THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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By Daiva Markelis, Charleston, Illinois
Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University
When I was growing up, my mother was always going on about her aristocratic roots. Her great-grandfather had been a Prussian plikbajoris. Bajoris comes from the word bajoras, meaning nobleman, while plik is a shortened form of plikas, or naked. A naked nobleman was one whose wealth had dissipated, usually through fiscal mismanagement augmented by an excessive fondness for liquor.
Not to be outdone, my father would counter with the claim that his surname—Markelis—was one of a kind. “Except for my siblings, no other Markelises roam the face of earth,” he’d add, as if we were dinosaurs.
I felt doubly blessed. Having a singular last name was just as special as being the great great-granddaughter of Prussian plikbajoriai.
As an adult, I never really questioned my father’s claim. In all of my formal and informal studies of Lithuanian history, literature, and linguistics, I never came upon the name Markelis. Decades of involvement in Lithuanian-American life and multiple visits to the homeland did nothing to dispel this notion of familial exclusivity—I never met another person bearing my last name.
Then, one morning, about a year ago, I logged onto Facebook to find the following message:
Hello Daiva Markelis, my apologies for not good english speach. But I just wanted to say, that its gratifieing to see people with same surnames. I have read some articles that you have wrote about Lithuania. It is great. Sorry, if I wasted some of your time.
The message was signed by a Rimantas Markelis. His Facebook photograph revealed a very fit, good-looking young man with the same dark eyes and intense expression of my father.
I thought I’d be disappointed to lose my unique Markelis status, but all I felt was curiosity and a tinge of existential relief.
We quickly friended each other and exchanged a few messages. I wrote in grammatically questionable Lithuanian, Rimantas in charmingly imperfect English:
I have never been in America but I think its much easier life, than in Lithuania. Its hard to find a job in these days, even if you have some graduates, everything depends how many friends you have in any institution.
I felt like writing back: “That’s pretty much the way it is in Chicago,” but held back.
Soon another Markelis popped up on Facebook. I assumed that Tomas was Rimantas’ brother. The idea that there might be more than two Markelis clans did not cross my mind until several weeks ago when I examined the FB pages of both and realized that not only do the two look nothing alike, but they also hail from different cities; Rimantas, who reminds me of my father, was born and raised in Alytus, halfway across the country from Dusetos, my father’s birthplace. Tomas, who looks nothing like my dad, lives in Rokiskis, a mere seventeen miles away from Dusetos.
My curiosity piqued, I decided to see what other Markelises had put down roots on Facebook. I thought there might be another two or three, and was shocked to discover thirty-one in all, the majority of them men. There were several Greeks—an Iraklis and Spiros and Grigoris. There was a Pablo Markelis, a lawyer who’d graduated from the University of Michigan and had gone to USC film school. Of course, there were plenty of Lithuanian names on the list: Mindaugas, Mintartas, Marius, Algedas, Rimgaudas, Darius, Egidijus, Arunas.
As for women, there was a Rosanna with rigid FB settings, an Alesia who was clearly Greek, and a woman I’ll call Elena. I thought Elena might be Lithuanian, but then discovered she’s from Buenos Aires and now lives in Florida. Her Facebook wall reveals that she is strongly pro-Israel and has a daughter who’s a member of the Board of Temple B’nai Brith. Elena may be related to Pablo. Although they are not FB friends, they have several Silvermans in common.
My searches on Facebook just whetted my appetite for finding more Markelises. The next step was Ancestry.com, because “you never know what you might learn about the past.” I have friends who love Ancestry—I’d always thought of them as individuals with too much time on their hands. I signed up for the free one-month trial and was hooked immediately. Ancestry revealed that one family of Markelises had immigrated to the U.S. from Lithuania in the early 1900s and settled in Massachusetts; another, in Pennsylvania. The Markelises on the first two pages of the Ancestry listing have Christian first names: Mary, Veronica, George, John, etc.
Further down the listing, I discovered a Yenca Markelis and Googled it only to learn on names.whitepages.com that “ZERO people in the United States have this name.” Soon after Yenca came a Yetta Markelis, then a Tavel and a Herschel and a Meyer, all from Lithuania. An entry simply labeled Markelis stated that the name appears on the Jewish Surnames List for the area of Minsk, Lithuania’s neighbor to the east. Khaim and Bassia Markelis had the following note appended to their names: Holocaust Refugees Relocated to Tashkent. And Boruchas Markelis, who died in 1920, was born and raised in Rokiskis, the same place as Tomas.
