At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, the Illinois State Museum in downtown Springfield will show the 1-hour documentary film, “Displaced.” This FREE public showing is co-sponsored by the Lithuanian-American Club of Central Illinois in memory and honor of our own “displaced persons” (“DPs”), still living or deceased, who found refuge in the U.S. after World War II. (See the movie trailer at this link: https://vimeo.com/297785221 )
Please come to the Museum’s downstairs auditorium and bring a friend. The film will be publicly dedicated to the following individuals and families: Irene Blazis, Romualda (Sidlauskas) Capranica, Vince Baksys; Kaz and Vida Totoraitis; Alphonse, Lucyna, and Grazina Maculevicius; Constantine, Helgi, and Mike Lelys; Vita and Ben Zemaitis; Paul, Sophie, and Hank Endzelis; Stephanie, Walter, and Violeta Abramikas; and the Uzgiris, Sidlauskas, and Paulionis families.
“Displaced” is the story of the refugees who fled westward into Germany from Lithuania and other Eastern European countries in the final, desperate days of WWII to escape the Soviet conquest of their homelands. The story is told by former child refugees, whose interviews are illustrated with newsreel footage and animation.
Learn how the refugees believed they were leaving only until the end of the war, when they expected the Soviet Army to retreat and the independence of their homelands to be restored. See how refugees were accommodated if they were lucky enough to reach the American, British, and French occupation zones of post-war Germany, and often coerced to return to Soviet-occupied homelands, where they feared for their lives.
See life in the refugee camps established by the precursor to the United Nations. Learn how the refugees became immigrants when the U.S.S.R. did not withdraw from their homelands and they had to re-start their young lives in exile, their parents often working as manual laborers in countries with post-war manpower shortages.
Several hundred World War II displaced persons (“DPs”) from all over Eastern Europe arrived to work in the Springfield area, thanks to relatives, churches, and employers who sponsored them under the U.S. Displaced Persons Act of 1948. Please join us at the Museum Sept. 15 to commemorate this history, and reflect on the massive, new Ukrainian refugee crisis in Europe.
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.
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.
Recently, retired Lithuanian Chief of Defense Arvydas Pocius learned he once had a cousin from Springfield, Illinois, who had served in the Korean War. Lt. Gen. Pocius honored his deceased cousin Al (Albert) Kupris of Springfield in the July 2021 issue of Lithuania’s Karys (Warrior) magazine. Our friend Vida Totoraitis translated the article (below) into English.
Korean War Soldier Corporal Albertas Juozapas Kupris
By Retired Lt. Gen. Arvydas Pocius
Karys (Warrior) Magazine
Many Americans today know little of the war fought by American soldiers on the Korean Peninsula. In America, this conflict that occurred between two tragic, much-better known wars (World War II and Vietnam) is often called “The Forgotten War.”
Yet even though war was never officially declared by the USA, tens of thousands of solders from the USA and other countries, under the banner of the United Nations (UN), participated in defending South Korea. The aim was not only to protect the country, but also to stop the spread of communism from the Soviet Union (USSR) and communist China.
An official peace treaty between the warring sides was never signed and that’s why, even today, there is still a “de facto” state of war between the two Koreas, North and South. American soldiers are still stationed in South Korea to defend its freedom and independence, and that’s why it’s important for us, still today, to understand this history and to remember those who served, including those who are serving even now.
The story of this “Forgotten War” reminds me of the novel “The Alchemist” by the popular Brazilian writer Paolo Coelho. The main character in the book abandons his village and sets out on a quest for his “life’s treasure.” Traveling all over the world, he experiences a whole range of adventures and dangers. Not finding what he was looking for, he ultimately returns home and then, unexpectedly, near the ruins of his childhood church, his long quest is finally fulfilled.
As readers of Warrior Magazine already know, since 2012 I’ve undertaken the initiative to search for our Lithuanian countrymen (compatriots) spread around the world who have taken part in wars or military operations on behalf of their diaspora countries. The stories of American soldiers of Lithuanian descent who served in the US Army were published first in Warrior Magazine, and then in 2014, in a collection entitled, “Knights of Freedom.” In 2020, a second edition of the book “Knights of Freedom” published the stories of diaspora soldiers who had served in the armies of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.
