The following questionnaire responses and accompanying photographs were submitted by Nijolė Semėnaitė Etzwiler, daughter of longtime Museum staff member Stasė Semėnas, and were published in the Lithuanian Museum Review (Jan – Mar 2013/Issue 241). Acknowledging her mother’s assistance with the project, Nijolė writes: “As I was only a child at the time of our journey, my mother Stasė Semėnienė has given me most of the information below.”
Sadly, Mrs. Semėnas passed away on May 31, 2014, just short of her 98th birthday. We are grateful to her daughter, Nijole Semėnaitė Etzwiler, for documenting and sharing her mother’s remembrances and for submitting them to the Baltic DP project before Mrs. Semėnas’ passing.
Please list the names and occupations/professions and ages of you and/or your family members who fled from Lithuania.
Father Alfonsas Semėnas, electronics engineer and professor of engineering, then 38, now deceased; mother Stasė Lapaitė Semėnienė, English teacher, then 28, now 96; and myself Nijolė Semėnaitė Etzwiler, then 5 now 73. My Lapas [maternal] grandparents, as well as both Lapas uncles, Edvardas and Zdislovas, my mother’s younger brothers, all escaped at the same time, as did my father’s mother, Pranė Semėnavičienė, his sister Emilija, her husband Povilas Gaučys and their little son Algis, only 2 at the time. Only a few of my family did not escape: my father’s sister, Valerija, who with her husband Damašius was sent to Siberia. [Read more about Siberian deportations>>>] My father’s father refused to leave and was left behind. My mother’s brother Viktoras Lapas was killed at Aleksoto Tiltas.
Where in Lithuania did you and/or your family live before leaving the country?
When and under what circumstance did you and/or your family members leave Lithuania?
In 1944, as the Russians approached, my mother, Stasė Semėnienė, my grandmother Elena Lapienė, and I escaped by train. My father Alfonsas Semėnas, grandfather Zdislovas Lapas and uncle Edvardas Lapas escaped on bicycles.
List the towns on your route from your home to the DP camp(s).
We went through Gruenberg, Bamberg, Poeneck, and Langendiebach, where we lived in the burgermeister’s (mayor’s) house, on a farm. My father was able to get a job at Telefunken.
Could you describe what the escape was like? How did you travel (on foot, by boat, train, other)?
The train we were on was the last one out of Lithuania, a cattle train. We took that to Koenigsberg, where we got on a passenger train to Gruenberg. My mother says the Germans called us verfluchte auslander, “damned foreigners”.
Name the DP camp(s) in which you lived and approximately how much time you spent in each one.
We were in Hanau, near Frankfurt, a camp for Lithuanians, Polish and Ukrainians. There were 6000 refugees, 3600 of them Lithuanians. We were there for a year. My father Alfonsas Semėnas was the Stovyklos Vadovas, Director of the Camp. His brother-in-law, my uncle Povilas Gaučys was chairman of the Lithuanian Community.
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?
It was a brick building and we had a room to ourselves because my father was the Vadovas. We had a window and flowers. I remember that we only had one bed, and all I dreamed of was to have not my own house or my own room, but my own bed. There was a soup kitchen, giving out split pea soup. Mr. Žukauskas was in charge of that. My mother says we had powdered eggs daily. I was sent to bring back the soup in a bucket and was distracted playing with some friends. When I got to the kitchen, it had closed. I sat down and cried. Someone opened up a window and asked why I was crying. I said I was late for the soup and they’d beat me when I got home, and this kind person went back into the kitchen and found enough soup for me to take back.
Most memorable events from life in the DP camp(s).
The British and US military officers were very kind to the refugee children. They held parties for us. For one US Thanksgiving, they asked my mother to invite 10 kids to a dinner. I also remember parties where they gave each child a present.
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?
My father, Alfonsas Semėnas, was busy with the duties of running the camp. Both he and my mother, Stasė Semėnienė, taught English at the high school in the camp.
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?
We went to England first. My father, although a Lithuanian, was born in Scotland, so we were British subjects and eligible to “return” to England. We lived in London for a year and a half and then emmigrated to the US under the British quota, in 1947. My father’s uncles Frank and Alex Zakes were living in Spring Grove, Illinois, and Alex sponsored us. A few years later, when both my father’s family, the Gaučiai, and my mother’s family, the Lapai, were ready to come to the US, Alex didn’t want to sponsor again, so my parents sponsored them. My mother’s youngest brother Zdislovas Lapas emmigrated to Canada instead, on a work program, was very successful as an electrical engineer and eventually became Honorary Consul in Toronto, Haris Lapas.
How did you travel to the United States? What was the ship name? What was your port of entry into the US?
We sailed from Southhampton to NYC on the USS Marine Jumper, a converted troop ship. I remember it as being fun, with lots of Canadians on the ship. I don’t remember any entertainment except for Bingo. Because we were “British”, we did not have to go through Ellis Island.
List the places you lived when you first arrived and where you eventually settled.
At first we lived in Spring Grove/Fox Lake, Illinois, on Uncle Alex’s farm. My father had a job in Chicago and we soon moved there, living at first with Uncle Alex’s ex-wife (imagine a woman being so kind to her ex-husband’s relatives), then on the north side at Belmont and Clark (present day Andersonville), in a cold-water basement apartment, and then Brighton Park. Many years later they bought a house in Marquette Park.
