Springfield Welcomes Young Lithuanian Dancers



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.”


Lithuanian Folk Dancers in Springfield!

Come and see the first #Lithuanian folk dance ensemble to visit Springfield in decades–if ever!


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!



  • 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.


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


vbaksys.immigration.1949 001

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.

vbaksys.1960 001

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.”

yamont, two marys 001

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.


vbaksys.52chevy 001

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.

Baksys.children.1962 a

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.

vbaksys.75thbirthday.1994 003

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


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.’ ”

Uncle George's Grave - Saying good-bye

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.)



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.



“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 first in a series of blog posts based on the book. Images for these post were contributed by William Cellini, Jr.

8 Soup Line Whenen Camp, Germany. Soruce Pijus Cepulis Collection, dpcamps.org

Lithuanian Scouts learning how to cook & eat “in the field.” Whenen DP Camp, post-war Germany. Pijus Cepulis Collection, DPcamps.org.

Part I:  From Allied POW to American ‘Home Guard’

As traumatized survivors of three invasions of their homeland (Soviets in 1940, Nazis in 1941, and Soviets, again, in 1944), members of Lithuania’s “DP” generation were famously tight-lipped about their World War II refugee experiences.

Until my father Vince was in his 70s and 80s, I learned few details of his flight from the family farm near Vidukle, Lithuania, in October 1944, at age 25, with two horses, a small carriage with a milk cow tied to the back–and only about half of his eight brothers and sisters.

Dad’s “oral history” was taken piecemeal by multiple daughters over many years and was never written down. As a result, we are probably lucky to have learned of Dad’s involuntary induction into a support unit of the German Army in December 1944, his winter 1945 capture by the U.S. Army, and his subsequent 16 months of starvation and hard labor as a POW under various Allied commands.

Dad’s fateful somersault, upon his release in June 1946, from starved and abused POW to service in the U.S. Army “Home Guard,” is reminiscent of the incredible refugee journey at the center of the book, “The 25th Hour.” But there are many similar twists of fate in the Lithuanian oral histories that comprise this collection selected and edited by Dalia Stake Anysas, Dalia Cidzikaite, and Laima Petrauskas Vanderstoep.

A Tapestry of Refugee Experience

Taken in the mid-to-late 1990s, some 50 years after the events being remembered, these personal histories provide a tapestry of war-time experiences disparate in their details. However, more than a few of the stories are so richly detailed that they stand as microcosms of the whole.

In features common to many, fleeing men are separated from their families and forced to dig foxholes under Soviet artillery fire, much as cars and farm animals have previously been requisitioned for the German war effort. (The struggle of Lithuanian civilians to remain non-combatants begins with Lithuanian resistance to the formation of a Lithuanian SS unit, to which the Nazi occupation authority responds by closing Lithuanian universities.)

Everywhere on the refugee road are Lithuanian women fleeing with small children, sometimes giving birth in open wagons in the cold and rain.  As well, there is the unique vulnerability of minors wandering World War II’s killing fields without parental guidance or protection.

More than anything, we experience the refugees’ constant struggle with hunger—and to a lesser degree, exposure to the elements, plus the difficulty of transit further and further west as the Soviet Army advances.

‘Why Did You Leave?’

To the big question, “Why did you leave?” the subjects’ answers are almost unanimous. Those who fled– everyone from intellectuals, teachers and other professionals to farmers–knew they had been slated for a second round of mass deportations to Siberia that the Soviets did not have time to implement before being driven out of Lithuania by the German Army in June 1941.

The atrocity-level treatment of deportees, combined with the brutal NKVD torture and murder of Lithuanian detainees in places like Rainiai Forest, sowed a lasting terror among tens of thousands more so-called “enemies of the state” who could expect similar treatment upon the Russians’ return in 1944.

Inextricably tied to this “why” is the question of how long the refugees expected to be gone. A few interviews are especially insightful in explaining why none of these young refugees who ended up exiled for the rest of their lives expected, when they fled, to be gone for more than a few months.

