compelling story of Chicago's Lithuanians and their struggle to escape
economic hardship, uncertain politics and religious oppression is told
on this installment of WTTW's Emmy Award-winning series Chicago Stories.
The program features a special guest narrator of Lithuanian descent: Chicago
Bears' football great Dick Butkus.
Like countless other prominent Lithuanians, Lithuania's current president is a man who spent the better part of his life right here in Chicago. Over the last century Lithuania's history has been rocky, but through it all, Chicago has been a safe harbor. The city is home to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, the Lithuanian World Center, and the only Lithuanian-language daily newspaper outside of Lithuania. More Lithuanians live here than anywhere outside Lithuania itself.
Almost 800 years ago, Lithuania controlled much of Eastern Europe. Since then, however, it has been plagued by the wars and political intrigues of its larger neighbors: Poland, Germany and Russia. By the late 1800s, Lithuanians had begun immigrating to America in large numbers. They were attracted to Chicago by the availability of jobs for able-bodied people. They came with a strong work ethic and provided muscle for the "City of Big Shoulders."
Cuisine is a vital part of the Lithuanian tradition and culture, and the program visits several prominent food shops and restaurants including Healthy Food Restaurant on South Halsted. Donna and Joe Kapaciuskas run the Racine Bakery & Deli on Archer Avenue. "It's an ethnic neighborhood bakery and there's a delicatessen that goes hand-in-hand with the bakery product that we sell," says Joe. The city's best Lithuanian desserts and delicacies are on extravagant display here.
Chicago's Lithuanian daily newspaper, Draugas (Lithuanian for "friend"), began in 1919 and serves immigrants and their families who still rely on Lithuanian as their primary language. To pass their heritage on to the next generation, Lithuanians started special Saturday cultural schools for the children. Audrone Elvikis the director of the Lemont-area Saturday school explains, "We teach reading and writing, literature, geography, history, all with the twist with Lithuanian. We instill love for the language and the country."
Another important part of the Lithuanian identity is the Catholic Church. 90 percent of Lithuanians are Roman Catholic, and the program features scenes from a traditional wedding reception. Lithuania became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. It was a hard-won victory that Lithuanians everywhere had fought for nearly 50 years. Chicago's Lithuanians have helped the country rebuild after so many years of communist rule.
One of Chicago's greatest exports to Lithuania may be Val Adamkus, the country's current President. Adamkus emigrated to the Chicago area as a teenager, worked extensively for the U.S. government, and moved back to Lithuania after his retirement. In 1997, he ran successfully for president. "I really look back proudly on those years," says Adamkus of his time in Chicago. "I believe that the newcomers had difficult times, but they managed to overcome them with hard work, and finally they are contributing citizens of the city of Chicago."
For most of Chicago's Lithuanians, their lives are here now. A half-century has forged a bond between them and America. Rimas Griskelis of the Lithuanian World Center explains, "It would be unrealistic for us to think that we could all pick up our suitcases and move back to Lithuania. Like it or not, we are separate people at this point just by virtue of our life experience." The community maintains a little Lithuania in Chicago, which has long been called the second capital of Lithuania.
Links of Interest
Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture
6500 S. Pulaski
312 / 582-6500
Located on the far Southwest side, the museum has a collection that includes books, artwork, photographs, arms and armor, maps, and decorative ornaments.
4545 W. 63rd St.
773 / 585-9500
Chicago's Lithuanian daily newspaper.
Global Lithuanian Net
Lithuanian Internet resources including government institutions, media sites, Lithuanian culture and history, and more.
About the Program Producer
In addition to "The Lithuanians in Chicago," "The Swedes in Chicago," and "The Bungalow: Sweet Home Chicago" for Chicago Stories, Risé Sanders has written and produced documentaries for A&E, WTTW, MSNBC, TLC and The History Channel. She received an NAACP Image Award nomination for her episode of A&E's flagship series, Biography, on Sally Hemming -- the woman who is now accepted as having been Thomas Jefferson's mistress.
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