LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 39, No.4 - Winter 1993
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas, University of Illinois. at Chicago
Copyright © 1993 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
A PROMISE FULFILLED
LEONA T. GUSTAFF
Fifty-nine years ago, I made a promise to a valued friend. "You must give me your solemn word that when you receive your college degree, you will go to Lithuania for one or two years and tell the young people all about America," said the pastor of the Lithuanian church in a small town in Pennsylvania who made this unusual request one day in the year of 1934.
I had just completed my high school studies and wanted to go to college. Girls of Lithuanian descent in those years were encouraged to marry. We were not permitted to have strange ideas about continuing our education. Knowing my predicament, Father Koncius searched out a college and arranged a very liberal scholarship which my parents could not turn down.
Dr. J.B. Koncius had emigrated from Lithuania in the 1930s when Communism was becoming a threat to the land. He understood the dangers and never stopped teaching and speaking about them. He predicted unfair distribution of wealth. He feared that freedom of press, of cultural activities, of travel between families, friends, and countries would be denied to the people. Unfortunately, he did not envision World War Two nor the devastating control Communism would have over his beloved country, which would postpone for more than 50 years the fulfillment of my promise to him.
In February 1992, my husband and I were in Lithuania. We arrived on a black night, went through customs quickly, and found our way to a hotel in Vilnius where we paid visitor prices of $40 each day for a room that Lithuanian citizens are charged $4 a day. The hotel was comparable to a second-class hotel in the United States, and it was clean and comfortable.
The next day we were greeted by the teacher who had initiated our trip to Điauliai. We put our baggage consisting of six large valises filled with 200 books, an overhead projector, a cassette recorder and clothing for two seasons into a van and proceeded on our way. We drove on a straight and narrow road. The countryside was smooth and low. One could see for miles. There were no hills. I was reminded of a ride through a park, a very large park. Occasionally we saw some small woodlands. Much later we discovered they were inhabited by deer, boar and hunters who searched for game during the hunting season in order to bring venison and boar home to supplement the diets of their families. Our van was old and all the windows were covered with curtains. I was concerned for our safety, but I need not have been troubled. There was no traffic and the van could not travel more than 50 miles an hour.
After four hours driving through rainy weather, we arrived in the north of the country at the student dormitory in the city of Điauliai where we were to live for the next 10 months. The Rector of Điauliai Pedagogical Institute had invited us to teach English as a Foreign Language to students who were future teachers of English. The Soros Foundation had given us a small grant and we were answering Dr. Koncius' challenge at last.
Our new home consisted of two small but adequate rooms in a large boxlike building. Much of the city of Điauliai had been leveled by bombing during the war and Russians had built many overly large boxlike buildings very similar in construction to each other to take the place of the original homes. One of our rooms was a sitting room, the other a bedroom. The sink and toilet were located in a small closet just off the bedroom. We walked down the hall a few doors to the kitchen and shower which we shared with others who lived near us.
We found Lithuania interesting and exciting but difficult. There was no hot water and very little heat in our rooms. We wore sweaters and sometimes coats to the classrooms. After a lengthy search we found an electric heater which we used in our living quarters. We were given a television which had more Russian programs than Lithuanian, and we knew no Russian. Our food was tasty but had little variety. We came to expect cabbage, red beets and potatoes every day. We stood in lines to buy bread and milk.
The first thing we discovered was that there was considerable hostility to Americans in general. We began to feel that although they were very curious, they were also very apprehensive about us. A businessman once remarked, "You Americans are all money hungry and never think of more important things such as soul searching." A teacher said to us, "We are glad you are here, but would you mind teaching British English instead of American English?" We began to hear that they did not trust Americans and thought we had a bad economy, a bad culture, and a bad accent.
They were surprised to hear that we could speak Lithuanian. Our speech, which we had learned from our grandparents and parents who had come to the U.S. before 1900, was 100 years old and many of the words we spoke were outdated. Nevertheless, although they laughed at many of our expressions, they understood us. We were celebrities. We were the first Americans who came to Điauliai in 50 years and said, "We are going to stay here one or two years and we have come to teach you English." We heard from many a person, "You'll never stay more than a few weeks. It is too hard for you Americans here." "Americans are not that interested in us." But we could see many an eye light up when we passed them on the street. One young teenager, who later became one of our pupils, whispered with an apologetic smile, "You are a beautiful light to us."
It was very difficult at first. We tried to tell the teachers about new methods of teaching but they found excuses not to listen. We were in shock and realized we had a lot of work to do if we were to make any impression. Teaching at Điauliai was different from teaching in America. It was new and different for us to find students who were so submissive, quiet, and scared, but anxious to learn. We had no textbooks, and the literature books we found in the library were ineffective and bad translations of Russian translations of English and American authors. What textbooks we did find were published in Russia 10 to 20 years earlier and were critical of American life and activities. We were asked questions such as, "Is it true Americans do not always have work and they commit suicide?" We were told stories how they saved their kopeks to donate to the government to pay for the training of soldiers because America was prepared to invade their country.
After a few months they began to accept us more readily. Since we spoke their language, which we had not made apparent to them in the beginning, we began to hear their stories of torture and agony under the Soviets. Freedom to speak did not come easily to them since anyone who voiced his opinion was punished severely in the past. We heard many tales of the atrocities committed to the people. They were forced to submit to Sovietization or be condemned to prison or exile to Siberia. Families were separated since the arrests were by surprise and not all members were at home. Trumped up charges were made by neighbors in order that they would gain recognition and position from the Party. Fathers were imprisoned and mothers with children, even small babies, were put in boxcars and exiled to Siberia. They took with them what little they could put together quickly and carry on their backs. In their foreign country of Siberia they had suffered from the cold windy weather which seemed to last forever. They had to learn new ways to search for food. The weak died and were buried there. The strong slowly came back to Lithuania and now they are revealing the torture through which they lived.
Father Koncius would find a different Lithuania from the one that he knew. They have enough to eat and sufficient clothing to wear. Nevertheless, it is not easy to be without heat or hot water, and where prices are climbing at a fast rate each day. They especially cannot afford to pay the costs for fuel which had reached world prices so very quickly. They are looking to the rest of the world for help which they are beginning to doubt will ever come. I remember, on one especially cold day, thinking that there certainly was enough oil and gas in the universe, and why must these people be deprived of it and made to suffer. Books, medicines, and other items reaching Vilnius are not being transported to other parts of the country. Most of it is mysteriously finding its way to the flea markets all over the land.
People must be educated to receive a new market economy. Teachers must be taught new methods; engineers must be opened to new technology; doctors and hospitals must have more adequate equipment and access to modern medical development; business people must be introduced to the basics of business and new creative methods of marketing. Students must learn to think independently, to question teachers and authority, and to gradually learn the truth about America.
Through the past 50 years, Lithuanians were taught that America was their enemy. They were frightened of the U.S. and what they thought was its superpower. My husband and I were not accepted very warmly at first. But through showing respect and interest in their culture, looking at their beautiful arts and crafts, listening to their wonderful choirs and musicians, and realizing the tremendous love they had for their country we began to find a people tortured but accepting, unbelieving and ignorant of the free world about them, suffering from the absence of the niceties of life, perplexed about the changes happening to them, and anxious to pick up their lives in a different style of living.
When we first arrived in Lithuania we saw students with grim sorrowful expressions on their faces. They remarked many times how they loved our smiles. When we left Lithuania they were sorry to see us depart, but they were beginning to look for ways to open their lives to a little happiness and cheer, and they were speaking American English.