Continuing my research through the labyrinth of the Internet, I came across information on my father’s maternal cousin, Albert Juozapas Kupris, who lived with his parents in Springfield, Illinois. I was surprised to learn that Albertas had served in the U.S. Army in the Korean War, something we relatives in Lithuania had never known. Understandably, during the period of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, it was not permitted to write about military service. Nor did my modest cousin Albert ever mention it.
Albert, his wife Rita, and their son Albert Joseph Kuprys, Jr. (Kuprys became Kupris in the USA) traveled to their ancestral Lithuanian homeland in May 1993 after its restoration of national independence. They even traveled to Skuode and saw the mill on Albert’s ancestors’ land. However, by that time, because of the death of Albert’s mother Vincenta Maceviciute, the bonds between the two branches of the family had long been broken (so we did not meet).
Albert’s mother Vincenta was the sister of my father’s mother Ona Maceviciute. They were born in Rusiupiu village in the Skuodo district of Lithuania. There were a total of three brothers and six sisters in the family. In 1928, Vincenta, being 19 years old, married a much older man, Albinas Kuprys, the son of a well-to-do farmer whose family owned a mill near Skuode. Six months later, the couple went to live in Springfield, Illinois, where in April 1929, their son Albertas Juozapas Kuprys (Sr.) was born.
The parents baptized him at St. Vincent de Paul (Lithuanian) Catholic Church, to which Albinas already belonged. In Springfield, Albert attended Catholic grade school. He played basketball on his Catholic boys high school team and learned to play the violin and concertina. Later, he even entertained at various Lithuanian events, such as weddings. In 1947, after graduating from high school, Albert got a job at Springfield’s Sangamo Electric Company, where he was certified as an equipment operator. He worked at this factory for more than 31 years.
In the Korean War
During the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, sisters Ona and Vincenta Maceviciute only took the risk of writing to each other on special occasions. Interestingly, Albert’s wife Rita still has, in her possession, several well-preserved examples of this correspondence, which she sent copies of to me while I was searching for material about Albinas, Vincenta’s husband. These copies of the sisters’ correspondence included several envelopes mailed from Soviet-occupied Lithuania.
In 1951, with the start of military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the USA decided to plunge into the fight in order to defend this war-torn country, already ravaged by the Japanese during WWII, against further invasion by the communist USSR and China. The US government instituted a military draft and Albert was called up to serve in the U.S. Army. Due to his civilian expertise, he was assigned to an engineering unit.
Albert completed a course on war engineering in Missouri, and after several months of basic combat training, he was deployed to the Korean war zone. There, he served for 11 months, seven days on active duty.
After his Korean mission, he was transferred to active reserve and assigned to the 5th Army 574 mission unit (GCED Granite City, Ill.). He remained in the active reserves for five years.
In a letter about her husband, Rita Kupris writes that in her youth, just after marrying Albert, she took an interest in his Army service. However, he did not reveal much, only that he had been called up at about the same time that he became a specialist at Sangamo Electric. He did convey to Rita that he did not regret his military service and was proud that he had done his duty with honor. He also described how he had taken special courses in infantry combat and military engineering to prepare for his mission in Korea. He never complained of the hardships there.
When Rita wanted to find out more about her husband’s wartime impressions and experiences, he would answer that American commanders had forbidden soldiers from talking about them. However, a few weeks prior to his death (Albert had cancer and died from complications of surgery), Albert, with tears in his eyes (which in 39 years of married life Rita had very rarely seen), finally began to talk about his service in the Korean War.
With great emotion, he related to Rita how the North Korean communist soldiers did not provide aid to their own wounded soldiers on the battlefield and also failed to bury their dead.
These facts notwithstanding, with great sorrow, Albert then told his wife that his best friend had died by his side in battle, and that there had been no way to immediately retrieve his body due to the need for retreat. That image of his friend’s abandoned body, even though it was later retrieved and buried with honors, had remained in Albert’s mind all the rest of his life, his most lasting impression of the war.
