Astras Family

The following questionnaire was submitted by Stanley Astras Currier, whose late grandmother, folk artist Uršulė Astras, taught traditional Lithuanian Easter egg etching classes for many years at the Balzekas Museum, served as the Museum’s Folk Arts Director. Her masterful Easter eggs are on display in the Museum’s Women’s Guild Room. Stanley writes:

“The following information chronicles the DP experiences of the Astrauskas (Astras) Family: Stasys Astras (1914-1998) and Uršulė Lukoševičiūtė Astrienė (1912-2008). My mother Marytė Astraitė Currier was born in a DP camp in Germany in 1947, and immigrated to the US with her parents in 1949. Her brothers Anthony and Donatas Astras, and sister Alberta Astraitė Singh, share in the story as well.” He adds, “Please note – My grandfather Stasys Astrauskas had his name changed to Stanley Astras when he was naturalized as a US citizen. The information provided below is based on interviews with my grandparents while they were alive, as well as input provided by their children.”

Names and occupations/professions and ages of you and/or your family members who fled from Lithuania

Stasys and Ursule Astrauskai Newlywed in Germany 1946

Stasys and Ursule Astrauskai Newlywed in Germany 1946

Stasys Astrauskas – 30, veterinarian technician
Uršulė Lukoševičiūtė – 32, cook

Where in Lithuania did you and/or your family live before leaving the country?

Stasys was born in Žemaitija, Panotėnų kaimas. He graduated from Gruždžių Aukštesnioji Gyvulinkystės Mokykla (School of Animal Husbandry in Grudžiai), and worked in Bartininkai before leaving Lithuania. Uršulė was born in Sausininkų kaimas near Bartininkai.

When and under what circumstance did you and/or your family members leave Lithuania?

Uršulė Lukoševičiūtė (my grandmother) and her family members were given one day’s notice by the Germans in fall 1944 that the Russians were on their way back through their village, and that they could be at great harm if they didn’t flee. That night, they buried and hid as many of their possessions as they could underground in ditches on their property. Some of their neighbors brought their possessions to the town church. Unsure of their final destination, my grandmother and two of her sisters (Anelė and Leokadija) fled Bartininkai on foot toward the German border on October 9, 1944. They managed to sell several of their horses and cows that made the trek to the German Army for 1,800 deutschmarks. Uršulė and my grandfather Stasys eventually ended up in the same refugee camp in Regensburg (Bavaria) Germany.

Could you describe what the escape was like?

My grandparents left Lithuania separately and traveled via a combination of foot, carriage, bikes, and wagon carriages. From what they’ve recounted to us, we understood they were provided shelter in barns during the escape.

What did you bring with you/carry?

Stasys Ursule and Maryte Germany 1949

Stasys, Uršulė, and Marytė, Germany 1949

Uršulė

Uršulė

My grandmother brought linens from Lithuania, as well as two of her mother’s coral necklaces and two shawls. She also brought a crucifix and a Šiluvos Marija picture. She brought a wooden plate from Germany, which had been a wedding present. My grandfather Stasys carried a fork with a wooden handle from Germany, which our family still uses to this day (65 years later!).

Name of the DP camp(s) in which you lived and approximately how much time you spent in each one.

Regensburg and Scheinfeld (my mother Marytė, the oldest child, was born in Wurzburg)

Number of years you and your family members spent in each camp

4 years total (1945-49)

Description of the living conditions (Did you live in a barrack, a building, an apartment) Were there other occupants in your living quarters? How did you eat, prepare food?

Uršulė was a cook and was able to secure living quarters; her sisters lived with her and she could share food from the kitchen with them. Several families sent care packages and money (from the US) – Mary Rimaitis, Regina Lucas, Constance Staškevičius and Marija Kučinskas – the latter two cousins who came to the US during the first wave of immigration.

Most memorable events from life in the DP camp(s)

Uršulė fondly recalled that relatives from America sent packages including chocolate and clothing; she would give Marytė chocolate and sometimes trade it for necessary items.

