Local Veteran Honored by Lithuania’s Chief of Armed Forces

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

July 2021

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.

Relatives

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.

Lithuanian-American Architect Augie Wisnosky & the Illinois Old State Capitol

Augie Wisnosky at the 40- year tribute to the Old State Capitol project, March 25, 2008.

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.

Ann (Tisckos) Wisnosky, Augie’s mother

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

To read more about Augie’s immigrant family history, seehttps://lithspringfield.com/2014/06/07/an-immigrant-childhood-ann-tisckos-wisnosky/ and

https://lithspringfield.com/2014/11/23/bankers-to-lithuanians/

Springfield Welcomes Young Lithuanian Dancers

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Lithuanian Folk Dancers in Springfield!

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!

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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!
  • 10:45-11:30 a.m. Tuesday, May 21, Senior Services of Central Illinois on Mason St.

There is an opportunity to dine with the troupe at a self-pay lunch or dinner Tuesday, May 21. Contact sandybaksys@gmail.com by Saturday, May 18, if interested.

The Remarkable Len Naumovich

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.

https://lithspringfield.com//?s=Naumovich&search=Go

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

In Memoriam: Vincas “Vince” Baksys 1919-2018

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

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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.

 

yamont home c1965 2102 peoria rd.

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.

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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.”

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Pilgrimage for an Uncle Lost in World War II

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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.”

Uncle George's Headstone

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.)

 

2018 Ardennes Cemetary Uncle George's Grave

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.’ ”

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Part III: Lithuania’s Greatest Generation

The book “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon” contains 18 oral histories of Lithuanians who became war refugees between 1940 and 1944. Next month, my review of “We Thought…” will be published in the English-language monthly, Draugas News. Please read below for the third and last in my series on this wonderful book.

Chori. Wehnen, Germany camp. Pijus Cepulis Collection, dpcamps.org

Lithuanian choir, Wehnen ‘DP’ Camp, Germany. Courtesy of Pijus Cepulis Collection, dpcamps.org

‘Little Lithuania’ in the Displaced Persons Camps

Almost every refugee in this book recounts the sudden and remarkable flowering of Lithuanian culture and education–including schools, drama troupes and choirs–as soon as war refugees sorted themselves into their own national groups within the system of post-war “displaced persons” camps.  What is truly remarkable is that these feats of national and cultural assertiveness occurred literally as soon as the camps were organized.

Lithuanian elementary and high schools and Lithuanian Scouts with hand-sewn uniforms were already appearing the same month that the war ended, in barracks where food was still scarce and shelter primitive.  What could this be except Lithuania re-created by refugees with nothing left but their passionate desire to return home soon?

Certainly Germany was not home, but its postwar camps were an immediate collection point for those only recently exiled: the closest spot in time and space to home, where atomized individuals could reunite in their major expression of communal desire.

Of course, it helped that so many of the exiles were leading Lithuanian academics, educators, and cultural figures. One can imagine them living and organizing by their wits in a place where they are not entitled to anything but the most basic sustenance–and almost everything has been consumed by war.

UNRRA TEAM 569, 1 dollar Lithuanian camp currency, SCHEINFELD, Germany. Source icollector

One dollar, Lithuanian camp currency, Scheinfeld, Germany camp administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).  Courtesy of icollector.com

Yet educator Jonas Kavaliunas tells us that a Lithuanian school already had been organized by May 10, 1945, in the Freibug camp(s), and the same month, in Tubingen. He details the printing of one of the first Lithuanian grammar texts in Stuttgart in December 1945—as well as the difficulty of obtaining paper, ink, and a functional printing press for the job. “The idea (of organizing schools in the camps, where hunger was a daily experience), was that returning to Lithuania in a short time, our children wouldn’t have lost a year (of schooling).”

Joana Krutuliene recalls, “All of that activity was so vibrant, people were exceptionally creative.  Having nothing, really, they were capable of doing, working, acting in concert…establishing schools…The artistic ensembles (choirs and drama groups) made us feel alive, united us in some way…Such a vital life, such a desire to survive, to be active.”

