U.S. forces (3,500 soldiers with armor) just arrived in Poland to help deter Russian aggression against Lithuania, Poland, and the other Baltic countries. Coincidentally, yesterday, Jan. 13, also marked the 26th anniversary of the day 14 Lithuanians were killed and hundreds injured peacefully protecting their country from Soviet tanks and bullets. To commemorate these events, let me share a story from my personal patriotic life that I wrote for the January 2016 issue of Draugas News:
Remembering January 1991
Fearing How Far the Soviets Might Go, I Rose up to Become the Face of Lithuania in Lexington, Kentucky
I didn’t sleep much on January 13, 1991, after the 1 a.m. phone call to my home in Lexington from my sister Terry in Richmond, Va. Between worry and tears, it was one of the worst nights of my life.
So when the U.S. launched its Desert Storm assault on Iraq just a few days later, on Jan. 17, 1991, I took the microphone at a war-related rally at the University of Kentucky to remind people about what had just happened in Lithuania.
It was the biggest crowd I had ever spoken to. Yet I managed to overcome my life-long fear of public speaking because it was eclipsed by an even greater fear. What if the new U.S. war, visible 24/7 on CNN, stole critical international media attention from Lithuania just as it was most endangered—right after unarmed civilians were killed by Soviet troops and tanks? What if the Soviets launched more such attacks when the world was no longer watching?
The fate of an entire mass movement hung in the balance. And though safe on American soil, after Jan. 13–the date that changed everything–I was haunted by the fear of how far the Soviets might go and what might become of Lithuanian family I had recently met for the first time in my life.
A Family’s Past Blends with the Present
In 1989, my “DP” father Vince and his long-lost sister from Lithuania had been reunited after a separation of 45 years. This, along with the visit of my first cousin, had quickly unpacked decades of repressed World War II family history that suddenly appeared in danger of being repeated.
In summer 1989, as I began to take account of the full scope of the trauma inflicted on my family, as well as the scope of the “Singing Revolution” that was building in Lithuania, action seemed required to help Lithuanians restore what Russian had so brutally taken. And after January 13, 1991, action seemed desperately required to keep Russia from brutalizing Lithuania again.
It was a time unlike any other. Past was present and present, past. Pain and love, anger, fear, and hope all flowed in the same strong current. I grasped for any way I could help. I reached out to other Baltic-Americans and to anyone who would listen and act.
Becoming the Face of Lithuania
I stood up to be the public face of Lithuania in the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader newspaper, and on local public TV and the NBC affiliate. At least four or five times during the spring and summer of 1991, thanks to a TV satellite truck, local news would cut from Gorbachev directly to my talking head, or to Baltic-Americans gathered in my back yard.
Two of the larger events that I organized (with the help of my Iranian-American husband of the time) were a February 16 Lithuanian independence dinner, complete with folk dancing, and a summer 1991 “Baltic Bash,” where I showed invited media video footage from the January 13 attacks.
Along the way, I addressed university classes and I almost constantly called and wrote the White House and Congress. I published two local op-ed features, and at least one letter in the Christian Science Monitor. I became volunteer Kentucky coordinator for the Lithuanian Communications Center in Philadelphia—my first and only service with the Lithuanian-American Community (LAC), and my first taste of a future career in PR.
Maybe most of all, I worried. I thought constantly of the relatives in Lithuania and mailed packages and letters to my first cousin. Like so many others at that time, I struggled to read the meaning of weeks-long postal delays, overhung with the gnawing fears that were never far off, just like the colds and flus that beset me that entire year as a result of so much stress and worry.
A Victory that was Personal
When it was all over and we had won, victory couldn’t have felt more personal. It was like we had won vindication for our dad, for our family—for the past. I never felt closer to my father and his story, and I never saw him more appreciative of his daughters who had worked so hard to help Lithuania.
I realized how difficult it must have been for Dad to repress his story within the heart of his own family for decades, when his story must have seemed only a private misery in the midst of his wife and daughters’ American obliviousness. But how to talk to the unfamiliar and the inexperienced about a place that had disappeared from every globe and map?
I’m sure Dad never expected to see his homeland go free in his lifetime. And yet we had done it, all of us working together–over there, mainly, but also over here.
I Did ‘Nothing?’
My father’s youngest sister was so unprepared for my sudden, sustained two years of “Singing Revolution” activism that she couldn’t share victory. “You did nothing,” was my late aunt’s only remark on the subject in a letter that ended up forever estranging us.
Being a Lithuanian patriot from her youth, then a “DP,” and having given everything she had to “the cause” all her life, she surely saw my work as insignificant by comparison. But I will always know what I felt and did and all that I gave from my heart.
I also remember how the Herculean task at hand, and the odds stacked against our movement, sometimes also drove me to disappointment over what my friends at the time were able or willing to give. As a result, it seems to me now that giving of oneself in desperation, or without limits, naturally leads to disappointment in the level of support from others. So I have no doubt that my aunt’s dismissive statement reflected the entrenched disappointment of years.
Yet I am equally sure that I was far from the only Lithuanian-American who had never been active before, who rose up for family reasons when everything seemed to hang in the balance, and the impossible suddenly seemed possible. For that reason, I congratulate and applaud anyone, anywhere, who joined in the “Singing Revolution” by doing what they could do when it seemed to count so very much.
At the bottom line, not to act while all of Lithuania was mobilized, while members of my own family were on the line, would have been unthinkable. I’m sure the same logic applied to tens of thousands in Lithuania, as well, resulting in the unstoppable momentum of a mass movement that ultimately achieved one of the most improbable peaceful political triumphs of the twentieth century.
Nancy Chapin said:
And I trust the next post will be specifically about the “Singing Revolution”! I’d love to hear more about it!