WASHINGTON -- Vytautas Vaskys, a somber, modest man of 70, carries the flag of independent Lithuania as an honor guard for the symbolic coffin Baltimore Lithuanian-Americans bear in protest at the gate of the Soviet Embassy.
Scores of Lithuanian-Americans from up and down the East Coast sing and chant as they follow the flower-bedecked coffin and the red, yellow and green flags. They're mourning the dead of Vilnius, Lithuania, fourteen people killed Sunday by Soviet soldiers, as they rallied in support of democracy.
"They are singing now the national anthem," says Vaskys, who lives in Crownsville. He was a school teacher long ago in Lithuania. Here he was an auto mechanic and maintenance man until he retired a few years ago. He came to Washington on a bus from Baltimore with about 45 other protesters.
Balys Brasaukas, who is from Arbutus, where many Lithuanian-Americans now live, is a pallbearer. He translates the anthem:
"Lithuania, our fatherland, land of heroes, from the past our children should take their strength . . ."
He's a Korean War vet who wears his blue American Legion cap as he carries the coffin. He was drafted almost as soon as he arrived from Lithuania in 1950. So was Vaclovas Laukaitis, who carries a flag like Vaskys and wears his American Legion cap like Brasaukas. Their Legion post is in Lithuanian Hall on Hollins Street in Baltimore.
Lithuanian hurts go deep, and their memories are long.
"I did see all the Russians when they came in 1940," Vaskys says. "I was in Lithuania when we saw all those deportations. Many thousands of people were deported in cattle wagons. No food. No water. No medical supplies.
"Those were terrible days," he says. "They call those days 'The Dark Days.'"
The Dark Days came in 1941 after the Soviet Union absorbed Lithuania and its independence vanished into World War II. The Soviets deported, arrested and executed tens of thousands of Lithuanians.
"The same thing is happening now," Vytautas Vaskys says. "No matter what Gorbachev says. The tanks are crushing people."
As the coffin moves along the cast iron fence outside the embassy and the red flag of the U.S.S.R. flips desultorily in a light wind, the demonstrators sing a hymn from the days of the deportations, "Marya, Marya," a haunting melody that recalls the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."
"I'm very upset about Lithuanian," says Aldona Buda, a very strong and very emotional woman who is the manager of the Lithuanian Hall. "I have over 200 relatives there and it's no fun watching them be killed by the Red Army. I saw what Stalin did when I was a child."
She was fourteen when she came to the United States in 1949 with her mother, father, two brothers and a sister.
"All my life I have a longing for my country," she says. "It's even worse now. Their struggle for freedom and democracy went on for 50 years and it's still going on.
"Lithuania is an ancient country. It's not the Soviet Union. It never was. It's always been occupied. Lithuania has no tanks or guns. They're running their tanks over our people."
Her brother, Vito Bacanskas, who has been shown on Lithuanian television after previous protests at the embassy, walks with the flag-draped coffin as a pallbearer. Their sister Brone Folderauer, from Monkton, carries a flag with the demonstrators.
"The Lithuanians are not asking for guns," Buda says. "Just support and they're not getting much. It's very discouraging."
The Lithuanian-Americans are, in fact, heartened when the IUE electrical workers union, across 16th Street from the Soviet Embassy, hauls the Lithuanian flag up on their pole just underneath the Polish Solidarity flag which has been flying here eight years.
"It'll fly till Lithuania is free," William H. Bywater promises.
Across the street, protesters chant "Gorby is a Liar," "Gorby is a ++ Killer," "Gorby and Hussein Both the Same," "Shame, Shame, Shame, Soviet Killers."
The protest climaxes when a dozen demonstrators drop to the sidewalk at the gate of the embassy in a symbolic re-enactment of the deaths in Vilnius. Their bodies are draped in Lithuanian flags. Aldona Buda, tears in her eyes, drops a yellow carnation on the flags and many, many other people add theirs. And in an eerie parallel, at this very moment in Vilnius, the dead from Sunday lay in state in a sports arena.