On March 12, 2022, I delivered updated insights about “Lithuanians in Springfield” in a Zoom presentation sponsored by the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, Chicago.
Below is a transcript of that Zoom presentation, edited for brevity and clarity in some cases, and conceptually enhanced in others. Many thanks to Draugas News for providing the original transcript for my editing. You can also watch the presentation for free at this link: https://vimeo.com/687830727
Sigita Balzekas: This is the book club presentation of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture. Located in Chicago, we are the largest repository of everything Lithuanian this side of the Atlantic, and we’re just exceedingly proud to have Sandy Baksys with us here today. Sandy, as she will tell you, I’m sure, is a daughter of a Lithuanian immigrant, a displaced person (“DP”): her father who immigrated after World War II, as am I. My parents immigrated to Canada.
Sandy’s story is set in Springfield. However, it is truly a universal story of how immigrants informed by the experiences that they’ve had before they immigrate to a new country, what they bring with them, how some of those unfortunately tragic events sometimes affect them in their present lives and potentially affect their ability to assimilate what they cherish. All these things are revealed in Sandy’s incredible book, “A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois.”
Now, Sandy is a Springfield native. She was a newspaper reporter. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She also holds a bachelor’s in Italian and a master’s in English literature from the University of Kentucky. If you read her book and see how beautifully it’s written, no doubt she’s an English major. She has a lovely gift for expression.
From ’89 to ’91, Sandy was involved with what they call the “Singing Revolution,” Lithuania’s reestablishment of independence, through the Lithuanian Communications Center in Philadelphia.
In 2012, she spearheaded the erection of a historical marker in Springfield, Illinois, and launched a blog at http://www.lithspringfield.com .
Sandy Baksys: Hello, everyone. Thanks, Sigita. And welcome everyone. Thank you for being here today. Thanks to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture for supporting my book. It’s hard right now to think of anything but the war in Ukraine and how much the faces of the traumatized refugees make us think of our own Lithuanian parents and grandparents, who fled their homeland at the end of World War II.
The causal relationship between war and the exodus of those 60,000 Lithuanians to escape the advancing Soviet army is obvious. But only about 50 to 100 World War II displaced persons, so-called second wave Lithuanian immigrants, ended up in Springfield, the hometown of President Abraham Lincoln.
A much larger number, 2,000 Lithuanian immigrants, arrived here during the first wave of immigration between 1870 and 1914, when up to 500,000 left a country of an estimated 2.5 million. But I would like to propose that even though this first wave departed during what was apparently peacetime, they were also, in a very real sense, refugees of a prolonged and no less brutal, form of warfare.
Most of us know about the Russian czarist oppression of political, religious, language, and human rights in Lithuania from 1795 to 1918, after which the empire fell apart and Lithuania gained its independence. One goal of the Russian conquest and the annexation of Lithuania in 1795, and onward, was to dominate and degrade Lithuanian existence so completely that the people would remain stripped of their rightful majority power in their own homeland. In the service of this goal, there was a crucial alignment of the Polish-Russian feudal nobility with the Russian czarist empire that made feudalism a powerful weapon of war against an entire nation.
Under feudalism, which had older roots in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, most Lithuanians were enslaved to the owners of large agricultural estates: bonded to the land, which meant that, whoever owned the land, owned them. Serfs could be whipped, killed, imprisoned, and separated from their family with impunity. Czarist forces would help capture and return escaped serfs. Sounds a lot like slavery, right?
Although the czar declared an end to feudalism in 1860, just like when African-American slaves were freed in 1863, nobody got any land, no “40 acres and a mule.” So, for the next 65 years, freed serfs and their descendants in Lithuania were only free to remain destitute sharecroppers or hired hands on the same kind of large estates where they had always worked.
To break out of that bleak stasis, it was necessary to take advantage of the only new right that came with the end of feudal land bondage, the new freedom of movement. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian peasants migrated first to industrialized Scotland and England, then to U.S. factory and mining jobs. Once here, they participated for the first time in a cash instead of a barter economy. The majority were illiterate. And I have to say, based on my research, many were heavy-drinking–maybe big-hearted–but heavy drinking, volatile, and just on the edge of violence. Yet to be fair, that would have been the ideal “help wanted” description for the kind of dangerous coal mining and factory jobs that “roughneck” Lithuanians and other European immigrants of the time were expected to fill.
