On Being Lithuanian

John Knasas

I am a philosopher by trade and a member of the Houston Chapter of the Lithuanian American Community. I am also a third generation Lithuanian American from Boston. Both sets of grandparents arrived in New England around 1910. Ostensibly the men were avoiding conscription into the Russian Empire's army. My parents spoke Lithuanian. But possibly because neither ever believed any of us would return to Lithuania, they made no concerted attempt to teach us anything but phrases. Nevertheless, from family attendance at ethnic days, by the presence of Lithuanian books and literature in our home, and by my mother and father corresponding with relatives in America and abroad, my siblings and I in a variety of degrees identified with that heritage. In fact, one of my brothers is married to a Lithuanian émigreé. Their family of three sons all speak Lithuanian, and Rima has business links with the old country. Also, my sister in the late 1980s initiated an exchange project between the Boston and Vilnius city planning departments. So along with other values, my parents effectively communicated a love of their ethnic background.

When my father died in 1986, my mother asked me to make the list of offertory petitions at his funeral Mass. I wanted to include things that I knew were dear to him. So one petition was that the Lithuanian faithful's forbearance amidst persecution would win for them the conversion of their oppressors. Not in the least did any of us realize that in less than five years Lithuania would again exist as a free country. And little did I realize that I would travel there and that I would teach the theistic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

My first trip came about because of an invitation to attend a conference on Christian Philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, in August 1996. I had favorably reviewed three publications of Lublin philosophers, and so I suppose that is why they thought of me. I surmised that since I would never return to Eastern Europe, I ought to take the opportunity to visit Lithuania, made all the more possible through the relatives of my sister-in-law. So for five days before the Lublin conference, I was in Lithuania. Sad at the termination of what I thought was to be my one trip to Lithuania, I went to Lublin. And there I met a Lithuanian woman philosopher and publisher from Vilnius. Her name is Dr. Dalia Stanciene. After independence she resurrected the prewar philosophy and theology journal titled Logos. I spoke of my recent time in Lithuania and offered my services as a philosophy teacher. We remained in email contact and I was invited to teach in an annual Thomistic Summer School also organized by Dr. Stanciene with the help of the Lithuanian Dominican Order. The school draws on teachers from the world over. The students which number between 30-35 encompass university and secondary school teachers, university students and catechists. I have participated in this Summer School since 1997. Along with these activities, Dr. Stanciene and others organized and hosted a June 1998 Vilnius philosophy conference on the topic of "Thomism: Past and Present." It drew worldwide participation. Her latest project is the Lithuanian translations of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Three volumes have been published to-date.

In light of the previous description of myself, I am not really competent to speak of Lithuanian-Polish relations in Lithuania. It is their country, not mine, for whose reindependence they have placed their lives on the line. With that proviso, my limited observations are these two.

First, the official relations seem to be good. Internet sources tell me that an official cooperation between the two countries is a fact. The presidents of both countries speak of a "strategic partnership" and commit themselves to "support each other's integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures." Bilateral agreements include: abolition of visas, free trade, friendly relations, across-the-border cooperation. A framework of joint institutions also exists, and so do infrastructure projects like the Via Baltica, electricity networks, and rail modernization. Both militaries have conducted joint exercises. All of which is certainly much better than existed between the two world wars.

My personal experience confirms the cooperation. Dalia's summer school has enlisted for lecturers Polish Dominicans, e.g., Jacek Salij for whom there is warm affection; the 1998 Vilnius Philosophy conference drew young professors from Lublin; and of course there was the earlier 1996 presence at Lublin of Dalia and her colleagues. Yet not to be ignored is that in all this activity the lingua franca is Lithuanian. Even if lectures or talks are given in Polish, there is simultaneous translation into Lithuanian. Stanciene's Aquinas translation project should also be remembered here. In other words, the attitude that I observed of Lithuanian academics from Vilnius University, the Lithuanian Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, and Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas (where, however, English is encouraged), was that the Lithuanian language was there to stay. Privately, I did hear Lithuanians using Polish with Polish professors but not vice versa.

My observation is that both Poles and Lithuanians regard language as the carrier of a culture and of a national identity. Not to be able to speak it is to lose something very valuable. And this brings us to two complaints of the Polish minority in the Vilnius region.

According to Anatol Lieven's The Baltic Revolution (l994), Polish minority complaints include the unavailability of higher education in the Polish language and the non-official status of Polish in Lithuania. Since the Lithuanian tongue is non-Slavic, Lithuanian Poles find it difficult to learn Lithuanian and easier to learn Russian. The inability to get anywhere with these complaints and some others (e.g., redistricting to assure Polish minority representation in the legislature) lead the Polish minority in May, 1991, with Soviet support, to move to create their own autonomous area with an assembly, flag, police force and army. The move dissipated after the failed Soviet counter-revolution that August and with the Kremlin's acceptance of Lithuanian independence.

I am told now that a Polish University exists in Vilnius, though not yet accredited by the government. Students attend for two years and then finish their studies in Poland. Also in the Faculty of Philology at Vilnius University a department of Polish language and literature exists, and at the Pedagogical Institute there are departments for instructing teachers of Polish. My friend at Vilnius University also remarks that she allows Polish students to answer exams in Polish though she believes this is illegal. Tensions still exist between the government and the Polish minority. Most recently Lithuanian Polish leaders of the move for an autonomous area were retried in court and given extended prison terms. Attending Polish senators from Poland complained bitterly of this outcome.

My second observation is that dreams of the old commonwealth are very much alive among young Polish academics that I met. During the 1998 Vilnius conference, one Lublin professor went on and on about the stupidity of independence and how Lithuania would be much better off back in union with Poland. Also, during the summer school this past July, a dear friend who I had met at the 1996 Lublin conference came to visit me in Birstonas. He is a physics professor at the University of Lublin. He yearned to go to Lithuania and my being at the school provided him with that opportunity. We visited Kaunas and Vilnius. He kept comparing things to ten years ago in Poland and expressing his happiness at being able to speak Polish in Vilnius, whose sights provided him with many signs of "a Right Honourable Past." But significantly, as a parting gift, Tomasz presented me with what he said was the only map of Lithuania that he could find before leaving Lublin. It was a pre-war map showing the Vilnius region as part of Poland. The gesture showed gross Polish insensitivity to the national sensitivities of Lithuanians. Tomasz is a young man from deep in Poland. I shudder to think of the possible cross purposes existing between him and his countrymen on the one hand, and the young Lithuanian academics that I know on the other.

This paper was read at the meeting of the Central Europe Study Group at Rice University on 27 October 1999.

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