A Bit of History
Because of the numerous governments that ruled the lands in which these people with –at names lived, historians, when writing about this area, have written about it from the viewpoint of the nation which they represent. The German view of the area differs from the Polish point of view. The Russian domination over the Poles and Lithuanians permeates the Russian writings. The Lithuanian view focuses on the native peoples of the present day nation of Lithuania. More on this in future blogs. The reader cannot help but become aware of conflicting viewpoints and to note the ethnic source of the information.
The change of rulers affected the way the records were kept and the way the names of the various peoples were recorded. The “political correctness” changed from ruler to ruler. During World War I as battles were fought around her home, one of women in my extended Spurgat family who did not immigrate reportedly wrote in a letter, “At the end of the day, we did not know which country we belonged to.”[i]
Yet the people did not come and go as easily as the rulers because almost all of the social classes were tied to the land in one way or another, usually with loyalty to the owner of the manor or the large estate on which they worked. First the nobles and later the peasants learned to speak the language and adapt to the culture of the current ruler. Residents became “Germanized,” “Lithuanianized,” “Polonized,” or “Russianized,” according to need. (In the German Empire Poles became “Germanized” as the Empire expanded to the East. The more educated clergy and civil recorders often represented the ethnicity of the ruling power.) Still some social forces kept their native culture alive. A fellow researcher provided a similar theory:
I recall in direct conversions with [my uncle who was born in Wylkowiszki] that [certain] languages were not allowed to be spoken except in the household! Only Russian and Polish were the accepted spoken and written languages. That conversation indicates to me that the [true] German minority was not looked upon very well by the “natives,” nor was the Jewish population. I believe that the Jewish people were sympathetic to the German minority as the Jews were also persecuted by the Czars and later by the Communists.
The influence of the ruling power also extended to surnames. Polish names had their equivalent spelling in Russian and Lithuanian. The /–aitis/ suffix discussed in the previous blog means “the son of” in Lithuanian. It seems possible, yet unproven, that the origin of the Spurgat name could have been “Spurgaitis” meaning “son of Spurgat” [ii] but the study of onamastics provides an alternative explanation.
Some theories about these “German” names ending in –at will be the subject of next week’s blog.
[i] Telephone conversation with another researcher, 30 March 1995. Notes held in 2010 by Jacobson
[ii] Polish and Lithuanian Surnames, posted by Fred Hoffman, 26 August 2006.