The following questionnaire was submitted by the curator of the “No Home To Go To” exhibition, Irena Brokas Chambers, who, having fled from Lithuania with her family, experienced displacement and life in DP camps as a young child. A museum professional with an extensive background in exhibition planning, most recently for the Library of Congress, Chambers writes:
My career has been spent on exhibitions, featuring the famous (Freud, Churchhill, Jefferson, Lincoln, Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright) and the not so famous; the histories of long past civilizations and emerging ones. I know that some stories may be more devastating, some more immediately compelling, but gathering this history is vital. I believe that this World War II DP story is as important as any I have dealt with.
Please list the names and occupations/professions and ages of you and your family members who fled from Lithuania.
Five of us, the whole family at that time, fled from Lithuania in 1944. My father, Jonas Brokas, was a border guard and was forty years old. My mother, Ursule Vieraityte Brokas, a homemaker, was thirty-four. Both my parents were raised on farms in the Vilkaviskis area. My two sisters, Ceslova (Cesyte) and Elena (Elyte) were fourteen and ten, respectively. Cesyte was attending high school in Kybartai. I (Irena Brokas, though my parents always called me “Irute”) was two years old. Though I have heard, throughout my life, many of the details and stories about our flight, the DP camps, our travel to the United States, and the reception that awaited us, I have had long conversations with my two sisters to confirm and to expand on the events and experiences—particularly the first several years, covering the departure from Lithuania and the early DP camp times
Where in Lithuania did you and your family members leave Lithuania?
We had moved to Alvitas three years previously in 1941 and left from there. Before moving to Alvitas, my family (my parents and two sisters) had lived at my paternal grandfather’s farm. My grandfather had bequeathed the farm to my father, but my parents decided to try a non-agrarian life. In turn, my father bequeathed the farm to his brother-in-law, Antanas Radzevicius, retaining a ten acre or so plot on which my parents built a house for themselves. Once the house was completed, the whole family moved to Alvitas to be closer to my father’s place of employment.
List the towns on your route from your home to the DP camps.
In order, we traveled through Virbalis, Kybartai, and Eitkunai.
Could you describe what the escape was like? How did you travel (on foot, by boat, train, other)?
The first part of the flight was by a wagon, pulled by two horses. We traveled together with my godparents and their family, Surma, each family in its own horse-driven wagon. The Senkus and Didelis families joined the caravan, and all four traveled and remained together throughout the DP experience. (The Surma and Didelis families eventually also emigrated to the United States but settled in Philadelphia. My parents sponsored the Senkus family’s immigration to Brooklyn, New York.) After several days of travel we reached a German town where our wagon was seized, and we were put on a train. It was a fearful and chaotic time. Nobody knew where they were going. Families banded together but feared what was to come next. While we were still in the wagon, I do have a memory of being tired and miserable and crying. My mother told Elyte to give up chairs she had set up for herself in order to rest, to give the space to me since I was so young and so tired. Elyte remembers this incident as well and how much she regretted having to give up her rest area.
Over the years, my mother spoke frequently about the journey of flight. She said that many times raids and bombs halted our progress. When things looked and sounded especially close, we would stop, jump from the wagon, and find the nearest ditch or other shelter. She remembers putting her children underneath her, so that, if there were a direct hit, the children might survive.
At some point, after we had crossed over into Germany and as we were being loaded onto trains, members of the German army came looking for able-bodied men. My father and my godfather hid from the search party and were not discovered. We have always believed that we were fortunate that the two men were not found and that their successful hiding out ensured that both families managed to stay together. Many men were taken away, and those that remained helped the families who were suddenly without fathers and husbands. My sisters recall that over-riding other concerns was the not-knowing where we were going and what was to happen. My sisters both also remember the kindness and charity of some German people we encountered in the early days. Two German girls gave Elyte a piece of cake. Other Germans gave our family (and other families around us) sandwiches and gooseberries. We spent at least one night in a German farmer’s barn, sleeping on hay. Cesyte remembers that it was at this farmer’s place that my father lost his wedding ring. He took it off to wash up but did not miss it until we were far enough away that going back was simply impossible.
Name the DP camps in which you lived and approximately how much time you spent in each one.
