LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 21, No.3 - Fall 1975
Editors of this issue: Antanas Klimas, Thomas Remeikis, Bronius Vaskelis
Copyright © 1975 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
FROM A LITHUANIAN ARCHIVE: Correspondence and Conversations
III. A CONVERSATION WITH JULIUS BIELSKIS
ALFRED ERICH SENN
University of Wisconsin Madison
Julius Jonas Bielskis (b. in 1891) was born in Lithuania and came to the United States in 1908. He visited Lithuania in 1916 as part of a fact finding mission sent by the American Lithuanians,1 and in 1919 he attempted to organize an American Lithuanian Brigade to give military aid to the new Government of Lithuania. After serving briefly in the Lithuanian consular service in the United States in the 1920s, he retired to private business. In 1939 the Lithuanian government appointed him Honorary Consul in Los Angeles.
I visited Dr. Bielskis in Los Angeles on August 15, 1956, the day after my meeting with Mykolas Brižiška (see Lituanus, 1975, vol. 21, no. 2). We spoke in English, and I found him very eager to discuss his memories of the First World War and the establishment of Lithuanian independence. At the same time, while rather partisan in his conversation, he was reserved on questions of documents. He told me of having a revealing report on the work of the Lithuanian delegation in Paris in 1919, When I later wrote to him, however, asking that he permit me to see the document, he refused, arguing that it was not yet time for such inner conflicts of the Lithuanians to be revealed.
The summary produced below was the product of the same methods which I had used in interviewing prof. Biržiška. After writing out my notes of our rambling talk, I reorganized the material according to topics. I then submitted a summary to Dr. Bielskis, and he in turn made extensive revisions. The grammar is at times rather awkward because of these revisions, but I have left the text as it came back to me. It can, I believe, be treated as a statement by Dr. Bielskis.
Besides the account of the fortunes of the American Lithuanian Brigade, Bielskis' comments were interesting for their sharp attacks on Augustinas Voldemaras, his emphasis on the significance of the Russian educational background of many of Lithuania's leaders, and for his strong defense of Juozas Gabrys. Many of his statements have to be considered controversial, but of such judgments is the stuff of history created not to speak of doctoral dissertations.
Dr. Bielskis was the Director of the Information Bureau, later the President of the Lithuanian National Council in Washington, D.C., from May 1917 to the end of 1919, when he left with the American - Lithuanian Brigade for Lithuania. Earlier in 1919 he was appointed by the Lithuanian Congress in Baltimore as the chief organizer of the "Lietuvos Sargai" a military group. He relinquished his post with the National Council and devoted full time to this job. He later joined the military project with Col., later Brig. General Wm. Swarthout, who had been sent to the United States by Col. Gedgaudas, who was in Paris at the head of a Lithuanian Military Mission.2
The group of officers of the Brigade left the United States in November 1919, and arrived in Kaunas on December 31. They had had to sail from Quebec because of the steamship strike in New York. They visited Lithuanian Minister Count A. Tyszkiewicz in London, where they first heard of the Lithuanian victory at Šiauliai over Bermondt.3
Approximately 10,000 enlisted men were ready to go to Lithuania. The U. S. government would not allow direct transportation so arrangements were made for them to be taken to Canada as laborers. From there they were to sail to Riga. The expedition was financed by the Lithuanians, with some assurance that there would be unpublicized indirect support from the U.S. government. The British took no part in this as they already had a military mission in Kaunas under General Crozier.4
The only loss suffered by the Brigade was Lieutenant Samuel Harris, who died in the army revolt of February 1920. His mother received a pension from the Lithuanian government and a post-humous cross.5
The insurrection of February 1920 was due to Communist agitation among the inexperienced peasant boys in the Lithuanian army. The uprising was quelled immediately, through the activity of the American and British officers of the military missions present in Lithuania.
Only a small number of the Brigade enlistees ever landed in Lithuania. This was mainly due to the objections of the Foreign Minister, Valdemaras.6 Valdemaras at that time was very poweful, even dictating moves to President Smetona. When Dr. B. first arrived in Lithuania, he paid courtesy calls to various officials, among whom was Valdemaras.
Valdemaras was quite blunt in his reception. At his first meeting, he thanked Dr. B. for his efforts on behalf of the Lithuanian cause. The matter of the Lithuanian Brigade would have to be taken up with the members of the General Staff and with the Ministry of Defense. Valdemaras clearly presented his attitude: the Brigade was to be broken up among the units of the Lithuanian army. Dr. B. began to argue the Lithuanian army was still small, composed of peasant boys, and lacked standardized equipment. He didn't want to break up the brigade, preferring to hold any section of the battle front. Valdemaras reiterated his desire to spread the men out. Dr. B. reminded him that these officers were Americans, not Lithuanians, there were differences in language. The enlisted men were Americans of Lithuanian descent, city boys, they had completely different ways of life and military action.
