Being Lithuanian, I was brought up to spell my name in school instead of say it. When I was 7, my mother and I were waiting to check out of a local supermarket. In front of us was a lady with a girl I recognized from the second grade.She took a good long look at my mother, pointed her chubby little arm and screamed out; "Mommy, that lady was my substitute teacher, and she's from Transylvania."
But at of 8 a.m. yesterday, being Lithuanian is no longer like being from Count Dracula's neighborhood.
While TV and radio announcers struggled to pronounce the name of the 1980 Nobel prize winner in literature -- Lithuanian-born Czeslaw Milosz -- the 1 million of us in this country dumped our identity crises and celebrated our most famous son since Vitas Gerulaitis, Johnny Unitas, Simas Kudirka, or Dick Butkus.
"well, this should bring out lots more closet Lithuanians," says Danute Vaiciulaitis, director of research and development for the Corcoran School of Art. "and maybe we'll finally come to the bottom of the old rumor that Elvis Presley was a Lithuanian."
We Lithuanians have always turned down our Baltic noses on the Irish in their green on St. Patrick's Day and the Italians carvorting on Columbus Day. Finally we have our own day of national pride. And though we are sharing this one with the Poles, since he writes in Polish, remember that they already have a pope -- who, by the way, has a Lithuanian mother.
Phones have been ringing off the hook as Liths all over the country called each other to make sure we really heard the
"today" show's Tom Brokaw announce that a person born in Lithuania had won a Nobel prize.
With names like Norman Mailer, Graham Greene and Joyce Carol Oates being bandied about as probable winners of the 1980 award, we Lithuanians weren't exactly waiting to break out the potato pancakes.
Sloughing off comments like "what did they give a Lithuanian the prize for learning how to write?" the Lithuanian community is more than happy to share the jokes on this one.Said Linas Kojelis, president of the Lithuanian -- American Community of Washington, "this is the greatest thing that's happened to Lithuanians since they elected a half-Lithuanian pope."
"the Polish are a little more well known than the Lithuanians, but we consider them almost cousins," said Elena Bradunas of the American Folklife Center.
"lithuania doesn't have any oil, but we did turn out some good poets," says Washington attorney Ernest Raskauskas. "and it shows that even the Soviet occpation of Lithuania has been unable to crush our cultural heritage."
To set the record straight, Milosz was born in 1911 in a small village in central Lithuania, which in case you didn't know, is a small country of 25,210 square miles (about the size of West Virginia) and just over 3 million people on the Baltic Sea. After extending its borders to the Black Sea in the 15th century, Lithuania melted in size over the years until it was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, where Milosz grew up, was a place which often changed hands between the Poles and Lithuanians, and during his time, it was primarily a Polish city. Milosz understands Lithuanian and many of his stories are about his childhood in Lithuania, and have been translated into Lithuanian.
"we're very grateful that he never forgets to say that he was born in Lithuania," says Dr. Stasys Backis, the charge d' affaires of Lithuania, who rarely has much to celebrate since his country is Soviet-occupied.
"the Lithuanian in me congratulates that part of Milosz which is Lithuanian -- whatever it may be," says Ohio State professor Rimvydas Silbajoris.