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23 June 2017
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A visit to our Homeland
through the eyes of 12 American-Lithuanian women

Text & Photos:  Jenifer C. Dillis
Founder/Researcher at JCD Photography
Lives in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts
From Brockton, Massachusetts

Please join me and my eight biological sisters and three nieces, as we venture to The Homeland of our four grandparents. Having grown up as “purebred” Lithuanian-Americans, we 16 siblings are gifted to have parents who share their pride with us. (We sisters left our seven brothers back in The States, while we took our trip in June-July 2007).

Whether it was attending Lithuanian School to attempt to learn the beautiful language, dancing as members of folk dance groups, or learning to play the Kankles, we each have a level of that same pride in our heritage. Though some of us may own more “Lietuva” souvenirs than others, we all are strong, stubborn, determined, and addicted to Kugelis!

Our journey landed us in Vilnius, where the spirits of our ancestors met us warmly. How can I possibly describe the emotion of having landed in the capital of the country we had only ever heard, or dreamed about? We walked the cobblestone streets, window-shopped for Gintaras, and some of us even ventured down alleys. We felt nothing but safe and free in OUR homeland! From the powerful presence of the free-flying flags of Lietuva, to the steeple of St. Casimir’s Church, we were “home.” The locals were familiar faces. We had seen them in our own Lithuanian parish back home.

If being a Lithuanian-American or American-Lithuanian means anything to you, I suggest and recommend a visit to The Homeland. Go shove your feet into the sands of The Dunes, search for that one piece of amber along the rough shores. Pull up a chair at a local bar, and order a round of Svyturys for the crowd. Search the birth records of your ancestors. Touch the doorknob of the Church that your own grandmother may have touched. Look up while walking the cobblestones of Vilnius. Chances are there will be someone on a balcony. And that someone may be your own flesh and blood.

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From faded wooden houses to the halls and courtyards of Vilnius University, the oldest university in Eastern Europe, we traveled as eager students for our guide.

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We spent some time cringing as we walked the halls of the KGB “museum.” The most heart-breaking photos were those of the orphans. What shocked, and sickened me most, was the fact that up until August 1991, that building had been “in use.” I took many photos in there, but choose to not share such memories.

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The Villagers of Zervynos preserve old traditions, and their own way of life. As we walked, we witnessed a gathering of the villagers. They were sadly heading toward the cemetery. What caught my eye was the woman carrying her purse!?! WHY would she need her purse in the cemetery, in the middle of the woods, in an isolated village?!? We spent a day there eating food prepared just for us. And we were entertained by our own private singers who had to endure the hottest of July afternoons while in full ethnic costume.  One particular singer was so smiley with her direct eye contact. We did not understand a single spoken word, and we all got along wonderfully!

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We toured Trakai Castle and Old Kaunas for some window shopping down medieval streets. The Gintaras shops caught our attention everywhere we went! Not one of us left Lietuva without a new piece of jewelry. The flower-draped balconies clung to the colorless buildings, and the people seemed to be neither rushed nor bothered by 12 American women taking over their quiet streets.

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Yet another happening which struck a chord with me, was witnessing The Flag Women of Kaunas! I spotted a Lithuanian flag hanging in a non-traveled backside of buildings. I took a picture of it from my hotel room because THAT alone was very encouraging, moving, emotional to know SOMEBODY hung that there where no one would really even SEE it. It seemed done more for PRIDE!  While walking that morning, we spotted The Flag Women actually going around with bundles of flags, and placing them up all over the buildings.

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We asked our tour guide ahead of time, to help us find our grandparents’ places of birth. We DID find Zasliai, and felt the instant spirit of our departed grandmother. “The Church on The Lake” was still standing, as it had been in her stories to our Dad. We sisters stood on its huge steps, and touched its red bricks…for Dad.

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We visited Church after Church, ate fabulous meals, drove kilometer after kilometer, and found ourselves thirsty for a beer!!! We discovered The Svyturys Brewery in Klaipeda, and indulged properly.

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Neringa was our next destination. If I followed the story correctly, Neringa was a “giant” who carried sand in her apron to form the Curonian Spit to protect the Fisherman’s Village, etc from the waves of the crashing, rough waves of The Baltic Sea. There can be not the proper words written to express the sensations I felt just knowing I would soon be at The Baltic Sea. This was a dream trip come true! Who would be the first to find a washed-up piece of amber? The Curonian’s huge, blank sand dunes and forests make it a very unique and enchanting place to visit.

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Somewhere in there, there MUST be at least one piece of amber…J

Off the beach, and up to The Dunes on the lagoon’s side of The Spit.

