Discovering Lithuanian sites in the USA - Westville on the Map?

by Rose Hawkins
Correspondent

Smiling, laughing, comparing stories of their youth, 25 people of Lithuanian descent gathered at the Westville Depot Museum to meet Augustinas Zemaitis and Aiste Zemaitiene. The husband and wife team from Lithuania are traveling through mid-America this year to map communities in the United States that have Lithuanian heritage.

“We are proud to have this group of Lithuanian people here at the Museum,” George Delhaye commented. “I’m glad to see so many show up.”

 Karyn Delanois of Westville explained the origin of the meeting here in Westville.

“I saw on line last year that they were mapping the Eastern states, so I contacted them to see if they were coming to this area, and mentioned all of the Lithuanian people who settled here in Westville. They told me they would be in this area in 2018, and they added us to their list of places to visit.”

Delanois added, “We are very proud of our Lithuanian heritage. We still cook some of the dishes that our mothers and grandmothers cooked, like Pulaski, Klosky, Cepelinos and others. Just talking about them makes me hungry.”

Zemaitis spoke briefly about their endeavor and its purpose, which is mainly to generate interest and promote tourism in Lithuania. He told the group that they started this project in 2012 and have found lots of information available. They are visiting cemeteries, looking at birth, death and baptismal records, listening to family stories and locating churches that are no longer in existence.  They want any Lithuanian and mining history they can get. In Lithuania mining is a big heritage. That would be a big part of what brought the people to Westville. In all of that, they can tell from what part of Lithuanian they migrated by their names and the spelling of the names. 

“Each area of Lithuania has its own variety of names and spellings. People do not move around from one area to another, so that makes it easier to tell the emigration pattern. When they came to America, many peoples’ names were changed. Sometimes to be more “American” and sometimes to make them easier to pronounce or spell. There is a regular conversion of names. That helps to trace where they came from, but it also helps their families in Lithuania find out where their family members are in America. In Lithuania my surname ends ‘itis’ and is similar to your ‘Mr.’, and my wife’s name ends, ‘iene’ is similar to your ‘Mrs’.  That is how it is done. You can go on our internet site (augustinas.zemaitis@gmail.com) and see the cities, towns and communities that are of Lithuanian descent. Click on a particular one, it will zoom in so you can see more about that area.”

“Zemaitis continued, “We take pictures of everything, then put it on the map site. At this time you will only find the eastern United States information on it. The information we are gathering now we will put on when we get back home. Next year we will do another part of the United States, and keep doing other parts until we have covered all of this country. We don’t get paid for doing this, it is volunteer.”

While fielding questions, someone asked him how he learned to speak such good English. “English is taught in school, but I learned the most playing games on my computer,” he laughed.

Mary Weber told the group, “my parents talked Lithuanian, but they wouldn’t teach us kids. They used it when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about.” 

“Yes, that’s right!” Kathy Betkis Pintar laughed, while agreeing with Mary.

“My dad never learned to speak English until they taught him in the first grade of school. But there are three dialects of Lithuanian spoken in town here.” John Gerrib announced.

“Lithuanian - Lithuanian; American - Lithuanian and Westville - Lithuanian.”

“I have a stack of letters from my mom that are written in Lithuanian. Do you know of where I could get them translated?” Linda Cravens asked Augustinas.

“Yes, there is a location in Chicago for translation.” Augustinas replied. “I believe there is also web sites that could do that for you, too. Either way, there should not be any charge to translate.”

“Life in Lithuania was very difficult when it was under the Soviet rule,” Sharon Wachaw reminisced. “They rented out the young girls to rich people to tend their geese. But they needed the money it would bring in. And after a meal was over, they locked the bread box so no one could get into it. Imagine being hungry, knowing there was bread in the box, but you couldn’t get to it,” her voice trailed off. “They needed it for the next meal.”

Westville has always been known for being “A Melting Pot”. There were, and are, thirty-three different nationalities represented, and thirty-three taverns. Each nationality went to their own tavern to be able to talk in their own language.

We will have to wait to see if Westville gets a listing on the Lithuanian map. With the enthusiasm shown in this meeting, they surely deserve it. 

As Delanois said, “We are proud of our Lithuanian heritage.”

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