Category Archives: Lithuanian Journal

Siauliai 1944

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Vytas Staskevicius’s mother was a schoolteacher in Saransk when his father met her before the start of World War One. The town and garrison were in Russia’s Penza, 400 miles southeast of Moscow. Antanas Staskevicius, a Lithuanian, was an officer in the Russian Imperial Army.

Saransk later became the capital city of the Republic of Soviet Monrovia, but long before that happened Antanas Staskevicius had returned to Lithuania.

Saransk was founded as a fortress, on the left bank of the river Isar, on the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before WWI its commercial life revolved around leather, meat, and honey. After the war its factories were closed for more than ten years when there weren’t any fuels or raw materials.

“My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there with an infantry regiment,” said Vytas Staskevicius. “It was a hard post for him, because back then they used to say drinkers go to the navy and dimwits to the infantry.

“He courted my mother, Antonina, who was Russian, and they got married. They had my older sister, Eugenia, in 1917. We always called Eugenia by the name Genute. My sister Gaile was born the next year.”

Vytas was born six years later, in 1924, in Siauliai. “My father named me after King Vytautas the Great.” His mother and sisters called him Vytas.

Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, a hill where there had been an old fort less than ten miles from the town. Even today it is covered with tens of thousands of crosses, crucifixes, and statues. It was after Czarist forces crushed the November Uprising of 1831 when the first crosses appeared.

By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than one hundred years, having been disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time it had been under the rule of the Russian Empire. In late 1919 , when Russia was being consumed by its own revolution, Antanas Staskevicius went home.

“Lithuania didn’t have many officers when they formed their own army,” said Vytas Staskevicius. “Most of them were men who had been conscripted into the Imperial Army before the war. My father fought in the post-war battles around Klaipeda and after that he served in the secret service in Kaunas, which was the capital.”

Lithuania declared independence in February 1918 and for almost three years fought Soviets, West Russians, and Poles. Finally, in 1920 they formed their own government, although they later lost Vilnius to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war until the start of World War Two.

“After the fighting my father got some land for serving his country, near Siauliai. We lived on a farm.”

During WWI most of Siauliai’s buildings were destroyed and the city center was effectively obliterated. Since its founding in the 13th century Siauliai had burned down seven times, was struck by plague seven times, and WWII was the seventh war that wrecked the town.

“We lived in Siauliai for several years, but then my father became the governor of the Panevezys district and we moved to the city there.”

Panevezys, a royal town founded in the early 16th century, is on the plain of the Nevezis River, about 50 miles east of Siauliai. During the interwar years Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor.

“My father was the governor of Panevezys until 1938.”

Vytas Staskevicius went to grade school and high school in Panevezys, but then his father was transferred to Zerasai, a place that was a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai had burned down and been rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Czar Alexander’s son, but after WWI the name was expunged.

“When my father became the governor of Zerasai, my mother didn’t want to move there, since it was more than 75 miles east of where we lived, so I stayed with her.

“But, I didn’t get along with the students at the high school in Panevezys. It was a very strict school and everyone had to dress nice. On my first day of classes I was dressed up too nice, like I was going to a party, with a tie and everything, and everybody laughed at me. Where are you from, they said? So, I didn’t make any friends there. I said, I’m going to Zerasai.”

He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father.

“We had always needed to study a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying Russian was easy for me. But, when I got to Zerasai I found out they only had English as a second language, no Russian. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.”

In 1940 the Lithuanian world completely changed. Father and son moved back to Siauliai.

“The Russians came in 1940. All the high officials were let go and the Russians selected new people they wanted to run the country. They said they didn’t run the country themselves, the Lithuanians did, but it was the Lithuanian Communists who were in charge, so it was actually the Russians.”

The Staskevicius family returned to their farm, renting a house in Siauliai, dividing their time between town and country.

“It was only a few miles from our farmhouse to town. I used to walk or bicycle to Siauliai. But, the mood was bad. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”

The Russian annexation of Lithuania was completed by the late summer of 1940. Businesses were nationalized and collectivization of land began. As the Russian presence expanded the family discussed leaving the Baltics.

“Why don’t we go to Germany?” asked his mother Antonina.

“There was a chance to leave the country then and go somewhere else. My mother wanted to go. We talked about it often, about going to Germany.”

But, his father didn’t want to leave Lithuania.

“I didn’t do anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I was good to the people. They aren’t going to put me in jail.”

In the fall of 1940 a passing troop of Soviet infantry commandeered their farm for several days.

“They didn’t do anything bad, but they hadn’t washed in months, and they rolled their tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took a week to air out the house.”

The family stayed on their farm through the winter. Then, as the mass arrests and deportations of more than 15,000 Lithuanian policemen and politicians, dissidents, and Catholics began in June 1941 Antanas Staskevicius was picked up by NKVD plainclothesmen.

“He was gardening in our yard, wearing a shirt, trousers, and slippers when they drove up, a carload of Russians, and stopped, saying there was something wrong with their engine. I’ll help you out, he said. He walked over to the car with them and never came back. They shoved him into their car and drove him to jail.”

Vytas Staskevicius was in school in Siauliai taking his final exams that morning.

“My mother called the school and told me my father had been taken. I ran out and went home right away on my bike.”

His mother packed clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. She went to see him the next day.

“The man who was running the jail was a Jewish fellow. He had grown up with us and was a friend of our family, but when my mother asked him to help us he said the times have changed.

“He was a Communist and had been in and out of jail because of his political activities. He was always in trouble. My father usually let him go, telling him to not get involved in politics anymore. Just be a nice boy, he would tell him, but then the next thing we knew he would be in jail again. He wouldn’t help my father when he was arrested. Everything’s new now, he said. Times have changed. Everybody is looking out for themselves, only themselves.

“They didn’t let my mother talk to my father. We went to the jail several times, but they never let us see him. We never saw him again.”

Antanas Staskevicius was taken to Naujoji Vilnia and loaded on a boxcar. The train left Lithuania on June 19, 1941. Four days later, between June 23 and 27, at the Battle of Raseiniai, the 4th Panzer Group, part of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, finished the almost complete destruction of Russian armored forces in Lithuania.

Within a week Nazi Germany seized Lithuania.