After stopping for a short time in a town (we think it was Hofa or Hof in German) in order to get a camp assignment, we went to Selbe where we lived about a year, 1944-45. The war ended while we were in Selbe. My mother had sent Cesyte to the town because food was being distributed. Cesyte was waiting in a long line when the sounds of sirens and planes frightened her. She remembers being very scared. Not knowing what else to do she gave up on getting food and ran back to camp. My mother, I am told by Elyte, was in a panic, knowing that the front was moving toward us but not knowing whether Cesyte would get home and worried about what worse dangers we were facing. Both sisters remember that a DP, not Lithuanian, was killed in the bombings which happened as the war was ending. Our next camp was in Wunsiedel, 1945-47, the place we lived the longest. Since I turned four in Wunsiedel, I remember this camp clearly. The third camp was in Bamberg and lasted less than a year. Garmisch-Partenkirchen was our last camp, and our stay was brief. My father traveled to Munich at least once to deal with paperwork and documents for our journey to America. The journey included short stays in Bremen and then, finally, Bremerhaven, from which place we embarked for the United States.
Please describe 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?
In Selbe, we lived in two different places. The first, a temporary location, was a school where everyone slept on the floor, but, my sisters remember, the place had nice bathrooms and a yard. It was definitely communal living, with some separation by gender (mothers and children in one place, men in another). Sleeping was on straw with a blanket over the straw and another serving as a cover. The second place was a large hall or auditorium with a stage and balcony. Families set up small spaces and created the semblance of privacy with sheets and other fabrics. There was a communal kitchen, and people took turns making food. Our family, along with several others, had a space on the stage. Our space was in the corner, and, again, sheets provided the only privacy. Food and its preparation were dismal. At the beginning, Cesyte remembers getting “grucku koses” (a root vegetable mixture) and not being able to eat it. Food improved but it was never abundant nor was it often made to the family’s tastes. My sisters say that the camps that had kitchen facilities tended to be better.
Still in Selbe, my sister Elena/Elyte, who had and still has a lovely singing voice, was asked on several occasions, by Mr. Senkus (who served as a social and informational head of the families and who distributed a newsletter in later camps) and others, to sing some songs, “Elyte, padainuok mums”. She did so gladly from the balcony. Songs she sang included “Pati rutele pasisejau” and “Ant melynos juros krantelio”. She remembers looking down at her audience, many of whom were moved to tears. To this day, Elyte remembers loving the opportunity to sing, acknowledges her own courage. She remembers that the balcony was also the living space of a single Lithuanian man who was ill with some respiratory ailment and not particularly friendly. But, wanting to sing, gave her the impetus to go up to his living space and perform.
The accommodations in Wunsiedel were a big improvement. The buildings resembled three story apartment buildings or duplexes and were called, in German, “Siedlungen”. Each structure held four families, two on the upper floor and two on the ground level. Each family had a room and a kitchen. After my brother was born, in 1946, we were assigned another room and the three person family, Papaureliai, who had been in that room, was moved elsewhere). I remember that my best friend, Roma Senkus, whose mother was my Mom’s pal, lived in the building across the way from ours. I loved going over to Roma’s house and getting treated to a slice of black bread with lard and salt on it. I also remember that, in Wunsiedel, I pleaded with my mother to let me wear my white dress with flowers embroidered across the top and my patent leather shoes. My mother, in a patient and unexpected way, said, “All right, here are the keys to the storage area. Go ahead and go find them and put them on”. I was so happy at the prospect of wearing this dress, made of filmy fabric with multi-colored flowers, that I ran over there, opened the storage case, took the dress out and then the shoes, and realized that I was, at four, way too big to fit into the pretty things we had brought from Lithuania two years earlier. My mother did not have to tell me anything. I had learned my lesson.
CARE packages started to arrive when we were in Wunsiedel. I remember getting and enjoying chocolate, but my sisters tell me that the packages included Spam, Crisco, peanut butter, and other staples. Boxes were delivered to each section of the “Siedlungen” and then distributed evenly to each family.
Bamberg accommodations were in brick barracks, formerly the living quarters for German military. Each family had one room and shared a kitchen with another family. The Kleiza family, parents with two daughters and a son, were our kitchen partners. (The Kleiza family was the second that my parents sponsored over—see details below.)
