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Cleveland, Ohio

The 14 000 – strong Cleveland‘s Lithuanian community dates to the 19th century. It has created some of the most impressive Lithuanian heritage sites in America.

Lithuanian Cultural Garden of Cleveland

The most famous Lithuanian site in Cleveland is its Lithuanian garden, created in 1936. The garden is filled with ethnic symbols, nearly every detail there being symbols of Lithuanian pride.

The garden has three levels; the upper level has Lithuanian flag and the fountain of duchess Birutė (legendarily a pagan priestess; built 1936) surrounded by busts of 19th century Lithuanian National Revival poets who called for Lithuania to be independent once again and romantically sought inspiration in the last era Lithuanian was truly free (the Grand Duchy era). The poets are priest Maironis (built 1961) and Vincas Kudirka (built 1938), the author of Lithuanian National Anthem.

The middle level includes massive Pillars of Gediminas, a patriotic symbol related to Grand Duke Gediminas, and a bust of Jonas Basanavičius. Known as the "Patriarch of the Nation" this scholar is frequently credited the most for the restoration of Lithuanian statehood in 1918 (bust erected 1936).

The lower terrace has the garden's name, the second Lithuanian flag as well as the garden;'s newest addition: a Rūpintojėlis, traditional Lithuanian figure of a sad God built in 1990 after Lithuania has declared independence.

Lithuanian cultural garden is one of the older cultural gardens in the city's Rockefeller Park, each of them associated with some particular nation.

The garden has been destroyed by Blacks during the 1960 race riots but has been renovated by Vincas Apanius and Kęstutis Šukys afterward (they have a bench dedicated to them on the middle terrace now).

While it is not particularly marked, some of the garden's trees have been planted by famous Lithuanian-American figures such as Anna Kaskas.

St. George Lithuanian church

The oldest Lithuanian building in Cleveland is the St. George church (1921, 6527 Superior Avenue). Towerless massive edifice has two stories with a church hall on the upper floor and a former school downstairs.

Unfortunately, there are no more pupils in its classes and the last Mass in the church itself was celebrated in 2009. Saving money Cleveland Diocese the closed the church. At that time it was the oldest Lithuanian parish in the USA (established 1895).

Diocese planned to sell the building and the surrounding lot which also includes a historical 19th-century house for at least 220 000 USD, but it had to reduce the price to merely 11 000 USD. This is the reality of cities like Cleveland where the decayed urban center is unsafe since the 1966 race riots and subsequent white flight. The buildings were acquired by Community Greenhouse Partners which uses the area for urban agriculture. In the rapidly depopulating cities like Detroit and Cleveland cheap land is regularly acquired for gardens. The new owners ("Community Greenhouse Partners") plan to renovate the church building for use as a shop; currently, however, it stands abandoned, with some use as a film set.

St. George Lithuanian church. On the right, the glasshouses are already visible as this dilapidated city district is meant to become countryside again. Google Street View.

The closure of the Lithuanian church in Cleveland failed to spark protests akin to those in other communities influenced by the church-closure spree. This is because there was another Lithuanian church in Cleveland - in the Euclid suburb, where most of the Lithuanian life has moved out from the now-Black-majority St. George church area in the 1980s-2000s.

Euclid Lithuanian church, school, and monument

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Lithuanian church (18022 Neff Rd) is part of a massive Lithuanian complex, one of the largest in America and created by some of the most famous 20th century Lithuanian artists.

The church itself may look rather simple and somewhat functionalist at first but, inspecting it closer, one will see many serene Lithuanian ethnic details which enhance but do not obscure the general form-inducted feeling inside that the church is like a ship of faith and Lithuanity sailing through an ocean of trouble.

Among the most prominent Lithuanian details inside are the bas-reliefs of Lithuanian cities and towns that have Virgin Mary-related cults: Žemaičių Kalvarija, Pažaislis, Vilnius, and Šiluva. Because of these bas-reliefs, the church gained a nickname of "The temple of Lithuanian Madonnas" (Lietuvos Madonų šventovė).