Antanas Staskevicius was transported to Russia’s far east to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He worked logging in the thick forests and starved to death in the winter of 1942. Anton Chekhov, a noted Russian short story writer, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.

“The morning after my father was arrested I drove our horse and wagon to school to finish my exams. I had to deliver milk to my teacher’s family, too. But, when I stopped at his house, he came out with his family and said, help take us to the railroad station. I said OK and they all got into my wagon, he and his wife and their two children. I took them to the station. After that day I never found out what happened to them.

“The next day one of our neighbors told me the Russians had come to their house that same afternoon looking for him. Teachers, lawyers, anybody from an educated family, the Russians were worried about all of them. They were afraid high-class people were against them. “

When Russian NKVD men began their mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized property, and there was widespread looting by Lithuanians among themselves.

“If you were a Communist then you were all right. The father of one of my friends was a metal worker. He didn’t even know how to read, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a Communist.”

His mother, sister Genute, and Vytas stayed on the farm after his father’s arrest. His sister Gaile was living in Vilnius. When the mass arrests intensified they became alarmed.

“We were determined to leave the farm. We all went into the forest. But, then my mother told me to go to Vilnius and tell Gaile that our father had been arrested. She wanted her to be very careful. I took a train to Vilnius, but as soon as I got there I got a phone call saying my mother had been arrested.

“When I got back to Siauliai I was told she was being deported. Somebody probably complained and informed on her. We had land, 160 acres, so we were considered capitalists. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. There was no real reason that I ever found out about for why they took her. I went to the train station, but didn’t see her anywhere. She was sent to a prison camp.”

His mother was released from the Gulag in 1956, after Stalin’s death, but not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai.

“My God, you’ve gotten older,” was the first thing Antonina Staskevicius said when she saw her son Vytas again in 1979, thirty-eight years after being transported to Siberia.

After his mother’s arrest and exile Vytas Staskevicius, not yet 17-years-old, left Siauliai and moved to Vilnius, staying with his sister Gaile and her husband. At the time almost everyone living in Vilnius was Polish. Lithuanians in the former capital city of Vilnius were strangers in their own land.

“The day the Russians left and before the Germans came everybody rushed to the food warehouses and broke into them. It wasn’t that we were robbing them, but everybody was doing it, since there was no food. Gaile and I went, too. We filled up our bags with bread and food, all kinds of food, and took everything home. When the Germans arrived they put a stop to it.”

He stayed in Vilnius for several months, but then decided to go home before the end of summer The family farm had to be cared for, but, first, he had to get a travel permit.

“I couldn’t get in to see a single German to apply, but finally I talked to someone who had known my father, and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any permits and to come back, but after we talked about my father a little, he said OK, and wrote one out for me.”

He took a train back to Siauliai and walked home, but when he got there he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the farm.

“They were there about three weeks, more than seventy of them. I couldn’t even get into our house since the officers had taken it over. But, those Germans were very nice. They didn’t do our farm any harm. They had their own quarters and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank wine together at night.”

His father’s business practice had been to have a foreman run the farm. The foreman hired three men and three women every spring. Although the farm had chickens and pigs, and horses to do the heavy work, it was mostly a dairy farm with more than twenty cows.

“It was a model farm,” said Vytas Staskevicius. “Every summer students from the agricultural academy would tour our farm. When I came back Genute was there, but she wasn’t interested, so she didn’t do any work.

“I started taking care of things, even though I didn’t know anything, nothing. I knew the cows had to be milked and the milk had to go to the dairy. But, about growing crops, and the fields, I didn’t know anything.

“But, I worked as though I knew what I was doing.”

That fall he sent his farmhands out to till the ground in a nearby field. When his nearest neighbor saw them working he ran across the road to him.

“What the hell are you doing?” he yelled.

“I told him we were preparing the ground for next year. He said, you’re ruining this year’s seed and you won’t have any grass next year. We stopped right away. I learned what to do.”

A year later he was on a horse drawn mower cutting hay when he saw storm clouds gathering. He thought he would be better served walking the horses, so they could pull the mower faster, and jumped down from his seat.

“As I hopped down I stumbled and fell right on the blades of the mower. The horses stopped dead. My hand was almost cut off. The boy who was helping me ran over. When he saw what happened, and my injured hand, he passed out.

As the war dragged on he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his injured hand and farmhands were deserting the land.

“I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew they used to give Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and sang at night. One morning after a month I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were gone.

“I had to go back to the Germans and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer shouted that I hadn’t looked after them, shouted that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouted that they weren’t going to give me anymore. In the end I said, I need five more, so they gave me five more. I kept them locked up after that and they were there until the Russians came back.”

In 1944 the Red Army stormed into Lithuania. Vytas Staskevicius escaped with a company of Wehrmacht, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. He had ten minutes to decide whether or not he was going with them as they retreated.

“They told me the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses. They were in a hurry. I only had time to fill a bag with a few clothes, a little money, and photographs of my parents.”

His elder sister Genute, not at the farm that day, escaped separately. His other sister, Gaile, was not able to flee Lithuania in time.

“She had a problem at the border and didn’t make it. The Russians had taken that area, so Gaile was forced to stop in a little town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her. In the end the three of them stayed there.

“She finished school, became a nurse, and never told anyone where she was from. The Russians never found out anything about her.”

In July the Red Army captured Panevezys. Later that month they took Siauliai, inflicting heavy damage on the city. Two months later the 3rd Panzer Army was destroyed and for the next nearly fifty years Lithuania became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

“I was glad to get out of Siauliai in 1944, very glad,” said Vytas Staskevicius.

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Once a Scout Always a Scout

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“Scouting is a man’s job cut down to a boy’s size.”  Robert Baden-Powell

My father was born on a family farm outside Siauliai in 1924, six years after Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence and two years before the start of what is known as the Smetonic Era. The city, the capital of northern Lithuania, is home to the Hill of Crosses, a folk art site of 100, 000 Christian crosses.

His father was Lithuanian and a former officer in the Czarist Army. His mother was a Russian schoolteacher his father met while stationed southeast of Moscow.

He was a Boy Scout early on. Since his father was the police chief of their province, and since Antanas Smetona, the President of the country, was the Chief Scout, and since there were privileges provided to scout troops in schools by the Ministry of Education, my grandfather involved my father in scouting as soon as he grew to be of school age.

