Saturday, June 7, 2014

Vytautas Šliūpas

Way back on March 18, 2014, I published a post having to do with Šiauliai street names.  Here’s a link.  I wasn’t very explicit about it at the time, but one of the cruelest ironies in that sordid history is the way that the Soviet occupation government dropped Jonas Šliūpo gatvė in favor of I. Michurin gatvė, Šliūpas having been the most humane of scientists, and Michurin having been a complete fraud.  He, Michurin, was the man who convinced the Soviet Union to entrust its agriculture policy to rank amateurs who rejected the basic tenets of Mendelian genetics.  It proved not a good idea.

I was aware that the man for whom Jonas Šliūpo gatvė was named, Jonas Šliūpas, was one of the intellectuals who gave substance to the Lithuanian national movement at the turn of the twentieth century—a hero celebrated enough to have earned postage-stamp treatment (see image below) in the independent Lithuanian Republic that emerged out of the ashes of World War I.  I knew that Šliūpas was a medical doctor, and at some point I was aware that his papers are collected in the Šiauliai University Library.  Still, I didn’t know enough about Šliūpas to keep from confusing him with other national leaders of that period.  And I had no idea that Šliūpas spent much of his life in the United States—specifically, as a practicing physician in the anthracite coal regions of northeast Pennsylvania.  The point is, to the extent that I thought of Šliūpas at all, I thought of him as a 19th-century man. 

That’s why it never occurred to me that Jonas Šliūpas could have been one of the heroes of the resistance to the Nazi Occupation that became a juggernaut after the German occupation of 1940.  And yet it turns out that, as mayor of Palanga (see my post on our trip to Palanga here), Šliūpas gave the Nazi authorities no end of grief about the policies they were employing to effect the Jewish Holocaust.  Šliūpas’s house there is maintained as a shrine (see photo below).

I hope you can endure another longish aside.  One of the regular loiterers here on Baltic Avenue, our friend Michael Kasler, has asked several times about my frequent references to the vanished community of Lithuanian Jews—Litwacks, who contributed so much to the cultural distinctiveness of this country during the tsarist era, and then again in the interwar period of the twentieth century.  Have the Lithuanians, Michael has asked, attempted to sweep the Jewish Holocaust, which claimed roughly 300,000 lives in this tormented land, under the national rug?  My answer has been that the Soviets, for their own reasons, were good at implying that the Nazis found willing executioners among ethnic Lithuanians, and that therefore they and their progeny must bear a portion of the guilt.  (By managing your affairs, we are saving you from your own fascist proclivities, is the suggestion.  We are hearing a version of it again in this part of the world).  But those stories are dramatically contradicted by the saga of Jonas Šliūpas and many other profiles in courage.

As mayor of Palanga, Šliūpas, at great personal risk, challenged the Nazi’s policies vis-à-vis “the Jewish question.”  In fact, he was contentious enough that the Nazis eventually felt they had to replace him as mayor.  It says something about Šliūpas’s commitment to even-handed justice that despite his difficulties with the Nazis he fled ahead of the Red Army that was moving westward toward Germany at the end of the war.  He died in 1944 in a refugee camp in Berlin.

Go back and look at that father-and-son photo at the top of this post.  That baby boy, born in 1930, is 84 years old today.  And as his father was born in 1861, the two Šliūpases, père and fils, together span more than 150 years of human history.

That baby's name is Vytautas Šliūpas, and I met him the other day.  He was fourteen years old when his father died in the refugee camp.  When I expressed amazement that he could be the son of a man born in 1861, he conceded that people often find it difficult to believe that he is the son, rather than the grandson, of Jonas Šliūpas.

Like his father, Mr. Šliūpas (see photo, below, taken off the internet) is a complex and interesting man.  At the moment he is president of something called the Auksuciai Foundation, a charitable nonprofit committed not only to making Lithuanian agriculture more productive, but also to imbuing it with a free-market sense of what private property is all about.  Many knowledgeable persons believe that it’s something the country needs, even twenty years after the official demise of communism.  Mr. Šliūpas spends his summers in Lithuania; the rest of the year he is headquartered in California. 

Want to know more about the circumstances under which I came to be chatting with Vytautas Šliūpas?  Come back for the next installment here on Baltic Avenue.  Don’t touch that dial!


  1. Thanks Ken for your post. It's encouraging to learn of such a principled and brave man.

  2. Yes, it is, Michael. My impression is that even 20 years after the demise of communism the Baltic states are still trying to deal with issues that have been resolved, more or less successfully, in the West, particularly Germany. And I'm still trying to understand it, really.