General Žukauskas, who was not out of the service, very much approved of the American Lithuanian Brigade, as did Merkys and other high-ranking officers.7 Dr. B. thought at first that this was just a case of individual stubbornness of Mr. Valdemaras. Later he saw the truth in the way Valdemaras acted. For Valdemaras, his own interests came first. He feared having a military force as individual and distinct as the American -Lithuanian Brigade. American Lithuanians might follow, many prominent leaders among them, and settle there. Being more experienced, they would not go to the farms, but would live in the cities, and would demand a more active share in the government. Valdemaras saw himself being put out of office, since he was actually little experienced in political affairs.
Agrarian Law. It is doubtful that Valdemaras had a hand in the agrarian law.8 Msgr. Krupavičius was the organizer and the guiding spirit.9 Communist propaganda was creating great unrest, and there was great need of reform. But unfortunately the movement got out of hand. First of all, they wanted to take over the large estates, majoratai, planning to return these to proven descendants of the original owners, and also to distribute land from them to the volunteers in the army. The second step was to take the large estates of those who had fled to Poland (Alfred Tyszkiewicz was one of those who remained). Thirdly, there were large absentee holdings. They planned just to clip these estates a bit and redistribute the holdings. But they just kept going to extremes.
Dr. B. doesn't know who introduced the citizenship clause in the land program, limiting the ownership of land to Lithuanians. It was necessary because of the shortage of arable land. In the working of the exchange rate, dollars and other high valiuta could wreck the lit standard. Those of Lithuanian stock who came from abroad had channels through which they could obtain permits to acquire land. Dr. B. got one. He knows of no instance of a denial of a permit to one of Lithuanian descent. The clause was important in protecting the available land for the Lithuanians.10
.The Emigration. In Switzerland there were students and war stranded intellectuals. There were three men in Stockholm Savickis, Jurkūnas, Aukštuolis.11 They had been delegated there by the Lithuanian Committee in Petrograd for relief work. (M. Yčas was Vice-President of the Tatyana Committee,12 and in that post was able to divert large sums for Lithuanian refugee relief.) The Norwegians showed little interest in this work, but the Danes and Swedes were active in it.
The emigration was influential mostly through personal contact, mostly through Switzerland. Much was thrashed out in 1916 in a joint conference at Lausanne. The American Lithuanians sent delegates to the Paris Peace Conference. The entire Lithuanian delegation at Paris was largely financed by the Americans. For instance, Valdemaras once sent a cablegram to the American Lithuanians requesting $75,000 for the work of the delegation in Paris. It was obtained. The Americans also supplied the stenographers for the delegation. The Catholics opposed sending Šliūpas, and compromised on Naruševičius.13 Mastauskas represented the Catholics.14 The American Lithuanians were important through Mastauskas in the matter of contacts with the U.S.A. delegation. It seems that the American Lithuanians were the decisive factor for whatever the Lithuanian delegation achieved at Paris. And they came back bitter toward Valdemaras, with whose tact and maneuvers they could not agree. They disliked his personality.
Reputation of the Taryba. The U.S. Lithuanians knew the background of the organization of the Taryba and the persons making up its membership. They disagreed with the ways used in its formation, but they tolerated them, since they realized the restrictions under which the Taryba was founded and later had to work. The members had been chosen from representative groups. They tried to do the best they could under the circumstances, just holding on for the Constituent Assembly. There was no feeling that the Constituent Assembly was unnecessarily delayed. They realized the impossibility. There were some voices calling for immediate action, but the majority agreed on the need of time for success.
Federation. Šliūpas stood alone.15 He had a small following, but his atheism was disliked by the Lithuanian Catholics. Pakštas later supported the idea of a Balta - Scandian confederation which was to be headed by Sweden.16
There was some work on Mid-European union, suggested by Americans, with R. Caldwell at the head. This was to take in the Baltic States and others, in several large linguistic family groupings. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have always worked together closely. Even today they observe each other's holidays, and there are Baltic Unions everywhere.
Some Pilsudskį groups tried to do something about federation,17 but the Lithuanian leaders would not listen, convinced that it was absolutely impossible to deal with them. They distrusted the Pilsudskį men. There might have been some indicidual Lithuanians who would listen to them, but there was nothing on an official or even larger scale.
Taryba. Note should be made of the Russian schooling of the members of the Taryba. More western Lithuanians should have been taken into the government. The Taryba should have used the experience available to its abroad, but the majority of the Russian oriented members were afraid of losing their privileged position.
Very few American Lithuanians were in governmental circles in the period of independence. The Russian-bred Lithuanians were reluctant to accept them. Vinikas, Balutis, and a few others were given comparatively minor posts,18 though head and shoulders above Valdemaras in civic and diplomatic experience and in native ability. The Russian educated individuals kept all the key posts. The other were relegated to minor positions.