Garmisch Partenkirchen was beautiful but the DP camp had few amenities. Again, each family had one room. There was a large and clean cafeteria, but there was also a kitchen facility in another building where, Elyte says, my mother tried to make something resembling kugelis. Food was not abundant, and Elyte remembers fetching “Ersatz” coffee for our mother and climbing with her good friend into the nearby hills in warm weather and snacking on clover! Cesyte says that by this time, we had a kind of rations card with which we could by food. She went every morning to the nearby bakery to get bread or rolls.
Most memorable events from DP camps
My sisters both remember what it was like in Selbe when the war ended. The initial bombing and raids were scary, but soon things improved. They particularly remember one American soldier who spoke some Lithuanian. He was friendly and passed out Lifesavers to the kids.
In Wunsiedel, there was an active cultural and sport life. A chorus was formed for adults, and both my sisters were too young to be members. (In Bamberg, Elyte joined the chorus though she was still just twelve years old!) There was a school directed by Mr. Rutkauskas. My sisters remember Mr. Bimsa, and the Bigelis brothers, all of whom taught or had leadership roles in the school. Cesyte remembers taking algebra, history, natural science, German, and English as well as Lithuanian grammar and literature. All three of us attended school. There were plays and performances. Elyte loved acting and tried out for one play, was not selected. She was very unhappy, but got the leading part in the next play, “Melagelis”. Sports competitions were held periodically, and both of my sisters competed. Elyte was a high jumper and a runner, and Cesyte played volleyball. In one competition, my father also signed up for a long-distance race, but the shoes he had on were so uncomfortable that he quit very early and returned, barefoot and carrying his shoes. My father laughed at his own predicament and at the teasing others gave him. Another humorous incident occurred when, unexpectedly, Cesyte was asked to replace, at the last minute in the folk dance “Malunas”, a dancer who had taken ill. She had never danced in the “Malunas”, a very fast and challenging number. The folk dance instructor was her partner, and, between his guidance and her native talents, Cesyte made it through most of the dance without incident. But, toward the very end, she heard and felt a pop at her waist. Immediately, she knew that the button, holding up her skirt, had popped. She felt it slipping, so she finished the dance with one hand holding the waist of her skirt and the other moving in the gestures of the other dancers!
I remember one such sport competition because it was incredibly hot. My Mom/Mamyte, like other mothers in the camp, allowed me to go to the sports stadium wearing a ribbon in my hair and just my underpants. I was four, but I was embarrassed until I saw that I was dressed just like many other young girls. Both of my sisters were scout members, and Cesyte reached the level of a leader in her troop and trained young girl scouts, “Paukstytes”.
As mentioned previously, Mr. Senkus circulated a newsletter in Wunsiedel. He somehow appropriated a wooden shack and set up a kind of office. Elena and one of her friends were enlisted by him to help with the distribution. Elena recalls that the publication was delivered to Mr. Senkus and distributed no more frequently than monthly, possibly quarterly.
My memory is that in one of the later camps I learned from other kids that at my age I was eligible for a mid-afternoon snack. I was not aware that I had been hungry, but I do remember relishing the porridge, if that was what it was, that we got every day. I was issued a card, and on entering the eating area, someone would punch the card to show that I had received my portion. The porridge was warm and filling. I loved it.
During our stay in Garmisch on one sunny, warm afternoon, my sisters, some of their friends, and I were in a lovely field, walking, running, and relaxing. I remember that it was just a perfect day. A male friend, perhaps even a boyfriend of one of my sisters (they were both teenagers by this time), had what must have been an ice cream cone. He gave each of us a chance to lick it. I remember that I thought it was simply miraculous—how could something taste so good, melt away in your mouth. My first taste of ice cream! I remember that moment very well, and, from time to time, when I eat ice cream I still consider it pretty miraculous!
How did you and your family members occupy your/their time in the camps? Did you or any of your family members work? Attend school?
