Crouched on the same block as an Arab video store and three bustling taquerÃas and in the same building as the 13th Ward Democratic Organization office, the location of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture might tempt you to confirm platitudes about the dynamism of the American experience. A peek inside the museum assures you that its founder, Stanley Balzekas, is concerned with other things. Built next to his auto dealership in 1966 before a move into a larger space, the Balzekas museum is proudly and un-hyphenated-ly Lithuanian (no Lithuanian-Americans here). And it is deeply, almost Borges-ly commemorative. Neolithic axes and Phoenician bronze traded for Baltic amber share the softly-lit hall displays with 1920s vodka bottles and potted meat products, the ephemera of two free Lithuanian states separated by only a few short millenia. An independent Lithuania comes to resemble a perennial flower, blooming between the long winters of Teutonic, Tsarist, German, Polish, Soviet, Nazi, and Soviet rule.
It’s the second Soviet rule, from “liberation” in 1944 to the USSR’s dissolution in 1991, that comes across as the cruelest, if nothing else because Red Army men are so gleefully photogenic next to the youthful corpses of Lithuanian insurgents, or their families, neighbors, and clergy. Since its forcible conversion by annexation into the Teutonic Knights’ monastic state in the 12th to 15th centuries (Crusades aren’t just for Muslims and Cathars), Lithuania has been devoutly Catholic (hence the name “Land of Crosses”.) That point is driven home by dozens of crosses, Marian portraits, and wooden folk sculptures of Christ. If the expressively rough-hewn carving of the latter translates as anguish, it’s impossible to contemplate the gulag rosary of twine and human bone, or the extermination-camp box of crematorium ash into which a plea for the freedom of all peoples is carved. It’s this pervasive bleakness that makes the postcards from an attempted flight by Lithuanian-American aviators from New York to Vilnius, stock certificates from an agricultural bank, and illegally printed church histories so moving.
On a happier, or at least a more telling note, the room dedicated to the Women’s Guild is packed with traditional weaving, amber jewelry, and straw ornaments. For the sake of completeness, it ought to be mentioned that Stanley Balzekas’ vision affords a place for three of old people’s favorite kinds of nerd-mongering: coin collecting, stamp collecting, and genealogy. The museum boasts a substantial library on Baltic studies too. And while a gift shop is typically the least interesting part of a museum, it was the only place that noted the memorable collaboration between the Grateful Dead and the independent Lithuanian Olympic basketball team. Seriously, guys. Tie-dyed warmups and uniforms. Even a cold-hearted hippie hater like me couldn’t help but smile. And smile I did, as I waltzed out of the Balzekas Museum and into one of those aforementioned taquerÃas for a burrito.