How Geni and MyHeritage Helped Me Find My Grandmother’s Family
We love to hear stories from our users about the fascinating discoveries they have made on Geni. Below we share a story from Angela Sinickas Shiromani, who connected with descendants of her grandmother’s siblings through Geni. This amazing discovery finally united two lines of the family after being separated across two continents for over 60 years.
In June 2013, while on a trip to Lithuania to speak at the Lithuanian World Economic Forum, Angela decided to get a sense of where her grandmother, Helene Daniel Sinickas, had grown up. Although she had visited the capital of Vilnius a number of times, this would be the first time she would venture out on a family-related journey.
Helene Daniel Sinickas and Angela Sinickas, 1955
“I knew from a few surviving family documents that Helene had been born in Kuršenai, which is 17 miles west of Lithuania’s fourth largest city, Šiauliai, and about 25 miles away from Lithuania’s northern border with Latvia. My grandmother had told me stories about how her father, Alexander, had owned a windmill. It was a tragic story because he gambled away the mill and their home around 1906 and abandoned his wife and five young children to run away to America. My grandmother had told me that within a year her two youngest siblings had died; not long after, her mother died. That left my grandmother, two days after her fifteenth birthday, responsible for her two remaining siblings—Maria and Marta, aged 13 and 10. My grandmother had told me that they worked as servants to support themselves. By the time my grandmother married at age 34, she had been working as a housekeeper in wealthy people’s homes.”
With not much information to go on, Angela and her husband embarked on a trip to the Šiauliai area. It was while browsing through a tourist booklet on the area that Angela made a startling discovery.
Žaliukai windmill, then and now
“The Žaliukai windmill, just a few miles from our hotel room, had been built around 1875-1880 by a Lithuanian of German descent named Gustavas Daniel (1832-1915). Daniel. The same last name as my grandmother’s maiden name. In the part of Lithuania where I knew my great-grandfather had a mill. I had no idea of what Alexander’s father’s name was, but I couldn’t help thinking that there was a chance I could be visiting a place my grandmother had actually lived. This was an especially amazing possibility since the Žaliukai mill was one of only a very few buildings that had survived the heavy bombardments of Šiauliai in both world wars. The mill had been abandoned during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, but, fortunately, it was not torn down at the same time the miller’s house had been because it was in the way of a street being built. From 2008-2011, the windmill was renovated and a replica farmstead built next to it by the Aušra Museum of Šiauliai with the help of money from a Norwegian foundation.“
Angela inside Žaliukai windmill with one of the museum’s employees who acts as the miller during student tours
Armed with this new knowledge, Angela immediately made plans to visit the windmill the next day. Angela went to the museum’s website to learn as much as she could about the windmill and sent an email to ask if, by any chance, Gustavas Daniel had had a son named Alexander. When she and her husband arrived early the next morning, they were surprised to find the museum’s curator already waiting for them with freshly baked dark bread and freshly churned butter, honey and herbal tea. As her husband gamely took pictures, Angela felt she had found herself in her very own episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
“While Gustav Daniel did not have a son named Alexander, he had a brother and a nephew by that name. There was still a chance that I was part of their extended family, but the museum staff was already treating us like long-lost relatives. They shared with us a document they had created from the memories of an Australian woman named Ella who had been a great-granddaughter of Gustav and had lived at the mill until just before the Soviet take-over of the country in 1945, as well as photographs taken from the turn of the century of family members. Looking at the photos, it seemed to me that one of the little girls bore a strong resemblance to a photo of my father at that same age. She also had a slight droop to her left eye, which my grandmother had as well.”
After this amazing experience, Angela contacted a Lithuanian genealogy researcher to begin researching the Daniel side of her family. She wanted to see if her grandmother’s family would connect to the family who owned the Žaliukai mill. Unable to find the connection, Angela decided to commission additional research on her great grandfather, Alexander.
“It turned out he was the oldest of eight children. I became even more convinced that we were related to the Žaliukai mill Daniels. When I looked closely at the baptismal records, I found a great many godparents of great-grandfather Alexander’s generation had Daniel names matching those in the Žaliukai family tree—to the extent it was known at that time.”