Where did you and/or your family members work or go to school in the US?
My father Alfonsas Semėnas had a job at Telequip electronics company, making TVs, but eventually he opened his own radio and television store, Daina, in Bridgeport, on Halsted Street. My mother Stasė Semėnienė first worked at Baby Ruth candy factory (what a great job for a child’s parent to have!), and then Farnsworth Labs, which was conveniently on our street, on the North Side. Then she worked at our television store Daina. When that was sold, she worked in the camera department of Carson Pirie Scott and Co, downtown. In her 70’s, after mandatory retirement, she went to work at Balzekas Museum, which she did until she was 88. And for most of the time, from 1952 until the present, she wrote articles and editorials in Draugas [the Lithuanian language newspaper in Chicago], and was its first Women’s Page editor for 40 years.
My first school was McLaren, near what is now the UIC campus. Because I came from school in London, I was ahead of my age, 8, so they moved me up to 4th grade. Then we moved north and I went to Hawthorne, at that time at School and Seminary. I was very happy there. I started high school at Lakeview, but then we moved to Brighton Park and I went to Kelly, which I loved. I graduated in 1957, salutatorian of the class.
How difficult was it to learn English?
Because I came from a year in London, I spoke English fluently. I remember in my London school being confused at first but picking it up very fast. My parents both spoke English, but they tried to keep up only Lithuanian at home.
When you first arrived, how were you received by other Americans? By other Lithuanians?
At Hawthorne school, they thought I was from New Zealand because that was the most exotic place they could think of. Otherwise, as a child I was received just fine. My father said he felt more at home in Chicago than London because there he was always a “bloody foreigner”. My parents immediately became part of the Lithuanian community, and soon moved to the South Side to be closer to that community. But the most important welcome that I remember is from our “American” cousins, the grown children of Uncles Frank and Alex Zakes. They went out of their way to make us feel at home, to teach us American customs, to include us in their leisure activities and always feel that we had family to turn to.
Our neighbors were Scandinavian at first and had no idea where Lithuania was. My parents were Catholics and sent me to catechism lessons. I went to church at St. Sebastian’s on the North Side and Immaculate Conception in Brighton Park.
Did you correspond with relatives in Lithuania?
At first my father sent postcards to his family with cryptic messages to let them know he was safe and healthy. His youngest sister and her husband were sent to Siberia. His father was left behind in Lithuania. After the sister returned to live in Vilnius, and my grandfather joined them, my dad and his sister in Chicago, Emilija Gaučienė, sent packages to them. It wasn’t until much later, in the 1960’s, that they could write normal letters to each other.
When did you feel established in the US?
I felt at home in the US from the beginning, but for my parents it was difficult for a long time, having lost their country, their profession and their former life. Because they both spoke English, it was easy to adapt, and having their family close, as well as the Lithuanian community in Chicago, helped them eventually create a new life. My father loved Chicago and was very proud to be a part of it.
Did you participate in Lithuanian activities in the US?
My parents were very active in Lithuanian activities in Chicago. My father was a member of ALIAS (Lithuanian Engineers Association), Lithuanian professors association, and several other organizations. My mother was a member of Lietuvos Dukterys, BALF [Baltic American Freedom League], Chicago Lithuanian Women’s Club, Draugas, Balzekas Museum and other organizations. They were supporters of children’s charities and the Lithuanian Opera. As a child, I was not active in Lithuanian organizations, but I always enjoyed going to Šokių Šventes [Lithuanian Dance Festivals] and the Lithuanian Opera. As an adult I became a strong promoter of Lithuanian culture, exhibiting at fairs and festivals, joined a Lithuanian folk dance group, and now am the vadovė [leader] of that group, Žaibas of Madison, Wisconsin, as well as vadovė of a children’s group, Žaibutis, of Baraboo, WI. I am also a charter member of the Madison-Vilnius Sister Cities and have served on its board, as did my mother when she retired from Chicago.
Did you or your family members visit Lithuania during the Cold War or later?
We never went to Lithuania during Soviet rule. My father died in 1966, so never got to return to Lithuania. We never dreamed that we would be able to return in our lifetime and still think it is a miracle. My mother and I have been there 5 or 6 times. The first time, in 1993, was very emotional. We cried on landing. Everything was new to me, and wonderful; to her it was very changed, but she accepted it all and kept going back. Through her generosity, my whole family, my husband, our 3 sons, 2 daughters-in-law and 4 grandchildren, all have been there.
List any other thoughts, impressions, memories, that you would like to share with others.
Although we suffered the great loss of home and country, our family was very lucky that so many of us were able to escape the soviets and build a new life here. We lost my mother’s brother Viktoras Lapas, who died as a partisan in 1943, at the age of 23, and we never saw my Semėnavičius grandfather again. But the aunt who was exiled to Siberia is still alive at 101, living in Vilnius with her son who was born in Siberia. Except for my father who died at the age of 60, the rest of our family lived into their 80’s and my mother is still alive at 96. While we were refugees, both the Germans who took us in, and then the British and Americans at the camp in Hanau, were very kind to us. When I think of what others lost in the War, I consider myself and my family blessed.