From the 1930s through the late 1950s, Springfield seems to have been home to the “Lithuanian Lodge,” a.k.a, the local lodge of the leftist fraternal benefit society known as the Association of Lithuanian Workers (ALW). In October 1949, the Illinois State Journal ran an announcement of a lodge picnic at the Pakutinskas (Pakutinsky or Pakey) farm on Mechanicsburg Road about seven miles east of the city.
Wikipedia says the ALW was established in June 1930 as a communist-leaning splinter of the Lithuanian Alliance of America. I quickly get lost in the alphabet soup of twentieth century American leftist organizations with Lithuanian-language branches, not to mention exclusively Lithuanian left-wing groups.
However, two facts about leftist Lithuanian immigrants of the first wave seem interesting: According to some sources, Lithuanians frequently constituted the largest foreign language group on the early American left. Second, although illiteracy was the rule among first-wave Lithuanians, it seems that many of those who were educated gravitated to socialist organizing and publishing.
For example, according to Wikipedia, the Amerikos Lietuvių Socialistų Sąjunga (American Lithuanian Socialist Union or ALSS), was established in 1904 by Lithuanian immigrants, and did not affiliate with the Socialist Party of America until 1915. Although independent, the Laisvė (Freedom) newspaper affiliated with the ALSS. It was called “one of the most influential and longest-running radical Lithuanian-language newspapers in the United States, issued daily from 1919 through 1958.”
When the Socialist Party of America split in 1919, its communist-leaning Lithuanian Socialist Federation branch moved en mass into the newly formed Communist Party of America, and Laisvė became an organ of the CPA. (The “lodge” or ALW had its own national publication, Tiesa (Truth).
Communists Down on the Farm
A local man who wrote for Laisvė during the 1930s under the pen name, “Urbana Farmer,” was Joseph Pakutinskas (Pakutinsky), who owned the aforementioned 80-acre farm on Mechanicsburg Road with his son Frank Pakey. Joseph and his wife Anna Janusauskis were born in Lithuania in the 1880s, and immigrated to the U.S. around 1907. According to grandson Donald Pakey, Joseph was a coal miner in the Herrin area and later a farmer in Champaign County before settling in Sangamon County.
What Don, a physics professor at Eastern Illinois University, remembers from family lore are his grandfather’s radical writings for Laisvė and the lively summer picnics of the Lithuanian Lodge on the Pakey farm. The Pakeys even had a cement slab laid in the picnic area to create an outdoor dance floor.
When he was a toddler, Don joined the picnics in a play pen, where he was not alone. A goat that his older sister Emily bought from one of the Lithuanian-American women for three cents was small enough to squeeze in through the bars of the pen and play with him. Although he was too young to remember, Don’s guess is that the Lithuanian Lodge Pakey farm picnics ended when his grandmother Anna died in 1958.
“Then, in the early 1960s, my grandfather, whom we called “Pa,” had the first of several strokes,” Don recalled, “and he couldn’t really talk after that. He lived with us there on the farm till he died in 1969. I only have memories of my grandfather wandering around the farm and doing light farm work. However, Emily has good memories of talking to ‘Mamita,’ as we called our grandmother, and her flocks of baby turkeys. Mamita didn’t know a lot of English, but they did talk.”
Don’s father Frank and Uncle Pete attended the University of Illinois in the 1930s and fought in World War II.
Hard Times on the Left
Immigrant leftist organizations provided self-help and cultural resources, like libraries, choirs and drama clubs. But even more important, they served as vehicles, often in concert with labor unions, for the struggle against the shameless exploitation of unskilled immigrant workers in mines and factories.
To the extent that the U.S. government served more powerful corporate and national interests, immigrant socialist and communist organizations were feared, from their inception, as real or potential enemies of the state. During World War I, they organized pacifist opposition that was an open threat to the draft. As a result, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, subjecting those who opposed or interfered with America’s war effort to jail time and/or deportation.
In fear of the radical foreign language press, the Sedition Act was passed in 1918 to include even opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light. Although the Sedition Act was repealed in 1920, the Espionage Act was upheld by the Supreme Court, and beginning that same year, a succession of U.S. laws closed the spigot of mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe that had fueled so much growth on the American left.
