Closing The Circle
By Tony Mankus
The white stretch-limo pulled up to our house in Lisle at 10:30 AM. It was a gorgeous morning, the 21st day of June - the first day of summer. We piled in – my wife, our four teenage daughters and I – and headed toward O’Hare Airport. The trunk wouldn’t close because of all the luggage and had to be secured with a thick elastic band.
We were off to Lithuania, a small republic in East Central Europe. It is one of three such republics along the Eastern shore of the Baltic Sea that had regained their independence from the Soviet Union only a dozen years earlier. Due to the fortuitous combination of people and events, these three countries (along with a number of other European nations) succeeded in ridding themselves of a half-century of Soviet occupation. Gorbachev, Perestroika, Ronal Reagan ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!"), the Strategic Defense Initiative, and other people and events combined to precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union and contributed to the liberation of Eastern and Central European countries that had been occupied by Stalin’s armies during and after the end of World War II.
The official reason for our trip there was a business conference at the Lithuanian University of Law ("LUL"). I was one of the scheduled speakers there on the topic of basic U. S. bankruptcy laws. The unofficial one, however, was the 750th anniversary of the coronation of King Mindaugas, Lithuania’s first and only King. It was a big deal for the Lithuanians and numerous activities were planned to celebrate the occasion, including a dance festival, a song festival, plays, concerts, and various types of ceremonies, conferences and receptions. The business conference was a small piece in the mosaic of activities and festivities that were anticipated.
There was a third reason for going there, a more personal one. I was born there sixty-four years ago, in a little town called Plungë. I had not seen in almost sixty years. I was a lad barely five years old when Stalin’s armies reoccupied Lithuania as they chased Hitler’s decimated armies from Stalingrad. We heard the cannons booming louder and louder each day and decided to leave. The first occupation was bad enough. Tens of thousands of Lithuanian men were shipped off to Siberia in cattle cars. Many died on the way there; most perished after they got there. Few ever returned.
My father was among the few lucky ones who didn’t get shipped to Siberia. Maybe his having worked on the railroad during the war had something to do with it. But we weren’t going to take a chance again. We picked up what few belongings we could carry with us and took off for Poland and, eventually, Germany. Fortunately for us, the Bavarian town we settled in ended up in the hands of the Allies and we were able to emigrate to the U. S. after the war ended. The ones that ended up in the Eastern sector weren’t so lucky.
It had been a long journey, from Plungë to Lisle, and I guess I was looking for some sort of symmetry, a closing of the circle, maybe. I went back to Lithuania about twenty-five years ago. But it was different then. It was still under Communist rule and pretty depressive to look at. I rented a car to look around and to visit my cousin who lived in Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania. But the car came with a "driver" – whether I wanted one or not. Besides driving the car, his duties included making sure that I wouldn’t go where I wasn’t allowed to - and that included Plungë. I wanted to see a free Lithuania this time and I wanted to visit Plungë.
The business conference was a joint effort of LUL and LABAS, The Lithuanian American Bar Association. The topics included trade, enforcement of business contracts and information technology, both in Lithuania and the United States. The speakers included private attorneys from Lithuania and the U. S., as well as law professors from law schools of both countries. The topics were presented either in Lithuanian or in English, with simultaneous translations available to all participants. The topics were also published in a booklet by LUL and are also available at its Web site: http://www.ltu.lt. Some information and photographs related to the conference are also available on the LABAS Web site at http://www.javadvokatai.org.
I shared the platform with Jurgita Spaiciene, a professor and Doctoral candidate from the Vytautas Magnus University of Law in Kaunas. She spoke on the basic schema of bankruptcy statutes in Lithuania that, incidentally, have no provisions for personal bankruptcies.
Following the conference, our group from LABAS visited with a number of government officials, including Arturas Paulauskas, the Chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament ("Seimas"), and Rolandas Paksas, the newly elected President of Lithuania. Unfortunately, Mr. Paksas could not meet with us personally because of his scheduled meeting with the President of Mongolia, but we did meet with his assistants. Pat Streeter, the President of LABAS, left a book on aviation for Mr. Paksas, who was a pilot and still enjoys flying. During the campaign for Presidency he flew a single engine airplane under a bridge that spans one of the many rivers in Lithuania.