I was a Boy Scout in Troop 311, the Cleveland, Ohio, troop my father became Scoutmaster of in the 1960s. We wore official Boy Scouts of America neckerchiefs and carried unofficial small knives in scabbards on our belts. We often hiked on trails and through woods, although most of us were hapless with a compass, instead relying on pluck and stamina to find our way.

Boy Scouts got their start in 1907 when a British Army officer gathered up twenty boys and took them camping, exploring, and pioneering on an island off England’s southern coast. The next year the army officer, Robert Baden-Powell, wrote Scouting for Boys. That same year more than 10, 000 Boy Scouts attended a rally at the Crystal Palace in London.

The first scout patrol of ten boys and two girls in Lithuania was organized in 1918. The next year there were two patrols, one for boys and one for girls. During the inter-war years more than 60, 000 boys and girls participated in scouting, making it one of the most popular activities among the young at that time. In 1939, just before the start of WW2, there were 22, 000 Lithuanian scouts, or almost one percent of the country’s population.

Four out of five Lithuanians were farmers or lived in the country and camping was everyone’s favorite part of scouting. It’s what probably accounts for my father’s fondness for the outdoors and all the scout camps he was Scoutmaster at later on, after WW2.

They weren’t all sun-kissed and starlit summer camps, either.

Winter Blasts were camps in non-insulated cabins in the highlands of the Chagrin Valley at which we earned cold weather Merit Badges and were told exploring outdoors in December was able-bodied and wholesome. But, we always built a fire first thing in the cabin’s Franklin stove, kept it well-stoked, and hoped we wouldn’t freeze to death in the long, long night.

In summer many Merit Badges were up for grabs. There were more than a hundred of them, from sports to sciences. I learned the six basic Boy Scout knots, from the sheet bend to the clove hitch, and earned my Pioneering Badge, although I never learned to properly tie a tie, even later in life.

My father was always putting up and tearing down tents, finding lost stakes and poles, and persuading my mother to repair rips in canvas. He said sleeping outdoors was robust, no matter how much rain leaked into our sleeping bags. He thought fresh air was a tonic for boys.

I know he convinced some of us, myself included. To this day my wife, who went to her own summer camps, and I vacation mostly in the woods or at the seashore.

It wasn’t just the Boy Scouts. A maxim of camping is that a week of camp is worth six months of theory.

For many years he was the lead commander at Ausra, a two-week sports-related, Lithuanian-inflected, and Jesuit-inspired summer camp at Wasaga Beach on the Georgian Bay north of Toronto. Although we did calisthenics every morning, went to Mass after breakfast, and spoke Lithuanian whenever we had to, what we actually did most of the time was run around in the woods, swim in the bay, and sing off-key long into the night at the nightly bonfire.

Singing around a bonfire is even better than singing in the car or the shower.

When he was nine-years-old my father was one of the nearly two thousand homeboys at the 1933 Reception Camp in Palanga when Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, came to Lithuania. Palanga is a seaside resort on the Baltic Sea known for its beaches and sand dunes. Then a sleepy resort, today it’s a summer party spot.

My father never forgot having been at that camp, seeing scouting’s leader and guiding light, if only on that one occasion.

“He was a hero to us, someone who gave his life to something bigger than himself, even though we were all smaller than him,” said my father.

Mr. Baden-Powell’s son, who was with him in 1933, didn’t forget, either. “I particularly remember the warm and friendly welcome we received as we came ashore on Lithuanian soil,” recalled Peter Baden-Powell in 1956.

In 1938, five years older and a teenager, my father was at the Second National Jamboree in Panemune, the smallest city in the country, which commemorated both the 20th anniversaries of the foundation of the Lithuanian Boy Scout Association and the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.

Two years later the Soviet Union invaded, the country’s independence was overturned, and scouting was outlawed.

During the war and successive occupations, first by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, both of his parents were arrested and transported to concentration camps. His father died of starvation in a Siberian forced labor camp. His mother spent 20 years in the Gulag.

In 1944 he fled to Germany, made his way buying and selling black market cigarettes, and after the war worked for relief organizations dealing with the masses of displaced Europeans. He met my mother in a hospital in Nuremberg, where she was a nurse’s aide, and where he was operated on several times for a wound that almost cost him his right hand.

He found passage to Canada in 1949, married my mother, who had emigrated there a year earlier, and by 1956 was the father of three children. In 1957 he left Sudbury, Ontario, where he had worked in nickel mines for almost seven years, first as a hauler and then as a dynamite man, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. He took classes in accounting at Case Western Reserve University. My mother, brother, sister, and I followed a year later.

While in Canada he wasn’t involved in scouting. When I asked my mother why not, she said, “There weren’t any children. All of us from Lithuania, and there was a large community of us then in Sudbury in the early 1950s, were all so young. We were just starting to rebuild our lives, and getting married and having children, but it was taking time for them to grow up and become scouts.”

Robert Baden-Powell counseled that scouts should be prepared for the unexpected and not be taken by surprise. “A scout knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens.” By that guiding light scouting stood my father in good stead through the 1940s.

When his parents were arrested by the NKVD and deported, he took over the family farm, while still in his teens, When he fled their farm in 1944 with twenty minutes notice that the Red Army was on the horizon, he crossed the border before it was closed for good. When he landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1949, everything he had was in a small suitcase and there were five dollars in his wallet. In the event, he still had his five dollars when he knocked on my not-yet-mother’s door in Sudbury, almost six hundred miles away.

The more the unexpected happened the more he knew what he had to do to anticipate it. “The unexpected always happens,” he said. “The minute you put money away for a rainy day, it rains.”

In Cleveland, Ohio, he worked full-time at the Weatherhead Corporation, attended CWRU at night, and after earning a degree in accounting went to work for TRW. He made his way up the ladder to managing his division’s overseas sales in both South America and the Middle East.

After taking early retirement in the late-1980s he helped found the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union and as director built its assets into the tens of millions. In the 1990s he formed NIDA Enterprises and managed it through 2008, when he was well into his 80s.

My father thought the workingman was the happy man. “Nothing works unless we do,” he said.

Because of WW2 and its dislocations, living rough and emigration overseas, and the demands of rebuilding a life as well as building a family, my father didn’t participate in scouting for a long time.

