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Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015 12:12 am

From Lithuania to the land of Lincoln

 

A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois by Sandy Baksys, 2015


My advice is always to “read locally,” but you’ll find when you read about
Springfield’s Lithuanians, you’re reading globally. A Century of Lithuanians is an account of these immigrants – the first wave early in the century, why they left their homeland, how they found a footing in central Illinois mainly in mining, and a second wave after World War II, building on the shoulders of the first.

The blog on which this book is based sprang from a suggestion by Melinda McDonald, herself a local writer about Springfield, to Sandy Baksys, a writer and historian, then working with the Illinois State Historical Society on a marker to commemorate Springfield’s Lithuanians. McDonald thought a blog might help Baksys investigate her subject more fully. The blog launched and accreted. There was so much response, so much to tell and so many willing to help tell it, that Baksys focused her research and reportorial skills onto finding out all she could, and ordering the material into a book.

There’s no way a review can do justice to this work’s many riches. It has a cast of thousands – with an individual, a family, an institution (such as the Lithuanian-American Club and its popular dinner dances) regularly pulled forward to tell a story. The introduction reveals that Baksys is herself the daughter of a second-wave immigrant, and honestly discusses the problems of writing such a chronicle – the inevitable gaps, for instance, or discovering the bad along with the good. How much to reveal of misfortunes, tragedies, crimes? “In the end, negative discoveries contributed vastly and unexpectedly to my work. They not only humanized long-dead immigrants, but also drove me to a deeper understanding of the many trials immigrant families faced, and the largely invisible, but no less significant, heroism they manifested in simple acts of survival, community building and family loyalty and love.”

Much is in this packed book. You can read it straight through, including many names and relationships and genealogies, or pick out a subject here and there. Chapter heads indicate the scope: Historical Background, The First Wave; An Immigrant Childhood (movingly told by Ann Tisckos Wisnosky); St. Vincent de Paul Church; What Did They Look Like – 100 Years Ago?; Lawyer to Lithuanians; From Soldier to U.S. Citizen; World War I Doughboy: John Joseph Straukas; My Son, Please Come Home (letters researched by William Cellini, Jr.); Entering Illegally by Ship; Lithuanian-American Women in Marriage and Divorce; The Mining Life – Sporadic Work, Sporadic Wages.

Let’s pause here, for there are 56 chapters, from past to present, and with discussion of almost any aspect of living one can name. The chronicle varies in tone from the reportorial to the heart of the writer. Here, from Chapter 23, Veterans: World War I: “As many as 50,000 Lithuanians fought for the U.S. in World War I. …ironically, the vast majority were fighting for a country they barely knew – most were very recent, impoverished immigrants – not yet citizens – who barely spoke or read English. … Ironically, too, many had fled Lithuania to escape long-term military conscription by the Russian czar.” The author then focuses on four local young men and says, “that these (and others) were shipped back across the Atlantic so soon after they had crossed it with so much courage and hope, strikes me with a special poignancy.”

The chapter continues, after credits for her research, to tell us what is known of Jonas Kedis, Walter Rauktis, Joseph Kowlowski and Stephen Shvagzdis. This last soldier was very nearly the final death on Nov 11, 1918, Armistice Day.

Throughout, the community comes through clear, and also the gradual end of the cohesive community due to the loss of the church, the many years intervening from the original migrations, much intermarriage and mingling with other groups, and our modern life – so that Baksys herself didn’t realize, until she discovered it through her probings, that there is a branch of her Lithuanian grandfather’s family living in Springfield.

This is a remarkable book. Kudos to researcher, compiler and storyteller Sandy Baksys for her devotion to her subject, her ability and her sharing.

Reviewer Jacqueline Jackson, UIS Professor Emerita, lives in Enos Park, close to where early Lithuanians settled, and only three blocks from the site of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic church. She witnessed, and was shocked by, its demolition in the mid 1970s.



A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield may be purchased on Amazon.com and in the CreateSpace e-store at https://www.createspace.com/5493567. It is also for sale at Noonan’s True Value Hardware at 801 N. Grand Ave East, due to the many North-end people and places it chronicles.



Book signing
A shared opening for John Knoepfle’s The Aloe of Evening, Barbara Olson’s On the Rez and Sandy Baksys’ A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois will be Nov. 12, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., First Presbyterian Church, Seventh and Capitol, garden entrance, with authors’ signings and refreshments.

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