A drab building complex in Chicago’s West Lawn houses the offices of powerful Chicago Democrat Michael J. Madigan, aka the Velvet Hammer, speaker of the Illinois house. His office sits on the second floor of the somber edifice at 6500 S. Pulaski , its exteriors brown and gray and respectable.
This is, however, not the only thing at 6500 S. Pulaski. A Lithuanian flag at the door offers up a tantalizing hint to idle passersby. The Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, the largest Lithuanian museum outside of Lithuania, is an unlikely neighbor for Madigan’s chambers.
“When you go to another country, you don’t lose your background, you add to the background,” says Stanley Balzekas Jr., a 95-year-old Lithuanian American who founded the museum 50 years ago.
“In a little way we try to present what Lithuanians are,” he says. “Our role is to show non-Lithuanians something about Lithuania. Our role as a museum is to bring different groups together.”
An eclectic mix of objects populates the museum: amber beadwork, traditional costumes, Easter egg trees, and religious objects—evidence of Lithuania’s strong Catholic tradition—speak to everyday Lithuanian life, while historical maps depicting Lithuanian occupation by the Russian Empire, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union point to Lithuania’s turbulent political past. There is a children’s museum, a research center, and a library.
The museum’s top floor hosts an exhibit titled “No Home to Go to,” chronicling the post-World War II flight of Baltic displaced persons, or DPs, to the U.S. Yellowed immigration documents, photographs of life in new homes, and preprinted letters sent by homesick but illiterate immigrants convey the enormity of their journey.
DP immigration was the second of three waves of immigration from Lithuania to the U.S., and Chicago was popular with the newcomers. “Chicago is considered the biggest Lithuanian city outside Lithuania,” says Giedrius Subačius, professor of Lithuanian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Even today, 100,000 people of Lithuanian descent call Chicago home.
The majority-Catholic population has established churches around the city, and Subačius knows of at least three traditional Saturday schools where aspects of Lithuanian culture such as singing and dancing are taught. The oldest Lithuanian language newspaper in print is in Chicago—Draugas was first published in 1909. And the Lithuanian World Center in the greater Chicago area, in Lemont, is, as its name might suggest, the biggest Lithuanian center in the world.
Chicago’s Lithuanian ties date back to the industrial revolution. “American businessmen needed the labor, so there were no big obstacles to entry,” Subačius says. Lithuanians worked in the stockyards, steel mills, and coal mines. In fact, it is a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, who is the protagonist of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s muckraking 1906 novel about Chicago’s meatpacking industry.
When the DPs found themselves as “people who were part of a nation with no territory,” Chicago was a natural choice.
“America offered them entry,” Subačius says. “It is convenient to come where you know someone. Lithuanians continued to pour in the same place.”
Subačius adds that this was also an intellectual immigration. “Writers, teachers, and artists were afraid of Soviet persecution. Intellectual power was stronger here than in Lithuania.”
This was the reason Roma Bielskus’s parents fled Lithuania. They were teachers who found “they were on the lists to be sent to Siberia,” shares Bielskus. In 1944, they fled to Germany, and in 1949 to the U.S., landing in Waterbury, Connecticut, when Bielskus was six years old.
Now 76, Bielskus has lived in Chicago for 50 years. For three of them, she has occasionally manned the gift-shop-cum-reception-desk at the museum. She says many visitors are third- or fourth-generation Lithuanian Americans, some of whom also pay a visit to the museum’s genealogy department.
Here they seek out the resident genealogist, Karilė Vaitkutė, 53, who also edits the museum’s quarterly magazine, Lithuanian Museum Review. Vaitkutė is in the business of helping people find their roots.
“They have lost their ties,” she says. “They have no one to talk to . . . their grandparents, great-grandparents are dead. They come here to find relations back home.” v