But, once a scout always a scout. “What you learn stays with you long after you’ve outgrown the uniform,” he said.

When he succeeded Vytautas Jokubaitis as Scoutmaster of Troop 311 they were big shoes to fill. Mr. Jokubaitis was a tireless advocate for his countrymen who became director of Cleveland’s Lithuanian-American Club. He was awarded the Ohio Governor’s “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1994

My father worked with Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts for nearly twenty years, although until his death in 2011 he never really stopped scouting.

While Scoutmaster he helped affiliate Troop 311 with the American Boy Scouts, opening many camping and jamboree venues for it, as well as linking it to the traditions and activities of scouting worldwide.

In the late 1960s he established an ancillary scouting camp at Ausra, the Lithuanian-Jesuit campsite on the Georgian Bay, where Cleveland’s scouts enjoyed two weeks of camping, and by many accounts, some of the biggest nighttime bonfires they were ever to experience.

“Dad loved bonfires,” recalled my brother, who was also a scout. “It was a rule with him, that there be one every night. Some of his log cabin-style bonfires were as big as dining room tables and were still smoldering in the morning when we got up for our morning exercises and raising the flag.”

When asked what bonfires meant to him my father said, “Sometimes it takes looking through campfire smoke to see the world clearly.”

Although we never warmed to it, he introduced winter camping and hiking, even encouraging us to try snowshoes.

I don’t remember ever falling down as much as when I tried walking on top of snow drifts wearing snowshoes. But, he said it didn’t matter how many times we fell down, it only mattered that we get up and try again, although getting up while stuck in snowshoes is easier said than done.

He stressed study and achievement by encouraging the pursuit of Merit Badges, especially those that involved self-reliance and adventure.

“One summer at a Canadian camp at Blue Mountain we were taken on a two-night canoe trip,” said my brother. “We were supervised, but given only a compass, a canteen, and a big bag of chocolate chip cookies. We had to make the round-trip way up the bay and back to the camp ourselves without their help. They told us it was both a challenge and a duty to find our way, and we did it, and I still remember how accomplished we all felt when we did that.”

In the 1970s he inaugurated Scautiu Kucius, a kind of Boy Scout’s Christmas Eve, a tradition that endures to this day. Every year, a weekend before Christmas, Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts gather and feast on twelve foods representing the twelve apostles, sing carols, and kick their shoes off over their heads to see near what girl they will land, which is a very old-school way of predicting the future.

Another annual event he invested in was the Kazuke Muge, a scouting craft fair, fund-raiser, and parade held every March in the community hall of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cleveland’s Lithuanian church. He organized and promoted it for many years, making sure stalls were assembled for the craft sales, arranging indoor games and entertainment, and encouraging everyone to support the scouts.

Even after retiring from active scouting he never missed a Kazuke Muge.

Although he did much for scouting, as a Scoutmaster he didn’t try to do everything for his young charges. He thought it better to encourage boys to educate themselves instead of always instructing them.

“When you want a thing done ‘Don’t do it yourself’ is a good motto for a Scoutmaster,” said Robert Baden-Powell. Like him my father believed that to be true.

“There is no ideal way to do things,” he explained to Gintaras Taoras, one of his scouts. “There is no absolute wrong way to do things. Everyone has different ways to accomplish something. It will just take some faster to accomplish the task and others longer, but you both end up at the same end point. Learn through your mistakes.”

Mr. Taoras, who would become a Scoutmaster in his own right, when asked what person had made a difference in his scouting career, said it was my father.

“Brother Vytautas was never afraid to try anything new. He always gave us the chance to do things ourselves, like getting our camps organized and set up. If we got it wrong he didn’t harp on us getting it wrong. He would ask us how we could have done things differently, what we learned, and we would then move on.”

After WW2 the Lithuanian Boy Scouts Association began to re-organize. In 1948 a National Jamboree was held in Isar Horn of the German Alps. More than a thousand displaced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were there. In 1950 there was a small Lithuanian presence at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree in Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 2014 Mr. Taoras was in the front ranks when the 65th anniversary of scouting for Lithuanian immigrants on four continents was recognized at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D. C.

“I wish to personally congratulate the Lithuanian Scouts Association,” said Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama and National President-Elect of the Boy Scouts of America.

“Scouting is a powerful movement providing life-changing opportunities to today’s Lithuanian youth,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian ambassador.

The Centennial of Lithuanian scouting will be celebrated in 2018. My father was one of many Scoutmasters who kept scouting alive. Although he has since passed away, whatever scout camp in the sky he is at he is sure to be smiling through the smoke of a very large bonfire at how Lithuanian scouting has resurrected itself one hundred years later.

Waking Up On Wasaga Beach

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It was on an early autumn afternoon while visiting my brother that I asked my 14-year-old nephew, who was playing Wii basketball in the living room, about camp at Kretinga that summer.

“We weren’t last in the clean cabin contest, which was a good thing,” he said, his eyes fixed on the flat-screen TV on the wall.

“We ran around in the woods like maniacs, there were bonfires every night, and it was awesome to hang out with all my friends.”

“I didn’t write any letters to my dad, either,” he added, laughing.

My brother must have noticed something in my face.

“It sounds just like Ausra to me, too,” he said.

We both went to Ausra, as Kretinga was originally known, starting in 1961, later joined by our younger sister, who continued going into the 1970s. We waited all year for the first day of stovykla, or camp, and two weeks later saying goodbye to our friends felt like summer was over, even though it was still mid-July. It was only when we grew older than the age limit for campers that we were compelled to stay home for the summer.

Founded in 1957, Ausra was a Franciscan, Lithuanian, sports and cultural camp all wrapped up in two weeks on the southern shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The camp was and still is on twenty-four acres of sand and forest.

The sand got into everything, your ears, shoes, pockets, sleeping bag, and toothbrush, on the first day of camp and stayed there until you got home. The forest is what we disappeared into for two weeks.

The drive from where we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, to the camp 90 miles north of Toronto was longer then. We were so excited about going we couldn’t sit still and the highways weren’t all highways like they are now. Some of them were just roads. To this day I don’t know how my parents endured the 12-hour trip with the three of us in the back. I do know my father always traveled with a compass and a plastic St. Christopher figurine on the dashboard.