During the Korean conflict, US Army engineers had encountered many obstacles due to the country’s climate, terrain, and poor transportation infrastructure, and this was a real hindrance to the US and its United Nations allies. In fact, the complicated terrain often enhanced the enemy’s advantage in massive surprise attacks.
The Army’s engineering units, including Albert’s, countered the enemy’s advantages and its ability to launch surprise attacks by blowing up important bridges and lines of communication to put the brakes on the enemy’s movements. This often provided the time necessary for UN soldiers to regroup and reinforce defensive positions, even to create substantial defensive lines.
Because Albert took part in actual combat, in addition to military engineering, he was presented with the U.S. Army Combat Infantry Badge, as well as the U.N. Medal and Korean Service Medal with Bronze Star.
Albert died Jan, 7, 2008 and was buried with honors in the Camp Butler National Cemetery near Springfield with the participation of the Sangamon District Military Burial Group of veterans. This contingent included representatives of all branches of U.S. forces. A bugle played taps, the traditional melody dedicated to the memory of fallen warriors.
Rita Kupris says that after the ceremony, she met with a veteran who had been a friend of Albert’s while both served in Korea. According to the friend, everybody in their company had held Albert in high esteem. Unfortunately, after their military service, Albert and the man had never met again.
At the end of her letter to me, Rita Kupris acknowledged that it was very difficult for her to write her remembrances of her not so long ago departed, beloved husband. She said that as memories filled her heart with love, esteem, pride, sorrow, and loneliness, tears had filled her eyes. However, Rita said, she had ultimately found pleasure in re-visiting Albert’s photos and service documents—and great gratitude for the blessings of such a long married life with such an amazing man.
Seeking to make contact with someone from the Alexander (Alessandrini)–Brazitis family for assistance with the photo of an ancestral relative. Should you be related to either family and have old family photos please contact this blog. Thank you!
When Mrs. Ann (Tisckos) Wisnosky worked in the Old State Capitol downtown (during its tenure as the Sangamon County Building), she could never have suspected that her son Augie one day would be the resident architect on the massive historical renovation of Springfield’s most monumental Lincoln-era building.
From 1966-68, Augie was resident engineer on site for the architectural firm Ferry Henderson. He supervised the dismantling of the historic Old State Capitol stone by stone, saving and storing each of those external stones, building offices and parking underground (where the Illinois State Library is now located), and then rebuilding the interior to resemble the way it looked during Lincoln’s time.
Although Augie must have known about Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech at the Old State Capitol, he couldn’t have known that the grand historic site would later host the presidential campaign announcement of President Barack Obama in Feb. 2007, or the announcement of Obama’s choice of running mate, then-Senator Joe Biden, in August 2008. History-making in front of the old capitol’s massive columns undoubtedly continue well into the future…
To learn more about Augie’s on-site management of the Old State Capitol restoration, which was commemorated with a plaque and ceremony in April 2018, please listen to his oral history at http://www.oralhistory.illinois.gov
YOUNG LITHUANIAN DANCERS SHOWCASE CULTURE, BUILD BRIDGES
May 20. 2019—SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS–The SUVARTUKAS Folk Dance Ensemble of Plunge, Lithuania, will present a FREE exhibition by 12 teenage dancers showcasing the traditional costumes, music and dance of their country at 7 p.m. Monday, May 20, at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.
They will perform again for free from 10:45-11:30 a.m. Tuesday, May 21, at the Springfield Senior Center on Mason Street before departing Wednesday for Chicago.
Yesterday, the award-winning dancers performed for a full house in the Atrium of the Illinois State Museum. Their Hoogland Center performance tonight will be as guests of the Springfield International Folk Dancers.
The talented, young Lithuanian dance troupe is on a two-week tour of the U.S. as part of the nonprofit Rotary Children’s Fund’s “Golden Gates” Youth Cultural Exchange program that aims to build bridges across countries and cultures.
Suvartukas offers audiences an entertaining and authentic glimpse into the nation of Lithuania, its people and history, through dance, costumes, and music. The group’s repertoire presents traditional folk masterpieces and has something for everyone, including audience participation though clapping and dancing with the group in a grand finale
“We are excited and proud to meet these young ambassadors of Lithuania, a nation that sent 2,000 immigrants to our area more than 100 years ago,” said Sandy Baksys, spokesperson for the Lithuanian-American Club of Central Illinois. The Lithuanian Club and Sunrise Rotary are local co-sponsors of the dancers’ three-day visit to Springfield.
