Category Archives: World War II

I Used To Be French

Legend has it in my famiglia that a great-great-great grandmother on my father’s side married a deserter of Napoleon’s army when it marched across the fatherland. I have always blamed this soldier personally for my short stature and the fact that I don’t possess your typical Lithuanian blond-haired, blue-eyed looks.

But the French ancestor has also served me well, especially as a conversation starter at parties.

“Hello, are you enjoying the party?”

“Yes. I am directly descended from Napoleon.”

I always chalked up the ease with which I picked up French to this particular family member, and felt pretty confident that with my beret, baguette, and striped boatneck shirt, I easily passed for a native during the time I spent living in France.

Whenever someone would comment on my impeccable accent, I would say,

“Thank you. It’s because I’m part French.”

But all of that changed last weekend.

I’d been hounding my father to write down his childhood memories of Lithuania for years, and every time I asked him how it was going, the conversation would go like this:

Hey, T?veli! Kaip tau sekasi prisiminimus rašyti?” (Hey, Dad! How’s it going with your memoirs?”)

And my dad would always tell me that he’s making good progress.

Kiek tu jau puslapi? parasiai?” (How many pages are you up to?”), I’d press him.

And he would say:

“Two paragraphs.”

But last week my Dad presented me with three single-spaced pages of his completed memoirs. He packed a lot in those pages – everything from how his family was separated while fleeing, to how he used to amuse himself in the refugee camps by picking apart detonated bombs.  I’m thrilled with it (and very grateful – a?i? T?veli!).

As a bonus, he included a family tree, which begins with the infamous French ancestor.

Whose last name was, “Felice.” Or maybe, “Feliz.”

I did a little bit of research about this surname and about the history around Napoleon’s path through Lithuania.

It turns out the name is Italian or Spanish. What’s more, Wikipedia told me that thousands of Spaniard and Portuguese conscripts deserted Napoleon’s army in Lithuania during the summer of 1812 and went on to loot, pillage, and terrorize the locals.

I took it pretty hard. It’s not that I’m not thrilled to be one-thirty-second Spanish or  Portuguese or Italian, only that for these past thirty-nine-years, I have believed myself to be one-thirty-second French. Also, my great-great-great grandfather might have been a marauder.

There would be no easy way to break it to my dad, so I went over there this afternoon and told it to him straight:

“I hate to tell you this, but we are Spanish, not French.”

He was clearly devastated.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” he said.

“It’s just as I always suspected,” added Mama.

“That explains the moustache*,” my friend V said when I broke it to her.

And indeed, now that I’ve had a few days to take it in, I am very excited about my Spanish or Portuguese or Eye-talian blood. Of course, there are many things I will have to adjust accordingly (note: buy some pirate shirts and leather pants), but it does explain my fondness for paella and Spanish wine.

The only drawback so far is that the P-Dawg has started calling me, “Gomez.”

That’s the jealousy talking, right there.

The New Me

* I don’t really have a moustache.

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Between Shades of Gray

I grew up with a vague understanding of what had happened to my grandmother’s family in Lithuania during World War II. I knew about the deportations, the cattle cars, the labor camps, the huts they built out of scavenged materials to protect themselves from the Siberian cold.

I knew my great-grandparents had perished there, but the whole business of Siberia had always been a kind of abstract tragedy, cloaked behind the lyric prose so characteristic of my people, its brutal details fused together under the penumbra of a single, sorrowful word – Sibiras.  But it’s only now, after reading Ruta Sepetys’ best selling novel, Between Shades of Gray, that I begin to fathom the details, imagine their sufferings, and understand their quiet grace.

As much as I wanted to read it, I was reluctant to pick this book up at first. I knew it would be emotionally challenging and I was afraid there would be too many parts I’d have to read with my eyes closed.  But once I started, I couldn’t put it down – and I don’t remember the last time that’s happened. I read Between Shades of Gray in one sitting, and when I reached the last word, I closed my eyes and sat very still, the way you do during the ending credits of a movie that’s moved you to your core.

Between Shades of Gray is the story of a Lithuanian art student – Lina Vilkas – and her struggle to survive in conditions that just keep getting worse after she is abducted one night along with her mother and younger brother during Stalin’s Purge – the mass deportations of thousands of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Finns to prisons and slave labor camps in Siberia in June of 1944.

Intended for a YA readership, the story is told in short, straightforward prose, though it’s anything but simple, and deals bluntly with the gray ethics and stark reality of war. The details and imagery are so deftly rendered that even when they are unbearable, it’s not possible to look away. Despite the heavy subject matter, there is nothing cloying or overly sentimental about the way Lina tells her riveting tale.

That’s what makes it so good.

In a feisty, compelling, and believable voice, the fictional character of Lina Vilkas speaks for thousand of real people who were silenced or frightened into silence, and whose tragedy has been largely unknown to the world.

Please consider reading this book.

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Full Circle

The Lithuanian word for song  – “daina” – can be traced back to the Indo-European “dhaina,” which means, “to give thought to.” It has been an integral part of Lithuanian life since time immemorial, and some of Lithuania’s most haunting ballads hearken back to our pagan roots, a time when vestal virgins kept round-the clock vigil over the eternal flame and the sun and moon were animate entities.

Lithuanians sing. We sing to our children. We sing in happiness and we sing in grief.  Wherever Lithuanians are gathered, you can bet someone is standing at their center with an accordion. We even sang our way to independence – the term “Singing Revolution” was coined to describe the Baltic independence movement of the late 80s, when Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia used song to protest peacefully against the Soviet occupation.

Last weekend, over 1,000 Lithuanians from America, Canada, Lithuania, and England gathered at Toronto’s Hershey Centre for the IX Lithuanian Song Festival.  Yup. We got together just to sing.  It was a huge event four years in the making, and it was worth every hour of the many rehearsals leading up to it.

The song festival tradition started in Lithuania in 1924 (where it is still held annually).  The first such event in North America occurred in 1956 and has been held seven times since then.  The people who gathered in Chicago in 1956 were first generation Lithuanian Americans who had fled their homeland during the Second World War.  This year’s festival included members of that generation, and three generations following it.

This year’s logo was a sun, half obscured by night. It represented the dawn of civilization and the songs that gave voice to the human condition. We began with songs of the dawn and, in the space of three hours, sang our way through a full 24 hour cycle, ending with a new morning, symbolic of continuity, of the migration of people from east to west, and the passing of the cultural baton. Fittingly, I had the pleasure of watching one of my closest friends – who has dreamed of conducting since we were children at summer camp – direct one of my favorite songs, and I had the privilege of singing a brand new composition written by another friend – the one who always dreamed of composing and used to walk around summer camp with an accordion around his neck.

The experience of singing in an an amphitheater with over a thousand people and accompanied by a full orchestra is hard to describe.  When a perfect chord is struck, the sympathetic vibrations are overwhelming. The tidal wave of sound takes you back to the forest primeval, to your ancient roots, and reminds you that you are a part of something much bigger than yourself.

It reignites the creative spark, and it gives you the strength to ignore you childrens’ nightly request for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and instead keep singing them the ancient lullaby that saw you to adulthood, in hopes that it will leave the same imprint in them that it did in you.

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