In the 1960s we slept eight boys to a Canadian Army surplus tent pitched over a plank floor. By the time my sister came to camp wood A-frames were replacing canvas. Boys stayed on one side of the camp and girls on the other, while the smaller kids slept in twin barracks. In between were the sports field, parade ground, and an all-purpose open-air hall, adjoined by an amphitheater of tiered logs for songs, skits, and a nightly lauzas, or bonfire.

Even though we were often reminded to never play with matches in the woods, every night it seemed to take a box of matches and a gallon of gasoline to light the bonfire.

Our days were mostly sunny, sometimes windy and wet, but at camp there was no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. The nights were often starlit and cool. At seven in the morning we were rousted from our cots by marching music and rag-tagged to the sports field for calisthenics. After raising the Lithuanian, Canadian, and American flags – sometimes preceded by lowering underclothes hoisted in the night – we rushed to breakfast.

After porridge and sandwiches we pushed the long tables to the side, lined our benches up in rows, and Father Paul, Ausra’s resident Franciscan, said mass on a makeshift altar.

Every afternoon, barring mid-summer thunder and lightning, we assembled for the best part of the day: going to the longest freshwater beach in the world, a ten-minute hike from the camp. We lined up in our swimsuits and t-shirts and trekked through a copse of pines and birches to the Concession Road gate and past the corner variety store to our spot on the coastline.

Whenever we could we broke ranks and snuck into the store for bottles of Orange Crush and bags of Maltesers.

Bruno, a vadovas, or camp supervisor, who unlike most of the others wasn’t a parent or a young adult, led the formation. He was a wiry man in his forties with wavy hair who wore his khaki shorts hiked up to his belly button and sported a black beret. He had been a Foreign Legionnaire during WW2 and every summer thought he knew how to expertly assemble children for close order drill, only to see us scattering pell-mell as soon we neared the dunes.

Fish-n-chip shacks on stilts and cars, which were then still allowed to park on the beach, dotted the wide sand flats. The surf line was a hundred yards out. We didn’t swim so much as play in the water, running and belly flopping, tackling one another, flinging Wham-O Frisbees, and splashing every girl we saw.

“You’re getting us wet,” they would yell, even though they were in the lake the same as us.

What none of us ever noticed was the loose cordon of watchful camp counselors on the outskirts of our horseplay, keeping their eyes peeled as we played.

Returning to camp behind Bruno we would sing “Hello, goodbye, Jell-o, no pie” because we knew we would be having Jell-o for dessert when we got back.

Bruno liked to snack on koseliena, or headcheese, and thought we should, too, but our kitchen had the good sense never to serve it, fearing mass nausea. We ate four times a day, the 120 to 150 of us served by eight volunteer cooks: burgers and French fries, pork chops and mashed potatoes, and kugelis, or potato pudding.

Potatoes were a staple, as well as peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread.

Going to the lakeshore was the only time we were allowed to leave camp. It was a strict rule. All feared the consequences, which was expulsion from the camp. One summer a fifteen-year-old who was spotted cavorting on the Wasaga Beach boardwalk was given the choice of going home or spending the remainder of the camp in the kid’s barracks. He chose the top bunk, his new campmates a gaggle of eight and nine-year-olds.

Two other boys did penance another summer by staging a memorial to Darius and Girenas, the 1930s aviators who died flying from America to Lithuania. After a week building a model of the orange monoplane, they strung a clothesline over the bonfire pit, and painted rocks depicting the route, from New York to Newfoundland, Ireland, Konigsberg, and finally Kaunas.

That night, with the whole camp assembled at the larger-than-usual fire, they pulled the plane along the rope, telling the exciting story of the ill-fated flight, when near the marker depicting Kaunas they yanked too hard on the guide rope. The plane came plunging down too soon and too fast and crashed into the bonfire.

It was the talk of the camp for days.

Although Ausra no longer exists, except perhaps in memory, the summer camp on the shore of Georgian Bay is still there in the same place. More than half a century after tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled Europe for North America it thrives on the thin, sandy soil of Wasaga Beach.

Toronto’s Church of the Resurrection purchased the land for Ausra from a parishioner for a nominal fee in the 1950s and operated the camp until 1983, when it was re-christened as Kretinga. Since then it has evolved into three camps: two weeks for English-speaking and two weeks for Lithuanian-speaking children of Lithuanian descent, and another week for families whose children are too young for the other camps.

There is also a weeklong basketball camp in August. In 2014 Mindaugas Kuziminskas, a former Kretinga camper, played for the Lithuanian National Team in the World Cup in Spain.

Summer after summer many of the same children and families across generations return to Kretinga. “It’s my second home,” said one camper, while another said, “Greatest camp in the world!”

“I love this camp so much and I have been going since FOREVER, “ a camper wearing a double-sided Kretinga t-shirt summed up.

My nephew eats in the same mess hall as my brother and I did, shoots hoops on the same asphalt court, and every summer helps restore the same sand map of Lithuania behind the flagpoles.

I asked him if he was going back next summer.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, throwing the Nintendo Wii on the sofa.

“My friends and I have been together for five years in our cabin. It’s the best time of the year. I can’t wait to go back.”

Sudbury 1949

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When Angele Jurgelaityte first saw Vytautas Staskevicius at the Nuremberg Army Hospital in Germany in 1947, he was 23 years old and flat on his back on a surgical table beneath a sheet. She was 19 and wearing a cotton nurse’s dress with a button on apron. The military hospital had been built in 1937 and personally dedicated by Adolf Hitler. Just like 90 percent of Nuremberg, the city that had been the ideological capital of the National Socialists, allied aircraft bombed the hospital and the six-story central section was severely damaged. By the time Angele and Vytautas met it had been re-built and taken over by the United States Army.

Vytautas was living in a refugee camp near Hanau, 200 kilometers north of Nuremberg, and Angele was a nurse trainee at the Army Hospital. She shared a single room with a bath down the hall in an adjoining building with three other young women. They were officially known as displaced persons, displaced from Lithuania, which had first been annexed by the Russians in 1940, then invaded by the Germans in 1941, and finally re-occupied by the Russians during the Baltic Offensive of 1944.

They both fled Lithuania like jumping out of a window. He was whisked up by a truck-full of young Wehrmacht soldiers, stationed at a Russian prisoner-of-war camp nearby, who stopped at his farm and told him he had five minutes to decide whether or not to come with them as they retreated from the rapidly advancing Red Army.

