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THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA

20 August 2017
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As vast as the waves of Lithuanian immigrants who crossed the ocean to start new lives thousands of miles from their native land


Boris Vytautas Bakunas (left)
has much good to say about
Frank Passic’s “Chicago
article” here in VilNews

Dear Mr. Frank Passic,

How can I thank you for your article How Chicago Became Lithuania’s Second Capital?

Its scope is as vast as the waves of Lithuanian immigrants who crossed the ocean to start new lives thousands of miles from their native land. .

Until I read your article, I didn’t know that Bridgeport, the Chicago neighborhood, where I spend the happiest years of my childhood, is said to have gotten its name from Ansas Portas, who owned land on the south side of the Chicago River.

Nor did I know of the 18 men who were the first Lithuanians to set foot on Chicago as part of a railway crew. I can easily imagine the grime on their faces and their calloused hands as they trudged home to their families after toiling all day in the railroad yards.

Nor was I aware of the small token “chips” that struggling Lithuanian societies issued in order to raise meager sums to support the building of their cultural institutions. Those meager sums added up and helped pay for the bricks that built institutions where Lithuanians gathered to preserve their customs and worship in their native tongue.

Your article is a source of inspiration for all Lithuanians and their descendants. It shows how fiercely Lithuanian immigrants fought to preserve their cultural heritage. With little money but with great determination, they established organizations, published Lithuanian newspapers, built churches, schools, and centers of culture.

They worked in sweat shops and labored in the Chicago Stock Yards. They fought beside their fellow workers to unionize the Meat Packing Industry.

My gratitude extends far beyond the historical knowledge you conveyed.

The words you wrote and the photographs you posted stirred my memory. My my mind flooded with names and stories of Lithuanians who fled their native soil to escape exile, execution, or torture in 1944.

The sky is gray and overcast in Chicago as I write. Why do I feel it should be raining? Do I want the rains to come and wash away those memories of misery and pain?

My mother and grandparents rarely talked about the Second World War and its aftermath. The questions my half-sister and I asked were often met with curt answers like “Those were terrible times.”

But we kept asking, and over the years, when family and friends had gathered together to celebrate holidays, we snatched bits and pieces of conversations that helped us form a mosaic of the hidden past.

I remember how fortunate my grandparents and mother said they felt to have caught the last train leaving Lithuania in August of 1944.

I remember hearing how the train, carrying both troops and civilians, was strafed by a fighter plane. The train screeched to a halt. People rushed from the railway cars and scattered to hide in the fields.

When the strafing ended, my mother turned to her side and saw that the body of a German soldier beside her -- his body sliced in two by bullets. He was one of several who had tried to shield her with their own bodies.

I remember being told that my mother screamed hysterically for nearly an hour. . Then she fell silent and did not whisper a word for a month.

I remember my godmother telling me how she and her husband fled their home when they heard the roar of Soviet cannons. They rushed to a neighbor’s house. They handed their infant daughter to the woman who lived in the house. “We will hide in the woods. When the front passes, we will come back for her.”

But the battle intensified. The bomb blasts grew louder, pushing my godparents further and further from home. More than thirty years had to pass before mother and daughter were reunited again.

I have no memories of the displaced person’s camp in Germany where I was born. But I remember being told that an American soldier, a Black G.I., lifted me in his arms and gave me chocolate. My mother laughed as she told me how I asked if he was made of chocolate.

I remember Ponia Aldona Konciene, an enormous woman with a heart as big as her bulk. She and her husband were among the first from our D. P. camp to come to America. Despite their poverty, they sponsored dozens of other Lithuanians, often sharing their small apartment with them for weeks at a time.

I remember the actor Alfonsas Brinka and the heavy load he had to bear to support his family at a backbreaking menial job. Yet he always found time to amuse children with his stories, both in person and on the Lithuanian radio show “Margutis.”

I remember the poet Apolinaras Bagdonas. He worked as a desk clerk in a hotel during the week, and taught at the Lithuanian Saturday school I attended. A man of extraordinary gentleness, he didn’t have the heart to yell or punish us when we misbehaved. He would only pause with a look of sadness on his face. On Friday evenings, he’d host gatherings for us and sit quietly as we talked about sports, The war in Vietnam, and our hopes for the future.

The Saturday sky is still gray, but the rain has not come. Names, faces, images flood my mind. I am glad that the rains have not washed my memories away.

Mr. Passic, thank you again.

Dr. Boris Vytautas Bakunas

Category : Lithuania in the world



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