Thoughts After Vilnius Seminar

January 6, 2014

Growing up in America, diversity was inescapable. I was taught to celebrate the melting pot of cultures that makes up America today without ever realizing that distinct and individual flavors can be lost in the melting process. My situation wasn’t helped by the fact that I was a fourth generation American mutt, only realizing my last name was distantly German, but potentially Slavic in origin. As far as I knew, my connections to the homeland were in Kentucky, not anywhere in Europe.

I often reflect on this question of my roots since so many people in Northern Europe ask if I have familial ties here — whether in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, everyone assumes I am some sort of Baltic-American. If I don’t feel like explaining my convoluted path that led me to a Fulbright Fellowship in Estonia and Latvia this year, I simply answer, ”Yes, my mother was Estonian,” or some such. In fact, the majority of my relations with Balts in the States have been with Baltic-Americans, who always prove to be formidable language partners. Like many of them, my primary interests in Baltic cultures was in the native lands themselves, not in the diaspora population. After all, Baltic-Americans were people I interacted with often. Balts living in their native countries were far off and could be easily romanticized in my head.

From November 7 to 9, I participated in the XVI Baltic Heritage Youth Seminar in Vilnius, Lithuania, an experience that markedly transformed my interest and opened my eyes to the richness of the culture, heritage, history, and significance of the Baltic diaspora. I am an art historian, focusing primarily on art in the Baltic and Nordic countries ca. 1890-1915. For the Vilnius seminar, Kristina Lupp and I presented a paper on the first ethnic Estonian artists living and working in America and Canada from 1900-1930. The overwhelming majority of scholarship on Baltic diasporas focuses on the postwar era, and with good reason, as it witnessed the largest emigration of Balts in history. As such, we were particularly keen to find out more about how Estonian artists integrated into North American cultural spheres and their success with American and Canadian artists. For instance, Andrew Winter (1892-1958), an Estonian-American painter, became particularly well known for his genre scenes of fishermen off the coast of Maine and imbued his paintings with subtle details that expressed both his Estonian heritage and his newfound New England identity.

The next paper also examined Baltic diaspora cultures outside of the context of the Soviet occupation, yet this time focusing on the twenty-first century. Dr. Laura Laurušaitė focused on literature written by Lithuanians and Latvians who had just recently left their homelands, thus provoking a critical and necessary dialogue on a germane issue in the three Baltic countries today.

Maarja Merivoo-Parro was the next presenter, discussing experiences of American-Estonian youth who were able to study primarily in Finland in the 1950s and 1960s. Particularly interesting, at least for me, was her discussion on conceptions of Estonia and Estonianess as perceived among diaspora communities in America, and how they changed and/or transformed throughout the students’ experience in Finland, and, even, Estonia.

Dr. Kristina Ūsaitė recently published an astonighsly impressive book on the World Lithuanian Youth Association. Her presentation in Vilnius detailed her methodology and research results that led to formation of her current publications, offering important comparative strategies for diaspora research that can be implemented in other Baltic contexts as well.

Methods of communication and contact between Estonians in the Soviet Union and those residing in the Vancouver area was the subject of Ann Aaresild’s presentation. Her presentation was particularly insightful as the Vancouver Estonian community has certainly received less scholarly attention, despite its formative role in the Estonian diaspora on both a global and national Canadian plane. Aaresild’s presentation was particularly fruitful in inspiring discussions about the importance of deliberateness—whether in what is said, particularly avoided, or communicated through a complex network of codes and secret meaning, again, an aspect applicable to analyzing all diaspora connections with the USSR.

Three of the presenters from Latvia, Guntis Švītiņš, Inese Kalniņa and Laura Millere, discussed Latvia and its diaspora in relation to DP Camps in Germany. Švītiņš gave a preview of what promises to be a truly unmatched resource for research concerning the Baltic diaspora in DP camps: a virtual exhibition entitled “Camps in Germany for Refugees from Baltic Countries, 1945-1950.” The exhibition provides lengthy and painstakingly detailed texts in English, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian about the everyday life and culture of Baltic DP inhabitants. Perhaps the greatest value of this forthcoming virtual exhibition is not its sheer scope and availability of hard to access resources—a factor itself which will surely earn numerous accolades—but rather the way in which it represents Balts’ struggles to create a normal life—with high-standard schools, universities, plays, and even art exhibits—a factor which, at least for someone rather unfamiliar with DP camps, creates an entirely different picture than the arguably typical image of displaced peoples in immediately post-war Europe.

As many of you know, Latvia recently changed its citizenship laws in order to facilitate the acquisition of Latvian citizenship by people with (demonstrably) Latvian roots, whose relatives were displaced in the tumultuous events of the 1940s and 1950s. Claiming such roots, however, can often be difficult. It is for this reason that Kalniņa’s and Millere’s presentation on the central file cabinets of Latvians in Germany, ca. 1945-1950 was so timely and interesting.
As the seminar was ending, we talked about, among other things, Baltic co-operation. Suddenly, I found myself in the spotlight. I was, after all, the only American in attendance. I quickly realized that my every day life in the States provided me unfettered access to the Baltic diaspora that was often difficult for Baltic diaspora researches living in Europe. If anything, the seminar made me appreciate what access I have in the States and am excited to see where the organization is headed in the future.

Bart C. Pushaw

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