Over and over, the reader’s sense is that the decision to leave in its full scope and finality was never actually made. For many of the subjects, flight was a series of immediate survival steps without an overarching plan.

 ‘Who Could Have Known?’

At the same time, Russia’s military alliance with the Western powers, as well as the presence of U.S. troops in Germany, implied to the mass of Lithuanian refugees fleeing in summer and autumn 1944 a degree of Western influence over Russia sufficient to restore Lithuanian independence at war’s end and a quick return home.

To return, the refugees needed Lithuania’s borders to return, which unfortunately, didn’t happen for almost 50 years. Confidence in Western influence over the situation first began to erode as the “DP”s witnessed Russian soldiers crossing freely from the Russian zone into the British, French, and American occupation zones in post-war Germany.

New DP Camp Map

Post-war Allied Occupation Zones: graphic located and enhanced by William Cellini, Jr.


To the refugees’ chagrin, Soviet political commissars also were allowed freely to roam the displaced persons (“DP”) camps, arguing and cajoling for the frightened émigrés’ return. Initially, according to these witnesses, some Russians, Balts, and Belorussians were forcibly transported to the Russian zone before the other Allied powers were brought to their senses.

According to Adolfas Damusis, a lifesaving “no forced repatriation policy” was obtained with the help of Lithuanians—perhaps exiled officials of the VLIK–working within UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration that operated the camps.

Brone Urboniene relates how some Yugoslav and Ukrainian “DP”s decided to fight back, attacking, overturning and burning the jeep of Russian political commissars entering their camp to “register” refugees for repatriation. “In the jeep’s trunk, they (the frightened and enraged “DP”s) found all kinds of photographs and lists of us all, the refugees there. And that happened…in the American zone in Munich…There (must have been) people among us who worked for them (the Soviets).

What They Left Behind, and Why

Within the context of the short-term absence the refugees anticipated, Jonas Kavaliunas explains that sick family members, parents—even minor children—were left behind on extended family members’ farms. In the short-term, it was assumed the physically weak would be better off with plenty to eat than on a trek into the unknown. Other evidence of the “DP” expectation of a quick return is found in the universal practice of quickly burying valuables on the homestead that were also assumed to be safer there: china dishes, store-bought Sunday clothes. (Partial impetus for this might been the ragged appearance and “beggarly” behavior of the Soviet Army during its initial occupation of Lithuania in 1940.)

The burial of one family’s supply of lard near Siauliai (flour, bacon and lard turn out to be life-saving supplies) is indicative of another phenomenon. For many refugees, far more than any global decision to abandon the homeland, retreat was a spontaneous series of stops and starts that reflected the advance of the Soviet Army and the hope that leaving Lithuania altogether could be avoided, or at least delayed. In more ways than one, falling back farther and farther meant leaving more and more behind.

In many cases, only that final spasm of retreat across Lithuania’s western border in horse-drawn wagon or on foot invokes the big-picture finality that spurs one refugee to scoop up a handful of soil to carry with her into exile. Others strain for that last glimpse of home through a train’s darkened windows.

Look for Part II of this blog series on, “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon.” Also, please contact sandybaksys@gmail.com or comment here if you live in the Springfield area and would like to purchase a soft-cover copy of the book for $15 plus bulk shipping.

Mystery Wedding Photo

My dear blog followers:  Do any of you know any of the people in this handsome wedding photo from the 1940s or 1950s?  The photo belongs to Donna Morris, and she would like some help naming these familiar faces.

Do you think the groom looks like the muscle man holding up Tony Witkins in this photo (see below right photo)  from Memorial Pool? Please let us know. To me, the groom looks a little like an Urbanckas.

Lith.wedding.DMorris 001



Memorial Pool or Muscle Beach? On left, young Teresa and Tony Witkins. On right, Tony atop unkown strong man.

Part III: 100th Anniversary Tribute to Local Lithuanian Soldiers of World War I

In Memoriam

Graphic by William Cellini, Jr.

End of War, New Beginning for Lithuania

By William Cellini, Jr.