I’ve since learned that a variation of Markelis is Margelis. The letter k, when in the middle of a Lithuanian word, sounds almost like a g. Margelis would be a descriptive surname—margas in Lithuanian means colorful. Marge is also a very popular cow’s name, the Lithuanian equivalent of the American Elsie. So, maybe my father’s ancestors were a colorful lot. Or maybe they just owned a lot of cows.
Speaking of descriptive Lithuanian surnames—they are the most fascinating in the world, in my completely non-biased opinion. Among my favorites are Baltakis (white-eyed one); Baltaragis (white-horned one); Kairys (left-handed one); Repecka (one who crawls on all fours.) The name of tennis ace Ricardas Berankis presents an interesting nominal conundrum, since berankis means one without hands. And I imagine a forefather of the great basketball player Zydrunas Ilgauskas stretched out on the grass, relaxing. “Wow. You sure are long,” a passing villager exclaims, and thus a name is born.
Back to Markelis, or Margelis, which sounds a lot like Margolis, one of the most common Jewish surnames from Belarus, Lithuania, and northeastern Poland. When I researched the meaning of Margolis, I discovered that the name means ‘pearl’ in Hebrew. Ancestry.com qualifies this by stating that “the Hebrew word is ultimately of Greek origin, as in Greek margaron, margarites [for] ‘pearl’.”
When I told a Chicago friend with Eastern European Jewish roots about my possibly Jewish surname, I expected a modicum of surprise, perhaps even guarded approval. She just shrugged her shoulders and said something like “Oh, we’re all interconnected.”
Another friend, the writer Ellen Cassedy, whose wonderful We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust serves as a model of genealogical research, wasn’t surprised when I told her what I had discovered about my name. “That's what occurred to me when you said you were searching,” she wrote in an email. “That the name could be Jewish. Or maybe German?”
I hadn’t even thought of German. Another avenue of research to pursue. Dusetos, my father’s birthplace, is not far from the Latvian border. Pockets of the country once had significant German populations. My father’s first name was Adolfas, the Lithuanian version of the very German Adolph, a popular name in the 1910s. And Markelis sounds like Merkel, as in Angela Merkel, the current German chancellor. I did a Google search of Merkel, which lead me to Markel. According to HouseofNames.com, Markel comes from the Germanic marah, or horse (mare); it’s probable that early Markels were servants who looked after horses.
Later in the same entry, however, the writer claims that the very first Markels lived in Prussia and were “one of the most notable families in the region” (emphasis mine.) The site sells a large number of Markel-related items, including a large, hand-painted plaque “proudly displaying the Markel crest” for $201.95. Those unwilling to shell out that kind of money can buy a mouse pad with the Markel coat-of-arms for $16.95 or a coffee mug for $13.95. I thought of buying the mouse pad, carefully inking in IS after the MARKEL, and showing off my coat-of-arms to envious friends.
What sweet irony it would be if my father had descended from the noble Prussian Markels—though that’s a pretty big if. The class differences between my aristocratic mother and more humble father were an occasional source of contention. “You Valaityte, you!” my father would spew as if it were an expletive when my mother criticized his rambunctious manner when he had too much to drink. My mother’s life of piano lessons and trips to Sweden and Traviata on New Year’s Eve stood in marked contrast to my father’s depressing childhood. He rarely talked about his past, except to say that his family was poor and his father drank and his mother was illiterate. Both were shipped off to Siberia despite their abject poverty and my grandfather’s collectivist politics. There was never any talk of my father’s grandparents. They were nameless individuals, probably deceased by the time my father was a boy.
What else I discovered about Markels from the internet: there are quite a few Jewish Markels, many of them living in Argentina. And Markel has over one hundred spelling variations, including Mark, Marcos, Marek, and Markowitz. The Internet Surname Database only lists a few, and Markelis isn’t one of them.
I often ask my college students what they’ve learned in the process of researching a paper topic: What do you know about your subject that you didn’t know before? What have you learned from this experience?
I ask myself the same questions.
I discovered that more Markelises roam the earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy.
I found I can spend hours on Ancestry.com, forgoing sleep and paper grading.
The existence of the Jewish Markelises confirmed my belief that although Lithuanian Christian and Lithuanian Jewish communities lived in highly segregated communities, there must have been points of intersection when more than a love of herring was shared.
I learned I might be of noble heritage on both sides of the family, which should give me some special privileges, such as discounts at Lithuanian restaurants.
More probably, however, I’m the descendent of people who looked after horses or raised cows. The percentage of commoners is much smaller than that of nobles, even in aristocrat-laden Lithuania.
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