It seemed to be a close-knit community in the camps; Uršulė often spoke fondly of the people that were good to her, including the medical professionals and clergy in the camps (memories recalling Prelatas [Monsignor] Balčiūnas and Dr. Birutienė). The Astras family subsequently saw Prel. Balčiūnas in the US at Camp Dainava in Manchester, MI and in Putnam, CT several times over the years.

How did you and your family members occupy your/their time in the camp(s)? Did you or any of your family members work? Attend school?

Stasys worked for the US army corps of engineers charged with constructing refugee camps. He said that they never went hungry and he had 10 dollars of his own for the trip to America. He took English and German lessons in the camps, and sold socks on the side as well. As mentioned above,Uršulė was a cook in the camps.

What kind of organizations did your family belong to (fraternal, charitable, scouting, religious, etc.)?

In the US the family belonged to the Lietuvių Bendruomene (Lithuanian American Community) in Grand Rapids, MI, and the Lithuanian Roman Catholic Alliance. Uršulė was also active in the A.L.R.K. Moterų Sajunga. The entire family was active in the local parish church – St Peter and Paul’s in Grand Rapids, MI.

When and under what circumstance did you and/or your family members leave the DP camp for the United States? Did you have any sponsors in the US? If so, who were they?

My mother and grandparents left the DP camp in June 1949. The Gelwich and Kučinskas families – relatives from Uršulė’s side who immigrated to the US in 1905 – sponsored the family to the US. The Kučinskas family provided a home for first six weeks in the US, and the Gelwich family prepared very nice dinners for them during that time. They also helped the family to secure an apartment and later assisted in purchasing and even furnishing and wallpapering a home.

How did you travel to the United States? If you remember the ship name or any other details form the crossing, please describe the journey. What was your port of entry into the US?

Stasys,Uršulė and Marytė traveled to the US on USS General C. H. Muir, owned by the US Army at the time. Their port of entry was Boston. On June 24, 1949, they traveled by train from Boston to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they were met by our family’s sponsors – the Gelwich family. War Relief Services – National Catholic Conference Resettlement Division in New York, NY facilitated the arrangements.

Photograph of original train ticket envelope from June 24, 1949

Photograph of original train ticket envelope from June 24, 1949

During the trip,Uršulė recalled that Marytė was captivated by the crests of the waves, and would often say ‘putos, putos’ (froth).

List the places you lived when you first arrived and where you eventually settled.

The Astras family lived and settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Anthony and Donatas still live in the area, whereas sisters Marytė and Alberta both live in California with their families.

Where did you and/or your family members work in the US? Which schools did you and your family members attend?

Stasys worked in American Seating Company in Grand Rapids, MI, for many years;Uršulė  started to create straw ornaments and pictures and etch Lithuanian Easter eggs while raising their children.

How difficult was it to learn English?

Stasys learned English well. Uršulė took classes at the adult education center, but it was very difficult for her. She was still very attached to her native language. Marytė, who was born in Germany, learned English in elementary school by copying what other children did!

When you first arrived, how were you received by other Americans? By other Lithuanians?

The other Lithuanians were very cordial; the Lithuanian community in Grand Rapids was a close-knit community and the relatives were very helpful.  However, Marytė remembers being teased by other kids in the early years by being called ‘DP’. While other children at school had store-bought clothes, my grandmother and great aunt would sew my mother’s clothes, which made her feel different. While Marytė’s friends joined the Brownies, my grandparents didn’t allow this for her as perhaps they didn’t understand the culture.

Please share experiences from your first years of immigration: a. Where did you work? b. Where did you go to school? c. Who were your neighbors? d. Did you attend church or religious services, if so where?

The Astras children (Maryte, Anthony, Donatas and Alberta) started school at St. Peter and Paul’s in Grand Rapids. The teachers were Sisters of the Franciscan order from Pittsburg, PA, and spoke Lithuanian, which helped with assimilation. Most of the children at school were of Lithuanian descent.

The neighbors were American – the Lutz and Boehm families (of German descent). Stasys was able to communicate with them in German. The family had a cordial relationship with the neighbors. Many other neighbors were of Lithuanian descent, as the family lived in the ‘Lithuanian ghetto’ near the church. A freeway was built in 1959 and families then moved on to better locations. However, many families still stayed actively involved in the parish community.

Did you correspond with relatives in Lithuania?