The U.S. coal belt extended west from Pennsylvania, where Lithuanians first landed, across to West Virginia, southern Illinois, and even counties north of Springfield and east to the Westville area near Danville–and throughout southern Illinois. And everywhere, it was extremely dangerous work.
According to my research, about 10% of Lithuanian miners in this area were killed over the length of a career that spanned perhaps 20 years. Another 15-20 percent were injured or maimed. And almost every miner besides that had lack lung disease. And those men typically died between the ages of 40 to 60 while struggling for breath all night long. (All lung problems are worse at night because the lungs are compressed when we lie down.)
In my book, there is a male immigrant who understandably gets drunk and sings Lithuanian songs every evening before struggling all night to breathe, constantly waking to expectorate into a bucket. In another chapter, we learn that mining’s toll on men’s health produced something called “the bank of grandma,” when long-lived women, as grandmothers, became matriarchs and repositories of their immigrant families’ savings.
My own grandfather had been a coal miner in Pennsylvania before he returned to Lithuania to buy land around 1910. My father told me that his father died at age 47 of pneumonia, but because Dad was six or seven at the time, I don’t think he ever made the connection with black lung. Yet one day, while writing my book, that connection leapt to mind, and I’ve felt sure ever since that my Lithuanian grandfather’s pneumonia became fatal because of underlying miner’s lung disease.
In the early 1900s in Springfield, there were probably three times as many single as married miners. These single men boarded with married miners and their families not just in Springfield, which allowed them to move from house to house, but throughout the coal belt, which, included links between Springfield and Coalton, Oklahoma, and of course, with the rest of Illinois.
Many of these single miners laid their bones in desolate, often lost, Lithuanian cemeteries across the U.S. coal belt, such as the abandoned cemetery at Ledford, Ill., which has been a project of youth from the Lithuanian American Community to restore and repair. In those same lost Lithuanian cemeteries are many perished babies and children, who also had no descendants because they never even got to grow up.
All over the U.S., first-wavers insisted on being buried in their own cemeteries. This resulted in Lithuanian cemetery neglect and even vandalism in smaller communities, like those in southern Illinois, when miners had to move away due to an over-supply of labor, union-busting, or the exhaustion of local coal seams.
In larger places like Springfield, Illinois’ state capital, a larger and more diversified economy made it possible for a stable, first-wave community to take hold and endure for almost 100 years. Such communities were able to build all the original institutions of Lithuanian America, churches and social clubs that lasted long enough at least to welcome their share of the second wave and help those new immigrants keep their language and culture alive until Lithuania could be free and independent again.
Sigita Balzekas: Everyone, as you said, is preoccupied by the events in Europe at this time and witnessing the mass migration from Ukraine, which reminds us of what was happening at the end of World War II when our parents fled.
But, Sandy, there is one thing that I wanted to highlight briefly, and that is, what was specific to Springfield, besides coal mining, that drew so many first- wave Lithuanian immigrants? What made them move there from Pennsylvania?
Sandy Baksys: This is something that’s not in my book because I learned it from continuing reading and research. But wages for coal mining were somewhat higher in Illinois than they were in Pennsylvania because mines unionized earlier here. So, one of the reasons that miners moved on, besides an oversupply of labor in Pennsylvania, was higher wages per ton of coal. Also, I would say land.
We have very fertile land here, and almost all of it is flat and not constricted by the narrow hollows of the mining areas in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Nor was farmable land here made scarcer by massive, surface strip-mines and wildcat mining, the so-called “coal holes” dug into the hillsides of Pennsylvania. And the availability of extremely fertile instead of rocky land was important because the first-wave immigrant families were mostly growing their own food, just as they had in feudal and post-feudal 19th century Lithuania.
The feudal lord didn’t feed his serfs any more than the master in the big house provided American slaves’ meals. So, in addition to their forced labor on the large feudal estates, Lithuanian serfs had been permitted a small parcel to grow their own food. And after they were freed, continuing access to even that small parcel for bare subsistence was probably contingent on ex-serfs continuing to perform serf-like labor on the estate.