“I was born in Siauliai. My father was the Director of the Department of Citizen Protection there. He was in charge of the police, and the police chief. We had a farm, too, in Dainai. It was a model farm. We had all the newest tools, cutting and sowing implements. Excursions would come to our farm from all over Lithuania.”

Angele woke up the same morning while babysitting her aunt’s children to see the family hurriedly hitching their horse to a cart, tossing in rucksacks, clothes, and a small trunk of valuables, and tying the family cow to the back of it.

“I was from Suvalkija, in the southwest, from the farm of Gizai, five kilometers from Marijampole. My family was all still there, but I couldn’t go back, so I went with my aunt. There wasn’t anything else I could do. On the way we had to sell the cow and jump into ditches when planes bombed us.”

She never saw her parents again and only re-united with any of her large family more than forty years later.

Vytautas lost his parents to political persecution as the Nazis and Communists traded ideological blows, and Angele her parents to the vagaries of a world war, and both were then cut off from what remained of their families and homes by what was fast becoming the Iron Curtain.

“The Communists took my father in 1940 because he was a government official,” Vytautas said. “They took him in the summer just as he was with the shirt on his back and wearing sandals. Later the mass deportations started and my mother was arrested. She spent fifteen years in Siberia and when she was released after Stalin’s death she wasn’t allowed to return to Siauliai. My father was sent to Krasnojarsk and starved to death in the concentration camp there in 1942.”

Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of short stories in history, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.

Three years after fleeing Lithuania they were both in central Bavaria, biding time, like the more than 7 million others who had decamped to Germany in 1944 and 1945.

Vytautas Staskevicius severely injured his right hand in a hay mower accident in 1942, when he was 18-years-old and compelled to take over the operation of the family farm. He was at the Nuremberg hospital for a series of what would be mostly successful operations to restore the use of the hand to him.

“In 1940 in Siauliai the mood was very bad. We felt that something terrible was going to happen. When my parents were sent to Siberia I had to maintain the family farm. I was on a horse drawn mower cutting hay when I saw that rain was coming, so I jumped down and walked with the horses so they would pull the mower faster. As we went I fell down right on the blades. The horses stopped. My hand was almost cut off. The farmhand who was helping me ran over, and seeing my injured hand, fainted.”

One of Angele Jurgelaityte’s roommates told her there was a new arrival, teasing her that he was a young and good-looking man from Lithuania, but it wasn’t until she was transferred to the bone section of the hospital that she met him. When she finally saw him he was unconscious in an operating theater, having a small part of a bone taken from his leg and put into his hand.

She saw him everyday for the next three months on her rounds as he recovered, now fully conscious, and more than ever conscious of her.

“She took care of me,” he said, while she remembers that, “It felt so right to be with that guy.” As winter gave way to spring they began to take walks on the hospital grounds, and in the nearby wooded parks, and then into Nuremberg to the zoo and downtown to watch American movies.

He was eventually discharged and went back to Hanau, where he gave up black-marketing cigarettes and chocolate he bought from troops in the American Zone and found work as a bookkeeper for the International Refugee Organization. They stayed in touch by writing letters to each other once a week. In the middle of the year he returned to Nuremberg for more surgery, staying two months as he recovered, as well as romancing her again with long walks and talks. When he went back to Hanau they continued to write one another, dating by mail, like people had done in an earlier age.

By 1948 Europe’s refugee camps were rapidly emptying as people left for the United States, Canada, Australia, or anywhere they could get a visa and a fresh start.

“No one knew where they would end up,” Angele Jurgelaityte said.  “You couldn’t go home and there was no future in Germany. We had nothing and there were no opportunities.” She finally chose to go to Canada, sponsored by a French-Canadian family in Sudbury, Ontario, to be an au pair for their 14 children. She sailed in December 1948, and after landing wrote Vytautas Staskevicius about where she had gone.

He already had papers allowing him to enter the United States, papers that had been difficult to get. He had an uncle and friends there and was tempted by the prospect. His best friend wanted to travel to Australia and suggested they go together. He debated with himself about what to do. Angele Jurgelaityte won the debate. In January 1949 he wrote her a letter and proposed he come to Canada, they get married, start a family, and build a chicken farm, since they had both grown up on farms and she knew how to break their necks. Two months later he got her return letter and started searching for a way to emigrate to Canada rather than the United States.

Almost 4000 miles away in Sudbury, but on almost the same latitude as Hanau, Angele Jurgelaityte was sure she had made the right decision.

“He wasn’t a lady’s man and I liked that. He was a steady man. And he was interesting. I didn’t want a boring man. He was the right guy for me.”

Once Vytautas Staskevicius secured permission to go to Canada, he took a train to Bremen in northwestern Germany, but couldn’t get a boat, passing the time in a boarding house in the Altstadt, and after several more dead ends finally found himself traveling back through Bavaria, across the Alps, and south of Rome to Naples. He waited for 3 weeks, living on espressos and cheap Neapolitan pizzas, and finally managed to find a berth on a boat going to Nova Scotia.

“There were millions of us trying to get out of Europe,” he said.

He arrived in Sudbury after a two-day train ride from Halifax early on the morning of September 7, 1949, with the clothes on his back, five dollars in American money in his wallet, and a small suitcase more empty than full. When no one met him at the train station he asked a policeman for directions to Angele Jurgelaityte’s address on Pine Street, and walked the three miles from the Canada Pacific terminal to her doorstep.

He found the house, stepped up to the door, and knocked.

“What are you doing here,” she said when she opened the door, wiping her wet hands on a kitchen towel, surprised to see him.

She hadn’t been expecting him until the next day, September 8th.

Standing on the steps, looking up at her, nonplussed, he said, “I came to marry you.”

The next day he moved into a nearby one-room apartment, sharing it with another man for the next two weeks. There was only one bed, but fortunately he worked during the day and slept at night, while the other man worked at night and slept during the day.

His first job in Sudbury was making cement cinder blocks for the LaPalme Cement Works, owned and operated by the large family for whom Angele Jurgelaityte was the domestic. The day after his initiation into cement making he appeared again at her door and told her he ached from tip-to-toe and was returning to Germany. She gave him a long back rub and sent him back to the cement factory.