Conflicting Views of the First Wave

It is also in the camps that many “DP”s have their first encounters with Lithuanian-Americans of, or descended from, ‘first wave’ immigrants (who had arrived 1880-1914). Usually these are only passing mentions of help from Lithuanian-American priests, Army translators or common soldiers.

rockinghorse.Lithuanian Research and Studies Center Inc archives Hanau 1947 publication unknown

Lithuanian ‘DP’ child on wooden rocking-horse in Hanau, Germany camp, 1947. Clipping courtesy of Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, Chicago.

Once in the United States, many of the same “DP”s complain of  “first-wavers” from a more primitive Lithuania who don’t understand them or the more advanced Lithuania from which they have come. The farmer Taoras tells of “a good-hearted man of the old emigration” who helps him advance at work in Chicago–to the point where all the other “first-wavers” on the job burn with envy. (My father had a similar experience when he improved himself too fast for his American-born first cousins.)

Yet almost every refugee in this collection ultimately is sponsored by a member or descendant of the Lithuanian “first wave” under the U.S. Displaced Persons Act of 1948, from which the shorthand “DP” derives.  Krutuliene sums it up best when she says, “I appreciate (those) Lithuanians…so much because when we got here, there was already something here for us: there were parishes already, churches already. Their Lithuanian heritage had survived, and I regret that somehow we didn’t end up making very much of a connection with them.”

Whatever their differences, the “DP” (“second wave”) immigrants did build on the institutions of the first. Their tremendous post-settlement achievement in building dozens of “heritage” schools, choirs, dance ensembles and summer camps was based in already-established Lithuanian Catholic parishes. It was from this “first wave” base that the “DP”s preserved and passed on the great cultural revival of newly independent Lithuania (1918-1940) they were a part of before being displaced.

Starting Over in America

In many ways, we can think of the flowering of “DP” heritage institutions in resettlement as an echo of that passionate, first flowering of Lithuanian culture in the camps. By the late 1940s, the camps were being dismantled and it was time for those who had united in creative, communal striving to be dispersed around the world to re-start their lives from nothing but hard work.  Certainly this campaign of resettlement from post-war Germany  was preferable to any forcible return to the refugees’ Soviet-controlled homeland.

However, it dispersed people who had just reunited as a national community and who wanted more and more passionately to remain together, as a national group, the clearer it became that they could not “go back soon.” As a result, in the short term, resettlement seemed to me a second diaspora even sadder and more radical than the first, tearing apart friends and even families who had somehow managed to stay together while fleeing Lithuania or to reunite in tremendous cultural enterprise in the camps.

Many separations were due to the rules of immigration or refugee sponsorship in the host countries. For example, my father was separated from his brothers and sister to arrive alone to a sponsor in Springfield, Illinois. In the book, there is the story of a female Lithuanian doctor who has to leave her handicapped daughter in an institution in Italy in order to immigrate to the United States (after being able to keep her daughter with her through the entire flight from Lithuania and her time in the camps.)

 

DISPLACED PERSONS FROM LITHUANIA ARRIVING IN AUSTRALIA, Image Copyright Western Australian Museum

Lithuanian ‘DP’s arriving in Australia. Copyright Western Australian Museum.jpeg

Furthermore, without anything like their first geographic “collection point” in Germany,  this second dispersal and permanent resettlement of refugees in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and South America required “DP”s to create their own new  “collection points.” Geographic dispersal as a result of host nations’ immigration and sponsorship rules–as well as more local work, career and housing conditions–was a  formidable centrifugal force.

Yet even without all or most of their peers from the camps–and with less time and energy due to the demands of constant work to support themselves and their families without even the primitive support once provided by the camps—the “DP” refugees still managed to build new “Little Lithuanias” all over the world.

Lithuania’s ‘Greatest Generation’

I don’t know if this makes the “DP”s Lithuania’s “Greatest Generation” alongside tens of thousands of their peers who stayed behind and died fighting the Soviets as partisans. But I fully understand the impulse to consider them such.  Even in their later years, after decades of work and struggle in the U.S., Lithuanian refugees in this collection—just like my retired factory worker father–are still thinking of how they can help their beloved native land and their relatives there.