Fast-forwarding to immigration, these subsistence farming skills were extremely useful—they could have even made the difference between life and death. And being able to get more and better land around Springfield increased an immigrant’s chances still further. Every family had a huge garden, but some even had truck farms. They acquired a little rural land just outside town and could raise surplus vegetables beyond what the wife canned for the winter, which could be sold.
Sigita Balzekas: Now, you had also mentioned in the book that some of the coal mines would close, that the veins would be exhausted, so there was not a secure job in mining. In effect, by the time a lot of the immigrants arrived in the Springfield area, they discovered that mining opportunities were already drying up. So, what other kinds of jobs did they find in Springfield if they couldn’t mine?
Sandy Baksys: Very good question. But, let me talk about the whole mining household. You had the woman growing food because you couldn’t even go to a supermarket back then. There were just little, family-owned, corner stores where you could get things like flour and milk that weren’t the woman’s job to produce from her garden. The immigrant household would also buy a pig from a nearby farm, slaughter it (every family had a trained butcher), then use the whole pig for dishes like pig’s feet, blood sausage, aspic, head cheese, you name it.
Additionally, there was a symbiotic relationship between the immigrant household and the three or four single miners who boarded with them at any given time. In exchange for the woman of the house feeding them and doing their laundry, these single males provided extra cash for the family. This often compensated for the wages lost when the husband/father drank away his pay before he even got home. I think the miners got paid on Saturday and many of them immediately cashed their checks and went from tavern to tavern, living it up. So, the extra income that the household could earn from the boarders was very important to keep it going, especially if it was paid to or held by the wife/mother of the family.
As to the closure of mines, every summer they closed because there wasn’t a need for coal and whatever buyers needed, they would stockpile through April. The mines here were closed every year, seasonally, from May to September. So, every summer, idled men would cut cemetery grass with scythes. They would dig basements and graves. Some worked their own truck farms and others probably hired out to neighboring farms.
And then there was the problem you mentioned, that by the time the Lithuanian miners arrived in Springfield around 1900, there were already too many miners for the number of working shifts available each day or week. And even in that six-month working season—when many of the mines wouldn’t even be open every day–there was job-sharing to try and make sure every mining family got some hours. Men who were either having a bad day with black lung, or who wanted to increase their chances of getting working hours, they would bring their young sons into mining work. You can see how having more members of the family able and certified to work, even boys as young as 14, would be like having more tickets in the job-sharing lottery.
But finally, the coal from the mines here was overpriced due to higher union wages and less mechanization. And many of the mines had a lot of labor conflict from the owners trying to mechanize and reduce wages. The owners did that especially during the Great Depression, the worst possible time for local miners to take a reduction in jobs and wages. This led to the central Illinois Mine Wars 1932-36 between the UMW and an upstart union that rejected a contract that cut miners’ wages by 25%, that John Lewis and the UMW wanted to press upon them.
So, basically, there was a short heyday for mining here that the Lithuanian immigrants got into, and that was probably just from the very late 1890s through the 1910s, with labor trouble and job losses intensifying in the 1920s. As a result, a lot of Lithuanians who originally built the local Lithuanian church, St. Vincent de Paul’s, moved on to jobs in Detroit and Chicago.
Sigita Balzekas: It didn’t occur to me that it was seasonal, that they weren’t just stockpiling through the summer months to have more of it in the winter months. It never occurred to me that coal mines offered seasonal labor. Were these strip mines primarily, or were they underground or both?
Sandy Baksys: In Illinois, it was “soft” sulphurous coal, deep-shaft mining—something like 200 feet down to the bottom of the shaft. I don’t know all the terminology, but shot firers used gun powder to blow down walls of coal. There were timber men who put up the timbers in the passageways. If they didn’t do a good job, you had a slate fall, which was a roof fall. People got killed all the time in all kinds of ways.
In the 1990s, I remember going to the funeral of a miner who’d been paralyzed in the 1960s. He was a second-wave Lithuanian immigrant by the name of Tadas Rizutis. But even in some photos in my book, there’ll be a guy that the caption says, “lost his arm in a mine” or “his brother was killed in a mine.” I have a whole section on 33 Lithuanian mine deaths that occurred, basically, from 1900 to about 1945, just from accidents resulting in multiple deaths. We don’t even have any record of single-death accidents or accidents in which people were maimed but not killed. And, there was a lot of maiming.