The altar is also a traditional wooden Lithuanian one and it features two towers crowned by large sun-crosses, a pagan-inspired Lithuanian version of the cross that is repeated many times, for example, on top of every column capital in the interior and on top of the church itself outside.

The Mass is celebrated there in both Lithuanian and English. The church building was constructed in the 1960s after the influx of some 4 000 displaced (exiled) persons from Soviet-occupied Lithuania. The architect Stasys Kudokas himself was one of those who left Lithuania due to the Soviet occupation - he would have been targetted by the Soviet regime as he was a prominent architect of independent Lithuania. Interior was designed by a famous artist Kazys Varnelis, yet another person who left Lithuania due to the occupation. The Virgin Mary bas-reliefs were done by Ramojus Mozoliauskas, of a similar fate.

Among the church's stained-glass windows, there is a window dedicated to the "Lith. Displaced persons", while the rose window is dedicated to Kudokas himself.

The parish itself is older than the Our Lady of Perpetual Help church, but formerly it had been using a simple house as a church building. The Lithuanian dispalced persons, however, continued the rebuilding spree long after the church itself has been completed.

A latter additon was the massive Lithuanian school, beautified by a statue of St. Casimir, regarded to be the only Lithuanian saint, on the back facade. The sculpture was installed in 1984, celebrating 600 years of Christianity in Lithuania.

Next, a Lithuanian monastery stands, crowned by Lithuanian cross and ethnic forms. Both buildings are no longe rused for their original purposes, however, and have been rented out.

The Lithuanian complex has been completed by the addition of the Lithuanian partisans memorial on the front. The memorial incorporates a partisan's face with a Cross of Vytis and is inscribed in three languages: "Give me liberty or hive me death" (English), "Dieve, Lietuvą Gink!" (Lithuanian for "God defend Lithuania"), "Rebbe Quod Debes" (Latin for "Give up what you must"). The composition includes a cross and Rūpintojėlis (the traditional Lithuanian symbol of a sad Jesus) as well as three flagpoles, use during days of commemoration.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help (St. Casimir) Lithuanian church, the last such in Cleveland. Like many of the post-WW2 Lithuanian churches, it combines extensive buildings with a relatively simple modernist design. Google Street View.

Lithuanian Community Center in Euclid

Not far from the new church a Lithuanian Community Center (877 E 185) houses a Lithuanian restaurant, bar, lounge, and party center. The center is stuffed with Lithuanian memorabilia, it also includes archives and, on the second floor, a hall that is rented out to non-Lithuanians as well and helps pay the bills.

Like the Cleveland's new Lithuanian church, the Community Center has been built in 1973 after the refugees moved in and many Lithuanians resettled east of downtown. The older Lithuanian club in the downtown near St. George's church has burned down before.

Lithuanian Village Community Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Google Street View.

While the community center looks quite simple from the outside, it includes the stylized Vytis (Lithuanian coat of arms), a version of it that came to symbolize the Lithuanian diaspora.

Antanas Smetona related sites in Cleveland

Cleveland is famous in Lithuania as the final resting place of Antanas Smetona, the first, the longest-reigning (main term 1926-1940) and arguably the most famous president of Lithuania. Because of him, the nearly entire interwar period in Lithuania is often named "Smetonic era". Among the most famous Smetona's policies was the then-unprecedented clampdown on both the Communist and Nazi movements.

The Smetonic era was an era of prosperity followed by the tragedy of World War 2 and Soviet occupation when hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were murdered, exiled or had to flee Lithuania. Antanas Smetona himself has also fled Lithuania to the USA, where he died in a house fire in Cleveland in 1944. The House where Smetona died still stands, now inhabited by Black people just like the entire district it is located at.

Lithuanian Americans had various opinions about Smetona at the time as some disliked him for his authoritarian rule. That is why Smetona was not allowed to live in the Lithuanian embassy in Washington (DC) which supposedly had anti-Smetona staff. In Cleveland, however, most of the local Lithuanians were Smetona's supporters. This was one of the reasons why Smetona chose Cleveland to retreat. Still, the life was not easy there for Smetona: not being allowed to work and no longer having a support of now-occupied Lithuania, he had to rely on donations.

