By Ed Staskus
When my father died ten years ago the funeral service was at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Lithuanian church on Cleveland’s east side, the memorial service was at the Lithuanian Club up the street, and he was buried on the grounds of All Souls in Chardon, forty miles farther east, where many Lithuanian Catholics ending their days on the south shore of Lake Erie end up.
All Souls Cemetery spans some 250 acres, features over 109 developed acres and 7 mausoleums, and could be a golf course if it wasn’t a boneyard. If someone’s got the blues, it’s where to go. It’s the place to bury your troubles.
Two years later, paying my respects on a sunny summer day, visiting my father in the mausoleum where he is interned, and later wandering about the cemetery, I stumbled on the burial place of Antanas Smetona. The name rang a bell. When it came to me, I remembered he was the first and last president of Lithuania during the inter-war years.
Walking back to my car I passed a headstone 50-some years old. Red and white artificial flowers lay on the ground. Engraved on the stone was a man’s name, his date of birth and death, and the inscription “He Done His Damnest.” It wasn’t the kind of epitaph I expected, which would have been more along the lines of “Always in Our Hearts” and “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Had the man gone to Heaven or Hell?
Antanas Smetona did his damnest, too.
He was born into a family of farmers, former serfs, the eighth of nine children. Their homestead was near a small lake, almost dead center in the middle of Lithuania. His father died when he was eleven, making a last wish that his youngest son be sent to school. He was the only one of his brothers and sisters to ever get an education. The instruction was in Russian, because the Russians were in charge and Lithuanian talk was forbidden. Lithuanian literature was closed down. Lithuanian history was closed down.
He was a top student and won a tuition waiver. He supported himself by superintending his dormitory and giving private lessons. After graduation he made his way to Latvia, got involved with the Lithuanian National Revival, got into trouble, made his way to St. Petersburg, got involved in the February 1899 student protests, and got deported back to Lithuania.
After he was allowed to return, he got involved with Lithuanian book smugglers, got arrested, got thrown into a castle that doubled as a prison, somehow got acquitted, cracked his books, graduated university, and made his way out of Russia. He never went back. He went back to the homeland.
Russia was like a cemetery with a big fence around it. Those inside couldn’t leave unless they were thrown out. Those outside didn’t want to scale the fence to get inside unless it was a matter of life and death.
Antanas Smetona got married and went to work for the Vilnius Land Bank. When he wasn’t working, he was working with several Lithuanian nationalist groups and writing editing publishing circulating news and editorials advocating national unity and independence.
When the First World War started, he chaired the Central Committee Relief Society and pressed demands on the Germans, who had pushed the Russians out of the country in 1915, that Lithuania be granted its independence. A year later he began editing and publishing the newspaper Lithuania’s Echo. His message, stated in the first issue, was the speedy establishment of an autonomous and sovereign Lithuanian state.
Russia didn’t like that, since they had controlled the country for more than a hundred years, but they had their own problems, namely the Eastern Front, where they were busy suffering six million casualties and three-and-a-half million captured. On top of that more than a million civilians were dying of war-related causes. Adding to the anvil chorus, the Bolsheviks were breathing down their necks.
When the Council of Lithuania was formed, Antanas Smetona was elected Chairman and in February 1918 he signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania. The next year he was elected the first President of the Republic of Lithuania. His tenure didn’t last long. The next year a new man was elected, and he was out. He taught classes at the University of Vilnius and got involved with the paramilitary group the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union.
Five years later he led a coup d’etat, deposing the then president and seizing the office for himself. A year later he suppressed the parliament. Two years later he assumed dictatorial powers. For all his editorializing about autocratic czars, he became an autocratic czar. For the next nine years he ruled by decree, his own new constitution vesting in him both executive and legislative powers. Whenever there were new elections he ran as the only candidate.
He added his name to the rise of totalitarianism and dictatorship in the 1930s, joining Benito Mussolini, Francesco Franco, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. He went from idealism and high-mindedness to cynicism and the inside track. Realpolitik is not about democracy and human rights. It is the struggle for power. It’s like Adolf Hitler said, “It is not truth that matters but victory. If you win, you need not have to explain. If you lose, you should not be there to explain.”
Although there aren’t many children nowadays who would accept guidance counseling from Adolf Hitler, there were plenty of men and women eighty and ninety years ago who were all ears. That’s why cemeteries by 1945 were overflowing with indispensable people, not including the dictators. They make their own beds.
Antanas Smetona may have been a patriot and a loyalist, doing his best to restore Lithuania to nation statehood, but he was nonetheless a dictator. He may have repressed the Iron Wolves, a radical rightist movement led by his former Prime Minister who he had earlier removed from office, but his own Lithuanian Nationalist Union took part in the 1934 Montreux Fascist Conference. He may have believed in political parties, but his was one-party rule and he was the host boss ringleader of the party. He styled himself as the Tautos Vadas, or Leader of the People.
