Wednesday, January 5, 2011

From the Old Country

My father’s family came to America on a boat from the “old country.” When I was young, I dismissed it and went on with my life, not thinking it was interesting or of any importance. I thought they were a bit odd- as a result of coming from the old country- but grew accustomed to having a three-foot, hard salami in the refrigerator and eating bread that could double as roofing shingles. Now, I’m reevaluating my thoughts. While I was back in Chicago for the holidays the Neimanai got together for our annual New Year’s lunch- it was not actually on New Year’s this year. On the drive out, Nadia and I were talking about how difficult it must’ve been coming over here. I had a very basic knowledge of why they came to America, but the real reasons are far more interesting.

The family is from Lithuania and came to America when my dad was 10. My grandfather was educated in Moscow- he could speak half a dozen languages- and was known for being very forthright. He spoke out against communism and fought in the Russian Revolution. He was imprisoned for some time in a Russian work camp but escaped. In the dead of winter after getting frostbite on his feet, he was placed in the infirmary, and then, somehow, managed to escape the camp. After getting out, he walked back to Lithuania with only the clothes on his back.

In the old country, my grandfather was the head of the Lithuanian Evangelical Reformed Church where he was essentially a mini Pope. In addition to that, he worked on an estate as the stable/transportation manager. He met my grandmother there where she worked as the manager of the estate. They had four kids, my dad being the youngest.

Somewhere around here, WWII broke out.

Despite being vehemently against communism, he was hunted by the Nazis because they feared he would spread communism. Presumably, because of his education, outspokenness and ability to reach the masses from his position in the church, he wound up on the Nazis hot list. He and his family were pursued throughout Europe where they were forced to jump from country to country, evading detection. They bartered their way around Europe trying to ensure safe passage for the entire family. Eventually, their only option was to leave the continent and move to America.

After coming across on the boat- this isn’t hyperbole, they actually crossed the Atlantic on a boat- they reached New York. Rather than anything going smoothly or according to plan, they arrived and learned that their sponsor could no longer serve as their sponsor. They were stuck in New York until someone would vouch for them. After several weeks (?) they found a family and began their travel to the Midwest.

Finally free from the Nazis, they began a new life. Unlike in Europe where they had prestigious jobs, they took the only jobs they could get. None of them spoke English, so my grandfather took a job as a janitor and my grandmother worked in a sausage factory. The oldest daughter, Rita, worked in a shoe factory. The oldest son, Stasys, joined the army and worked as a translator- he was actually sent back to Europe to work for a while. The youngest daughter, Eve, was still in school, in high school or college. My dad, John, was in elementary school at the time and had a rough go of it. He was thrown into class with the other kids and had to learn to swim quickly. He didn't speak any English or know the customs and as a result, got bullied a lot. He wound up in trouble a lot, partly because of the cultural differences, and partly because he was on his own. With the rest of his family working all the time, he was left to his own devices.

After two or so years of constantly getting into trouble, my dad was sent to a mink ranch. Because he was always in trouble, and the family couldn’t adequately look after him, they sent him to work on a ranch in Wisconsin. The ensuing two years of his life provided many stories he told us whenever we were out of line. Based on his stories, the mink raised on the ranch were all killed and turned into fur coats. Detailed descriptions of falling into enormous containers of mink intestines, and the proper way to kill the mink were stories we heard growing up.

This is about where our discussions ended, and I don’t know what exactly happened next. My dad learned English, left the mink ranch, finished school, became an artist/teacher, met my mother and then I entered the picture. I do know that life before and after coming to America was anything but easy. It’s all tremendously interesting to me, but I can’t ask him. I want to know what it was like being in this new country and the hardships it entailed. I’m certain it was terrifying being a little kid and being chased around Europe. Did he have toys that he carried with him, or games he used to play? I know he was close to their nanny and once heard a story about her saving his life. For his first birthday or Christmas in the U.S. he got a pineapple. His life was very different and it’s almost hard to imagine. What I imagine is mostly concocted from my movie-based knowledge of Nazis, a Google search of “mink” and the few stories he told us.

Now that I’m old enough to appreciate it, it’s too late for me to ask him. Rather than asking questions at the Neimanai gathering- I was too scared to ask in front of other people.- I kept quiet and mulled over what it must’ve been like. After returning home, I realized how dumb that decision was- I should have heeded my own advice and sacked up and asked the questions! Learning more about his life should help me understand more about him as a person and hopefully give insight into some of his decisions. It would be nice to know more about him than his love of shingle bread and salami.


  1. Well I LOVE shingle bread and salami. I don't even really like meat and that stuff is good!
    The pineapple was a birthday present because his parents had never seen one and it was more affordable than the bike he had asked for.

  2. What a great post. Wish I knew as much about my family's arrival to America. It is difficult to comprehend the journey and experience your father and his family have encountered in a single lifetime.