My mother and father both worked in Selbe at a porcelain factory. The months of German rule, before the end of the war and the arrival of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the Americans, were very hard. My parents both lost weight, and the ID work picture of my mother shows a gaunt and haunted, very solemn woman. My mother said she had become so thin that a brisk wind could practically blow her away. My mother also told stories about how bad and scarce the food was. Often it was a watery soup with one potato floating in the broth. She had to make sure all five members of the family were fed no matter how little was available. Though things got better after the war, it was not a time of plenty. When friends today marvel at how much milk and sugar I put in my coffee, I tell them that my mother, not having enough milk available, would make my coffee and, later, my little brother’s coffee, with as much milk and sugar as she could get. Kestutis was born in 1946 while we were living in Wunsiedel. Both he and I, to this day, drink our coffee, heavy on the cream or milk and very sweet.
My sister Cesyte also worked in Selbe. As a fourteen year old, she was put in charge of all the younger kids. She enlisted the aid of her sister, Elyte, who, at ten, was old enough to help with the care of the others. By some fluke, all the children under Cesyte’s care were girls, and they often rehearsed during the week for impromptu performances on the weekends. One such performance had all of the youngest girls, two to three or four years of age (and I was one) dance to “Mes baltos snaiges is rytu” (We are white snowflakes from the east). Cesyte did her child care conscientiously but says that the responsibility weighed on her mind. To this day, she knows the names of all her charges. She writes regularly to at least one of them.
In Wunsiedehl, my sisters and I went to school. I attended a kindergarten and had a lovely teacher whom I just adored. Her name was Binsaite. We have pictures of the kindergarteners, and I look lively, relaxed, and happy. There is even a photograph of many kids on sleds in the snow. The kids range in age from six or seven to perhaps twelve or thirteen.
My brother, Kestutis, was born in Wunsiedel. My sisters remember my mother’s pregnancy and the teasing she received about bearing “ketvirta mergaite” (a fourth girl). I remember the turbulence of the time surrounding my brother’s birth and being very unhappy to have him receive so much attention. One time, my mother gave me the task of wheeling the baby around in his carriage. I did so, but I was resenting it and thinking how much I hated having to do this chore. But, then, two of my friends walked by and were enthralled with the baby, asked if they could wheel him around. Then, I took ownership of my brother’s carriage and refused my friend’s request. All of a sudden, my bother became an asset!
When and under what circumstances did you and your family members leave the DP camps for the United States? Did you have any sponsor in the United States? If so, who were they?
How did you travel to the U.S.? What was the ship name? What was your port of entry into the U.S.?
We left Germany in July of 1948 on the USS Marine Flasher, a converted military ship. My father was born in Waterbury, Connecticut (my grandparents had come to this country in 1903 and stayed several years—long enough to have two children born here). His citizenship extended to my two sisters, who were born before 1940. Immigration/citizenship laws changed before I was born in 1942, so my brother (born in Germany in 1946), my mother, and I were not citizens. My father and sisters were entitled to and could have come to the United States even earlier than the summer of 1948. But my family, having survived the war intact, chose to wait until all six of us could make the passage. We were among twenty-five or so Lithuanians on board the ship. We have a photograph, taken of the Lithuanians as we are arriving in New York harbor. Everyone is dressed in their best clothes, smiling and looking both excited and a bit apprehensive. During the passage, men were in separate compartments from the women and children. Everyone had a bunk bed. The crossing was not easy for my father and oldest sister, Cesyte. Both of them were seasick most of the journey. On the other hand, Elyte and my mother were just fine and enjoyed the best food they had eaten in more than four years. In the pre-dawn of the day of our arrival, my father came to our quarters to wake us. He was very excited and wanted us to hurry so we could see the statue of liberty. He told me years later that his mother had told him of this enormous statue of a woman that marked one’s arrival to America. I remember it very well. The day was just beginning to break. The morning fog was heavy. And, then, slowly through the fog you could see this huge shape. It was awesome. What a harbinger of the new life to come!