For this reason, marriage was not a very stable institution for the first -wave immigrants. There were so many deaths and dismemberments, disablements, black lung, early death. Marriage was a whole different thing than I expected to find in a Catholic community. There were sequential marriages, divorces, adoptions of your new spouse’s kids from another marriage. I mean, just a lot of what I call blended families.
Sigita Balzekas: How did the community support these families? What social services did they provide?
Sandy Baksys: Many of the immigrants organized around their church. There were what we call fraternal benefits societies, mutual aid societies, where you’d pay a certain amount per month and get a little booklet for what was essentially death insurance. If you got killed in the mines, then your survivors would get a certain amount to bury you. There might have also been disability benefits from these societies, I don’t know. (Recently, I read that freed slaves in the United States also buried their community members the same way way.)
Some of the first nodes of economic progress were the many Lithuanian-owned taverns because, guess what, that was a very ripe business model for hard-drinking Lithuanian miners. In my book, there is a tavern owner who is said to have bought life insurance policies to be able to bury his destitute customers. There was a sharing of canned food and other garden products in the neighborhood–I think there was much more of a communal life at the neighborhood level than we have today.
Sigita Balzekas: Now, you talked about these transient men. How did they live? How did they integrate in the community? Where did they live?
Sandy Baksys: Sure, they were the boarders I mentioned earlier, like room and board. Many first-wave families in my book would take up to four single male miner boarders to supplement the family’s income. One of my informants said her immigrant mother-in-law used to wash their backs in a galvanized steel tub to get the black coal dust off after they came home from the mine.
I think that they were the source of a lot of carousing in Springfield, to be honest. They carried from the old country a certain social and spiritual degradation, illiteracy, lack of education. They’d come from a very violent place. This was underscored when I went back and read the chapter in my book about letters that elderly parents would send to their first-wave sons in the United States, asking them to come back and visit (after Lithuania became independent) so the parents could see them one more time before they died.
And in one of these letters, it says, “Son, don’t be afraid. Nobody abuses the poor people anymore. Nobody beats us, takes us for unpaid labor, imprisons us without reason. We have rights now.” And that really tells you about not just the change brought by the new Lithuania for Lithuanians, the independent country that was founded in 1918, but also about the violence by the ex-feudal nobility and their cronies who for 65 years after the end of feudalism were just as powerful as during feudalism–and had all the land.
So, many of the transient, rough-neck single miners were not the type of people that you’d necessarily want to marry or meet in a dark alley. But according to one of my informants, long-term, aging boarders who never married became members of the family they boarded with, treating the children of the household as their own children. And, I’m sure the feeling was mutual.
But let me get into alcohol for a minute. Alcoholism was one of the terrible diseases and industries of the first-wave immigrants. Alcohol was a way of life and still another, probably necessary, way of earning income. Many Lithuanians and other Catholic immigrant nationalities filled the gap created by local “lid laws” that made getting your alcohol illegal on Sundays or after midnight the rest of the week, when saloons were ordered closed.
So, Lithuanians, Irish, and Italians would make and sell unlicensed alcohol in so-called “blind pigs,” or in the back rooms of corner groceries or in taverns that remained open illegally. Alcohol in Springfield wasn’t entirely prohibited until 1918 or 1919, but there were legal restrictions by township on where and when and by whom it could be sold. Bootleggers satisfied a thirst for alcohol that knew no such legal boundaries. They started making and selling it in the neighborhood.
And then once federal Prohibition hit, bootlegging became a bigger game and was consolidated by criminal gangs because of the higher volumes and risks involved. But the single male miners, the boarders, they would often help the lady of the house with a still to put or keep her in the alcohol business after her husband had been killed or disabled in the mines. Some Lithuanians had their kids deliver in the neighborhood, had the wife push infant “hooch” down the street under a blanket in a baby carriage.
I didn’t put this in my book, but I really believe that some of the larger taverns probably had brothels attached because of all these single men with no wives. I can’t explain all the reasons why they didn’t have wives, but one was that there were many more Lithuanian men than women who immigrated, and I never came across even one case of a Lithuanian, first-wave male marrying a non-Lithuanian female.
Sigita Balzekas: Another question I had was, did the taverns also have boarders living in their buildings?
