Prior to our July 2013 Family History Tour, the original article about Christian Donelaitis was sent by our Family History Tour Guide in order to give me a better understanding of the Lithuanian culture in Lithuania Minor aka Northeastern East Prussia. I had not heard of Christian Donelaitis/Kristijonas Donelaitis before, and I found the article every enlightening. My summary is presented in the next two posts, but the reader is directed to the original article for a more complete understating.
This article suggested to me that if his name had been written in German, it probably would have been written as Donelat.
Kristijonas Donelaitis was born on January 1st, 1714, in the village of Lazdyneliai, district of Gumbine (Gumbinnen in German), in East Prussia. Lazdyneliai (Lazdinehlen in German) was a small village about 5 km. east from Gumbine. Donelaitis was born, grew up, and worked in a region inhabited by Lithuanians from early times.
The country in which Kristijonas Donelaitis was born is known in Lithuanian as Mazoji Lietuva, i.e. Lithuania Minor; in German – Ostpreussen, i.e. East Prussia. The name “Prussians” refers to the Western branch of the Baltic peoples, who since prehistoric times have inhabited the area between the lower Vistula River, the Baltic Sea, and the Nemunas (Memel) River.Thus, the original Prussians, as relatives of the Lithuanians and Latvians, must be distinguished ethnically and historically from the Germanic Prussians, the descendants of the Teutonic Knights, conquerors of the indigenous people of East Prussia. It is one of the ironies of history that the conquerors (Teutonic Knights) accepted the name of the conquered (Baltic Prussians)…
In the 13th century the Prussians were conquered by the Teutonic Knights. After the suppression of the great Prussian revolt (1260-12740) against the Teutonic Knights, the Prussian lands were systematically colonized and germanized. In the 16th century the territory became part of the Duchy of Prussia, and in 1701 it was proclaimed the Kingdom of Prussia. By the 18th century the original Prussians were extinct. After the devastating plague of 1708-1711, a scant third of the original Lithuanian inhabitants remained in Lithuania Minor; the others were replaced by German colonists in massive numbers. Because of plague and of colonization, the nationality of people in Prussia had become mixed. When Donelaitis was born, the village consisted of Lithuanians and Germans in approximately equal proportion. Nevertheless, the East Prussian territory was still heavily populated with Lithuanians, and the Lithuanian language was dominant in many districts East of Königsberg (Karaliaucius in Lithuanian), especially along the line of Gumbinnen-Tilsit. Both historically and ethnically, therefore, the designation of Lithuania Minor is appropriate for this region.
Some Highlights of the Life of Kristijonas Donalaitis:
• Besides Lithuanian and German, two languages that Donelaitis knew from childhood, he learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and French.
• He grew up in Lithuanian surroundings and appears to have been of Lithuanian disposition–his national background, thus, could have influenced the choice of profession. • The Lithuanian language seminar was mandatory to all theology students from Lithuanian-speaking areas of East Prussia and, therefore, to Donelaitis.
• Lithuanian was his native tongue, and he probably had few problems with the spoken word, but may have been more difficult.
• In 1740 after graduation from the university, Kristijonas Donelaitis was appointed cantor to Stalupenai. • Later, he became rector of the school in the same town.
• In 1743, when Donelaitis arrived to take over the ethnically mixed parish of Tolminkiemis, pestilence and famine had reduced the Lithuanians to a minority. German colonization had significantly changed the ethnicity those areas. In Tolminkiemis the remaining Lithuanians were about 1/3 of the 3000 inhabitants; the rest were German colonists. Donelaitis preached in German at morning services and in Lithuanian during the afternoon.
• In Tolminkiemis, as in the rest of Prussia, the feudal economic structure was evident. In the parish there were four royal estates, one of which was in Tolminkiemis itself, two free farmers, and 32 feudal villages. As the pastor of the parish, Donelaitis had charge of a farm that was approximately 37.5 hectares in size. As the spiritual leader of an ethnically heterogeneous feudal community, Donelaitis was forced to take an active part in the national and economic struggles of his people. Donelaitis sided with the serfs and resisted the landlords, who tried to take over not only peasant nds, but also part of the parish property. He influenced the peasants to a large extent. In one of the court documents it is said that the peasants always agree with the pastor, and whenever the pastor changes his opinion, they stubbornly follow him.
• In his spare time Donelaitis composed verse in Lithuanian and German and read it to visiting friends. Of his German works only the titles of 3 poems are known. His Lithuanian works consist of 6 fables and the poem Metai. During the Seven Years War, when the Russians invaded Prussia (1757), Donelaitis and most of his parishioners retreated to the forests of Rominta for a month where he held services and performed other duties. Back in Tolminkiemis, Donelaitis was glad to return home and the parish records reported the great harm the invasion brought to the country.
• With the end of the Seven Years War (1763), life in Tolminkiemis took on a peaceful course. The period 1765-1775 is the most peaceful and creative period in Donelaitis’ life. The writing of The Seasons, a poem on the life of the boors (burai in Lithuanian) during the four seasons of the year, is definitely from this period.
The second part of the summary will appear in the next post.