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Costa Mesa Man Waited 47 Years : Father Told Son Is on Soviet Exit List

Times Staff Writer

Teodor Sakalauskas was just a very small boy when his father, himself a youthful Lithuanian caught up in the turmoil of two foreign occupations during World War II, left him in the care of his grandmother and reported to an Austrian labor camp.

Some day, his father promised, they would be together again.

Today, Teodor is a successful engineer with a wife and 13-year-old daughter in what is now the Soviet Union. The father, Vitas Sakalauskas, remarried, worked a full career as a structural engineer, bought a house in Costa Mesa and retired. He is 71.

But the promise to his child still remained. In 1978, Sakalauskas went back to the Soviet Union, found Teodor and his family and delighted them with tales of the comforts of suburban Orange County. Every year since then, Sakalauskas has applied to Soviet authorities for an exit visa to allow his 48-year-old son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter to join him. The application has lapsed without response every year--until now.

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State Department Call

On Tuesday, the phone rang and Sakalauskas’ wife, Susan, learned from the U.S. State Department that Teodor and his family would be among 117 Soviet citizens permitted to join relatives in the United States within the next few weeks.

“They start telling me that application and exit visa was granted. Oh, I was so excited I couldn’t listen to the end,” said Susan, a Turkish immigrant of Armenian descent.

Meanwhile, Sakalauskas, driving home on the San Diego Freeway, heard a news report on the radio about the 117 families.

“They say 117 families be released. In my heart was something like-- ay ya ay ya ay ya!” he said. “I come home; she says, ‘I have news.’ I say, ‘Maybe same news I hear?’ She says yes.”

And the yes, of course, said it all for Sakalauskas--whose last memory of Teodor, as German troops forced him to leave Lithuania, was a young boy “crying, kicking his feet, crying ‘Daddy, Daddy!’ ”

Sakalauskas spent a year and a half in the Austrian labor camp, escaped with the help of several Tito supporters and fled into Italy. From there, he enlisted in the British army and eventually traveled to New Jersey in 1949. The couple have lived in Costa Mesa since 1973.

Snapshots in Mail

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The father has watched his son grow up by way of snapshots sent through the mail.

“Every month, my husband receive a letter--even if there is nothing new to write, they let them know they are alive,” Susan explained. “Birthdays, Christmases and Easter, they never miss a year.”

During his brief visit in 1978, Sakalauskas said he and his son were up “to 3 or 4 in the morning” trying to catch up. Granddaughter Aida, then only 5, had not been told Sakalauskas was coming. “When I come in,” he recalled, “Aida was playing with another small girl. She run to me, and she say, ‘You must come for me--you from America!’ She was jumping, start kissing me.”

When Sakalauskas can, he still telephones his son. But telephone connections can often take 10 hours or more, Sakalauskas said, and as a result, he still doesn’t know whether Teodor and his wife, Theresa, know that their visa has been approved.

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Over the years, the Sakalauskases enlisted the help of the Rev. Billy Graham (who put in a plea on their behalf during a trip to Russia two years ago), U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach). But the response, Susan said, was always the same: “Every year, they said new application is needed because from year to year it was not acceptable, request had to be renewed.”

Badham said he has a file of correspondence on the case between his office, the State Department and the Soviet Embassy dating back to October of 1982. The last communication, Badham said, was early this month, when he wrote directly to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and asked him to review the Sakalauskas case.

“That was May 6,” he said. “Now, lo and behold, apparently somebody over there saw the light, and now we understand that the Sakalauskases’ son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter have been issued their exit visas and will be coming to the United States,” Badham said. “When one of our cases takes four years, I would call that a difficult one.”

Still, the Sakalauskases aren’t sure it’s over. With all the paper work still to be completed, the family won’t be here for at least a few weeks. And in the meantime, as always, “Something could go wrong,” he says. “I am happy, yes. But I wait until he comes home.”

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