Sandy Baksys: One of my informants, Jerry Stasukinas, his dad Albinas ran Alby’s tavern for many years. And he said that there were so-called “guests of the taverns.” These would be the very destitute, hopeless alcoholics that would be taken care of, allowed to dry out at times, but I think, at other times, also still given alcohol. It’s hard for me to say exactly how it worked. But the taverns would have the tavern-owning family living behind or above. And then they also had separate, adjacent buildings and rooms. And sometimes, dependent alcoholics would live there.
Jerry said that he’d find alcoholics sleeping on his dad’s couch at the back of the tavern. Others would join the family for meals. “He would try to give them a job and make them a man again,” Jerry told me of his dad. At one point, thanks to a city directory search by one of my research volunteers, Bill Cellini, Jr., I found my own, lost immigrant great aunt had been the “guest” of the Railroad Tavern and was living in a little adjacent building that had its own street address.
Along the same lines, I also found out in my research that my dad had two American-born first cousins– one son, each, of his two immigrant aunts–who had criminal records. But getting back to the victimless crime of illegal alcohol–when Prohibition ended and alcohol was legal again, I think the loss of the income from illegal production and sale was significant for many immigrant families.
And it couldn’t come at a worse time, coinciding with the major economic disaster of the Great Depression in the early 1930, as well as the Central Illinois Mine Wars, when more than half of the miners who still had jobs went on an extended strike. It was a time of great crisis, and the combined effects seemed to produce a lot of property crime, especially among young boys who were trying to help their families. Two very young boys in my book were shot to death while stealing.
How many people after Lithuania declared its independence on Feb. 16, 1918, returned to Lithuania? And what were the circumstances of that return? Everyone always assumed that in the United States, the streets were paved with gold. They would have all this money, they could help the family back in Lithuania. What was the reality?
Sandy Baksys: I tried to investigate returns. One of the researchers for my book, Bill, Cellini, Jr., wrote a chapter about, like I mentioned before, these letters from home, from the old who were left behind in Lithuania. Coming to America was coming to work. If you looked at the congregation at St. Vincent de Paul Lithuania Catholic church on a Sunday in 1915, when it had 1200 worshippers, you would have seen a sea of young people. A lot of old who had been left behind did receive remittances from their mining and factory-working adult children in the United States, but they also wanted to see them again before they died.
I really don’t have a count even on how many immigrants went back to visit, but we did discover that even that was prohibitively costly because, first of all, you only got half-a-year of work in the mines in a best-case scenario, and you had to do other manual work in the summer. The cost of too much time away from work was prohibitive. I think that some people did go back like my grandfather, (although he went back around 1910, before independence), because they’d always just intended to come over here, earn money, and then go buy land and live as Lithuanians in their own country.
I think that one factor that encouraged it was that Lithuania did not suffer the same Great Depression as in the United States after 1929. And throughout the 1920s in Lithuania, the situation was steadily improving. There finally had been significant land reform in 1924 that finally gave viable farmsteads to more than 140,000 peasant families. Elders were writing to their immigrant sons saying if you come back now, you have rights; those who were once high and mighty are cut down to size. Because of letters like that, and the improved situation, I think that some did go back.
Sigita Balzekas: Now, what’s the community like presently? How many Lithuanians live in the Springfield area? Do you still have a tight-knit group?
Sandy Baksys: One of the reasons why I spearheaded the historical marker and started the blog in 2012 was that there were only, I don’t know, six or seven children of the first wave left, and they were quite elderly. I managed to get some of their stories. The second wave was never numerous here: 50 to 100 people who didn’t all stay. They went to be in communities like Chicago with more jobs, where they could also live a more Lithuanian life. And then when the diocese closed the Lithuanian Catholic church and demolished it by the mid-seventies, that was a huge blow.
I would also say that there was so much assimilation. If you count from 1900 to 2000, how many generations is that of first-wave descendants intermarrying with non-Lithuanians? So, what really happened was, after three or four generations, you’re down to 1/8, 1/16 Lithuanian, and many young people didn’t find that meaningful, which really diminished people who identified with a once-vibrant community.