Under his rule Lithuania “moved decisively towards a dictatorship of what might be termed the ‘fascism from above’ variety,” according to Martin Blinkhorn, British historian and author of “Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919 – 1945.” The Russians, the Muddy Mississippi of totalitarianism themselves, said he was trying to “adapt Italian Fascist concepts to Lithuanian conditions.” He was more centrist and moderate in his authoritarianism than many others, but he also believed he was the most qualified and experienced person to run the country, and he rigged the elections to make sure it stayed that way.
Not that it did him any good. By 1938 he was being squeezed by Nazi Germany and the Commies. He had never been able to get Vilnius back from the Poles. Now he had to surrender Memel to the Germans. When the Russians presented an ultimatum to his government in 1940, he urged armed resistance, but nobody agreed that Lithuania’s armed forces, numbering some twenty thousand, was up to the task of going toe to toe with the five-million-man Red Army.
“I do not want to make Lithuania a Bolshevik country with my own hands,” he said from the steps of the Presidential Palace in Kaunas and left the country. A month later Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union. He wasn’t on hand to try to stop it.
When he got to the border Antanas Smetona and his bodyguard waded across the Liepona rivulet into Nazi Germany. When he did, he went from lightning rod to lightning bug. The next day his family convinced the Lithuanian crossing guards to let them go, too, since the big fish was already gone. The provisional government wanted him back, but what could they do?
The Germans put him up in a hunting lodge in the Masurian Lake District. From there he was moved to Berlin, then traveled to Bern, Switzerland, and lastly to Rio de Janeiro. He finally landed on his feet in the United States where four hundred guests greeted him at New York City’s Pierre Hotel for dinner and an evening function. He briefly lived in Pittsburgh and Chicago before finally settling down on the east side of Cleveland.
When I grew up on the east side in the late 1950s and 60s, Eastern Europe was right across the street. There were Serbs Slovenians Croatians, plenty of Poles, and lots of Lithuanians. Everybody had their own church and their own watering holes. Everybody had their own talk in their own language about the motherland and their new place new lives new future in the USA.
Antanas Smetona and his wife Sofija moved in with their son Julius on Ablewhite Avenue on the northeast side of the city, off Eddy Road, near Lake Erie. Julius worked as a grinder for Standard Tool and was married to Birute Nasvytyte, a former concert pianist, raising their two children. The self-styled President-in-Exile worked on his memoirs and visited Lithuanian communities across America speaking about the plight of the mother country and his hopes for its post-war independence.
“What the Magna Carta was to the English, what the rights of man of the French Revolution were to personal liberty, the Atlantic Charter is to nations, especially small nations like ours,” he said.
When my parents bought a two-and-a-half story duplex with a backyard big enough for a pack of kids, their first house in the United States, doubling up with my father’s sister and her family in 1958, all of us recent immigrants, it was about a mile from the exile’s residence. When I attended the Iowa-Maple Elementary School my first school year in Cleveland I sat in a classroom a stone’s throw from the house. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, that the ex-president of Lithuania died in that house less than twenty years earlier.
The day he died, Sunday January 9, 1944, he and his wife were in their upstairs bedroom relaxing. It had snowed lightly on Saturday and the windows were frosty, below freezing. They smelled something foul and saw smoke oozing into their room from under the door.
The furnace had been acting up lately. “The night before yesterday coal fumes made me dizzy. I could not think clearly. Now I have completely recovered,” he wrote in his journal two months earlier. This was worse.
The overheated furnace caught fire, leapt up the chimney, and swept through the house. The man and wife bolted out of the room and down the stairs, but he turned around, stepping back into the bedroom, grabbing a fur-lined overcoat to throw over his head. By the time he turned again to flee his wife was in the front yard. He never made it out of the house alive.
Fire Battalion Chief Tom O’Brien said afterwards the fire had a “head start,” making it difficult to fight. The coal room was red-hot. By the time they extinguished the blaze and accounted for everyone, they went looking for Antanas Smetona. They saved the house but found him face down in the second-floor kitchen dead of suffocation.
The full house funeral was at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and was presided over by Bishop Edward Hoban. The Cleveland Police Mounted Unit saluted as his coffin was carried out the front door. He was buried in Cleveland’s Knollwood Cemetery but in 1975 was moved to Chardon, next to his wife, who died in 1968.
Although the inter-war years in Lithuania are often referred to as the Smetonian years, there is no monument to the man in Vilnius. “I really wouldn’t want to say whether I’d approve a monument to Smetona, or not,” Remigius Simasius the mayor of the city said two years ago. There is still some bad blood about the putsch and his authoritarianism.
“Perhaps not so much for the coup itself than for disbanding political parties and essentially destroying the opposition,” said Vilnius University historian Alfredas Bumblauskas.
When I went back the next summer to visit my father, I walked to where I knew Antanas Smetona was six feet up. The polished granite slabs are on a wall above Grace and Philip McGarry and below Michael and Anna Pula. Someone had attached fresh flowers to both Antanas and Sofija’s facings. The sepulchral stone was clean as a whistle.
I thought of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s song, “There’s just one kind favor I’ll ask of you, see that my grave is kept clean.”
No matter what, whether he had done the best he could, or not, whether he was a statesman or a tyrant, whether he was in Heaven or Hell, the earthly remains of the man were beyond reproach in his final resting place at All Souls.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”