Despite her personal losses and drastic uprooting as a young woman, Krutuliene muses, “It’s good that a part of us is here in immigration” because of the ability to financially support relatives back home–and from 1948-1991 to agitate for independence in ways impossible inside the U.S.S.R.

Petras Aleksa recalls, “My idea (after immigrating) wasn’t to have a job or money—it was important to make my own contribution to Lithuania.”

Damusis, a chemist on the verge of giving his homeland a cement industry at the time it lost independence, describes how advancing Lithuania through one’s highest educational and professional potential “was a rallying cry, and not just for me…Everyone (in the “DP” generation), no matter what they did, made something good of it (for Lithuania.) Twenty-two years of independence provided the impetus for this.”

Kavaliunas, the lifelong educator, concludes, “20 years of independence (1918-1940) imparted (so much) to Lithuanians, instilling in them the love of country—this was the huge capital that they brought with them from Lithuania.”

First published in Lithuanian in 2014, “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon” became available in English in 2017–just in time for the 2018 centennial of the restoration of a modern and independent Lithuanian state. There could hardly be a better time to hear the voices of the generation forged in the heady patriotism, passion for education, and service to country that independence inspired—so many lives inspired by one great idea.

 

Thanks to William Cellini, Jr., for retrieving the images for these posts from various websites.

Please write to sandybaksys@gmail.com if you live in the Springfield area and would like a copy of the book for $15 plus shipping. “We Thought We Would Be Back Soon” can also be purchased on Amazon.com

Part II: ‘We Thought We’d Be Back Soon’

The book “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon” contains 18 oral histories of Lithuanians who became war refugees between 1940 and 1944. Next month, my review of “We Thought…” will be published in the English-language monthly, Draugas News.

To celebrate this wonderful book and to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the law that permitted “displaced persons” or “DP”s like my father Vince to immigrate to the U.S., I’m publishing this second in a series of blog posts based on the book. Images for these post were contributed by William Cellini, Jr.

4 UNRRA Food Stores employees at the Lithuanian DP camp in Seedorf. Source albionmich.com

Lithuanian UNRRA food store employees, Seedorf  “DP” Camp, postwar Germany. Courtesy of Albionmich.com

History in the Human Voice

By its accumulation of  human detail,  “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon” enhances anything the reader may already have believed or known about the flight of the Lithuanian “DP” generation during WW II. Almost without effort, the descendants of  “DP”s will find gaps in their own family stories filled.

It’s as if a veil between the generations has been lifted, and we can suddenly see our “DP” parents or grandparents as they were when they were young during a desperate time in a different world. We are there. And certain images and anecdotes, different for each reader, will linger long after the reading is over.

On the humorous side, we have an invading Nazi column that stops on the outskirts of a Lithuanian town in June 1941 so the soldiers can shine their shoes and shave before presenting themselves as occupiers.

And for the heart-wrenching, we have the story of the Lithuanian infant born into such want, with only a sheet to be swaddled in, that she dies on a train passing through Berlin in late  1944 and is buried by German strangers in between bombardments.

There is the Lithuanian railroad manager who refuses passage on one of Lithuania’s last departing, overcrowded trains to the wife and children of his Soviet-deported and executed co-worker–while filling two rail cars with his personal possessions.

There is hapless Juozas Taoras, the farmer, who in 1945 is forced to flee his first good job with servicemen in the American occupation zone to escape arrest as a Nazi sympathizer–simply because he has dared equate Stalin with Hitler.

Personally, I will never forget the brave grocery shop girl who’s exiled to Siberia in 1941 after she dares tell the wives of two occupying Russian officers not to butt in line because there was plenty of food in Lithuania before the Soviets emptied store shelves.

And, there is one unforgettable anecdote about the Red Army’s campaign of rape in conquered Germany. In it, a desperate Lithuanian “DP” mother protects herself and two young girls by screaming in broken Russian that she is not German but Lithuanian–and can’t wait to go home now that Lithuania is Soviet-“liberated.”

Falling Back with Germans—or Nazis?

As a fractal of the bigger “Why leave Lithuania” question, the modern American reader, perhaps attaching guilt-by-association to Lithuanians falling back on the same roads, trains, and ships as Nazi forces, might wonder, “Why flee into German lands?” The answers here are often not explicit because of the obvious duality of the dilemma of Lithuanians caught between Stalin and Hitler.