(Editor’s note: Read below of three Lithuanian immigrant soldiers who gave their lives, how a Lithuanian miner wanted to be a war hero so badly he impersonated one, and most important, how the devastation of the Great War finally led to independence for Lithuania. What a great finish to this three-part series by William Cellini, Jr., with  research support from Tom Mann. Thank you! )

Seven months after Armistice Day, on June 25, 1919, thousands of Springfield citizens turned out for a spectacular “welcome home” parade for their World War I soldiers, who were just beginning to come home in large numbers. According to the Illinois State Journal of that date, the parade was “the most inspiring in local history.”

Hundred Days in ISJ, November 18, 1918, p. 1

One year earlier, the same young soldiers had been under fire on the Western Front, turning the tide in favor of the Allies in what was called the “Hundred Days” campaign (August 8 to November 11, 1918). Fighting alongside the French & British in a memorable set of victories, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) brought exhausted Europeans critical reinforcement in terms of both personnel and supplies, helping to bring the four-year war to a speedy victory.

The Opportunities & Perils of Armistice

Like previous events in Europe, World War I provided Lithuania an opportunity to try to free itself  from the czarist Russian Empire, after failed rebellions in 1830 and 1863. In fact, Lithuanian patriots began writing their “declaration of independence” a full year before the Great War’s Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice Agreement.

For the war’s combatants, Armistice was only a temporary measure to stop the fighting. U.S. forces, so integral to ending the war, were not even represented at the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne, in France. Expressing his displeasure over the situation, U.S. General John Pershing indicated to the press that the Armistice did not amount to a full surrender of the Central Powers and that it left too much ambiguity with respect to Germany’s military position.

Wilson to Paris, Peace Conf. ISJ Nov. 19, 1918, p.1

Six months of negotiations followed at the Peace Conference in Paris before a treaty to end the war was signed at the Palace of Versailles in June 1919.  While President Woodrow Wilson remained in the background during peace negotiations, he did take part in talks on the Versailles Treaty and was reportedly “dismayed” by its stipulations.

The treaty forced Germany to disarm, to surrender territories in its colonies and relinquish land ceded by Russia (including Lithuania)–as well as give-up Alsace and Lorraine, two French provinces taken by Germany before the war; pay reparations equaling 20 billion gold marks and in-kind items like coal and cattle, and admit guilt for starting the war. In the 1920s, these measures fanned the flames of German right-wing militarism, leading to the formation of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party–known as the Nazis—thus laying the groundwork for the Second World War in just 20 years.

On the other side of Lithuania, geographically, Imperial Russia had been consumed by a civil war spawned by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  That conflict led to a collapse of the czarist government and ultimately, victory by the Bolsheviks, a socialist revolutionary party that went on to establish the Soviet Union.

Out of the Ashes: Lithuanian Independence

Prior to 1918, Lithuania had been under Imperial Russia’s oppressive control for 123 years.  The modern nation-state of Lithuania, whose centenary will be celebrated in 2018, finally was established from the historical opportunities created by the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the Great War’s end on Nov. 11, 1918.

Local Lithuanian immigrants showed they were plugged into their homeland’s “awakening” when only 16 days after Armistice, they gathered at the Lincoln Library downtown to discuss restoration of Lithuania’s independence. Newspaper coverage of the event sponsored by the Women’s Council for Defense mentioned that Sangamon County had “about three thousand” Lithuanian immigrants with “fifteen hundred” living in Springfield.

Stuart Brown, a noted Springfield lawyer of the period and a Spanish-American War veteran, talked about the history of Lithuania and how the world war had devastated its terrain and population. “There are two (Lithuanian) provinces…which the armies of the Germans and Prussians have marched across nine times,” he said.

This devastation was to continue as Lithuania, after formally declaring independence on Feb 16, 1918, subsequently had to fight its so-called “Freedom Struggles” or Laisvės kovo that included three successive wars. The first was with Bolshevik forces (December 1918 – August 1919), the second with German-backed Russian soldiers (June 1919 – December 1919), and the last,  with Poland (August 1920 – November 1920). Lithuanian immigrants in America, including almost certainly, Springfield, committed men and resources to help free their homeland.

