Link to the Past
I smiled outwardly, but I winced inwardly when someone tried and then asked how to pronounce my name: Svaja.
"What kind of name is that?" the kids would ask brazenly.
"Lithuanian," I’d reply.
"What ‘s that?"
"It’s a country in Eastern Europe across the Baltic Sea from Norway and Sweden," I’d patiently explain, hoping for some sign of recognition. But hardly anyone had ever heard of Lithuania. Some even guessed it was a country in Africa -- even today, even adults. The name does resemble Liberia, Nigeria, Libya, I suppose. Most often though, they’d ask if my name was Russian.
I grew up keeping my Lithuanian heritage in the background, bringing it out only when coaxed. Then I’d tell of my grandfather. That information was with me always. I knew it by heart:
Stasys Silingas -- He was in the Encyclopedia Britannica until 1953, he was Minister of Justice during the War years, a patron of the arts, a writer, translator of Tagore and Nietzsche, orator, Baron, father of nine daughters of whom my mother is the oldest, -- arrested with his wife and a daughter by the advancing Russians, separated from them, and imprisoned. His wife and daughter died of starvation and disease within three years in a concentration camp in Siberia. He was now in the Ukraine, still a political prisoner.
All my youth he was still a prisoner -- a slave laborer, suffering even as we enjoyed the safety and comfort of life in America. He survived for over twenty years until he was finally released in 1961 to die in his native Lietuva (Lithuania). He was old, sick, and physically broken but mentally and emotionally still alert. Even then, in spite of the efforts of my parents and others, the Soviet authorities would not allow him to join his surviving family either in the United States or Canada or Australia -- not even to die.
If this haunted me, I did not show it -- other than to boast that my father was the best sugar beet farmer in Lithuania, producing award winning crops, and that my mother was the national ping-pong champ. In the friendly and mild climate of town and country in Lietuva, they enjoyed a gentle, idyllic life -- until the wolf came to the door.