By chance, we also ran into Algirdas Landsbergis during our visit to Parliament. Mr. Landsbergis had been the leader of "Sajudis" ("Movement"), a grass roots movement that was the impetus for Lithuania’s declaration of independence in 1990. For months leading up to the declaration, huge crowds gathered almost daily in parks and other public places to demonstrate quietly, sing the national anthem and wave the traditional tri-color Lithuanian flag – both of which had been forbidden under Communist rule. Mr Landsbergis was a music professor at the time at a university in Vilnius, the Capitol of Lithuania. At great personal risk to himself, he had the guts to stand up before the crowds of people yearning for freedom and lead them in civil disobedience.
Though Gorbachev tried to dissuade the Lithuanians from seceding from the Soviet Union by making a personal visit there, the people would not be dissuaded. As Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Vilnius, the crowds erected barricades around the Parliament building and tried to block them from taking over the television tower. A number of Lithuanians were killed in the process, but the Russian bear blinked first. Gorbachev dismantled the levers of his government there and eventually pulled out all troops although, ironically, some of them chose not to go back to Russia and settled down in Lithuania where they continue to reside to this day.
Mr. Landsbergis was personally acquainted with Regina Narusis, one of the LABAS members from Illinois, and greeted us warmly in his friendly and unassuming manner. He had been the first Chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament, though – in spite of his leadership role in the Sajudis movement - he was unsuccessful in his effort to become Lithuania’s first freely elected President in the post-Gorbachev era. He was defeated by Algirdas Brazauskas who is currently the Prime Minister of Lithuania.
The following week, the 750th Anniversary festivities began in earnest. Many of us attended the opening ceremonies at a large outdoor stadium. It was basically a pageant with thousands of dancers in native costumes, music by a large orchestra, singing, and an appearance by a young Mindaugas who raised his sword high in the air, above his crown, to the roar of approval from the tens of thousands who attended the ceremony. The evening concluded with a spectacular and awe-inspiring display of fireworks.
As wave after wave of applause rose and receded, I felt a sense of joy and pride in the large crowd. They certainly loved Mindaugas. He was the first ruler historically credited with having united most of what is now known as Lithuania and, incidentally, converting it to Christianity. Lithuania was the last holdout in Europe to convert to the Catholic faith. Prior to that, many Lithuanians still practiced paganism and were fragmented into smaller fiefdoms governed by local rulers who fought each other from time to time and competed for territory.
But I think it was more than that. It was also a sense of pride and joy in having overcome oppression and having regained its freedom. It was also a celebration of the progress made since then. Lithuania has been granted permission to join the European Union, as well as NATO. Economically, Lithuania’s inflation has been conquered and it enjoyed the highest GDP growth in Europe in 2002. Though much remains to be done, millions have also been spent to rebuild old town Vilnius which, together with the castle of Trakai and the seashore towns of Palanga and Nida, have become tourist Meccas for Europeans, Asians and, increasingly, Americans.
In between the conference and the anniversary celebration, we had an opportunity to visit the town of Plungë. It is a town in the north west of Lithuania, located on the banks of the Babrungas river, with a population of 24,300. It’s not really famous for anything, though there are several interesting facts about it. In 1882 the first telephone line in Lithuania was installed there, connecting Plunge to another small town nearby. It also has an impressive neo-classical palace built by Count M. Oginski who used to own most of the land in Plunge in the early part of the 20th century. It is being restored as a museum now.
The more modest house where we lived was, unfortunately, no longer there. It was destroyed during or shortly after the war. My seventy-seven year old cousin, who still lives in Lithuania, is the only one in this world who remembers where we used to live. She took us there and showed us the street and the approximate place where the house used to be. A few commercial buildings stand there now, erected during the Soviet occupation. One of my daughters picked up a few pebbles from the ground there and brought them home to Lisle.
We walked down the street a little way, to the church where I was baptized. A young priest is the pastor there now. He wasn’t even born yet when we left. He thought, however, that there may be pre-World War II photographs of the street in the archives and he would try to dig them up. It’s possible that our house might appear there in one of the photographs, he said. If he locates one, he will scan it in and E-Mail it to me, he promised.
We thanked him and prayed together briefly. I signed the guest book and left a small donation to help with the renovation of the church. Outside of Vilnius, there hasn’t been a lot of money invested in private restoration projects.
While in Plunge I had the crazy idea that I would like to help Plungë become a sister city with Lisle, the town here in the U. S. where we raised our family. They’re approximately the same size and the thought has a certain amount of poetic symmetry – at least in my mind.