My father had two cousins in the New York area, Vincas and Juozas Abramavicius. They were either our sponsors or had been contacted to meet us on our arrival. We came with two small, handmade wooden trunks containing all of our belongings. The address on the two trunks was for Juozas’s home in Jackson Heights. I remember the arrival in New York harbor as a melee of people, sounds, and movement. Things looked huge and overwhelming. And, then, I was surrounded by a bunch of people (they turned out to be reporters and photojournalists), put on top of our trunks, asked to cross my legs, put my chin on my hand. Then there was the popping of many cameras! My picture was being taken, mimicking the arrival of a movie star! I did not like it! And the photograph (we did get a copy of one of the papers—more on that below) shows it! After a time, things got quieter. More and more people met up with relatives, and the Lithuanian refugee committee was dispatching families with their relatives or friends. Finally, the only family left standing at the harbor was ours. We waited and waited, and my father’s cousins did not come. The committee members then put us up in a hotel and went off to contact the cousins.
The two day stay in the hotel was filled with traumas and challenges. First of all, we had to have something to eat. My father and Cesyte first had to find their way to the refugee headquarters to ask for some funds. Cesyte knows this was difficult and wonders herself how they made it to the right building and office. They did get some money. (The amount was added to the cost of our passage—costs which my parents paid back during the first years in Brooklyn.) With the money in hand, my father and two sisters went off to find food. Knowing very little English, they had a hard time finding the food and selecting it. Elyte remembers going into what must have been a butcher shop. A dark man waited on her, and she pointed at some sausage. He then asked her some question, and, not knowing what in the world he was asking, she nodded. He then wrapped up some frozen sausage and handed it to her. We had no stove, so the food had to be already cooked and cold. My mother thawed the sausage (luckily cooked or smoked) by running it under hot water in the tub. The sausage was not very tasty, and the bread the group brought back was not what we were used to. But at least we had something to eat. We did have bananas as well because my father had seen that they were available and was very excited about getting some for all of us. As luck would have it, I hated bananas from the first taste. It took me several years to develop a taste for the fruit.
The next crisis occurred during my brother’s nap. We were on something like the twelfth floor. The day was hot, and the rooms were not ventilated, certainly not air conditioned. My mother put Kestutis down on the bed next to an open window. She closed the door which locked automatically—a new experience for all of us. My mother panicked, fearing that Kestutis, not quite two, would wake and fall out the window. Cesyte not waiting or being able to use the elevator, ran down all of the flights to the kitchen. Using her few words of English, she got across to the staff there that my little brother was in trouble and brought back someone who opened the bedroom door in time.
The final trauma came the next day when one of the cousins, Vincas, and his wife, Anita, also a Lithuanian, showed up at the hotel. They came in the door, and, before even greeting us, she railed “How could you do this to us? All six of you arriving at the same time and expecting us to take you in!”. I do not remember any reply from my parents. But, after a few minutes, Vincas said to my father, “Jonai! Get dressed you’re coming with us, so we can find you some work.” Anita, before leaving, left a copy of the New York Radio Mirror (now defunct) which had my picture in it with the following caption: HEADS FOR NEW HOME
Irene Brokas, 6, of Bremen, Germany, assumes the customary pose at Customs. She and family will settle in Jackson Heights. They came in on Marine Flasher yesterday.
Clearly, the reporter, not being able to interview any of us for the facts because of the language barrier took his/her information from the trunk I was sitting on. I have kept the clipping all these years, but about a year ago, I googled myself and the word Brooklyn and found one more newspaper that had carried the story. I am told by people who might know that, as newspaper collections are digitized, I might find even more versions of the coverage of my arrival. Who knows?
I should add that the traumatic and harsh beginning between my father’s cousin, his wife and our family did not continue. My parents and Vincas and Anita became good friends. In fact, before we left Brooklyn to settle in Detroit (covered below), Vincas and Anita borrowed money from my parents in order to have the down payment for the home they were purchasing. My parents and my sisters remained in touch with them and their son for many years.
List the places where you lived when you first arrived and where you eventually settled.
Our first address was 14 ½ Ten Eyck Street. We lived on the bottom floor of what probably was a tenement house. The apartment consisted of a kitchen, then two rooms leading into each other and at the end of the line-up was a small living room. The toilets were in the hall. Bathing took place in the kitchen. My parents, particularly my mother, for a cut in the rent, took over for the janitor, a Mr. Strumila, who was often inebriated. There was a small yard in the back of the building, and, in fact there was a small, two room house in the back. My parents sponsored four families, friends from the DP camp days, and two of the families ended up living in our old apartment and the small house in the back. The families we sponsored included the Senkus, Kleiza, Kreivenas, and Zizys families. The Senkus and Kleiza families had kids more or less my age, and we played together all the time, skating in the neighborhoods, going to the movies, and attending Saturday school and each other’s birthday parties.