Fr. John Czuberkis of Springfield’s St. Vincent de Paul (Lithuanian) Catholic Church also spoke at the Lincoln Library event. He talked about how he was born “during the worst period of Russian persecution, when the government suppressed the Lithuanian language.”  While discussing freedom for his homeland, he also appealed to local  Lithuanians to speak English so they’d “be more at home with the Americans” [while the] younger generation,  he said, “needs to learn the Lithuanian language, so that they can assist their parents to learn the American ways.”

1st Troops Arrive, ISJ, Dec. 2, 1918 p. 1

Spanish Flu Arrives Before Returning Soldiers

In December 1918, the first U.S. military forces began returning home. But it wasn’t until the spring of 1919 that U.S. forces began their full draw-down and sailed home from the same ports at Brest, St. Nazaire, and Bordeaux where they had landed in 1917 and 1918.  An occupying force of about 15 divisions remained in Europe for post-war demilitarization, and to aid in the medical supervision of people suffering from the Spanish Influenza that first reached pandemic proportions in 1918 and continued circling the globe, killing millions, through the winter of 1919-20.  In the United States alone, from only mid-September to mid-November 1918, approximately 370,000 cases of the flu were reported.

Shell Shock. ISR, March 25, 1918, p. 4

Returning combat soldiers affected by the horrors of the war found minimal opportunities for mental health treatment and support in this period. What today we call post-traumatic stress was then called “shell shock.”  In March 1918, the Illinois State Journal published an article on the topic via its “Ask Uncle Harry” series.

“‘What kind of treatment is given the shell shock victims?’ asked Helen. “Practically no medicine at all,” replied Uncle Harry, “because the doctors realize that the trouble is not physical. The men are removed far from the firing line and kept in quiet places, great care being taken to see that they are not troubled or worried about anything. The best nerve specialists in all the warring countries have been studying shell shock cases ever since the war started…helping thousands of the victims.”

Nevertheless, medical knowledge at the time was insufficient to cure most shell-shocked soldiers, the most afflicted of whom spent their days shaking, blinking, and twitching more violently than if they’d had Parkinson’s.

Lithuanian Miner Impersonates Shell-Shocked War Hero

One Lithuanian soldier from Sangamon County reportedly used the war to claim a glory not rightly his. And he created a false, non-Lithuanian identity to do it. In November 1918, just before the end of the war, “Captain John B. Northcott of the U.S. Coast artillery” was caught  hanging around Springfield’s Leland Hotel, telling “highly colored narratives as a hero of French battle fields, a graduate of several field hospitals and a victim of shell shock that made him forget all about his family,” according to news reports.

Northcott Stonkus, ISJ, Nov. 9, 1918, p. 2

Walking about the hotel with a “swagger stick, overseas cap and natty uniform,” Northcott was arrested by police and interrogated at the Sangamon County jail.  During questioning, the self-proclaimed captain admitted he was Joseph Stonkus, a Lithuanian-born coal miner from Divernon who had joined the army in 1915 but was mustered out of military service with “a bad eye condition” in September 1918 at Fort Worden, Wash. Stonkus was arrested that day on the misdemeanor charge of “unlawfully wearing an officer’s uniform.”  His mother bailed him out of jail with a bond in the amount of $300.

Northcott grave, photo by Jean Stroven, Findagrave.com

Findagrave.com photo by Jean Stroven

Per news reports, Johnny Connors, the famed prizefighter and owner of Springfield’s popular Empire Hotel, had tipped-off police to Stonkus’s identity due to the fact that Stonkus had tried to “pass a bad check in Connors’ tavern several years ago.” Other hotel guests at the Leland questioned the validity of the grandiose stories told by the self-proclaimed captain.

