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Amber Bay Press 

Back Onto the Map: Essays on a Lithuanian American Identity

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During the Cold War years, when Lithuania was occupied by Soviet Russia, a free Lithuanian society existed only outside of geographic Lithuania’s borders. In the postwar years, while sheltering in displaced persons camps in the Allied territories of Western Europe, Lithuanian refugees published Lithuanian language newspapers, magazines, literary journals, established publishing houses and theater groups, clubs, summer camps, and schools. After emigrating to North America, South America, and Australia, these organizations maintained international social and cultural networks decades before the internet and social media. As a Lithuanian, you could conceivably travel the world by claiming a Lithuanian heritage. In any major city you could scan the local phone book for a Lithuanian surname, call the number and, speaking in Lithuanian, introduce yourself, and you would be picked up and brought back home and treated as a long lost relative for as long as you needed to stay. This hospitality was reciprocated when the random Lithuanian traveler showed up on your doorstep.

This strong sense of patriotism and literacy, and the dedicated culture of volunteerism, charity, and community, was in some ways due the success of Lithuania’s schools in those two brief decades of independence before World War II, a renaissance period when tolerance, literacy, love of nation, self-respect, and a strong moral code and values were fostered. The emphasis on education in the interwar period did not only benefit urban populations but took root also in the remotest villages. That was why when Soviet Russia occupied Lithuania in 1941, Stalin’s first victims were the nation’s school teachers. They were rounded up and deported to the arctic region of Siberia in June 1941.

Growing up in America and Canada, we were instructed by our elders not to lay down any roots because one day we would be going home to Lithuania to help rebuild the country. But then there was no Lithuania for us to go back to. Lithuania had been occupied by Soviet Russia and remained under Russian dominance until the nation won back its independence in 1991.

Now Lithuania is free, and we diaspora Lithuanians no longer need to hold the torch for Lithuania, to preserve the ancient language. Whenever we desire, we may simply board an airplane and hours later be walking the streets of Vilnius, or Kaunas, Klaipėda, or Palanga. But what do we do with our divided identities? This book of essays is a meditation on that question, and on something more. How do we children of World War II displaced persons integrate this wonderfully creative, innovative, tiny northern European country into our psyches now that it is no longer a fairy tale land, but a real place?

Amber Bay Press: 2024

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