We moved from Ten Eyck Street after about a year. Our next apartment was much nicer with two bedrooms, a large kitchen and bath, and a separate dining room and living room. The address was 316 South 4th St. We were on the second floor. My mother, like Molly Goldberg of the 1950s TV series, would sit by the window, with a pillow for her arms, watching the neighborhood. At this address, my parents entertained almost weekly. Other DPs, the families we sponsored over would come over often on Fridays and Saturdays. Several of the frequent visitors were men who had been separated from their families in one way or another. My parents place was where they had a home and a family. I remember a lot of laughter, singing, eating, animated joke telling, drinking, and even some dancing.
We moved to Detroit at the beginning of 1953. The reason was the draw of better work in the motor city and also because our only close relatives, my father’s sister, Ona Brokaite Radzeviciene (who was the other child born in the U.S. to my grandparents) and her family had moved there from Brooklyn a couple of years earlier. We lived with my aunt for several weeks, until we found a place—an apartment owned by a very kind and supportive Lithuanian, Mr. Barysas. We live there for about two years, and then my parents bought their own house. My parents lived the rest of their lives in Detroit or a close-in suburb. My sisters and my brother still live in Michigan as do many of my nieces and nephews. But I have settled permanently in the Washington D.C. area, and two of Cesyte’s daughters live in Chicago.
Where did you and your family members work or go to school in the U.S.?
My father worked for Domino Sugar and my mother cleaned offices in Manhattan when we were in Brooklyn. My sisters both worked at several places even though Elyte was too young to do so. She was fourteen when we arrived in the U.S., and, while the schools were trying to figure out whether to put her back in elementary school or try her in high school, given her language issues, she convinced my parents to allow her to work. Elyte did also take voice lessons, her true love, from a great Lithuanian teacher, Vladas Ivanauskas while we were in Brooklyn and, later, she studied at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. Elyte showed unbelievable pluck and stamina in pursuit of music and singing. At about sixteen, she got herself an appointment with a record company in Manhattan and auditioned for them. My sisters’ jobs in the four plus years we were in Brooklyn included stints at Chicklet, Sunshine Biscuit, and a garment factory. They both had similar jobs after the move to Michigan until Cesyte learned key punching. Both of my sisters married Lithuanian men and also spent some time as homemakers. Elyte’s husband was a watchmaker and opened a jewelry business in Detroit. Elyte worked in the store for some time, but, after the marriage ended, she worked in factories related to the auto industry.
Cesyte married a man she met in the DP camps, Juozas Naumavicius. Juozas dated Cesyte in Germany (they met in Bamberg and continued to see each other in Garmisch), but he and his family (parents and a brother and sister) emigrated to Columbia, South America. Cesyte and Juozas wrote to each other, and, eventually, he convinced her to come to Columbia and marry him. Over my parents’ objections and only with their reluctant acquiescence, Cesyte, twenty-two by this time, flew to Columbia in 1952. Cesyte and Juozas were married in a Lithuanian church in Columbia (though my mother had hoped that a civil ceremony would suffice to get Juozas registered as a spouse of an American wife), and she returned to Brooklyn to await his arrival. He did come within six months, but, by then, we had moved from Brooklyn to Detroit.
After we moved to Michigan, my father worked for a short time at Fisher Body but spent most of his working years at the A&P warehouse. My mother cleaned a bar for several years and then offices for many more. At the latter she was one of several Lithuanian and Polish DPs. My mother also had a small catering business for a number of years.
In Brooklyn, I went to Annunciation School, a part of the Lithuanian parish of the same name. Midway through the fifth grade, we moved to Michigan where I attended several schools before finishing high school at Holy Redeemer. I was second in my class and the highest ranking girl, earning a full scholarship to Marygrove College from which I graduated after spending my junior year at the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg, Germany. I got a Master’s degree from the University of Dayton and have done some further, graduate work at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. I have worked in the cultural/museum world for most of my career. Notably, I directed the museum program at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and I was the head of the Interpretive Programs Office at the Library of Congress, the office responsible for all exhibitions and public programs. My brother attended the same schools as I did, started college at Wayne State University, but enlisted in the army and served in Vietnam. After his discharge, Kestutis became a police officer, rising to the rank of Sergeant before retiring recently. He is now the head of security for a private company.
