Joining the festivities – which included a celebratory concert, a visit by the Lithuanian deputy minister for Foreign Affairs Darius Skusevicius and a special Mass at St Casimir’s Church in St Peter’s – was well-known local Lithuanian identity 90-year-old Viktoras Baltutis.
Viktoras was not born when the small Baltic state declared its independence from Russia in 1918, but vividly recalled learning about this important date in his country’s checkered history while attending primary school.
“Lithuania saw an opportunity and declared themselves independent… it was very hard and they had to fight everyone around them and eventually they succeeded,” he told The Southern Cross.
“On February 16 1918 they declared themselves as an independent state saying to everyone, it’s our language, our borders and our people and our own culture, and it doesn’t belong to any other nation.”
The independence of 1918 was short lived and during World War II Lithuania again found itself occupied by the Russians, then Nazi Germany, and in 1944 the Russian troops marched in once more. It remained under the Soviet Union and Communist rule until 1990.
Viktoras and his six siblings were raised by their widowed mother, who was a devout Catholic, on a farm near the German border. More than 80 per cent of Lithuanians are Catholic and their faith has been a constant through tumultuous times.
“I remember when Germany declared war on Poland – it was the first day of school,” said Viktoras.
“In 1939 the Russians came in. They told the government who to elect and the Communist regime started.
“We had a big farm and some of the land was taken away from us, ownership was restricted to 30 hectares. All the businesses became government businesses and the people who resisted were taken to Siberia or killed.”
There was little reprieve when German troops arrived, although by now young Viktoras had been arrested and sent to Germany and placed in an anti-aircraft unit against his will.
When the Russians approached again at the end of the war his family joined thousands of others who left everything behind and fled either by foot or in wagons to live in displacement camps in Germany.
Over the next few years all of Viktoras’ family moved to Australia to start a new life.
He recalled working in the La Trobe Valley in Victoria in the early years when the language barrier was a big issue and he was the subject of contempt from people who labelled him German.
“We were called ‘bloody Balts’ or ‘bloody new Australians’. Thankfully Gough Whitlam brought in the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.”
By 1960 Viktoras had moved to Adelaide to marry Elena, who was also a Lithuanian migrant. They bought a block of land in Evandale, built a house and have lived there ever since.
The couple raised two daughters and passing on their Catholic beliefs and Lithuanian heritage was always a priority.
He worked for the Highways Department for nearly 25 years and in his spare time wrote two books and stage plays.
“Lithuanians are very kind, very romantic people,” he explained. “They have so many songs and dances. We’ve been fighting for so many years, but actually Lithuanians are not aggressive.”
There were about 2000 Lithuanian migrants living in Adelaide in the 60s and Viktoras became involved in helping to establish facilities that would support their cultural heritage. The Lithuanian Catholic Community was developed at St Peters and also the Lithuanian House in Norwood.
Proudly walking through his local church, he laments that today only a small number of people attend Mass at St Casimir’s.
And as much as he loves his homeland, he said he is now a dinky-di Aussie.
“I reckon we are pretty lucky coming to Australia”.Jump to next article