They were married two weeks later, on a Saturday, on a sunny day in what was usually an overcast month, in a ceremony presided over by two Catholic priests, one French-speaking and the other Lithuanian-speaking. The following afternoon they went on a picnic for their honeymoon, and on Monday morning both of them went back to work. Within a year they bought a house at 147 Stanley Street and started a family, but set aside their plans for a chicken farm, since Sudbury’s landscape was more suited to mining than farming.

Vytautas Staskevicius went to work in Sudbury’s vast nickel mines, judging the work easier than cement making, eventually rising to the level of driving underground loaders and ore trains.

“I worked in the nickel mines for seven years, 3300 hundred feet underground. There were many Lithuanians working in Canada. Some cut down forests, which was very hard, and some worked in the mines, which was dangerous. I worked laying track for the trains that carried the rocks, but later I got an easier job of driving the tractors.”

Angele Jurgelaityte became her own au pair, raising three children. In 1957 they left Sudbury behind and immigrated to the United States, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where they lived together for the next fifty-three years.

“Most of the Lithuanians started looking for better work. Many left for Montreal and Toronto. We all started to go our separate ways. As soon as our turn came up to go to America, Angele and I started getting ready.”

He earned a degree in accounting from Case Western Reserve University, went to work for TRW, and helped found Cleveland’s Taupa Credit Union in the early 1980s. In 1979, after almost forty years, he saw his mother again.

“It was the first time I returned to Lithuania. She was living in Silute, and we tried to travel secretly there, but were caught in Ukmerge and told to return to Vilnius. The next day I got permission to go for one day and I was able to get a car. I visited my mother and we spent three hours together.”

Angele and Vytautas traveled to Lithuania many times after Lithuania’s declaration of independence in 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never again to the Army Hospital in Nuremberg, which had survived the war but was closed and torn down in 1994, there being no further need for it. The grounds were used to build apartments and homes for the burgeoning city.

“We never forgot where we met, all we had to do was close our eyes and go there’” Vytautas said. “But, where we came from and where we were going, our family, home, and community, were always more important to us. We had our own place.”

The End of Taupa

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When former CEO Alex Spirikaitis was arrested on the afternoon of Monday, October 21, 2013, he had been on the run for three months, accused of embezzling more than $10 million from the $23.6 million Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union in Cleveland, Ohio.

He had changed his appearance by growing hair on his formerly shaved head and shaving his goatee. Despite speculation he had fled to Europe or South America, he was apprehended in the Collinwood neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side.

“He was actually walking down the street when they spotted him,” said FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson. Although he had left behind multiple semi-automatic weapons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition stored at the credit union, he was arrested without incident. “He did not put up a fight.”

The FBI would not say how he been tracked to Collinwood, only that they had “developed information based upon advanced investigative techniques that led to his apprehension,” a brief statement said.

He was less than three miles from the shuttered Taupa Credit Union.

Modern credit unions date to mid-nineteenth century Germany, where they were conceived as ‘people’s banks’ leveraging social capital to serve farmers and the working class. The first credit union in North America began operations in 1901 with a ten-cent deposit. Today more than 8000 credit unions in the United States serve over 90 million members with total assets of nearly $800 billion.

Managed by their members, most credit unions are non-profit cooperatives taking in deposits, promoting thrift, and making loans.  Unlike banks, individuals combine in them to manage and control their own money. Credit unions range from corporate to community institutions serving local schools and churches.

When Augis Dicevicius emigrated from Lithuania to Cleveland in the early 2000s, he opened an account at Taupa. “It was like loyalty,” he said, describing why he kept an account there. The employees at Taupa were from the immigrant community, spoke Lithuanian, and over time became more like friends than bankers.

“There is a level of trust from both sides of the counter at Taupa because you know who you are dealing with,” explained Algis Gudenas, former chairman of the credit union’s board of directors, three years before the National Credit Union Association liquidated it. “I think the slogan of Taupa more or less says it: save with one of your own.”

From the 1930s when the federal government began to charter them, credit unions grew steadily, especially among immigrant groups. They were instrumental in helping establish Poles, Germans, Italians, and the more recent Asian and Hispanic immigrants in their new homeland. When creating the Office of Ethnic Affairs in 1976 President Ford cited “the ethnic church, school, and credit union” as fostering “a sense of neighborhood.”

Wherever Lithuanians have settled they have formed their own credit unions, from coast to coast. Founded in 1969, the California Lithuanian Credit Union has assets of $72 million. The Boston Lithuanian Federal Credit Union celebrated its 33rd anniversary in 2013. From its roots in the basement of a hall in the early 1950s, Toronto’s Parama has grown to be the word’s largest Lithuanian credit union.

Already by 1906 in Cleveland the Lithuanian Building and Loan Association, sometimes known as the Lithuanians’ bank, had been established, even though the community numbered less than 1000 at the time. After World War II it evolved into Superior Savings and Loan. In the 1980s, when Cleveland was by then home to more than sixteen thousand Lithuanian Americans and their descendants, Taupa was founded and served the community for almost thirty years.

With approximately 1100 members and $24 million in assets, located a short walk from both their church and the Lithuanian Village cultural center, Taupa was stable, healthy, and growing, year after year, even in an economy often troubled by bank failures and recessions.

Until the evening of July 16th, when police and federal agents surrounded Alex Spirikaitis’s $1.7 million home in Solon, a bedroom suburb 25 miles southeast of Cleveland. It was four days after the decision had been made by the state to liquidate the credit union, determining it was insolvent and had no prospect for restoring viable operations.

Armed with a warrant for his arrest for fraud, when authorities approached the home they were met by his family, who told them he was inside, but refused to come out.

“Family members left the house with us and we thought, from the information we gathered, that he was not going to willingly come out,” said Special Agent Vicki Anderson.

The police decided to regroup, the size and layout of the large house playing a big part in their decision to wait for daylight.

After a nightlong standoff, the neighborhood cordoned off for safety’s sake, and TV news crews at the ready, tactical teams entered the house in the morning.

But, the police came up empty. He was not there.

