Sunday, July 13, 2014

In Search of the Katilius-Wisnauskas Ancestors

                                In Memoriam
   Jean McGeever Benton  March 4, 1945-September 29, 2014 


The "new" Katilius furniture store at 401 E. 8th Avenue, 1976. Photo by Ed Busch.
Last summer I returned to the hometown of my paternal great-grandfather John Paul Busch in Germany, the inspiration for the character Karl Bernhard. (See "150 Years: Retracing John Paul's Footsteps" Sept. 2013)  This year it was time to visit the country where my mother's family came from, Lithuania. In June four Katilius cousins and two spouses, Larry and Cherry Baugher, Jean Benton, Ruth and Randy Fertelmes, and I embarked on a trip to the Baltic states.  Last but not least on our tour was Lithuania, where we made a pilgrimage to the places from which our grandparents emigrated.

The Shefsky (aka Wisnauskas) women in 1939: Kay, Grandma Theresa, Helen, Frances (Mum), Grandma's sister Jessie with her daughter Katherine (front).

Eighth Avenue, Homestead, 1920, a few years after my grandfather opened his music and jewelry store at 505.
Eddie, cousin Kay Ward, and Bernie in front of 505.

 My mother's parents came to the United States after the 1892 strike. However, my mother's memories of Homestead between the world wars played a significant role in the recreation of the town in Darkness Visible.  From the 1890s through World War II, Homestead was largely a community of immigrants. This post is about one family's roots in the Old World, a story that is similar to that of many others who emigrated from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.

For us Katilius cousins it was a bittersweet journey back to our ancestors' homeland. We found the towns, but also found that very little remained of them from the years our grandparents lived there--wars and oppression had obliterated much. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable trip in search of heritage.
                                                                         Helsinki, Finland

Full moon over the Canadian arctic, 2 a.m. on the Icelandair flight to Europe.                                      

Cousin Jean Benton and I started the trip in Helsinki. The harbor.
Our "cellblock" in the unique Hotel Katanjanokka, a former prison.
Jean and I in the "prison" breakfast room, wearing our wool sweaters. The weather was quite cool throughout the trip, highs under 60F, rainy.

The dog park near our hotel in Helsinki. Dogs all speak the same language.

The ticket hall in Helsinki's Central Railway station  (1919). The architect is Eliel Saarinen, who won the contest to design it (1904). In 2013 it was chosen as one of the world's most beautiful railway stations by BBC. Saarinen also designed the exquisite Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis (1949).

The old Helsinki Customs House, a short walk from our hotel and near the ferry docks.

One of the many islands that make up the city of Helsinki, as seen from the ferry to Tallinn.

Tallinn, Estonia

Larry's wife Cherry in front of Catherinethal Palace outside Tallinn, built by Peter the Great for (who else?) Catherine the Great (1718-25). It's really great. Cherry wanted her picture taken in front of this palace that bears the name of many of the women in our family, including her granddaughter and mother-in-law.
One of the structures in the open-air folk museum on the Baltic outside of Tallinn. One of the guides told me that the eastern end of Estonia is presently home to 6,000 gray wolves, over 2,000 more than Minnesota has.

The beautiful view of the Old City from the top of Toompea district hill. St. Olaf's Church in the distance used to be the highest structure in Europe, 1649-1725. After the spire was hit by lightning and was incinerated 8 times, they decided to shorten it. During the Soviet era, the KGB used it as their radio tower.
Our family group after a lovely traditional ethnic meal in  restaurant on the Old City Square in Tallinn.(l-r) Ruth, husband Randy, Cherry, Larry, Jean, me.
The door to the kitchen of the restaurant pictured above. I think it charming that the Estonian word for kitchen is "kook."
The Church of the Holy Spirit (Anglican) in Tallinn, c. 1600. The majority of Finns, Estonians, and Latvians are Lutheran.
A typical Baltic brick church (this, a Russian Orthdox one) in a village about 30 miles south of Tallinn. Small world department: Our Estonian driver had lived for a year in Minneapolis--on Emerson Ave., just six blocks from me. He told me the story of his grandfather's harrowing escape from the Russians, who were trying to deport him to Siberia for the second time. The grandfather leaped from the train as it picked up speed outside of Riga.  He was not re-captured.

Sacred grove, fairy circle. Nisse ring, whatever, at an Iron Age settlement. The trees are different varieties and no one knows why they are growing in a circular formation. Our guide gave a great two-hour history of Latvia, 1100-1800. At Turida Castle.

Cousins passing by guys re-laying the Belgian blocks (what we called them in Homestead) in a Riga Old Town lane.
Weird 'Hobbit' hotel room in Riga with the floor on 15- degree slant and massive supporting beams. If you fell out of bed, you'd roll toward the door. What can you expect from a structure that's over 400 years old?

My son-in-law Richard Mueller designed an interactive tour of the Riga ghetto for the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust Museum, so I wanted to see the real place. This stone marks a park that was once a large Jewish cemetery. Bits of the grave markers can be seen underneath the covering of grass.