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We visited Churches, shopped many more Gintaras shops, heard more stories of horror lived out by many Lithuanians, drank a few more glasses of Svyturys, cried a few more tears as we missed our loved ones back home, bonded as only sisters and nieces could, ate more delicious REAL Lithuanian foods, eventually figured out the conversion of Litas and American Dollars, had the rare opportunity to practice reciting The Lord’s Prayer IN LITHUANIAN during an impromptu Baptism invitation, visited MORE Churches, knocked on the workshop door of a local woodcarver, and arrived at The Hill of Crosses.

I remember the tears of sadness and ethnic pride in our Dad’s eyes, as we told him that we “Dillis Girls” left a cross on The Hill. Our Mother always used to admit being “a stubborn Lithuanian,” and no place proves the value and strength of stubbornness, more than the earlier days of The Hill. The courage of the Lithuanian rebels and pilgrims against the militia and KGB stood strong then.

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May the future Lietuva hold for those, what it held for us 12 visitors: pride, hope, strength, determination, and a sense of bonding to see through struggles and obstacles.

If being a Lithuanian-American or American-Lithuanian means anything to you, I suggest and recommend a visit to The Homeland. Go shove your feet into the sands of The Dunes, search for that one piece of amber along the rough shores. Pull up a chair at a local bar, and order a round of Svyturys for the crowd. Search the birth records of your ancestors. Touch the doorknob of the Church that your own grandmother may have touched. Look up while walking the cobblestones of Vilnius. Chances are there will be someone on a balcony. And that someone may be your own flesh and blood.

Wish we could do it all again!

 

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PICTURE: Jenifer C. Dilis with her eight   biological sisters and three nieces at the Hill of Witches, Neringa, Lithuania


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Margie Mueller Wish we could do it all again! 

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Katie Prescott i would in a heart beat! 

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Jenifer C. Dillis Me toooooooo!!!!!!

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Carolyn Mueller Winn I'm jealous. Must go!

Category : Featured black / Lithuania in the world
  • Rimgaudas

    Great article. You visited many of the same places I did in 1999 and 2002

    June 12 2012
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    • Carol Luschas

      Great article Jennifer and beautiful pictures! I just returned from a trip to LT! I was amazing!!!!

      May 15 2012
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      • Psssssssssssst….Paul, I am NOT your sister…by blood anyway! Any brother of mine would know my name is spelled with but 1 'n, not 2….heeeeeeheeeeee…..Why have YOU not visited? Or have you by now? Gooooooooooooooooooo……

        June 12 2012
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        • Paul Rukstela

          Terrific article and pix. But the real reason for this comment? I had to enlarge the photo of you just to convince myself that Jennifer Dillis is not simply the ‘nom de plume’ of my sister Joyce, who has been researching our LT heritage for the past three years. Joyce has visited and toured Lithuania twice recently and has met with several relatives previously unknown to any of us. By the way, I’m still not entirely convinced.

          May 15 2012
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          • Aciu Aciu Aciu, Petras…
            Next time, I need to experience shoving my toes into the "squeaky sand" of The Dunes…
            Perhaps YOUR experience should be added to a Visitor's Guide To Nida brochure…:)
            I continue to hear voices that pull me back to Lietuva…
            I want to experience it NOT as a "group of 12 women Americans," but as an individual who is full of questions and sheer joy just from having my toes in The Baltic again! I wish to walk the streets of Vilnius NOT as a "typical tourist," but as a friend of the locals who captures daily life in all my senses…Tasting the foods, smelling the smells, hearing the language and MAYBE even adding in a few learned phrases…all this with my camera in hand…and a smile on my face and in my soul…I WANT TO GO BACK!!!

            May 09 2012
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            • Jen that was beautifully written , i was reliving my visit to Lithuania thru your story . I still cant believe we where there at the same time yet our paths didn't cross . I will never forget my visit to Lithuania and seeing where my ancestors came from. Seeing the cobble streets of Vilinus, the Trakai Island Castle in a rowboat , Nida and the dunes with the Baltic Ocean. My vacation was complete when i found a nice Mens Amber ring to bring home back to states as a reminder of a great vacation experience . Taip Sveiki Lietuva !

              May 08 2012
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              • mona milo

                Labas, Love reading about your visit. I have experienced going back to the Homeland, and since than 4 more times. A beautiful country!! Thanks for sharing. Mona Milo

                May 04 2012
                CommentsLike

                • […] A visit to our Homeland through the eyes of 12 American-Lithuanian women To read the article CLICK HERE ____________________________ Jurate Norkunas Jenifer, you have captured not only the spirit of […]

                  April 28 2012
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                  • Debbie Kimball

                    Thank you for sharing your story! I too want to visit my homeland, both my grandparents were from Lithuania, my cousin has visited now i want too, I just need to find the right travel companion and just do it! someday SOON!
                    Thank you again.
                    Debbie Kimball-Morrow ( Kimbaldis) (Gregavilage) (sp)

                    April 26 2012
                    CommentsLike

                    • Love your story and pics!

                      April 26 2012
                      CommentsLike



                      

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