After the Russian revolution, American leftists tied their leadership, philosophy and actions to that single existing example of communist government, the U.S.S.R. This was less of a perceived threat during World War II, when the U.S. allied with the Soviet Union to defeat fascism. However, with the beginning of the Cold War, organized communism in the U.S. was actively suppressed. Most of us have heard of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklisting of Communist Party members and sympathizers.
Additionally, according to Don, “The Internet tells us of the June 23, 1947 Taft-Hartley Labor-Management Relations Act, passed by Congress over President Truman’s veto, which sharply curtailed the rights of organized labor while forcing unions to purge communists from their ranks. Likewise, on Nov. 2, 1949, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) voted at its national convention to revoke the charter of the United Electrical Workers, the CIO’s third largest union, for failing to purge itself of communist influence. Ultimately, 12 left-leaning unions, and countless individual left-wing organizers, were booted from the CIO.”
Stalin and the Abuses of Communism
Leftist party ties (in some cases, slavish ties) to Soviet leaders and policies made them not only a perceived threat to the U.S. government, but also stubbornly blind to the Siberian gulag of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The left’s blind allegiance to the U.S.S.R., including the 1940 Soviet re-conquest of Lithuania, was a fundamental cause of conflict and division in Lithuanian-American communities like Springfield’s.
With the arrival after World War II of Lithuanian eye witnesses to Soviet brutality, in the form of displaced persons (DPs) like my father, it had to become increasingly precarious to remain a Lithuanian-American Stalinist. Yet decades of true-believer orthodoxy and a lifetime of struggle probably made it emotionally hard even to listen to such witnesses, let alone embrace what they said.
For Dad’s part, living through one Soviet occupation in 1940 and narrowly escaping another in 1944–fleeing thousands of miles into exile and losing his homeland and way of life in the bargain–only to encounter Lithuanian-American communists parading on stage in Springfield in Red Army uniforms, had to be nothing less than traumatic.
Dad recalled the sight well into his 90s, and I believe the large and devoted leftist contingent within the Lithuanian community here played a role in his estrangement from that community. It couldn’t have felt safe to mingle with Stalinists who were hostile to all evidence of the rape of Lithuania, and who might have had contacts– through international communist organizations–that were a danger to family back home and abroad. (During the 1980s I learned that the Lithuanian family members of those who had fled to the West were persecuted and spied on until the very end of the Cold War.)
Brother against Brother
To this day, it strikes me as grotesque that the twentieth century’s first two waves of Lithuanian immigration to the U.S. had to be divided, brother against brother, by two contradictory visions and experiences of communism. For many first-wavers like Joseph Pakutinskas, communism probably was first and foremost about building a world where working people weren’t oppressed by company bosses and their political hacks. (Joseph’s leftist leanings also could have had roots in Lithuania’s anti-czarist movements of the late 1800s.) Yet Lithuanian-American communists’ hierarchical subordination to the Soviet Communist Party, even to the extent of embracing the Soviet conquest of Lithuania, was the ultimate fatal flaw.
Political divisions pitting brother against brother were obvious from the beginning of the Lithuanian first wave, and may even have partially driven the founding (1906-1911) of Springfield’s St. Vincent de Paul (Lithuanian) Catholic Church. By the late 1910s and the early 1920s, Catholics based at the church also had organized the Knights of Lithuania and the Lithuanian Roman Catholic Alliance of Labor (it seem likely, at least in part) to counter Lithuanian leftist organizing, complete with the same kind of cultural activities that the leftist groups used to attract and uplift their members. (See Knights of Music, Baseball, Picnics.)
Despite being similarly impacted by assimilation and the death of the first-wave immigrants who formed their backbone, Lithuanian leftist associations in Springfield seem to have declined more precipitously than Lithuanian Catholic groups. This may have been partially due to tendencies towards schism on the national level, and Cold War era attacks on the organized left. However, second-wave immigrants no doubt provided new blood for the parishes, while at the same time undermining the left’s core reliance on the moral superiority of the U.S.S.R.
Trans-generational upward mobility through education, the success of labor unions, and increasing access to white collar professions in Springfield also incrementally stole much of the left’s thunder. The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991– ironically, on the force of determined Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian independence movements–precipitated the ultimate crisis for the Lithuanian-American left, along with leftist movements around the world.