Despite such challenges to his constructed identity, there are signs that Stonkus stuck to his American-born, Northcott “war hero” impersonation long after his arrest.  Public records from Michigan indicate a John B. Northcott of Illinois (Private 1st Class in the Coastal Artillery) died in Muskegon County in 1939. He is listed as “born in New Mexico in 1893” and married to a woman named Marie Jensen. His headstone application, also from public records, indicates he joined the military in 1915 and was discharged in September 1918—two key details coinciding with Stonkus’ real life.

From Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day

On the first anniversary of Armistice, at eleven-o-clock on the morning of Tuesday, November 11, 1919, all activity in Springfield was ordered to cease for five minutes. Residents were asked to stand at attention, face east, and offer a silent prayer for U.S. soldiers “sleeping in France.”  That evening, a festive program was held at the state arsenal (the Armory) downtown with a program that featured dancing and music. That November, similar events were held across the United States and in Europe.

1st Armistice Day Spfld. ISJ, Nov. 11, 1919, p. 1

The Illinois State Register, in writing about soldiers fallen in the Great War, predicted:  “…[in] the future, appreciation of those acts of heroism will grow in the hearts of the people of this country.  Posterity will preach these acts of heroism. Schools will teach them.  The entire nation will honor them.” This ultimately came to pass with the creation of the national holiday of “Armistice Day” or “Veterans Day” on November 11.

According to Chris J. McDonald, Ph.D., of Lincoln Land Community College, Sangamon County lost 132 soldiers in World War I—11 percent of those inducted. Twenty-nine percent of those 132 casualties were from the Spanish flu—almost the same as the percentage of those killed in action or by wounds received in battle. (Professor McDonald is author of “Three Lying or Four Sitting – From the Front in a Ford: WWI Letters of Kent Dunlap Hagler,” available on amazon.com.)

Below are the final nine profiles in this series on local Lithuanian-American soldiers of World War I, including three who died. We remember them, and all our local soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War, on the war’s 100-year anniversary this year. May their sacrifices never be forgotten.


World War I monument, North Grand & 1st Street, Springfield, Ill.

Lithuanian Immigrants Who Served

Stanley Petrokas–Fought in Meuse-Argonne Offensive


Stanley Walter Petrokas was born in 1892 in Laukuva, Lithuania, to Ignatius Petrokas and Barbara Gestaut.  In 1910, at age 18, he fled Lithuania for the U.S., alone, to avoid being conscripted into the Russian army.  According to granddaughter Patricia (Chepulis) Wade, in his 87 years in this country, Stanley never returned to his birthplace or had any of his siblings emigrate or come to visit him from Lithuania. According to Trish, he did correspond with his family.

Stanley was a coal miner when he was inducted into service in Springfield on June 25, 1918 and sailed for Europe on Sept. 15.  He served in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from Sept. 26 to November 10, 1918 and was honorably discharged at Camp Grant, Rockford, on July 7, 1919. His enlistment record shows he was awarded a Bronze Service Button.


Petrokas with daughters Silvia (left) and Ruth (right).


Petrokas on left

Stanley married Catherine Rice (Rieskevicius) (1899-1924) in 1920 and had two daughters: Sylvia (Petrokas) Chepulis (1921-2004)  and Ruth Lustig, born in 1923. Years after his wife’s death in 1924,  he married Marcele Mileryte (1902-1982)  in 1950, but the couple had no children.  (Marcele was born in Lithuania and had immigrated to the U.S. as a “displaced person” or “DP” in 1949).

Stanley worked in Springfield-area coal mines for about 40 years. He was hired as a janitor for the Illinois Air National Guard at Capitol Airport in the early 1950’s and worked there for 14 years. This enabled him to acquire a small pension, according to granddaughter Trish. He lived at 917 E. Phillips Ave. from 1922 until his death in 1979.

Joseph [Juozapas] Plaskas [Pleskus]–‘Slightly Wounded’

Plaskas [Pleskus], Joseph [Juozapas]

Born March 10, 1896 in Suvalkai County, Lithuania, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1914, apparently just in time for the war.  He worked in Springfield as a coal miner and lived on the south side of town.  Plaskas registered for the draft in June 1917 and his physical description indicated he was of medium build with gray eyes and brown hair.  He was listed as single.  Called to military service at Springfield in March 1918, Plaskas went overseas on May 11, 1918 with a machine gun company of the 119th Infantry.