Yesterday, the young Lithuanians and their choreographer, Ilona Baltikauskaite, were welcomed by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin in the rotunda of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Senator Durbin spoke of his own mother, Ona Kutkaite, who immigrated to East St. Louis from Lithuania as a child.
“This will be a great chance for many in our area to re-connect with their lost Lithuanian heritage,” Baksys said. “But the lively dancing and music are really for everyone—these are exhilarating, educational and free performances–in beautiful costumes–for audiences of all ages.”
Come and see the first #Lithuanian folk dance ensemble to visit Springfield in decades–if ever!
FREE! FREE! FREE PUBLIC PERFORMANCES!
Come and bring your kids and grandkids to watch, meet and mingle with the 12 talented kids, 16-18, of the SUVARTUKAS Folk Dance Ensemble from Plunge, Lithuania on their first visit to the United States–Let’s welcome them in a big way!
SCHEDULE OF PERFORMANCES
2:00-3:00 p.m. Sunday, May 19, Illinois State Museum–FREE admission to see the performance in the first-floor atrium. Meet and mingle afterwards.
7-8 p.m. Monday, May 20, Hoogland Center for the Arts Club Room (as guests of the Springfield International Folk Dancers). Just watch or learn a dance!
Len Naumovich, the beloved father-in-law of Tom Mann, the researcher who helped me so faithfully with my blogsite and book, has died. Fortunately, I got to meet and interview Len a few years ago, thanks to Tom and his wife Mary, Len’s oldest daughter.
I first met Len and his brother Joe in May 2012 at our “Lithuanians in Springfield” historical marker dedication in Enos Park. The brothers told me of their memories living around the corner from my Lithuanian immigrant great aunt, Mary Yamont. Later, I was able to include the story of Len and Joe’s “immigrant childhood” on this blog and in my book, “A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois.” But there is so much more than I ever knew about Len in the obituary (below), written by his loving family.
Please join me in offering them our sympathy–and in celebrating a remarkable life. You might also want to re-read my blog post about Len’s immigrant childhood and his musically talented Lithuanian coal-mining immigrant dad–also named Len.
From the Illinois State Journal-Register, March 6, 2019
Len Naumovich 1926 – 2019
Springfield, IL—After 92 years of living life to its fullest, Len Naumovich’s heart never did give out. It remained vibrant and abundant until the end.
With his beloved wife, Jean, Len raised 10 kids, earned the admiration of 10 in-laws, served as a role model for 32 grandchildren, and was adored by 22 great-grandchildren. A patriarch who never sought to rule, but rather to inspire with kindness and acts of endless generosity.
Len served his country in the Marine Corps, a sterling representative of the “Greatest Generation”. Before he retired in 1992, Len had a successful career at Sangamo Electric, and later at CWLP, but he worked even harder for his family. That was his calling. His passion.
Len built homes from the foundation up. Figuratively, yes, but literally as well. In his hammer-swinging and frame-raising days, he and his brother, Joe, constructed more than a dozen houses for family and friends. It was never his occupation, rather something he did on evenings and Saturdays because the people he loved needed someplace to live.
These houses serve as monuments to that heart that never did give out. As do the bookcases, tool benches, decks, sheds, pantries, and fences he built. The kitchens and basements he renovated. Len never needed a blueprint, just the precise plan he concocted in his mind, that was true to a fraction of an inch. A prodigious problem solver, he was forever on call to fix a dishwasher, rewire a light socket, or get a lawn mower humming again. This is the trade of the mechanically minded. And he loved it.
A heart filled with music will never miss a beat. Len’s was always in rhythm. He played baritone and drums in the Marine Corps. He married an opera singer. He directed the choir at St. Aloysius Catholic Church through their hymns on Sundays. On Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, Len favored the victory marches of the Cyclones and Fighting Irish, but his favorite sounds of all were those his children made when playing piano, singing with the madrigals, and leading a band. He also had a soft spot for Sousa.