Richard: The green building was where the jail was, and behind it, the gallows. See this place on the interactive tour. Click on

One of a number of fantastic Art Nouveau buildings in Riga designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Looking down from the top of the  Hill of Crosses in Siauliai. This hill became a symbol of opposition to Soviet oppression, a very famous site in Lithuania. Not a cemetery, it's a memorial of crosses, rosary beads, holy pictures, etc. from people of many nations. To be frank, while appreciating the symbolic statement, I found the hill to be a bit creepy.
German writer Thomas Mann's summer house on the Curonian Spit, where he wrote Joseph and his Brothers (1930-32).
Jean writing "Katilius" on the beach of the Baltic Sea as Cherry looks on.
 A specialty of Lithuanian kitchens, a potato dumpling. Not a low-fat, low-calorie meal.
Sunset, 10 p.m., the Eve of St. John, in Kaunas.
Our grandfather Anton Katilius (center) in a farewell ceremony in Pilvieskiai, as he prepared to leave for America in 1901. I asked a number of people on both sides of the Atlantic about the fabric piece he's holding.  I finally got an answer from our translator/guide Iliona: it's a commemorative towel, embroidered with mementos of family members. He never returned.

Our Grandfather Katilius's hometown Pilviskiai, around the turn of the last century. This is how he would have remembered it. Today, none of the buildings in this photo remain. (Photo: Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem.)

All that was left of the 19th century Catholic church in Pilviskiai after the town was bombed and shelled during WWII. In fact, little remains of the town as it existed before the war.

The Catholic cemetery in Pilviskiai. We searched the cemetery for markers with our family name, but found none. The vast majority of graves are 20th century.
Our translator/guide Iliona, with a local man she met at the Pilviskiai cemetery.  He, Iliona, and the local doctor, who was also at the cemetery placing a votive candle, tried their best to help us find Katiliuses. No luck. After 113 years, this outcome is not surprising.
The house and side yard of a family named Katilius in Pilviskiai. No one was home. Note the roof, which, like the roofs of thousands of other cottages from the Soviet period, is made of asbestos.

Prienai, the town that Grandma's family emigrated from in 1897, in the early 1900s. As with Pilvieski, Prienai also got reduced to rubble during the war. Grandma's family surname is spelled various ways. I'm using the Lithuanian version.  The most common spelling is the Polish "Wisniewski." (Photo: Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem.)
The surprising remnant of the past in Prienai: The Church of the Visitation. Built in 1750, it is one of the oldest wooden churches in the country.  How it survived the various wars that ravaged the country during the past 2 1/2 centuries is miraculous. It's the one building still standing that our ancestors likely knew.

A side aisle in the all-wood church, showing the folkloric stenciling.

The exterior of the Church of the Visitation: whitewashed logs. It's constructed much like old American log cabins with squared logs and dove-tailed joints. The polished, elaborately decorated interior is quite a contrast to the homely exterior.

Jean spreading some of her mother Helen's ashes in the churchyard at Prienai.
The large old cemetery in Prienai. As in Pilvieski, we searched the entire cemetery for ancestors' names, but found none.

Two million people joined hands in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to create the Baltic Chain on August 23, 1989 in protest against the Soviet occupation. This square marks ground zero of the chain in Vilnius.
Dome of the Baroque masterpiece, SS. Peter and Paul's Basilica in Vilnius, 1701. Many Lithuanian churches are dedicated to these saints, as was the one in Homestead (see last photo below). The gorgeous crystal ship, a reference to Peter, was made by Latvian craftsmen in 1905.

These cottages are typical of the thousands of Soviet-era dwellings built in Lithuania during the occupation. The war had devastated the countryside, and these little houses were built to house the surviving population.

Swans and ducks swimming in a pond by the inn where we watched them make "tree cakes" by dripping batter on a metal form in front of an open fire. On our trip, we also saw quite a few storks, a symbol of good fortune--and an important figure in folklore. In Aukštaitija National Park.

Looking down from our third-floor room in the hotel in Vilnius. Part of the medieval city wall is at the back of the garden.

At the Vilnius Airport, about to go our separate ways. Ruth and Randy left on an earlier flight.
 (r-l) Larry, Jean, Cherry, me.                                                                                                                           
Since Bernie's son Mark moved to Colorado, no Katiliuses live in the Homestead area anymore. Three still live in southwestern Pennsylvania, Marge (Kay's daughter) Ruth (Eddie's daughter), and Rick (Eddie's son). Four of us went to the Munhall schools and four to the West Homestead schools. Now we are scattered around the country in six states: Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, and California. 505 was wrecked for government highrise housing, 401 is now a mattress store, and Grandpap's farm in Butler County is being developed into a tract of McMansions. Nevertheless, we cousins will never forget the legacy our grandparents and parents left us.  After our visit to Lithuania, we appreciate all the more the efforts they made to become Americans and to build a new home for their descendents in the New World.
Easter Sunday, 1976, at SS. Peter's and Paul's Lithuanian Catholic Church in Homestead. My mother Frances is the one in the center with sunglasses. Fr. Plantis gave masses in Lithuanian and English. In the 1990s, the Pittsburgh diocese closed the church and the building was sold to The Life Churches.  Today, of the numerous ethnic Roman Catholic Church congregations that once worshiped in Homestead, only one remains, St. Ann's. Phoro by Ed Busch.
"Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch."
--T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Jean and I after testing the waters of the Baltic Sea in Lithuania. Jean, RIP.