Reported as “slightly wounded” overseas in December 1918 by the State Register newspaper, he returned to the U.S. via Saint-Nazaire, France, in March 1919 on the USS Huron with a detachment from Camp Grant’s 30th Division. He listed his “brother, John” as his nearest contact in Springfield. He was discharged on April 14, 1919.  In 1920, he was working as a coal miner in Springfield and living with several boarders at 1803 South Renfro St. in the home of William and Martha Rutkens, a Lithuanian couple. Research indicates Plaskas likely left Springfield between 1920 and 1930.

Tony [Antanas] Pranchewicz [Pranckevičius] ∞ Killed by Spanish Flu

Pranchewicz [Pranckevičius], Tony [Antanas] Photo


Pranchewicz died in October 1918 from influenza-pneumonia while in training at Camp Zachary Taylor, Ky. The flu became a pandemic in the final months of the war, striking troops in crowded training camps and on troop ships. Unlike with other flu outbreaks, the young and strong were particularly vulnerable. Researchers have since theorized that pneumonia quickly ensued due to “cytokine storms,” or over-reactions by healthy, young immune systems to the previously unknown swine flu virus, so that victims’ lungs quickly filled with fluid.

Tony was a member of Company C, 2nd Development Battalion, 159th Depot Brigade, and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Springfield.  Born c. 1894 in Lithuania, he was the son of Joseph and Rosa Pranchewicz who survived him, as did two sisters and an aunt, Mrs. Eva Linges. Tragically, two of Tony’s two sisters, Martha and Paulina, both died the same year as Tony. It seems likely that they were also killed by the flu pandemic that circled the globe through the winter of 1919-20, sparing no location, however remote.

Tony’s father passed away in 1945 and his mother died in 1957.

Charles Raczaitis—Gassed in Action, But Survived

Raczaitis photo

Born March 1, 1889 in Pakonys, Vilnius district, Lithuania, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1908.  Charles lived in Divernon and was a miner at the Madison Coal Company there.  He registered for the draft in June 1917 and moved to Springfield, where he entered military service and was sent overseas on May 26, 1918 as a Private with Company B, 105th Engineers, 30th Infantry Division.

Raczaitis is recorded as having participated in the battles for Bellicourt, Montbrehain, Brancourt-le-Grand, Prémont, Busigny, Vaux-Andigny, La Selle River (likely the Hundred Days Offensive of 1918) and Maungliur [Mazinghien?]. He suffered gas poisoning while in action and returned to the U.S. via Saint-Nazaire, France, as a Private First Class on April 1, 1919.  On the ship roster, he listed his “brother, Joe Raczaitis of Divernon” as his family contact in the U.S.

Charles was discharged in April 1919 at Camp Grant near Rockford. In a May 1919 State Journal article, he’s mentioned as receiving a $60 bonus for his service.  He divorced his first wife in 1954 and later married Martha (McClosky) Shimalis, widow of Anton Shimalis. After a period of working in the coal mines, Raczaitis went on to own a tavern (“The Round Up”) on East Washington Street. He died in 1959 at age 71.

Walter A. Rauktis [Raukitas] ∞ Killed in Aisne-Marne Offensive

Born September 25, 1891 in Veikanus [Viekšniai], Lithuania.  Prior to the war, Rauktis worked as a miner for the Jones & Adams coal mine on Springfield’s North End. When he registered for the draft in June 1917 he described himself as single, but with a mother and father who depended on him for support. He had blue eyes and light brown hair, per details from his draft registration card.  A State Journal newspaper report, naming area soldiers in September 1917, listed him as: “Walter Rauktis of 2518 Peoria Road.”  He trained at Camp Taylor, Ky.