That is why the house Smetona lived and died at (actually, just a part of that house in the attic) is so simple.

The Grave of Antanas Smetona in the All Souls Cemetery (Chardon suburb) is even simpler. Two nearby places of interment in a massive wall inside a mausoleum are dedicated to him and to his wife. They look similar to thousands of graves of American commoners and are not somehow distinctively marked.

After Lithuania has restored its independence (1990) there were periodic calls to rebury the Smetonas in Lithuania. However, such calls are typically opposed by Cleveland Lithuanians for multiple reasons: the belief that Smetona's grave may be disrespected or vandalized in Lithuania by people with leftist, anti-Lithuanian, or anti-ethnic beliefs; the fact that Smetona's descendants all live in America; a purported saying by Smetona himself that he would not like to ever be buried in Lithuania as even should Lithuania become independent, its culture would be too ravaged by the Soviet rule.

To this day, as "Destination Lithuanian America" team (Augustinas Žemaitis and Aistė Žemaitienė) has discovered, Smetona is held in a much higher regard among Cleveland Lithuanians than possibly anywhere else in the world.

Upper terrace of the Lithuanian Cultural Garden in Cleveland which feels like an interwar Lithuania: because of the symbols, people whose busts are erected and landscaping aesthetics. Google Street View.

Telshe yeshiva

Before World War 2, Lithuania also had a significant Jewish population, some of which has also fled the occupations to the USA. While the Jewish and ethnic Lithuanian diasporas had literally no cooperation for decades, interestingly, one of the major Lithuanian-originated Jewish institutions of the USA is also located in the same Euclid suburb as most of the Lithuanian activities are.

That institution is Telshe yeshiva (Jewish religious school, 28400 Euclid Avenue), named after the Lithuanian town of Telšiai. This is a continuation of the original Telšiai yeshiva, opened in 1875 and closed after Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 (due to the Soviet atheist policies). As it happened, two of the Telšiai yeshiva's teachers were collecting donations for their yeshiva among the US Jewry at the time. Given the circumstances, they decided not to return to Lithuania but establish Telshe yeshiva in Cleveland instead. It became an important US Haredi institution; in 1960 another Telshe yeshiva was opened in Chicago.

Initially, the yeshiva has operated in the downtown but has acquired a farmstead in Euclid since. At its highest point, the yeshiva had some 700 students but has since declined to 170 due to a competition from many new yeshivas. It still has the buildings built for a much larger congregation of people, however. The most impressive among them is the main hall, with a library on the second floor that has thousands of old books, including some originating in Lithuania.

Other buildings include a school for children (many of whom stay in the yeshiva afterward), apartments for yeshiva students who have their families, etc. Unlike the Western education, the yeshiva education has no end: that is, many of the students remain students the whole life, analyzing Torah (Old Testament) by discussing it with fellow other students, initially directed by the more experienced ones. Most of the students never leave the yeshiva area or leave it extremely rarely (e.g. the children leave it for holidays), making yeshiva a small village-within-city.

Access to the Yeshiva may seem to be hit-or-miss for the outsiders. While "Destination Lithuanian America" volunteers were able to access the site and even be shown around by the yeshiva staff and students, some other Lithuanians and Litvaks claimed they were asked to leave. As yeshiva students have explained to us, some of them are more wary of the outsiders than the others as Euclid is not a very safe neighborhood and there have been some threats to Yeshiva as well, so a lot depends on one's own conduct and the first person one would greet.

The yeshiva still has many Litvak-originated students (and the name "Telshe" is prominently written in many places) but no longer has any ties to Lithuania itself nor are there any Lithuanian-born students among those who joined it recently. Most students have been born into Orthodox communities and the Jewish Orthodox lifestyle has all but dissipated in the Lithuania itself after the Soviet atheist regime, with the majority of Jews in Lithuania become atheists.

The studies are all conducted in English while the praying is Hebrew; the Yiddish language that used to be the main language of the Litvaks is no longer used.

Entrance to Telshe yeshiva. Google Street View.

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