paid the boat passage to South Africa for various family members, and every year new relatives arrived, in turn saving money to fund other journeys. One day, all the letters stopped.

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Discovering my own roots, as they were deep into South Africa and uprooted a generation later to Canada, was important to me - to understanding where I came from and, perhaps, where I'm going, too. I wanted to visit my grandfather's hometown, the place that haunted him all his life.

But before visiting the former shtetl in the small Baltic country, I needed some more information. With the help of Google, I found a wealth of knowledge gathered by an amateur genealogist in Miami. Kupiskis, like all the former shtetls in Europe, has a tragic history. Before the Second World War, 41 per cent of its population were Jews. Those who didn't escape were rounded up and marched to nearby killing sites to be murdered by local Nazi collaborators. More than 3,000 men, women and children were massacred, including members of my own family.

For my grandfather, there was nothing to return to. While many people travel to the countries of their heritage expecting to discover and meet long-lost relatives, I knew from the start that there was no chance of greeting a forgotten branch of my family tree. Uncles and cousins, some just teenagers, had ended up at the bottom of those mass graves. Still, I had to go.

On arrival in the lovely, off-the-radar Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, I Skyped a distant relative from New York named Michael Pertain. He had contacted me on hearing of my plans to visit the country: In the world of genealogy, word gets around fast. Having researched our family tree for more than a dozen years, Michael is eager to learn and share. He tells me that he uses a program called GenWise, which lets him access his database on his PDA. With an incredible 3,000 names collected like leaves on our family tree, he literally holds the history of my lineage in his pocket.

It's a three-hour drive into the countryside, rich with the colours of fall. As I pilot a beat-up rental van, I can't believe that I had never thought of visiting the country before. The countryside around Kupiskis is gorgeous, the people warm, the tourists scarce.

In Kupiskis, I find the names of Jewish families wiped out in the war engraved on a memorial on a plaque on the old synagogue, which is now the town's library. As I run my hand over the names, stopping at several with the surname Ezroch, the emotion is overwhelming. But how were these Esrocks - the name later evolved - actually related to me? I Skype Michael in New York, who quickly references his reports and database, and tells me that these names belong to my great-grand-uncle and his family. It feels like finding and losing family members all at once.

Kupiskis is half asleep, the streets deserted. The only hotel is under repair, so I spend the night in the next town up. Red and gold leaves cover the roads, and some locals still get around in a horse and buggy. There are just a few clues that the town once had a rich Jewish history, like a street named Sinagogo, still lined with century-old wooden houses. It is cold and damp, and I wonder how my great-grandparents managed to adjust to the hot, dry veldt when they immigrated to South Africa before the First World War. I wonder what might have been if they didn't. With the help of an expert local guide named Regina Kopelevich, who specializes in genealogical tours, I am led to several mass graves, some of them with memorials, some of them with vandalized plaques.

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Regina leads me to the ancient, wooden house of a 91-year-old local woman named Veronica. Floating in and out of lucidity, she recalls babysitting Jewish children, and sings me a few Yiddish lullabies. Then she tells me how her house overlooked the Freethinkers Cemetery, the site of one of the worst massacres, and she witnessed those same children stripped, lined up and murdered. "I still see their faces," she says, "I cried and cried." The room is freezing, as if all the joy in the world has been sucked out of it. Tears swell up as Veronica continues to tell me about life in the town, where Jews and Gentiles had co-existed peacefully since the 16th century. A few months later, Regina e-mails to tell me that Veronica has died. I wonder if anyone in the town still cares to remember what happened.

Back in Vilnius, I spend hours in a modern coffee shop with free wireless, researching life in Kupiskis, reading old reports and testimonials of survivors. I call my grandmother in Johannesburg and ask questions, feeling somewhat disappointed in myself that I have never asked her these questions before. In turn, she is fascinated by what Lithuania looks like today, by what has become of Kupiskis. Although my own roots have been dug up in the country, I'm drawn toward its history, the warmth of its locals, the climate - as if I fit right in.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Catch up with Robin on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels, or at

Editor's note: The original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this article incorrectly identified Lithuania as a Balkan country rather than a Baltic country.

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