I recently had the opportunity to go “behind the scenes” in the library at the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture. I happen to be of Lithuanian heritage, as well as a history buff, so a visit here was of particular interest to me. This library is not open to the public, and requires an appointment to access; however, I had an inside pass from a volunteer who is organizing the collection and unpacking the many boxes of donations (and also happens to be my mother, Sue Matulionis!). She said it’s actually pretty easy to get in. A quick phone call to the main number can usually secure an appointment, and they are open 7 days a week.
The Balzekas Museum was founded in 1966, and is now located in a 3-story former hospital on the near southwest side of Chicago. It claims to contain the largest collection of Lithuanian artifacts outside of the actual country of Lithuania. The founder of the museum had an extensive collection of armor and weaponry dating from the 17th and 18th century, along with traditional costumes and amber jewelry, that make up the museum’s permanent collections. In addition to these permanent collections, there are currently several exhibitions on display. “No Home to Go To: The Story of Baltic Displaced Persons, 1944-1952” is an exhibit which chronicles the experience of the immigrants who fled the Soviet occupation, and migrated to the west for a better life. This display includes many photos and documents, as well as personal artifacts, giving the visitor an interesting perspective on how little they were able to bring with in their journey to start a new life. This exhibit has been extended to December 31, 2016, and is well worth the visit to this museum.
Photos of the exhibit “No Home to Go To”
The Museum’s Library
The Balzekas Museum library is large, for the size of the museum, containing over 75,000 volumes, in English and Lithuanian, as well as Russian, Polish and other Baltic languages. In addition to books, there are periodicals, film, and clipping files, all with a focus on Lithuanian culture both in Europe, and the United States. There is a particular focus on genealogical research, as well as much material written by and about Lithuanian-Americans in the Chicago area. Volunteers have compiled a file of obituaries by scouring the local paper obituaries for people of Lithuanian descent. I found my grandmother in the file, although it really was my grandfather’s Lithuanian name for which she was included.
Photos of the Balzekas Museum’s Library
There is also a rare book collection, containing religious prayer books from the 16th and 17th century, as well as some not-so-old, but still very rare books and pamphlets from periods of occupation. Of note is a Freedom Fighter’s Prayer Book, from 1953, found in the forest in 1996, while reconstructing the sites where resistance fighters were headquartered.
When a country has a tumultuous political past, such as Lithuania, which has spent most of the past century occupied by one country or another, the people find their voice through publishing underground pamphlets and books. Most recently, the country endured many years of Soviet occupation, during which much of the cultural history and artifacts were destroyed. This political upheaval led to many homegrown publications by political dissidents and organizations both inside and outside the country, letting people know what was really going on behind the “iron curtain.” The library contains many reports and personal accounts of life in an occupied country, as well as treatment of the people by the Soviet government.
Examples of “Underground” publications
Lithuania’s religious history has strong folk traditions tied into the Catholic religious celebrations, as they were the last European country to convert. The museum has many examples of the wooden carvings and crosses used to decorate houses, churches and graves, as well as the intricate stoles woven for priests. I also found several books published locally about the history of St. Casimir cemetery, which was created in the early 1900’s as a Catholic cemetery for Lithuanian-Americans. This cemetery was one of several cemeteries founded independent of the parish church, to accommodate the floods of immigrants arriving from Europe.
Like the country itself, the library has also undergone some turmoil in its history. Although there were several attempts to catalog the material included, currently the collection does not have an easily accessible catalog. It is organized in a loose Dewey decimal system, although I was told that it may actually have been a home-grown cataloging system, the key to which has been lost with the librarian who developed it.
Whether you are interested in Lithuanian history, genealogy, or just would like to tour a very unique and comprehensive museum library, a visit to the Balzekas Museum is an afternoon well spent. Most of these materials cannot be found online. In fact, there may not even be a record that they exist. It may be that the only record of a piece is in a catalog of an exhibit from another museum or library, which happens to be retained in this museum library. My visit to the Balzekas Museum reminded me of why collections like this are so important. These materials present a unique perspective that deserves to be recorded in history.
- Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture
- 6500 S. Pulaski Rd., Chicago IL 60629