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-- Exhibit highlights stories of displaced people from WWII era

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

An ongoing exhibit at the Balzekas  Museum of Lithuanian Culture, 6500 S. Pulaski Road in Chicago,  brings to life the stories of  thousands of World War II-era “displaced persons” from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, many of whom came to the southwest suburbs after fleeing their homelands.

Called “No Home to Go To, the Story of Baltic Displaced Persons, 1944-1952,” the exhibit shows through photos and donated memorabilia, from luggage to clothing, how they kept their cultures alive while waiting in displaced persons camps mainly in Germany and Austria, until getting permission to settle in the United States and Canada.

Rita Janz, the director of the museum, explained that the Baltic states were independent between 1918 and 1940, when their countries were invaded first by Hitler’s Germany and then Stalin’s Soviet Union. Nazi forces invaded the Baltic states first, and then Soviet forces took over. Fleeing Soviet domination, and possible deportation to Siberia, hundreds of thousands of people fled westward to Germany toward the end of World War II.

“A lot of people thought that they would just have to leave for a short time, and they could return when independence was restored after the war. But that was not the case,” said Janz.  She pointed out that when the Iron Curtain came down after the war, and the Baltic states were absorbed into the Soviet Union, few people who left wanted to return.

According to statistics, after the Allies defeated the Nazis, some 200,000 displaced people from the Baltic states were living in “DP camps” in Germany, and perhaps 100,000 more living in cities and towns.  They were all largely dependent on “CARE” packages from the United States to supplement their food rations. Janz pointed to one photo in which Campbell’s soup cans are evident among the food donations.

When the Allies divided Germany into zones run by the U.S., British, French and Soviets, Janz said the displaced people felt lucky to be anywhere but the Soviet zone, because people there were repatriated to their home countries, or sent to Siberia.

The exhibit includes a wealth of photographs showing all aspects of their lives, from the cramped quarters they were living in, to their efforts to keep their languages and cultures alive any way they could while waiting for permission to leave. National costumes made of curtains and other materials available in the camps are on display in the exhibit, along with everything from personal documents to a box of sugar that a fleeing Lithuanian family took with them when they left home.

Many educated women who may have been doctors and dentists in Lithuania, were taught how to be seamstresses in the camps so they could find jobs in the United States and elsewhere.

           The exhibit also includes a display of the luggage that the refugees brought with them from their home countries, and took with them when they eventually resettled in the United States and Canada. One steamer trunk is labeled with an address in Orland Park.

                Among those displaced persons who eventually settled in Chicago, coming to the already thriving Lithuanian community around Marquette Park, was Valdas Adamkus. His high school  class photo, taken while he was in a DP camp in Germany, is featured in the display. Adamkus worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before returning to an independent Lithuania in the 1990s, where he served two terms as president.

                The exhibit also points out that Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who served two terms as president of independent Latvia, also spent time in a displaced persons camp in Germany before immigrating to Canada. The parents of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the current president of Estonia, also were DPs who left their country in 1944.

                Stanley Balzekas  Jr., the museum founder who said he is now 91, said it is important to tell the stories of the displaced persons. He noted during a recent visit to the museum that his parents came to the United States in the years before World War I. But he saw the DP camps firsthand when he served with the US armed forces in Germany during World War II.

So many items have been donated to the exhibit that they cannot all be all shown at once.  So it is going to be “re-installed” during a ceremony at 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, with many new items put on display.

The museum, which also includes an exhibit that tells the stories of the Lithuanians who remained at home during World War II to fight the occupying forces, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

Janz said the Displaced Persons exhibit is expected to be open through next year. A traveling exhibit has been to Washington, D.C., and plans are in the works to bring it to New York City.