ELDERSBURG — When President George Bush announced U.S. recognition of the independence of the Baltic states on Monday, it was cause for celebration.
The local Lithuanian community was euphoric.
"Free at last!" exclaimed Algimantis K. Grintalis. "We've waited 50 years for this, and I've always believed it was just a matter of time."
When he was 4 years old in 1941, the South Carroll resident's parents fled with him from Lithuania to Germany when World War II broke out.
That would be the last time the artist would see his homeland until just a few weeks ago.
In March 1990, Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union and elected a democratic parliament.
When the Soviet Union entered the largest of the Baltic states in a bloody crackdown against Lithuania's fledgling democratic government last January, Grintalis and other Carroll countians of Lithuanian heritage vowed to fight for their country's freedom. (The Carroll County Sun, Jan. 20, 1991).
"No matter what happens to Lithuania, we'll never give up," said Grintalis. "We're going to do everything we can to get our country back."
Not only did they finally gettheir country back, but Grintalis and his Lithuanian wife, Kathryn, were able to visit their homeland for three weeks this summer.
Grintalis, a Baltimore City Public Schools industrial arts teacher, and Kathryn, a Baltimore math teacher, both taught Lithuanian teachers some American concepts and modern methods during a three-week seminar in Vilnius, where the couple stayed with relatives.
"It was wonderful," Kathryn said. "It was the best experience of our lives. You can feel the spirit of independence throughout the country -- the people are friendly, helpful and progressive."
Her husband agreed.
"When I was there I felt the freedom," he said. "We take it for granted here (in the U.S.).
"We don't know what it really means until we see people fighting for their freedom."
Since the couple's return to Eldersburg the first week of August, they have been in constant touch with friends and family, including Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis, who is a personal friend.
"Landsbergis is like Moses to the Jews," Grintalis said. "Everybody sees his quality and power, and it's very important for him to stay in power while the country is getting back on its feet."
The United States, Britain, France and other Western countries never officially recognized the Soviet Union's 1940 annexation of the three Baltic republics -- Lithuania, Estoniaand Latvia -- which have a combined population of nearly 8 million.
Nearly 40 governments recognized the Baltics' independence after last month's failed coup in the Soviet Union, including Sweden, Franceand the 12-nation European Community.
After Bush's announcement, Maryland Lithuanians celebrated Monday night at Lithuania Hall in Baltimore.
Several hundred Lithuanian-Americans, including the Grintalises, along with Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, and state and national officials, attended.
The Grintalises admitted, however, there were times of tension during the August coup that saw the Communist regime toppled.
"For three days we didn't leave the TV," Kathryn said. "We knew recognition was going to happen, but the coup just speeded it up.
"The coup was the best thingthat group did for the world."
But Grintalis noted that "the party's over now. The country is 50 years behind the times, and they're going to have to work hard to put it back together."
The currency will need to be changed, machinery and factories need to be upgraded, schools are physically falling apart, and the economic welfare of thecountry will probably depend on help from and trade with other countries, Grintalis said.
"Lithuanians are strong and determined and clever," he said. "I'm sure they'll get the country back on its feet."