Lastly, Springfield does not get many fresh Lithuanian immigrants. We must acknowledge that mass out-migration is bad news for Lithuania because it results from foreign invasion or oppression–or their after-effects–driving people out as soon as they can leave. It’s also a catastrophe for the growth and progress of the country. But even from the great Lithuanian exodus after 1991, we didn’t get many immigrants in Springfield because jobs have been declining with the state of Illinois for years. To make matters worse, in just the last three or four years, we probably lost 10 elderly founding members and officers of our local Lithuanian-American Club, of the 30 or so long-timers who remained: people who are irreplaceable because they won’t be replaced.
And this brings to mind something we haven’t touched on yet: the support of the first wave for the “DP” second wave. The first wave didn’t do as well financially as you might have expected in 50-plus years in America because of two world wars and the Great Depression. But families here did sponsor a total of 50 to a hundred DPs, often their own distant relatives. The saloon owner Sam Lapinski, who was also a trustee of the Lithuanian church, housed the Abramikas family in an apartment above his tavern. There was a lady, Julia Wisnosky, who was very involved with the founding of the Lithuanian club, who adopted a war orphan from Lithuania.
Sigita Balzekas: That’s an excellent point, Sandy, because I don’t know if people are aware that, in order to immigrate (under the U.S. Displaced Persons Act of 1948), you had to be sponsored by someone here in the U.S.
Sandy Baksys: I learned that my “DP” father had to have a housing sponsor, his paternal aunt Mary Yamont, and she had to find an employer who would certify in writing that he had a job for Dad. Then, when my father first arrived in the summer heat of June 1949, he lived with his aunt and her three adult children in a one-bedroom house. Two of them slept in the living room, two in the bedroom, and one in the kitchen.
Sigita Balzekas: I did want to mention the issue of frugality being very much a characteristic of immigrants who’ve experienced challenges in their previous lives before coming to the United States, and then remaining exceedingly conservative here and fearful that one day all of this, too, will be lost. You talk in the book about the effect that that had on you, growing up, with your “DP” father being as careful and cautious as he was–yet your American-born mother trying to find ways to make opportunities for all of you to enjoy your life in the United States.
I totally identify and I remember you used a phrase, “the discipline of self-deprivation,” which I think is just right on. I also remember my parents always saying that whatever surplus there was, it went to Lithuania or in support of Lithuanian causes.
Sandy, you and I grew up at about the same time, so we saw the same things on TV. (Well, we didn’t even have a television until the mid or late sixties.) But we both saw these happy consumerist homes, the latest comforts. People underestimate the stress an immigrant child feels about fitting in. What was it like for you growing up in that kind of home?
Sandy Baksys: First, you’re not exactly living an independent life. You’re an adjunct or an attachment of your immigrant parent. And the more dysfunctional the parent is, the more upset or the more PTSD he or she has from being a refugee and from the war, that becomes an unrelenting darkness that’s at the center of your life.
That darkness becomes very big and when you’re a child, it kind of fills the house and presses you up against the wall so there’s not enough room for you to develop much of an ego or personality. You are always compensating for your parent’s strangeness, their invisible trauma from their previous lives that you know nothing about. I also grew up a girl in the very materialistic, faddish 1960s, where there were even different toy fads every year and skirt lengths that went from mini to maxi to midi in, like, just three years. Our family couldn’t keep up—didn’t even try—so I think my sisters and I had a kind of hopelessness about ever fitting in.
And what I learned, writing my book, is that family dysfunction or strife on a large scale can impact demographics. There’s one point in my book where I talk about “the enduring immigrant family of origin,” and another point where I list all the factors that, initially surprisingly to me, limited reproduction by the first wave. My dad had six American-born cousins from his first-wave paternal aunts, yet only one of those six cousins had just one child. I am one of six daughters of a second wave parent, and none of us has any children. Personally, I would say my main family affiliation is still the family I was born into, my family of origin. And I think that has a lot to do with my immigrant family experience.
In the first wave, many American-born adult children didn’t move out of their mother’s home until they were in their late 30s, 40s, or ever. Economic barriers to independence combined with the weak or missing personal boundaries between immigrant parents and their children that I just discussed to keep adult children at home. For example, during and after the Great Depression, all members of the immigrant family had to pull together just to survive, often in a small family business like a tavern or a corner grocery. Adult children just kept living and working with their immigrant parents and never married–or if they married, married late, like two of my father’s six cousins who never had children.
Sigita Balzekas: Is there anything you’d like to talk about that we haven’t touched on yet?