Rauktis is in back row, right edge, in this photo from the Illinois State Journal-Register

Rauktis back row, right edge in this photo from the Illinois State Journal

Rauktis sailed from Hoboken, NJ, on May 10, 1918 with Company L in the 47th Infantry Regiment Regulars, 4th Division, and on July 29, 1918, he was killed in action in France.  He is buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, according to the website americanbattlegraves.com.

Having served in the 47th Infantry, it is likely that he participated in the Aisne-Marne Offensive (the Second Battle of the Marne) that took place from July 15 to August 6, 1918. Thus, his burial in the Aisne cemetery makes sense.  He was identified in a November 1917 photograph published in the Journal newspaper showing members in training with Battery A, 327th Field Artillery at Camp Zachary Taylor, Louisville, Ky.

Stephen Shvagzdis [Švagždys] ∞ Killed on Armistice Day

Shvagzdis [Švagždys], Stephen Photo

Born c. 1888-90 most likely in Rozalimas, a village in Šiauliai County, Lithuania, Shvagzdis was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Shvagzdis. He lived as a single man on East Jefferson Street (according to his 1917 draft registration) and entered military service on April 29, 1918.

From Springfield, he was sent to Camp Dix, NJ [today, Fort Dix], along with the first “colored” contingents coming out of the capital city.  He sailed overseas on June 25, 1918 with Company K in the 148th Infantry Division, and was killed in action in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive right on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. According to the website Americanbattlegraves.com, his burial is in Plot D, Row 3, Grave 13 at the Somme American Cemetery in Bony, France.

While the date of death on his grave is November 1, Springfield newspaper accounts indicate he was one of three local soldiers killed on the 11th– the day of the Armistice. On Dec. 15, 1918, the Register asked readers to identify Shvagzdis and his family, as they were not listed in the city directory: “Neither the soldier nor his kin is listed…for the past five years.  Frank Mazrim [Marzin] resides at 2001 East Adams Street, the address given as Shwagzdis.”

Shwagzdis grave, France

Stephen Shvagzdis grave

While further research indicates no evidence of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Shwagzdis living in Sangamon County, there was a Joseph Shwagzdis (born 1889 in “Rozaliua, Šiauliai, Lithuania”) who died in Springfield in 1960, but his relationship to Stephen’s family is not known. One informant for this blog mentioned a brother of Stephen who lived on Peoria Road.

John Joseph Straukas—Offered Promotion in the Field

Born August 25, 1890 in Plungės District, Telšiai County, Lithuania. Straukas emigrated to the U. S. from Liverpool in 1909 on the SS Baltic and was reportedly stoking the ship’s engines to pay for his passage. He lived with his aunt Lula Straukas Grigiski in Riverton, Illinois, at the time of his induction.

According to Straukas family history, John Joseph and his brother emigrated from Lithuania to avoid military conscription by the Russian czarist government.  Ironically, nine years later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War I.  Straukas entered service on June 25, 1918. He was trained at Camp Zachary Taylor, Ky., and served as a Private in the 29th Company, 8th Development Battalion. At Camp Taylor, he was issued a certificate of naturalization on July 20, 1918.

Straukas. Photo from the Kaylor family collection.

According to military records, he also trained at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., and was sent overseas in September 1918 to take part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. While overseas he was placed into Company P, 5th Battalion, 22nd Engineers. According to family history, Straukas was offered, but rejected, a promotion to the rank of Corporal for valor in the field. After returning to the U.S., he was discharged in July 1919 at Camp Grant near Rockford. He married Esther Trow of Riverton and they had two daughters.  He died in Springfield in 1973.

John Walrs—War Ended While in Training

Born Dec. 8, 1884 in Laukwas [Laukuva, Šilalė district], Lithuania. He emigrated in 1906 and lived at 2011 N. Sixth St. in Springfield. Walrs trained at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri after the Armistice was signed.  He entered into official military service in July 1919 as a Private in the 7th Company, Second Battalion, 159th Depot Brigade. A newspaper description of his departure for training mentions he was placed in a motor transportation outfit. After basic training, he was stationed at Camp Normoyle, Texas.  The 1920 U.S. Census lists as a Lithuanian with “Polish” as his native language.  A bachelor all his life, he returned to Illinois and resided in Virden and died at 68 “at the Veteran’s Hospital at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.”