But it wasn’t just family. Len’s love extended to the community. The hometown he loved. He served on the board of Calvary Cemetery. He was the handyman for Villa Angela, a home for those who needed one the most. The folks at the Central Illinois Community Blood Center knew Len by name. He donated 35 gallons of platelets in his day, just because he had them and others needed them.
A heart doesn’t thrive on love alone. Physiology comes into play as well. Len was always active. Sixteen-inch softball was his game, played without gloves or pretension on the diamonds of Lake Springfield. He later took up running and, when his knees and hips had had enough, he gave them a rest and turned to walking. Walking every day down the streets of Indian Hills and around the aisles of his favorite home store. Walking until his body finally gave out; walking straight up to Heaven.
But Len’s heart has not left us, and his wish is that we do not despair. His heart is beating as strong as ever, in everyone who knows him. Family and friends. Neighbors and parishioners. Co-workers, teammates and people met on the street. Ask his caregivers, they’ll tell you. In that final victory lap, Len was as valiant as any person could be. Be sad but rejoice because there’s been a man no finer.
If you’d like to honor a life like no other, then heed the wishes he has for his family. The legacy he leaves behind: “Take care of each other. Be kind to each other. Stay active.” Do that, and you’ll live like Len.
Leonard is survived by his wife, Jean; brother, Joe Naumovich; children, Mary Ann (Tom) Mann, Barb (John) Monark, Joan Naumovich, Patricia (Esteban) Sanchez, Len (Cindy) Naumovich, Jim (Carolyn) Naumovich, Carol (Dan) Durham, Dan (Tammy) Naumovich, Nancy (Rob) Kerr, Laura (Rick) Soehnlin, 32 grandchildren; and 22 great-grandchildren.
Visitation: Family will receive friends from 4:00 – 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 7, 2019, at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, 2119 N. 20th St., Springfield. The visitation will begin with a prayer service at 4:00 p.m.
Funeral Mass: 10:30 a.m. on Friday, March 8, 2019, at St. Aloysius Catholic Church with Rev. Clinton P. Honkomp, OP, celebrant.
Burial will follow in Calvary Cemetery.
Memorial contributions may be made to St. Aloysius Catholic Parish, 2119 N. 20th Street, Springfield, IL 62702.
The family of Len Naumovich is being served by Butler Funeral Home-Springfield, 900 S. 6th St. Springfield.
Please visit butlerfuneralhomes.com to offer your condolences.
Published in Print in The State Journal-Register from Mar. 6 to Mar. 7, 2019
From Sandy Baksys: This piece about my dad originally was published by the Illinois Times on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. I have added some photos with captions here.
VINCAS “Vince” Baksys
Sept. 9, 1919 – Aug. 27, 2018
LIFE IN THE SHADOW OF HISTORY
Dad’s immigration photo under the U.S. Displaced Persons Act of 1948. His right eye was scraped by a horse’s bridle during the war when it could not be treated, and it eventually went blind.
Decades before Donald Trump singled out his own “enemies of the people,” my proudly Lithuanian father Vince found out just how dangerous that label could be in the hands of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
It was during World War II when, for the crime of owning too much land – 40 hectares or about 100 acres – Dad’s entire farm family was targeted for deportation to Siberia by Lithuania’s Russian communist invaders.
Fearing for their lives, in late 1944 Dad’s family fled everything they had ever known by horse-drawn wagon and on foot. (Only half of the family actually made it to the West.) As homeless refugees, they were traumatized by exposure to the elements, “food insecurity,” forced separation from one another, and the final, desperate phase of WWII.
More hard times followed during the immediate postwar period in a devastated Germany. Finally, Dad, his mother, two brothers, and a sister were split up and re-settled wherever in the United States legal sponsors could be found.
My great aunt Mary Yamont’s home at 2102 Peoria Road, since torn down.
That’s how at age 30 in the summer of 1949, my father – penniless, alone and speaking no English – arrived at the tiny Peoria Road house of our Springfield family’s original Lithuanian immigrant, Dad’s paternal aunt Mary Yamont.