From there, she decided to commission research on the family that owned the Žaliukai mill with the thought that eventually they would find the connection between the two families. It turns out she was right!
“So, how was I related to the Žaliukai mill owners? My great-great-grandfather Fridrich Daniel was Gustav Daniel’s brother. Once we found information one generation earlier, we found a master miller named Johann Wilhelm Daniel, (1795-1857). With a first wife named Anna, he had a son, Alexander. With a second wife, Sophia Elizabeta Kahn, he had three more sons, Gustav, Fridrich and Andrius, and two daughters. While Fridrich and Andrius followed the traditional pattern of building, operating and selling mills, moving from village to village every few years, Gustav eventually stayed put at Žaliukai, and his older brother, Alexander, put down roots at a mill in Papelkiai.“
Angela donated the results of this research to the museum. It turns out that several family members had the same names and the museum had mismatched them in their reconstruction of the family – two women whose names were Ida Daniel were an aunt and niece to each other. The aunt married her first cousin and the niece married her aunt’s son.
Now on a mission to find living descendants of her grandmother’s sisters, Angela uploaded the entire tree to MyHeritage in the hopes of getting a Smart Match.
Together in a restaurant in Vilnius: Alina Sutkutė Savickiene, Angela Sinickas Shiromani, Angela’s nephew Will Robinson, and Angela’s husband, Sam Shiromani
“It wasn’t until summer 2015 that I had a hit. A great-granddaughter of my grandmother’s sister Marta had put her family tree on Geni.com. I tried reaching the tree’s owner, but never heard back. I found her on Facebook, but since we weren’t friends, my message went into a secondary mailbox. I eventually was able to reach an extended family member by email through MyHeritage, who passed me on to an in-law of hers, who passed me on to Marta’s great-granddaughter Alina who built the tree on Geni.”
Once they were finally able to connect, the families instantly began exchanging stories.
Angela’s grandmother with her two sisters at their mother’s funeral in 1912
“We finally connected between Christmas and New Year’s. There was so much crying on both sides of the Atlantic. I emailed several times a day for two weeks with her, her mother and her grandmother and heard so many stories. One was that Marta had actually become the cook for her uncle who owned the Žaliukai mill—so my grandmother very likely had visited her sister at the mill where my passion for genealogy was born. I also received a copy of a photo that broke my heart. It showed my grandmother and her two sisters at their mother’s funeral, which had been paid for by the owner of the Žaliukai mill, also in the photo.”
Now after 60 years, the family is finally reunited.
“My grandmother’s life was not easy. She went from having servants to being a servant. Her husband and her son did not make her life much easier. She left her native country running ahead of the Soviet army and spent WWII in German displaced persons’ camps. She came to the U.S. at age 55. She spoke five languages at that point (Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish), but English was not one of them. Given her hard life, she should have been a cold and bitter woman. Yet she was the most loving and generous woman I’ve ever known and was greatly responsible for the woman I grew up to be. I still hear stories from people who knew her about how she had touched their lives.“
Angela and her grandmother’s niece, Natalija Jureviciene
“And because of Geni.com, I had the opportunity in February to find and meet with her sister’s descendants. They too had difficult lives under Soviet oppression in Lithuania, but are still so loving and welcoming. Without the wonders of today’s online genealogy research, I would have continued to have a big hole in my family life. My father and grandmother were the only relatives I had ever known on my paternal side, while my mother’s side was overflowing with aunts, uncles and cousins I couldn’t keep up with.”
Visiting the family in Joniškis (Simona Klevinskaitė, Angelija Klevinskiene, Inga Sutkiene, Angela, and Inga’s son, Gabrielius)
“After spending a week with my Daniel family, and hearing more bits and pieces of the family story, I can’t wait to return this November to continue this amazing adventure.
Thank you MyHeritage and Geni!”
Special thanks to Angela for sharing her story with us! It’s amazing to hear how the family has come together once again.
Do you have a story to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos courtesy of Angela Sinickas Shiromani