How difficult was it to learn English?
I learned English easily. I don’t remember struggling, but I do recollect during my first year in school, in first grade, being confused at times about what was happening. For example, this one time I knew we were breaking for something but I could not figure out whether it was recess or lunch time. My brother who was only two when we arrived, took to English readily. It was different for both my sisters and my parents. My sisters had taken classes in Germany as we prepared to come to the United States and took night classes in Brooklyn. But Lithuanian remains the language my sisters are most comfortable in, though they both speak fluent, nicely accented English. My parents learned and used English, but they were never fluent in it.
When you first arrived, how were you received by other Americans? By other Lithuanians?
Americans and Lithuanians received us warmly, with great generosity and inclusiveness. In the summer of 1948, we were among the earliest immigrant arrivals. My sisters quickly became part of the social and cultural Lithuanian community. At first, they were the only DPs in some of the things they joined. But, over the four and a half years we were in Brooklyn, they were active in many groups and organizations, almost all of them populated by the growing numbers of DPs. They sang in the church choir at Angelu Karalienes (Queen of Angels) church. They joined the scouts. Both were dancers in the Lithuanian folk dancing group, and both participated in the political protests and marches which sought visibility and solutions for the Soviet take over of Lithuania. Elena says that as part of these public marches, they collected money in tall cans. As might be expected, some people contributed, some politely refused, others were nasty and impolite. I went to Annunciation (Apreiskimo) School, and, eventually, the whole family belonged to that parish. The pastor was a Lithuanian priest, Pakalnis, but his assistant was Pakalniskis, who was himself a DP.
I do remember a couple of incidents that showed how welcoming people were. One day, when we were still on Ten Eyck Street, in our first few weeks here, there was a big Italian festival. I do not remember the name of the festival, if I ever knew it, but a statue, I believe of the Virgin Mary is carried through the streets and people put dollar bills around the statue. A festival takes place after the ceremonial aspects are done. My family was urged to go to the festival and, during it, met a Lithuanian woman who was so moved by our presence, our surviving and arriving in Brooklyn, she insisted on introducing all of us to pizza. She bought several pizzas and had them delivered to our house, showed us how to eat pizza, and then left. Unfortunately, we did not immediately acquire a taste for pizza, so my Mother had a lot of pizza to deal with. I do not remember what she did with it. But I do know that, given our recent experiences, she was reluctant to discard any food—even something no one seemed able to eat.
Another time, I remember receiving a “welcome to America” gift form a Lithuanian lady I did not know and, even after the present, barely met. I got what I thought was the most wonderful gift: a little red purse filled with pennies, nickels, dimes, and candy!
The “seni Lietuvai”, which is what we called them, opened their arms, their purse strings, and their institutions to my family. I also remember that many Americans were kind and engaging. “Goodnight Irene” was a big hit at the time, and many times someone would meet me, find out my name, and sing to me.
Did you correspond with relatives in Lithuania?
There was no correspondence until after the death of Stalin. But, then, one day my parents received a letter from one of my mother’s siblings. To this day, we do not know exactly how that relative and that letter got to us. But my parents were overjoyed! Correspondence after that time was steady and eventually included many, if not all, of my parents’ siblings. Often, the letters arrived having clearly been opened and re-sealed. My mother was one of seven living children, as was my father. In fact, it was only after this correspondence started that my father learned that his youngest brother had died, fighting as a partisan. The story of his and his cohorts’ deaths is sad and gruesome. They apparently were betrayed and were executed. Their bodies were brought to the town for relatives to identify and take away. The townspeople were made to march by the bodies. But, by then, everyone knew that identifying a body would mean incarceration, Siberia, or death, and no one identified a body. The corpses were buried in a mass grave. After the restoration of independence, the bodies were re-buried in the local cemetery with a large tombstone identifying each man and his date of birth.
