People always ask me how to find and connect with living relatives. It can be done, and there are a number of ways to approach it. Depending on the approach and what your priorities are in locating living relatives, you could meet relatives, distant or close, from all over the world! I’ve made connections with relatives I didn’t know I had both through the Internet and through serendipitous encounters in person.
An easy way to connect with potential relatives through the Internet is by uploading your family tree to a family tree website. The one I would recommend for people with Latvian (or any Eastern European roots, really) is MyHeritage. This is the one that is most used by Latvians in Latvia, possibly because it has a Latvian interface, which I’m not sure if other websites do. Make sure that the names in your family tree are written in proper Latvian (let me know if you want help with that, if you’re not sure), because one of the features of this website is the SmartMatch – it will let you know if any names appear in someone else’s tree. Confirming a SmartMatch requires a Premium account, which I don’t currently have, but as I start to make connections on the site, I might invest in one. At any rate, just seeing that you have a SmartMatch lets you see what other tree the name appears in, and then you can contact the tree owner for access. You might be able to add on a family branch that they didn’t know about, especially if your family left Latvia prior to the interwar independence era. Just like any family tree website, there are bound to be some errors, so always verify the facts presented yourself.
A key point of interest for MyHeritage is that some local historical societies in Latvia are starting to upload family trees from their communities. If you’re lucky, you might find your ancestors in one of those communities! (Point of note on this one: If your ancestors are from the Mazsalaca area, let me know, and I can direct you to a great family tree for the area.)
After uploading your family tree to one of these sites, next step is to just get your family names and ancestors out there. A good way to do this is through a blog. If you’re not sure what you’d put as blog content, take a look at the family blogs mentioned on Geneabloggers – you can post photos, records, stories. With any luck, by doing so, you’ll get your blog into the top results on search engines if people search for your ancestor’s names, and then you might make some family connections!
If you’re wary about starting a blog, you can also post your family information on message boards – you might make some connections, but I’d say they are less likely, especially if the message board gets a lot of traffic, since your post might drop off the first pages quite quickly. But if the message board is searchable, it might still be worth it. I have made one family connection on a message board – but it took ten years, so don’t expect results overnight!
If you make a trip to Latvia, there are several ways how you can make connections with relatives still living in Latvia. A word of caution though – the above methods are about connecting with relatives who have a demonstrated interest in genealogy, so they are likely to be interested in helping and sharing with you. The in-person methods, however, have no guarantees of you meeting relatives that are interested. They might be rude, particularly if you don’t speak Latvian. But it is always worth it to try, because you never know what connections might appear.
Another caution when it comes to meeting people in person in Latvia is that you need to make your intentions clear – be clear that you are only interested in sharing historical family information and making new friends. Sometimes people might worry that you are coming to Latvia to reclaim your family’s property, and thus intending to kick them off the land that they have lived on for fifty years or more. Assure them that you are not interested in taking away their homes. Be aware also of the corresponding Westerner problem – people trying to use you and your family relationship to emigrate to the West. This is less of a problem since Latvia became a part of the European Union, but it could still happen. So there are concerns on both sides when trying to make family connections, and it is important to be aware of them so they do not affect the relationships you are trying to build.
All that aside, back to how to meet relatives! The most straightforward method would be to arrive at an ancestral property and knock on the front door, and see if you’re related. You’ll probably want someone along who speaks Latvian for this, especially if you are in the countryside, where many people living on the farmsteads will be elderly and thus not likely to speak English. If someone is home, you might make a new connection immediately. If not, then you can leave a note in the mailbox and hope that someone gets back to you. Important caution: If you are approaching houses, particularly in the countryside and small towns, beware of dogs. Many Latvians who live in single-family homes have dogs in the yard, and they can be vicious. If you drive up and there is a dog, you are better off waiting in your car and honking the horn a bit to get someone to come out of the house and corral the dog than trying to negotiate your way to the front door around the dog. Always watch out for your safety first!
The next place to meet relatives (and dog-free!) is the local cemetery. Unlike Western cemeteries, which are often almost completely abandoned except for when a service is taking place, Latvian cemeteries will often be full of people. Well-maintained family grave plots are a point of pride, and it is not unusual for people to make regular visits to take care of them. Several times a year there will also be “kapu svētki” – “cemetery celebrations”. Special attention is paid to the grave flowers/decorations/etc. in the days leading up to the celebration day. Then on the day, there will be a religious service, followed by a picnic (sometimes potluck buffet, depending on the place) and socialization with other locals. While you could run into a relative in a cemetery by chance on any day, if you go on a kapu svētki day, the chances of meeting a relative will rise exponentially. If you don’t meet anyone at the cemetery, you can also try leaving a note on the cemetery message board, and you could make a connection that way as well.
So those are the best ways I would suggest for connecting with living relatives. Of course, you can also take approaches such as finding surnames on Facebook or in phone books, but unless you have a very unusual surname, this can be more hit and miss.
Do you have any other recommendations on how to find living relatives? Post them here!