L to R: Dad, Cindy, Terry and me, 1960.
Dad’s own father, John, Mary’s older brother, had slaved in Pennsylvania coal mines during the early 1900s to return to Lithuania and buy farmland. Now that land, and more, had been lost. And for the second generation in a row, America became our family’s refuge from brutal Russian occupiers.
Safety was always a concern for the father I knew, especially when it came to his six little girls. Dad’s radar could detect whenever a stray dog or neighbor boy crossed onto our property. I still remember when he physically chased off boys who should have been ashamed to hurl hard, rock-packed snowballs at three-year-old me and my five-year-old sister, Terry.
Throughout childhood, Dad warned us to watch out for a rock or a wire to the eye. He made it known that if we ever had trouble at school or broke a bone or needed stitches, things would not go well for us, besides. When we were older, his warnings shifted to “hot rods.”
Dad’s Aunt Mary Yamont and her daughter Mary (Yamont) Wisnosky, circa 1945.
Having experienced, as an unprotected civilian, the “bloodlands” of central Europe as they were invaded by both Hitler and Stalin, Dad was profoundly anti-war. And the kind of war he hated most was when two or more big-bully nations stoked brother-against-brother carnage within small and helpless countries – like Lithuania.
For him, gunfire on TV westerns was, at once, all-too-fake and all-too-real.
That’s why I am grateful that after losing and suffering so much, Dad was finally able to hold his ground – to live safe and die safe – in his adopted hometown.
Dad with his 1951 green Chevy Bel-Aire in the driveway of our home, 1950s.
In Springfield, my father found the dignity of 31 years of union labor at Fiat Allis, initially earning only $1 an hour. For 57 years, he was able to live safely in the same yellow brick bungalow that he and Mom built in the 2700 block of South State Street. Over the years, Dad’s mental almanac indelibly recorded the name, arrival and move-out (or death) date of every neighbor.
Dad’s 30-year anniversary tie pin from Springfield’s FiatAllis construction equipment factory
The father we knew slept little and was almost always stressed, working and saving. In addition to his factory shifts, Dad worked part time on construction and cutting grass. He made sure that we were never hungry, as he had so often been during and after the war, and that he always had money in the bank.
Dad’s mantra for his daughters, besides plenty of meat (mėsiukės) and milk (pienuko), was that all six of us would have the chance to go to college. And we did.
Throughout our rock ’n’ roll, bell-bottom-wearing 1960s, and (yikes) hot pants and platform shoes-wearing 1970s, we probably couldn’t have seemed stranger to our father from the Old Country. We two generations were split not just city vs. country, but also 20th century vs. 19th.
Our Kohlrus mother, the Springfield-born daughter of German-speaking immigrants, was the cultural mediator who worked to make sure that we got the Christmas gifts and dance lessons that our frugal and self-denying father found extraneous.
In the mainly non-cash, barter world of his youth, Dad’s beloved Lithuania enjoyed its first, brief freedom in centuries and delivered its first public education to the countryside. Still, through the late 1930s, Dad’s family lived in a two-room fir-log cottage with no running water or electricity and plowed with horses. His mother and sisters spun, then wove clothes, from homegrown flax and wool.
All Dad’s girls. Left to right, back row: Cindy, Mom (Josephine) with baby Mary, Terry; front row: Sandy, Pam, and Diane. August 1962.
Reaching the nearest town, some 12 miles away, was an all-day journey by horse and wagon. Time “wasted” on travel could barely be afforded, anyway, when almost everything you ate or used had to come from your own labor.
Dad and his “baby blues” at his 75th birthday surprise party, 1994.
This is the world that we touched through the life of our totally dedicated and self-sacrificing father Vince, who managed to make history his footnote instead of becoming a footnote to history.
This is also what makes Dad’s loss, as the last in his line, feel like the loss of a world.
Springfield native Sandy Baksys is a retired pubic relations writer and former journalist. Her book, A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois, may be purchased at Noonan’s Hardware on North Grand Avenue.
The World War II sacrifice of 20-year-old Air Force Staff Sergeant George Sneckus of Springfield was honored earlier this month with a visit by his niece Teresa (Sneckus) Gregoire to young George’s grave in the Ardennes American Cemetery in Neupre, Belgium.