 Ignatz Wecksnis [Veiksnys?]—Still in Training at ArmisticeWecksnis, Ignatz Photo

Born April 22, 1886 in Udrinas, Suvalkai Region of Polish Lithuania. He registered for the draft in June 1917 at Springfield and listed his occupation as a miner working at the West End Coal Company.  He entered service on June 25, 1918 in Springfield and received training at Camp Taylor, Ky.

Wecksnis was stationed at Camp Taylor when the Armistice was signed. He was discharged Dec. 10, 1918 with the rank of Private in the 27th Company Training Battalion, 159th Depot Brigade. In 1938, he divorced his wife and in 1949, his daughter and her two children were killed in a fire in Kansas.  Coverage of the disaster mentioned that Wecksnis had moved to Wisconsin. He died in Florida in 1951 and is buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery in Sangamon County.

Stanley Willis [Wielis]—Saw Combat in France

Born c. 1893 in Kaunas, Lithuania, he entered military service in June 1918 at Chicago and was sent overseas on August 6, 1918 as a Private with Company E, 53rd Pioneer Infantry Regiment. He participated in the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives and returned to the U.S. via Brest, France, in April 1919 on the USS New Hampshire after having served as a Wagoner in the Supply Company of the 53rd Pioneers.

On the ship manifest, Willis listed his “brother, Tony Wielis, 2011 North 16th Street, Springfield” as his local contact. The Springfield City Directory for 1915 indicates an “Antonio Willis” and “George Ambrose” [a.k.a. George Brazas] living at 2011 North 16th St., as well as a “Stanley Willus” on Peoria Road. The whereabouts of Stanley Willis after the war are unknown.

Petrokas.Soldier's Notebook

War diary of Stanley Petrokas, courtesy of Patricia Wade



The U.S. saw enthusiastic surges in volunteer service for the military during World War I, and yet segments of the population, against not just war in general, were vehemently opposed to entering a European conflict.  Draft evaders in WWI were estimated, by one account, to be roughly 330,000 in number– a minor figure given 24 million men registered across the U.S.  There was at least one Lithuanian immigrant from Sangamon County who may have been among the 330,000 draft resisters. His biography follows.

 Pius Zvingilas [Žvingilas]

Born February 2, 1890 in the Suvalkai Region of Polish Lithuania, Zvingilas was in Springfield as early as 1910 per U.S. Census information.  He registered for the draft in June 1917 and listed his occupation as “coal miner [at] Peabody Mine #6, Sherman, Illinois.”

Zvingilas was single, of medium height with brown hair and a light complexion, and he indicated no dependents.  By all accounts, he was the appropriate age to be drafted. Furthermore, he had filed for citizenship prior to the war and this could have cost him what would otherwise have been his exemption, as an “alien” from the draft.

The Springfield City Directory of 1918 includes a “Pius Zvinglas [at] 205 1/2 North 6th Street” serving in the U.S. Army.  Then, according to a 1921 Journal article on “slacker” men evading service during the war, Zvingilas is singled-out in the news as having been “determined to prevent his induction into service.”

The account came from Horace S. Reardon of the North Draft Board of Sangamon County. According to Reardon, Zvingilas appeared at the draft board “with a long and decidedly radical argument on why he should not join the thousands of men who were preparing to fight for America.”

Consequently, Zvingilas was placed on a slacker roll and his name was included on a list of draft evaders printed in the U.S. Congressional Record.  However, arresting him proved elusive. “He’s gone, and we haven’t a trace of him,” Reardon quipped to the newspaper.  Finding him may not have been too hard as he reportedly had brothers in Sangamon County at the time.  Subsequent research indicates a “Pijus Zvinglas” died in 1958 and is buried in St. Gerturde Cemetery, Middlesex County, NJ.


If you have information on Zvingilas, please email this blog site.  The correct facts about his military status are appreciated.