Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture – Making a Dramatic History Real

 

 

Today the United Nations says there are more than 50 million.  They are displaced people—some asylum seekers, some refugees.  Today they are mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, places in Africa, Myanmar, Iraq, now the Ukraine too, and more.  But when Europe was on fire with World War II, it was so many of our Lithuanian neighbors here in Chicago today who were the D.P. (Displaced Persons) of that time.

 

In both a special exhibit about Baltic D.P.s and in its permanent and other special exhibits, you can learn about Lithuanians’ valiant struggle against Soviet domination  at Chicago’s  Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture.

 

 

It is dedicated to preserving and perpetuating Lithuanian culture, and seven days a week opens its doors to Lithuanians and non-Lithuanians alike who travel here from across the country, and some from across the globe. 

 

 

 

This is the largest museum dedicated to Lithuanian culture in the US.    For Chicago, which has the largest population of Lithuanians today outside Lithuania, it is a must-see for anyone who values freedom and history.

 

 

As you walk in the museum’s doors you first see a colorful art installation called “Siberia Souls”.  Artist Audrius V. Pioplys says of his work, “This was to mark the 70 year anniversary of the mass deportations from the Baltic republics to Siberia by Stalin, and to commemorate the victims of these atrocities.”  At first glance it may simply look like colorful light fixtures.  Walk closer and you see photographs and letters from the victims during their time in Siberia, with the top layer being a schematic drawing of brain cells. 

 

It was in the lobby that we met the museum’s founder, Stanley Balzekas, a retired Lithuanian-American businessman.  In short order we realized we were talking to a man with a keen intellect, ample humor and deep interest in a wide range of subjects, and who later commented to us, “Museums and libraries never have enough space or enough funds.” 

 

 

 

There too was Rita Janz, Director of Balzekas Museum who was a most excellent guide.  Janz not only demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of Lithuanian history but also a deep passion for the culture of her homeland.

 

 

From this foyer entrance where we had met Mr. Balzekas  and Ms. Janz, you can now walk to a special exhibit dedicated to the Lithuanian freedom fighters of 1944 – 1953. 

 

 

About 20% of the Lithuanian population had been involved in this resistance movement, including not only the fighters but also support systems of families gathering food and medicines. 

 

 

This resistance grew at a time when the Soviets were attempting to deport farmers to Siberia, kill them or force them into collective farms. 

 

 

 

Truth to tell, you could linger in this exhibit alone for several hours, admiring the wide range of artifacts, photo documentation and letters that together paint a detailed portrait of the resistance movement before the KGB effectively crushed it in 1953. 

 

 

 

An attention-getting part of the first floor permanent collection features clothing, jewelry, textiles, Easter eggs and more from typical Lithuanian traditions. 

 

 

 

It was the exhibit on D.P.s that actually drew us to the museum-- "No Home To Go To: The Story of Baltic Displaced Persons, 1944-1952".  

 

 

This tells the story of Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian D.P.s.   It will remain on exhibit until the end of 2015 and then travel to New York, Florida and California.   It is an evolving exhibit to which many Lithuanian families who were D.P.s are still donating memorabilia from their time wandering from place to place without a home.  Soon, the displays will be rotated to showcase many of these newer donations. 

 

 

Much like the museum on Ellis Island, the exhibit starts with a collection of luggage that Lithuanian D.P.s carried, with many of the exhibits showcasing the treasured items that the luggage carried. 

 

 

We were honored to meet up at the museum with Sofija Jelionis, who became one of the D.P.s when she was only a teenager.  She told her moving story of how she, during the chaos of war descending upon them, became separated from her parents and brother thinking she’d never see them again.  Her father and brother had taken turns on long distance bicycle rides to look for her, which ended with a very improbable reuniting of which she said, “..you have to think of miracles.”  Once reunited the family’s ordeal stretched for several years longer as they moved from one spot in Germany to another, her parents taking jobs as they could but the family never having a real home.   At war’s close if you were Lithuanian and living in a Soviet occupied zone your chances of deportation to Siberia were high.  Many countries opened their doors, and the US became a home to many like Sofija Jelionis

 

 

As Mrs. Jelionis told of their ordeal she traced the family’s path back and forth on a 1944 map from the Chicago Tribune showing the various fighting fronts.   Her story, combined with the artifacts from the exhibit, created an emotional montage that immersed us in the Lithuanian freedom struggle, perhaps also giving us a glimpse into both the desperation and survival instincts of the D.P.s of today.

 

Balzekas Museum, housed in a one-time hospital, is a treasure that is perhaps best known to Chicagoland’s Lithuanian community.  It should be on the map for others.  In the coming year the museum will be adding live performances.  Every year it hosts events to teach the arts of making Xmas ornaments and Easter eggs Lithuanian style.  

 

For hours, events and more information visit the Balzekas Museum website or call 773.582.6500.

 

Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture 

6500 S. Pulaski Rd.

Chicago IL 60629

 

 

 

 

 

 

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