Son of Lithuanian-born immigrants George and Petronnella (Nellie) Sneckus, George was shot down and killed on his first mission over Germany as a waist gunner on a 10-man B-17 bomber on May 24, 1944. Fifty-seven years after George’s death, his niece Teresa, also of Springfield, made the first and only visit by a relative to the grave of the uncle who had died before Teresa was born. That was back in 2001.
Upon leaving her uncle’s grave, Teresa had mentally promised someday to return. And then earlier this May, all the pieces fell into place for her to do just that–this time, with her husband Ron and their sons Ryan, 35, and Nathan, 28.
“My sons are starting their own families, and so things were only going to get more complicated in terms of making this trip,” Teresa says of the trip’s timing. “I wanted my boys to have this experience when it would mean something to them—as opposed to when they were too young to remember–but while we could still honor George as a family,” she explains.
From May 9-19, the Gregoires visited a dozen military cemeteries in France and Belgium, as well as several war museums, Dunkirk, and Omaha and Utah Beaches in Normandy– as well as the nearby Saint-Lo Cemetery which was filmed in the movie, Saving Private Ryan.
Mother’s Day, Sunday May 13, was particularly poignant for Teresa as she walked among the thousands of white crosses at Saint-Lo. “I was walking among the graves with my boys, and then taps started to play on the hour, and I felt so happy, so grateful that my boys were here, above ground–unlike all the mothers who had to lose their sons.”
Yet as moving as that was, the highlight of Teresa’s family tour was their May 17 visit to the grave of Teresa’s uncle George. “We were all taken aback by the beauty of that particular cemetery, the rows of white crosses and the beautiful green grass,” Teresa recalls. “You can’t believe how beautiful it is–it gives you a sense of peace to see how beautiful everything is kept for all the boys who lost their lives, how well maintained those cemeteries are.”
On her first visit to George’s Belgian grave, Teresa had brought and left soil from the backyard of his Springfield boyhood home. On this visit, she says, “We brought and left behind, near George’s headstone, one of the shells from my dad’s 21-gun salute at his funeral at Camp Butler.
“We also brought dried roses from the spray on my dad’s casket and rubbed what oil was left in those into the letters on George’s cross,” Teresa explains. “Last, we brought a piece of my grandmother’s china and buried a small plate George use to eat from at the head of his grave. My boys kind of pushed it into the ground, and then we took the soil from where the plate had gone in to spread on my dad (George’s brother)’s grave back home.
“In a little ceremony, we said The Lord’s Prayer and sang ‘God Bless America.’ About that same time, the cemetery’s carillon played ‘God Bless America,'” and ‘America the “Beautiful,'” Teresa recalls. (You can read more about Teresa’s quest to learn the true circumstances of George’s death in “Honoring an Uncle Lost in World War II,” Chapter 25 of my book, A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois.)
From left: Nathan and Ryan Gregoire pressing the plate into the ground near George’s headstone, May 17, 2018, Ardennes American Cemetery, Neupre, Belgium.
“George closely resembled my father Julius, who served as a staff sergeant in the Marines, fighting in the Pacific,” Teresa also wrote in Chapter 25. “I sometimes wondered if George had lived and grown older with my father, they would have shared their war stories with us.”
Remembering how much her grandmother Nellie suffered George’s loss, Teresa says she thinks of George’s sacrifice whenever she looks at an American flag. “To me, his sacrifice defines the meaning of patriotism. The memory of George and how he died is something my family will carry with us and honor for the rest of our lives.”
By bringing her sons on pilgrimage to George’s grave this month, Teresa also did the best she could to formally pass his memory down to the next generation for their safe-keeping. “As we were leaving George’s grave, my son Ryan kind of leaned over and kissed the top of his cross, and then Nathan did the same thing, and we all did the same, kind of to say ‘Good-bye, George, and we’ll be back.’ ”
Saying “good-bye, until next time.”
All photos courtesy of Teresa Gregoire.
A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois, can be purchased at Noonan’s Hardware store at 8th and North Grand Ave. in Springfield–or on Amazon.com