Let me mention some of the individuals in my book. You’ll find an immigrant mother who lost five of her seven children in childhood or infancy. A boy who had crippling polio in a family too poor to buy a wheelchair. So, that boy had to crawl around on his belly and his mother had to lift and carry him as much as she could until he died as a teenager.
You’ll find a Lithuanian bootlegging kingpin named Joe Yucas, who was so powerful that he had protection from City Hall, and he had two young men, the Poskevicius brothers, killed in one night in his saloon.
We have a lady who lost two husbands in succession to the mines. There is a charismatic criminal named “Hunkie John,” John Buskiewich. Actually, that’s a story I had to leave out of my book because the third-wave Lithuanians who were reading my blog posts said, “You’ve got so many Lithuanian suicides, murders, bootlegging. Can you please not make Lithuanians look like criminals all the time?” So one of my best stories is only on the blog. And that is “The Ballad of “’Hunkie John,’” who became a heartthrob to dozens of local flapper girls in 1925 when John went on trial for second-degree murder committed during the armed robbery of a roadhouse.
John had had a wretched family life growing up, but whenever he entered the courtroom for his trial, he would greet his supporters like a celebrity. And after he was convicted, he managed to break out of jail. Before he exited, he hit the button to open all the other cells. And when he was running away, he never got farther than a couple of blocks because he decided to stop and see his girlfriend. That’s his story, and the newspapers would call immigrants or Eastern Europeans “hunkies” (a slur, like dago, mic, or wop) back then.
In addition to relying on my volunteer genealogy researchers, Tom Mann and Bill Cellini, Jr., I did a lot of online newspaper searches. Springfield’s State Journal-Register, being a paper of record for the state capital, was a great source. But because “news is negative,” that certainly skewed toward crime and punishment any research that did not involve the Knights of Lithuania, St. Vincent de Paul Church, or veterans and war casualties. Yet, I have to say that with 2000 Lithuanian immigrants in a city of 50,000 back then–to have three unnatural Lithuanian immigrant deaths in just a 12-day period in February 1926, to me, seems disproportionate.
And yet, I don’t want to overemphasize the “wildness” of the first wave or stereotype all its members like the newspapers did back in the 1910s and 1920s. I want to make sure that everybody knows that there was a less visible core of very good people, family people, who really crawled up out of their former lives of degradation in Lithuania or built on the progress made by their immigrant parents. And through hard work and faith and community self-help, these first-wavers achieved an impoverished respectability, and then their families even reached the middle class, particularly as dangerous, dirty industries declined and more white-collar jobs became available in state and federal offices here. So there eventually was a success story, and maybe assimilation is the coda, the final chapter of that story.
Sigita Balzekas: Before we close, Sandy, you must talk about the most famous Lithuanians from Springfield briefly in case someone doesn’t know.
Sandy Baksys: Well, Senator Dick Durbin is the number two man in the dominant party in the Senate, which is the Democrats. He’s from East St. Louis, but he has lived in Springfield since the early seventies. My older sister used to babysit for his children when they were toddlers. His first house in Springfield was a block from where I grew up.
Sigita Balzekas: I would say Rep. John Shimkus, too. He was a Republican representative in Congress.
Sandy Baksys: Yes. Dick Durbin and John Shimkus both played a leading role in founding the Baltic caucuses in the Senate and the House of Representatives in the Congress. They both represented my area here in Springfield—there was a strong conjunction of Lithuanian political power here for several decades. John Shimkus is actually from Collinsville, but the way his district was drawn, he represented the neighborhood where I grew up and where my dad still lived through the 1990s and early 2000s.
Sigita Balzekas: Wonderful. Well, Sandy, I can’t thank you enough. Truly, you’ve shared some terrific insights. And I just realized something. I identify as a displaced person’s child, but my paternal grandfather did come to the United States and did make it into the coal mines of Pittsburgh, only to return to Lithuania to tell my father, “Never immigrate to the United States because you might end up in a coal mine.”
Let me briefly thank our sponsors, the members and donors of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture and the Illinois Arts Council, as well as the City of Chicago, Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
And thank you, again, everyone for coming, and we look forward to seeing you again. I hope you’ll join us on other occasions.
Sandy Baksys: Thank you, Sigita.
Sigita Balzekas: Thank you.