Two things happened on the same day in the life of Alfons Kontvis. He graduated from teachers college. And his country was occupied by Russians.
The year was 1940. The place was Lithuania, then a small, independent nation east of the Baltic Sea.
For Kontvis, it was the beginning of a period of suffering that still brings tears. For his country, it marked the onset of a national nightmare that he believes goes on.
After the Russians came the Germans. Then, in 1944, when the Soviet army drove the Nazis back toward Germany, the Russians returned. Today Lithuania is officially a part of the Soviet Union where native language and culture is stringently discouraged.
Kontvis, 66, a retired Westminster engineer, is president of the Lithuanian Club of Long Beach. Its purpose: to provide a place for people from the old country and their descendants to share and preserve a language and heritage in a city virtually teeming with new immigrants from other countries.
When about 30 members of the Lithuanian Club were in Long Beach's Recreation Park recently for the club's annual picnic, a pre-Soviet Lithuanian flag of yellow, green and red waved proudly over the proceedings.
The picnickers lunched on stuffed cabbage, pickled herring and potato pancakes, all traditional Lithuanian foods. And conversation, in Lithuanian and English, centered on what it was like to live in a country that politically no longer exists.
"No Lithuanian bride is married without rue in her hand," said a white-haired woman, pointing to two vases on the table containing bouquets of the tiny yellow flower.
Added Mary Vale, proudly displaying a necklace of brown amber: "Every time you see someone wearing it, you know they're Lithuanian. It's Lithuanian gold."
Like the majority of club members, she was not born in Lithuania. But her parents were, and she grew up with tales of the old country.
"Lithuanians are very nationalistic," said Vale, a woman in her 60s whose parents immigrated to the United States in 1911. "The children I played with were all Lithuanians. Lithuanian was my first language."
Regarding the club's monthly social gatherings, which she attends regularly, she said: "It's the roots thing. We do things for one another. It helps to be able to get together and discuss things we have in common."
The Rev. Joseph Prunskis, information director for the Lithuanian American Council based in Chicago, puts the number of Lithuanian descendants in the United States at about 1 million. Though the majority of them, he said, were born in America, many local organizations such as the Long Beach club are "working to keep alive the Lithuanian culture, history and language in the younger generation."
Kontvis estimates that about 50,000 Lithuanians live in Southern California with perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 residing in the Long Beach area. Of those, he said, perhaps 500 were born in Lithuania.
Among the club's 50 members, in fact, 15--ranging in age from 57 to 90--are native Lithuanians. This compares to about 70 of the club's 100 members at its height in the late 1960s, Kontvis said. "They're slowly dying off," he said. "I'm going to funerals once or twice a month."
And so they meet and visit and discuss, and somehow try to keep the culture alive.
Talk Often Political
The Lithuanian American Council--a national coalition of 14 organizations described by Prunskis as "striving for the independence of Lithuania"--has no specific political goals, and the Long Beach club, which is not part of the council, considers itself apolitical. Yet the talk at club gatherings at times has a political ring.
"Our country lost its freedom by force," said Walter Gilys, 57, a Los Angeles-based electronics designer who came to the United States as a refugee in 1949. "I feel anger and sadness when I think of Lithuania."
Said Kontvis: "We are unhappy. Families are torn apart. We can't visit our relatives."
To some enjoying the sun in the park, all this was nothing more than a distant ancestral memory. Four generations of one family were there: from 84-year-old Martha Tintle, a native of Brooklyn whose dead Lithuanian husband was a founding member of the club, to her great-granddaughter Megan, born in Culver City 8 1/2 months ago.
"I relate to it, but it's kind of remote," said Megan's mother, Ginny Bachtelle, 32, of her Lithuanian heritage. "Sometimes coming to these meetings is a real moving experience." Unlike her mother, Violette, who is taking Lithuanian language lessons, Ginny said, she does not speak the language of her ancestors.
For members like Kontvis, however, the moving experience is as close as his own vivid memories.
'We Were Afraid'
In 1940 when the Russians marched in, he said, life was hard. So he and his wife and their three children eventually emigrated to nearby Latvia, where he worked in a factory under the Germans until 1944 when the Allied bombing started. "We were afraid," he recalled. "It was a terrible situation."
By squeezing onto a refugee ship "so crowded there was no room even to sit down," they made it to Germany. There they were sent to a forced-labor camp where, working 12-hour shifts to produce tank parts for the Germans, Kontvis lost 45 pounds in five months.
Eventually, with the help of a well-connected friend, they were smuggled to the Swiss border on a train that took 10 days to travel 500 miles because of frequent strafing attacks. "The bullets went through the railroad (car) like it was butter," Kontvis recalled. At the border they survived by eating boiled snails gathered in the forest. Eventually, he went to the American sector and then came to the United States.
A 1 1/2-year-old daughter, left with relatives in Lithuania, remained there until 1958 when, at the age of 15, she was allowed to follow her parents to America.
"I have never gone back," Kontvis said. "I am too emotional. I don't want to hurt myself."
He paused a moment, wiping away a tear as the spring breeze rustled the trees in the park around him. Then he went on.
"I know their situation and I can't help them," he said of his relatives still living in the old country. "But I also know that I am a Lithuanian until I die."