I wrote to only one man, Juozas Kijauskas. My mother’s oldest brother (really her half brother since my grandmother was widowed with three children before she married my grandfather) had come to the United States before World War I and had finished high school here. He wanted to practice his English, so I wrote to him for several years. I have many of his letters to me. After not using the English language for nearly fifty years, my uncle wrote grammatically and beautifully. He was, among other things, a beekeeper. He tried to send me some honey, but was not allowed to. I regret, to this day, that I did not get to meet him. He seemed more real to me because of that correspondence than any other relative.
When did you feel established in the U.S.?
My mother, brother, and I became U.S. citizens in about 1960. I think that was a major transition. I remember giving up my green card and feeling as if things were right, as they should be. For years, maybe even before the citizenships, my mother said that in this country you can achieve anything. She thought women were better off here. She loved Lithuania but felt that life was better here. Often, during turbulent times, she would say that this country did not always live up to its ideals. I think my Mom’s civic ideas and ideals shaped me, and I still marvel at how well she understood this country without the benefit of the many lectures, classes I attended, and the books that I have read.
But, to look at this question from another perspective, I have always felt as if I have lived two lives: one was as American as can be; the other was as someone with experiences and a background that those around me could not understand. I think that coming here at the age I did, in a family that was and continues to be steeped in Lithuanian culture, I could never be just American. A professional colleague once belligerently asked me, “Which are you Lithuanian or American?” My answer was and is “I am both”. I cannot be myself, I cannot be understood unless you understand that I am both, shaped by and loving both countries and cultures and histories.
One final comment, I am definitely established here. My life is here. My loves are here. But my heart is big enough to include the country of my birth, and a part of me will always be there as well.
Did you participate in Lithuanian activities in the U.S.?
I did participate in activities though, perhaps, not as intensely and actively as my sisters. I was an Ateitininke. I went to camps for Ateitininkai. I went to Saturday school in Brooklyn. I joined a chorus for a short time. I was in Lithuanian folk dance groups. In addition to things mentioned previously, my sisters remained active in the scouts throughout their lives, retiring only recently from active participation. Both were in choirs and choruses. Cesyte has taught folk dance at Lithuanian school and is active in various formal and informal Lithuanian groups. Elena was in an acting group both in Brooklyn and Detroit. She has played many roles in children’s plays, dramas, and musicals. My parents too were members of several Lithuanian organizations.
Did you or your family members visit Lithuania during the Cold War or later?
Only Cesyte visited Lithuania during the Cold War. She went on a tour in1987. During that visit, she requested permission to visit the town where she lived, where she was born, The authorities refused her request, but, surreptitiously, our cousins came under cover of darkness, whisked her away, and brought her back the next evening. She has been there twice since then, in 1992 (with her husband, Juozas) and in 2009 (when she visited Lithuania with my husband and me). My sister Elena has been there in 2000. My husband and I have been to Lithuania in 1996, 2000.and 2009. My parents, regrettably, never got to be in Lithuania after leaving it in 1944. By the time of the restoration of Lithuanian independence, my mother’s siblings had all passed away. My father, on the other hand, still had two living sisters and one brother. In about 1989 or 1990, one of my father’s sisters, Brone Peceliene, did come to the United States. It was quite a reunion, covered by the Detroit local TV news. They had not seen each other for nearly fifty years. Broniuke/Brone was the only sibling with whom my father was reunited. My brother has never been to Lithuania, and I believe has no desire to do so.
List any other thoughts, impressions, memories that you would like to share with others.
I am so pleased to be a part of this gathering of information, people’s life experiences. My career has been spent on exhibitions, featuring the famous (Freud, Churchhill, Jefferson, Lincoln, Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright) and the not so famous; the histories of long past civilizations and emerging ones. I know that some stories may be more devastating, some more immediately compelling, but gathering this history is vital. I believe that this World War II DP story is as important as any I have dealt with. Our displacement, of course, is connected not only to our particular circumstances, it is a part of the saga of a world war and the brutal past of Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism. Yet, in telling the story of our past I am reminded of how many have gone through similar, wrenching upheavals—so we are, in fact, singular but also connected to all who have lost homes and the lives they would have lived. I appreciate the fact that this project is giving me the motivation to put the pieces together, the stories, the photographs, the documents, the artifacts to record what happened from my family’s and my personal perspective.