Contact was only possible with relatives on my grandfather’s side after Stalin died. My grandfather Stasys was the only person in his family to leave Lithuania to the west. Most of his family stayed in the Klaipėda area, where he was originally from; however, his mother, brother and sister were exiled to Siberia. Our family wrote to relatives both in Lithuania and Siberia, and sent packages as well.

My grandmother corresponded with her brother Kazys, who was also exiled to Siberia. She wrote to her cousins in Lithuania and sent packages to relatives into her late 80s.

When did your family members feel established in the United States?

Astras family in Grand Rapids, MI, 1963

Astras family in Grand Rapids, MI, 1963

My grandmother Uršulė’s heart and spirit always remained in Lithuania. She channeled this longing for Lithuania into her artwork, becoming a recognized folk artist specializing in straw ornaments, pictures, wheat weaving, and egg etching. She contributed a great deal to the Lithuanian-American community. She traveled to the Balzekas Museum in Chicago for nearly 40 years, giving classes on Easter egg etching. Uršulė was a lifetime member of the Museum. She also served as a Director of Folk Art at the Museum.

Her artwork has been displayed all over the US, and her straw ornaments were presented to the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington DC. She also donated some of her straw artwork to the Vilkaviškio Krašto Muziejus (Vilkaviškis Regional Museum) in Paežeriai – close to her childhood home, where she spent countless hours braiding straw that she learned from her mother.

Stasys had a different experience. Shortly after immigrating, he became naturalized and shortened his name from Astrauskas to Astras. He voted in the US and kept current with political affairs. He was very grateful to be in the US and experience freedom. He said that every day was Christmas in the United States.

Did you participate in Lithuanian activities here in the US?

The entire family actively participated in Lithuanian activities. Teta Anelė (Uršulė’s sister) organized the Grand Rapids chapter of Ateitininkai (a Lithuanian Catholic youth organization) and all 4 children were Ateitininkai.

From church involvement to folk art and dance, the Lithuanian heritage was kept alive and only Lithuanian spoken at home. All children as well as grandchildren and now even great grandchildren, have attended Camp Dainava. Marytė, Alberta, Anthony and Donatas carry on their motherUršulė’s creative endeavors. They give workshops on straw artwork and egg etching at various museums and camps in Michigan, Illinois, Vermont and California.

Did you or your family members visit Lithuania during the Cold War?

My aunt Alberta studied Lithuanian at Vilnius University for six weeks on a summer course in 1977. She was the only grandchild in the family who had the opportunity to meet her paternal grandmother (Stasys’ mother). Stasys returned to Lithuania after 49 years in 1992 with eldest daughter Marytė. Uršulė returned in 1992 as well with youngest daughter Alberta.

What was that experience of returning like for you and/or your family members?

Incredibly emotional – tears flowed, songs sung, glasses raised, memories relived. All four of Stasys and Uršulė’s children have now been to Lithuania, and several of the grandchildren have visited as well over the years.

List any other thoughts, impressions, memories, that you would like to share with others.

While my mother was born in Germany and came to the US at a young age with her parents, the Lithuanian culture, language and traditions had a tremendous influence on our upbringing. This is in large part due to our grandmother Uršulė’s deep and abiding love for her country. My grandparents’ home felt like a Lithuanian museum – the walls were covered in my grandmother’s masterpieces of straw art, and her beautiful and intricate etched eggs were on display throughout the year. The kitchen more often than not smelled of potato pancakes! Every summer, we listened to her sing, recite poetry, and share stories about her homeland. My grandfather Stasys took pride in his garden, and the tomatoes and cucumbers that we ate from it no doubt reminded him of those from his childhood. Even in California, our family is very active in Lithuanian-American community events. We eat šaltibarščiai (cold beet soup) and kugelis (potato pudding) at family gatherings! I have had the chance to make a number of trips to Lithuania over the years, and even had the opportunity to intern at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington DC under Ambassador Alfonsas Eidintas during my college years. Stasys and Uršulė endured so many hardships in order to make it to the United States and to start their lives over in a completely new country. We are proud of our Lithuanian heritage, and all of Uršulė Astrienė’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren cherish her artwork and legacy.