`Bridge' brings family together

A reunion in Lithuania had to wait through World War II and lost contact, but a boy connects people on both sides of the ocean.

July 11, 2004|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For more than 50 years, world politics divided a Harford County family from relatives in Lithuania. But then Matthew Ward was born.

Matthew, 10, does not remember his birth mother or the struggle to bring him to America.

But he knows the story of his family, separated by war, and of his grandfather, who was left behind.

This month, Matthew, his adoptive mother (his biological great-aunt), his brother, his aunt, his uncle, his cousins and a family friend will board a plane to Lithuania for a family reunion that has been a lifetime in the making.

In the late 1930s, Albina Praleika was a young, single mother of a baby boy whom she named Jonas.

Destitute in a small Lithuanian town, she entrusted his care to a relative until she could reclaim him and provide him with a better life in the United States. An aunt paid for her passage to the United States. Albina planned to send for her son shortly after her arrival.

Before she could return to Lithuania for her young son, World War II began. Jonas' caretakers were arrested for hiding Lithuanian soldiers, and the family - including Jonas - was sent to Siberia. All contact was lost.

"She didn't know where he was, if he had been killed, anything," Bernadette Ward, Albina's daughter, said from her home in Jarrettsville.

After the war, Albina forged a life for herself.

She married and moved to Gardenville, a Lithuanian neighborhood in Baltimore. She had five more children. "But she never forgot Jonas," said Joseph Dragunas, one of her sons.

Decades later, with help from the Red Cross, Jonas contacted his mother.

He, his wife and his child had been released from the Siberian labor camp.

But the Cold War had begun, and Albina, still unable to see her son, sent him and his new family money to help them return to Lithuania, where they raised four children.

Matthew's birth mother was one of those children.

Over the years, the siblings have managed to stay in contact. Joseph Dragunas remembers a trip to Lithuania in 1979 as an eye-opening experience that made him realize how different his brother's life has been from the lives of the other five siblings.

"There was nothing but lines at the grocery stores, and there was no food there. The difference was unbelievable. I hope and pray it is much better this time," said Joseph Dragunas, who will make the trip this month.

"When my brother came here for the first time, we took him to Disney World and to the Publix grocery store. He was totally amazed. He said, `How many stores do you have like this in this country?'" Dragunas recalled. "We have had two completely different ways of life."

In 1994, Matthew Ward was born, and the family that had lived apart for so many years found common ground.

"That year, my sister found out that my niece had had a baby in Lithuania," said Ward.

Abandoned by Matthew's father, Bernadette's niece was struggling to raise three other children in a one-bedroom apartment with a bathroom shared with another one-bedroom apartment, a kitchen shared by the floor and a shower in the basement.

She was out of work and didn't have enough money to feed another child.

"So I felt like, `This baby needs a home,'" Ward said.

With the blessings of family, here and in Lithuania, Ward flew to Lithuania to adopt Matthew. She had filed the paperwork, as instructed by the immigration office in Baltimore, and was eager to bring him back to Baltimore, where she then lived. But it took 10 years for him to become a citizen.

`Totally hectic'

First, the U.S. Embassy in Poland refused to let them go. For six weeks, Ward and the baby waited. Back in the United States, Ward's mother and siblings called their local legislators for help.

"It was a blessing for her when she got Matt, but then it turned into a nightmare," recalled Dragunas. "It was totally hectic. ... If it hadn't been for Helen Bentley, it would still be that way. But she rolled her sleeves up and went to work."

Helen Delich Bentley, then representing the 2nd Congressional District, secured a humanitarian visa for Ward and her son.

But that wasn't the end of it.

"I was assuming our lawyer was getting our paperwork processed. But he was off doing his own thing. ... I didn't have [a] green card for him, the other card had expired, and then President Clinton put into law that if you are an American citizen and you adopt a child from another country, then that child automatically becomes an American citizen. Well, that was us. But I didn't have [a] green card to finalize that paperwork," Ward said.

"So I went back to Ms. Bentley. I didn't know who else to turn to. I was afraid that he would be deported."

Bentley, who retired from Congress and has a consulting company in Timonium, returned the call. "She got her office involved again and fixed the problem," Ward said.

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