However, bookkeeper Brone Parbaciene, whose husband has been tortured and mutilated to death by the NKVD at Rainiai Forest, lays it out straight: “I had already suffered at the hands of the Russians, so I fled to the other side, which took us in.”

Valerija Sileikiene explains,  “We thought: two devils–one’s brown and the other’s red. Let’s choose the brown devil.” Nevertheless, as refugee families flee deeper into “German lands,” their life-and-death need for work-linked food ration cards and housing–as well as transit papers to reunite with their involuntary inducted husbands–makes it  impossible to see these refugee’s German hosts as uniformly evil.

A Range of German Experiences

We have callous Nazi-loving estate owners who force Lithuanians to work for insufficient food and sleep with their children in filthy pigsties. We have soldiers who shoot hungry refugees whose only crime was to enter abandoned Konigsberg / Karalauciaus homes from which German farmers have fled. But we also have small German farmers, soldiers, bureaucrats, and midwives who help to feed, clothe, and shelter a flood of anti-Soviet refugees amid the shared hardships of war.

One Lithuanian mother gratefully remembers how her toddler received an egg every day, despite German food shortages. Another mother is efficiently delivered of her placenta, post-childbirth on the open road, by a German Army doctor in retreat with his unit who refuses any payment. German police who initially insist penniless refugees pay their own train fares to an interrogation point proceed to lend them the cash to do so—which the refugees conscientiously repay.

The Survival Advantages of Language

Over and again, German culture and language proficiency permits Lithuanian professionals and intellectuals to bargain for what they need from harried authorities and locate and take refuge with friends and relatives already living in “German lands” (meaning Konigsberg and occupied Poland as well as Germany, itself).

However, the helpful German connections possessed by urban Lithuanians who have higher education or have worked in interwar German-owned businesses–or for example, under Lithuania’s German occupation railroad authority–are lacking among rural Lithuanian refugees—with negative results.  Not understanding or speaking German, perhaps my farm father and his brothers didn’t even know they were being inducted until they were spirited by train to Innsbruck, Austria, in December 1944 for basic training. (Christmas always seemed difficult for Dad because he I think he remembered doing push-ups interminably in the bitter cold on Christmas morning 1944 because several other inductees had disobeyed their German officers and refused to fall out.)

Even if Dad and his brothers had understood they were being inducted, perhaps it was no different from when they had all been taken against their wills in Lithuania to dig German trenches and foxholes, later escaping under fire. Once these young men had lost everything and become refugees, perhaps they felt they had to bow to the unknown purpose Germany had for them as the price for their escape from a known and far worse Soviet fate.

By no means could men who had been limited to their farm and village world have taken advantage of professional or extended family connections already living in Germany.  Nor did they have an alternative trade or profession in war-time short supply. (Lithuanian doctors like Juozas Meskauskas and Janina Jakseviciene were immediately put to work in understaffed civilian hospitals and clinics.)

A Farmer’s Unique Trauma

In fact, subsistence Lithuanian farmers like my father experienced unique trauma in their flight from homesteads whose improvement had been the work of their entire lives—the land and its cycles, their entire world. For these rural refugees, the reality of all they were leaving hit hardest at being relieved, as soon as they crossed Lithuania’s western border, of their wagons and horses. (Often, milk cows had already been left behind on the road because they couldn’t keep pace with horses).

Farmer Taoras tells how, before leaving for a point further from the front, he and his wife go to see the horses they were forced to sell the day before to the German Army:

“(At first) when we fled, we weren’t sorry for anything, just to get away faster,” he recalls. But as the couple approaches their horses, the animals see and recognize them. Having gone unfed and tied to a rail all day and night, the horses begin neighing and pawing expectantly, hoping that their longtime owners will feed them.

Helplessly, Taoras recalls, “We came up and stroked them…and both my wife and I began to cry because they had pulled so faithfully, they had pulled so much that they were now skin and bones…It was an abandonment. Our last asset was the horses.”

Coming Next:  Part III of “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon.”  Read how Lithuanian refugees established “Little Lithuanias” in their postwar “DP” Camps and then started all over again in America.