The tough path to freedom


"Communion in the dark of the middle of the night."

When Onile Sestokas said these words -- "communion in the dark of the middle of the night" -- she might have been reciting sorrowful lyrics from a Lithuanian elegy. She had summarized 51 years of Soviet occupation into 10 poetic words.

"When I went to Lithuania to visit relatives 14 years ago," she said, "there were many soldiers with large guns at the customs borders. They confiscated prayer books and rosaries. . . . The churches were either closed or turned into museums."

Only in the last year, when the independence movement blossomed, were Lithuanian children allowed to openly study their Catholic catechisms. A cousin told Onile Sestokas that, in order to receive the Eucharist, Catholics had to take "communion in the dark of the middle of the night."

And this is how Lithuanians lived through the long, dreary years since Soviet annexation in 1940: Paranoid and poor, too frightened to kneel in prayer.

"When I visited there after college," Onile Sestokas said, "it just seemed hopeless that Lithuania would ever be independent. The people carried their resistance in their hearts, though. When we met our relatives, we couldn't talk in our hotel room. We had to go outside to talk. If they were passive or resigned to living that way, we would not have had to go outside to talk. But they were not actively working for independence. They couldn't. They had some wistful thought, you know, something like: 'Someday, someday . . .' "

Someday arrived. The three Baltic republics have broken from the Soviet Union and the United States has officially -- and finally -- recognized them.

Onile Sestokas is a 30-something Catonsville physician who spent the last two years trying to convince President Bush to establish diplomatic ties with Lithuania. She served as local chairwoman of the Free Lithuania Committee. She and other Lithuanian-Americans, passionate for independence, lobbied Congress and the White House. They held 26 demonstrations in Washington.

Her roots to the old country run deep, but ironically begin in Baltimore, in the heart of the old Lithuanian community.

"My maternal grandmother [Ona Savickas] was born on Hollins Street in 1900," Onile Sestokas said. "Her mother was homesick, so they went back to Lithuania. She met my grandfather there, and my mother was born. In 1940 or 1941, they packed up a wagon and went to Germany, the whole family. They lived through very scary things. . . . My mother met my father in Germany."

And her father's journey is full of twists and ironies, as well.

"He was Lithuanian, but he was born in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. My father's mother got homesick and went back, too, so my father grew up in Lithuania. When he was in his early 20s, he went back to the United States. He joined the Army and went to Germany. He met my mother during the end of the war."

And they returned to the United States and made a family.

"When I was a little girl, my parents spoke frequently of Lithuania," Onile Sestokas said. "They wanted us to know the language, and the story of the country. I grew up with the concept that Lithuania was impenetrable, my relatives locked away from us. I remember my father sending packages of scarves and material so they could make clothes. . . . Later, when I went there, I saw the house where my mother grew up. There was only one room with a wooden floor. The rest of the floors were beaten dirt. It was a very primitive country. It was a pleasant land to look at, it reminded me of New England. But . . ."

A few years ago, Oline Sestokas poured her emotions into a Lithuanian liberation movement. "The people over there had guts, they were willing to try, and we in the West had to respond," she said. "How could we not?"

The Soviet system unravelled. Moscow acquiesced. Thirty-six nations recognized the Baltics as independent before the United States did. By Monday, independence was complete enough for passionate celebrations in the Lithuanian Hall on Hollins Street. The champagne flowed, men and women embraced and chanted, "Free At Last!"

Yesterday, Oline Sestokas spoke to her Grandma Ona, now 91. She had lived to see Lithuania free. "She was tearful and happy," Oline Sestokas said. "And then, she turned to prayer. I should have known she would turn to prayer."

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