Gabrys.19 Gabrys was a very unusual person, a genius of a kind. During the First World War he was accused of playing both sides. At that time he was in a bad financial situation, things were very difficult for him. His way of earning his living was his own business. He was an unquestionably loyal Lithuanian through and through. None of the accusations thrown at him could be substantiated. Those accusations were the result of his disagreement with Valdemaras and Smetona. In regard to his doings before his death much later, he must undoubtedly be considered as having become a very sick man. In his Lithuanian work, he was not one of those seeking to use the situation for personal gain. Naturally he expected to be accepted into the high councils of the Government. Smetona was quite tolerant, but not Valdemaras. It was understood that Gabrys aimed only at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Valdemaras opposed, since Gabrys was much better qualified than he. Gabrys bad presented a memorandum on the Lithuanian situation as early as 1911 in London, undoubtedly the first international presentation of the Lithuanian problem. Gabrys got Bartuška freed from a German jail in 1916 by threatening an exposure of the situation before the Conference of Subjugated Nations which he knew the Germans favored for political propaganda.20
Gabrys was undoubtedly working for Lithuania during the war. Rev. Dr. A. Viskontas in Fribourgh tried to organize a Polish - Lithuanian group in 1916 for relief work with little success.21 Gabrys was against cooperation with the Poles and persuaded the conference at Lausanne (1916) to condemn it.
Gabrys may have been against certain personalities, but he was always for Lithuania. He has always been for independence of Lithuania and not for autonomy. He was a real patriot. His accusers are narrow partisans. He must be admired for his role in the fight for independence.
1 See his memoir, "Amerikos lietuviai Lietuvos laisvės kovoje," serialized in Lietuvių
Dienos, September 1954 to May 1955.
2 Mykolas Gedgaudas (b. 1885) was sent to Paris in May 1919 to purchase arms for Lithuania. Swarthout was given the Lithuanian name of "Juododis."
3 Alfred Tyszkiewicz (1882-1930) had worked in the Tsarist mission in London. On Bermondt, see Henri Niessel, L'evacuation des pays baltiques par les allemands (Paris, 1935).
4 Frank Percy Crozier (1879-1937) left his memoirs of his mission in Impressions and Recollections (London, 1930).
5 On the insurrection, see Alfred Erich Senn, The Emergence of Modern Lithuania (New York, 1959), pp. 199-201.
6 Bielskis insisted on the spelling "Valdemaras." Cf. M. K. Dziewanowski, Joseph Pilsudski: A European Federalist, 1918 -1922 (Stanford, 1969), p. 120.
7 Silvestras Žukauskas (1860-1937) had served in the Russian army from 1881. In 1919 he served as Chief of Staff and subsequently Commander-in-Chief of the Lithuanian armed forces. Antanas Merkys (1887-1955) was at this time Deputy Minister of Defense.
8 To my knowledge, no one has ever associated Voldemaras with the land reform. This statement must have resulted from my probing of Bielskis' image of Voldemaras' power.
9 Mykolas Krupavičius (1885-1970) was one of the leading figures in the Christian Democratic Party. In the early 1960s, I met a number of times with Krupavičius to discuss political affairs of the 1920s in connection with my work on the book The Great Powers, Lithuania and the Vilna Question 1920-1928 (Leiden, 1966). Unfortunately I have no written records of our exchanges.
10 In March 1920, Tomas Norus-Naruševičius declared that just 40,000 American Lithuanians, with just $1000 each, could buy up almost all of Lithuania. See Senn, Emergence, p. 207.
11 Jurgis Savickis (1890-1952), a writer, later represented Lithuania in Copenhagen; Ignas Šeinius-Jurkūnas (1889-1959), also a writer and a journalist, worked with Savickis in Copenhagen; and Jonas Aukštuolis (1886-1941) represented Lithuania in Stockholm.
12 Martynas Yčas (1885 -1941) was a member of the Kadet faction in the Fourth Duma.
13 Jonas Šliūpas (1861-1944), a doctor and writer, was one of the best known American Lithuanians. Tomas Norus-Naruševičius (1871-1927), an engineer, came to the United States during the war. He was later active in the Lithuanian diplomatic service.
14 Balys Mastauskas (1889-1961) served in the U.S. Army during the First World War and was later active in Chicago politics.
15 See Šliūpas, Lietuvių ir latvių respublika ir Šiaurės Tautų Sąjunga (New York, 1918).
16 See Kazys Pakštas (1893-1960), The Balto - Scandian Confederation (1942).
17 See Dziewanowski, Pilsudski.
18 J. Matas Vinikas (1884-1961) came to the United States in 1900. He served in the Lithuanian missions to the U.S. in the 1920s. Bronius Kazys Balutis (1879 -1967) worked in the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry and eventually became minister to London. In 1964 I interviewed Balutis but unfortunately I have no written record of our talk.
19 Juozas Gabrys-Parašaitis (1880-1951) was one of the most controversial Lithuanian figures of the twentieth century. For his activities during World War I, see Alfred Erich Senn, The Russian Revolution in Switzerland, 1914-1917 (Madison, 1971).
20 Vincas Bartuška (1881-1956) was in Lithuania with Bielskis in 1916. See Bartuška's memoir, Lietuvos nepriklausomybės kryžiaus keliais (Klaipėda, 1937).
21 Antanas Viskontas (or Viskantas), (1875-1940), became a federalist and worked with Leon Wasilewski.