Before the first members made their first deposits in 1984, the credit union was just a hope and a dream. “We were in our kitchen having coffee one morning, talking about it like we had for months,” recalled Angele Staskus, ”when my husband suddenly said that yes, we were going to go ahead.” Believing Cleveland’s Lithuanians would be better off banding together for their savings and loan needs, Vic Staskus took his brainchild to an ad hoc committee made up of Vytautas Maurutis, Vacys Steponis, Gintaras Tauras, and Vincas Urbaitis. Taupa was coined as its name and chartered by the state.

At a meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help church attended by fewer than twenty people, they collected $4000 in deposits, convinced local Lithuanian attorney Algis Sirvaitis to donate space for an office, and hired Rimute Nasvitiene, who became Taupa’s first employee.

“At first we did everything by hand,” said Vic Staskus. Later that year the Toronto credit union offered them their old computing machine. “It took four of us to bring it into our office, since it was as big as a table, and on top of that we lost most of our small space to it.” Fortunately, through a friend at IBM, they were soon able to secure a more modern system.

After they purchased their own building from a retiring Lithuanian doctor in 1985, deposits began to pour in.  “That was a problem,” Vic Staskus recalled shortly before his death in January 2011. “We had no loans, so we were earning very little. We asked one of our board members to take out a loan. He said he didn’t need anything. Every time we asked him, he said no. But, we were finally able to convince him and he took a loan out for $500, and gradually people began to realize we were lending.”

By 1990, when Vic Staskus left Taupa, the credit union had nearly $8 million in assets and delivered most of the same services banks did. “I knew we could offer better rates and interest, and I always believed we could offer as many advantages as banks to our members,” he said.

Alex Spirikaitis joined Taupa in the early 1990s, at first working at the front counter as a clerk, later promoted to assistant manager, and eventually taking on the role of CEO, as the credit union quadrupled its assets in those years.

“He lived on the same street as we did, in the neighborhood, just down the street from the credit union, when we were children,” said Rita Zvirblis, who served as secretary for Taupa’s board of directors in its early years. “He was a really nice kid, really quiet.”

Former board director Ricardas Sirvinskas described Spirikaitis as well liked, especially by older members, because he spoke Lithuanian fluently. “The older generation of Lithuanians, they really liked Alex very much.”

After he was arrested, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth McHargh unsealed an affidavit revealing the extent of the embezzlement, more than $10 million, making it one of the largest cases of fraud against a credit union in the country. The largest, recently involving St. Paul Croatian Credit Union, was coincidentally also in Cleveland, Ohio.

The criminal complaint against Alex Spirikaitis is for allegedly making false statements to a credit union from 2011 through 2013.

“He printed out numbers he wanted to report to auditors and the National Credit Union Association and taped them over the real numbers from the true Corporate One Federal Credit Union bank account statements,” the affidavit states. “Spirikaitis then photocopied the altered documents resulting in a document that mimicked the appearance of a statement coming directly from Corporate One.”

“Everybody accepted the financial statements Alex provided us, and everybody appeared to be happy with them,” said Vincas Urbaitis, a founding member of the credit union who sat on its board for more than 25 years until resigning in 2011. “I guess everybody just got duped.”

During the summer as Spirikaitis remained at large federal prosecutors seized his wife’s luxury SUVs and moved to take legal possession of his home. Court documents reveal that the down payment for the house, the construction of which took a year, was paid with two checks totaling $100,000 from Alex Spirikaitis’s personal account at the credit union.

“All remaining checks, totaling approximately $1,555,132, came from Spirikaitis in the form of Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union official checks,” court documents say. “While working at the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union, Spirikaitis never made in excess of $50,000.”

The Adirondack-style house on a five-acre lot features two full kitchens, indoor swimming pool, entertainment room with big screen and movie projectors, five-and-a-half bathrooms, and an elevator. “No Trespassing” signs surround it.

“I don’t think anybody from the board of directors knew or anyone within the Lithuanian community knew he was building a house,” said Vincas Urbaitis. “He was not very social. But he was not antisocial. He would talk to you about the business aspects of the credit union, but I don’t even know who his close friends were.”

Ricardas Sirvinskas described Spirikaitis as a quiet person, keeping to himself, and only rarely attending social events in the Lithuanian community.

Although court documents are not completely clear regarding the final tally of money missing, Vincas Urbaitis asked why examiners had not verified the statements prepared by Spirikaitis.

“They never went to the bank, Corporate One, and asked independently as to how much money was in the accounts,” he said.

Vytautas Kliorys, board president of Taupa at the time it was closed and liquidated, also questioned the credit union’s third-party audit firm and examiners. “The board believed that it had all the procedures in place to prevent this sort of event,” he said. “We had received excellent and very good reports from the annual state exams, and we had even gone one step further than required and used an outside CPA firm to perform annual independent audits.”

Paul Hixon, VP of marketing at Corporate One, had no comment other than to say the National Credit Union Association was investigating. Officials said it would take up to six months to complete a full forensic account process.

The Lithuanian community reacted to Taupa’s closing with dismay. “For those in Cleveland that have been watching the news for the last few days know that the Lithuanian community in Cleveland has been in the spotlight,” said Regina Motiejunas-McCarthy, co-host of Siaurinis Krantas: Lithuanian Radio. “Not because of something good but because of a tragedy.”

The unexpected closure of the credit union affected all its members, freezing their accounts for a month-and-more, even though they were insured, as well as severely impacting several businesses, including the Lithuanian Community Center.

“Like many other businesses that have their accounts there, we are all scrambling to open new checking accounts with basically no liquid cash other than from sales over the weekend,” Ruta Degutis, president of the center, said when the credit union was closed.

“Alex assumed a public trust when he became CEO of Taupa, to help better the lives of others,” said one of the members. “It was not given to him as an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.” After 30 years Cleveland’s Lithuanian community had lost one of the pillars of its community.

After his arrest U.S. Magistrate Keneth McHargh found Alex Spirikaitis indigent and qualified for a court-appointed public defender. Since a “Go Bag” filled with blank identification cards, mobile phone cards, and stored value cards that could be used as cash had been found in Spirikaitis’s office, the magistrate also ruled he be held behind bars without bond. Assistant federal public defender Darin Thompson did not challenge the no-bond ruling. Spirikaitis agreed to waive his right to a detention hearing. The case was bound over to a federal grand jury.

Alex Spirikaitis left the U.S. District Court in downtown Cleveland as he had entered it, hands handcuffed behind his back, looking at no one in the crowded court.