Lithuanian community 'historian' meets his 2nd prime minister Baltic country's new leader visits Baltimore's Lithuanian Hall

November 16, 1992|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

The first time Cesar Surdokas shook the hand of a Lithuanian prime minister was in Lithuania about 55 years ago, when he was a young man heading a Catholic youth organization.

The second time was yesterday morning, when Prime Minister Aleksandras Abisala visited Lithuanian Hall on Hollins Street.

"We exchanged pleasantries," said Mr. Surdokas, 79, who fled his homeland in 1944, moved to Baltimore in 1949 and is now a retired printer, as well as unofficial historian of Baltimore's Lithuanian community. "It's an honor to have him here."

Between those handshakes came the Soviet Union's half-century occupation of the Baltic country, exile for Mr. Surdokas and many thousands like him, and a long, bitter fight to regain Lithuanian sovereignty.

Lithuania unilaterally declared its independence in 1990 under the leadership of Mr. Abisala and other nationalist activists and won real sovereignty after the fall of Communist power in Moscow last year.

Mr. Abisala, 37, a bearded physicist specializing in semiconductors, became prime minister in July.

His five-day U.S. trip was devoted largely to lobbying in Washington, and in a phone conversation with Vice President-elect Albert Gore, for economic aid and political pressure on Russia to withdraw the estimated 20,000 Russian troops remaining on Lithuanian soil.

But recognizing the central role played by Lithuanian-Americans in keeping the interests of his country on the American agenda after the end of the Cold War, Mr. Abisala spent the weekend visiting immigrant communities in Philadelphia and Baltimore before flying home last night.

"The Lithuanians here have had a big impact on the policies of the United States," said Mr. Abisala, who has relatives in Georgia and California and speaks fluent English. "They met with politicians, they wrote letters, and they didn't allow the U.S. to forget that Lithuania exists."

The 200 or so people who filed past Secret Service agents with metal detectors yesterday to meet Mr. Abisala were a diverse lot.

There was Juozas Palubinskas, 82, a well-known actor in pre-war Lithuania, now retired from a supervisory job at the Baltimore Luggage Co., who recited two classic poems in fervent, emotional style. And there was Lina Sestokas, 9, a third-generation Lithuanian-American who polishes her language skills at Lithuanian Saturday school in a Catonsville church.

In an hour-long talk in Lithuanian, Mr. Abisala painted for them a candidly bleak picture of post-Soviet Lithuania, where the euphoria that followed the achievement of independence has given way to overwhelming practical problems.

The end of heavily subsidized Russian oil supplies has led to a cut-off of hot water and minimal heat in most apartment buildings.

A disillusioned electorate has just given former Communists the most seats in parliament.

Russia is stalling on troop withdrawals, alleging that Lithuania is discriminating against its ethnic Russian minority. The work ethic was severely eroded during Soviet rule, Mr. Abisala said.

"When people had to stand up against tanks, the enemy was clear and distinct," Mr. Abisala said.

"Now the enemy doesn't have a face."

Though he was born well after the 1940 Soviet occupation of Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, Mr. Abisala grew up keenly aware of what Stalin had done to his country.

He was born in 1955 in Siberia, where his parents were among the tens of thousands of Lithuanians deported in the 1940s in a bloody operation to crush nationalist resistance. His family was allowed to return to Lithuania in 1956.

The lasting devotion of the ethnic community in Baltimore to Lithuanian culture and sovereignty can be gauged from the memorabilia in Lithuanian Hall, which has been the center of ethnic life here since 1914.

The top-floor museum contains everything from portraits of 14th-century Lithuanian grand dukes in full armor to pro-independence banners that flew in Vilnius last year.

Lithuanians began moving to Baltimore in the 1880s, working mainly in the garment trade and living in the rowhouses around the hall. Another influx followed the Soviet annexation in the 1940s.

While several dozen ethnic Lithuanians still live in the old neighborhood, most have long since scattered to the suburbs, especially Arbutus and Catonsville. About half of Maryland's approximately 20,000 Lithuanian-Americans live in the Baltimore area.

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