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Washington, DC

Washington, DC is the political heart of the United States. Moreover, for 50 years (1940-1990), it was also the political heart of Lithuania. In that era, Lithuania was occupied by foreign powers: Soviet occupation lasted 46 years. The USA never recognized this act of aggression so the Lithuanian embassy in Washington (622 16th St., N.W.) continued to represent the independent Lithuania - in fact, Lithuanian embassy in Washington was, to some extent, its de facto government. Among its jobs in that era of hardship was to lobby the USA to support the Lithuanian freedom.

Embassy's causes were eagerly supported by the Lithuanian-Americans. They built a lavish Our Lady of Šiluva chapel that was meant to introduce Lithuania to the casual Americans.

These sites are also joined by the famous Lithuanian graves, of which there are numerous in the Washington cemeteries.

Lithuanian embassy in Washington

In addition to its aforementioned Cold War role, the Lithuanian embassy in Washington is also the oldest Lithuanian representation abroad. Lithuanians acquired this 5-floored towered Spanish Baroque villa in 1924 (6 years after establishing independence in 1918). Relations with the USA have always been of utmost importance to Lithuania because of the extensive Lithuanian-American community (193 600 people in 1930 or 6% of contemporary Lithuania's population). This community always provided a great help in advancing Lithuanian political and economic aspirations.

Lithuanian Embassy in Washington

Lithuanian Embassy in Washington with a large poster of the coat of arms. Cuban embassy is on the right, the building that replaced part of the Lithuanian-embassy-building is on the left.

In 2008, the Lithuanian embassy received a new wing, doubling its size (1116 sq. m to 2488 sq. m). The old wing is now used primarily for ceremonial purposes. It is housed in the authentic building by architect George Oakley Totten, Jr completed in 1909 for senator John B. Henderson (although half of the building was demolished in 1965), inspired by the Palace of Monterrey in Spain. The building initially served as Danish and Swedish legations. However, only half of that original building remains, with the other half torn down.

At the time of the embassy acquisition in 1924, this area was a prestigious „embassy row“. During the 1970s, however, the location turned into an unsafe ghetto. Most other embassies relocated, but, understandably, the then-occupied Lithuania had no funds to do so (even the renovations of the embassy, like the one at 1982, required fundraising among Lithuanian-Americans, as the occupied Lithuania could not have supported its embassies). However, staying put proved to be a wise decision in the long run, as the area gentrified in the 2000s.

Throughout its history, Lithuanian embassy has been located next to the Cuban embassy, the narrow alley between them being a kind of Cold War front at the time when Cuba became communist while the Soviet occupation and Soviet Genocide made Lithuania extremely anti-communist. Ironically, the Lithuanian embassy was incidentally damaged by anti-communist Omega 7 activists who targetted the Cuban legation in 1979.

Inside the Lithuanian embassy in Washington, the most lavish room is ceremonial hall on the second floor. This hall is used for the official events in the embassy.

The historic events room of the Lithuanian embassy in Washington

The historic events room of the Lithuanian embassy in Washington

The second most interesting room is in the embassy‘s „tower“. That room is said to have been loved by Stasys Lozoraitis, the long-term Lithuanian representative in the USA in the Cold War era. The room is unheated and unconditioned, so it sees little use today, however.

The tower room of the Lithuanian embassy

Th tower room of the Lithuanian embassy

The embassy may be visited during the Open House events yearly, and, according to embassy employees, anytime by a prior request. An information plaque in front of the building describes both its history and the story of Lithuanian independence restoration.

Lithuanian chapel in America‘s largest church

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America and the tallest building in Washington, DC (100 m). Built in a period of 41 years (1920-1961), the National Shrine is also famous for its many chapels dedicated to the ethnic communities of the USA and their original homelands. Lithuanian chapel is named after Our Lady of Šiluva, the earliest church-recognized apparition of Virgin Mary in Europe (Šiluva village, Lithuania, year 1608).

The Lithuanian chapel from outside

The Lithuanian chapel from the main nave of the basilica

However, her large statue (which stands on top of a stylized Šiauliai‘s Hill of Crosses) forms just a small part of the enormous chapel, where artworks are not meant to convey religion alone, but also to represent Lithuania to Americans at the time of great trials and tribulations.

Stylized Hill of Crosses under the statue of Our Lady of Šiluva

Stylized Hill of Crosses under the statue of Our Lady of Šiluva

While the chapel is introduced by the guides of the free Shrine-tours, only some of the many motifs are explained. Here we explain more.

The mosaic on the left side of the chapel depicts, among other things, traditional wooden churches and belfries of Lithuanian villages, a Lithuanian chapel-post, a Rūpintojėlis (traditional Lithuanian image of a sad Jesus), the „school of sorrows“ (secret Lithuanian home-school at the time Lithuanian language had been banned in the 19th century Russian-ruled Lithuania) and a secret Holy Mass during a time of the Russian-led anti-Catholic religious persecutions in Lithuania. The slogan above the mosaic says, in Lithuanian „Please save, oh the Highest, that beloved country“.

The mosaic on the right side of the chapel depicts, among other things the Vytis (coat of arms) with a traditional Lithuanian sun-cross marching against the Medieval crusader force, the coronation of King Mindaugas (the Lithuania‘s sole church-recognized recognized king), Saint Casimir (the only Lithuanian saint), various famous buildings of Lithuania, ranging from churches to the castle of Gediminas and Vilnius city gates, and the coats of arms of Lithuania and Vilnius. The slogan above the mosaic says, in Lithuanian „Let your sons draw strength from the past“ (this is part of the National Anthem lyrics).

A fragment of the right-side mosaic at the Washington Lithuanian chapel

A fragment of the right-side mosaic at the Washington Lithuanian chapel

The vault of the chapel depicts four greatest Maryan sites in Lithuania and their Mary paintings.

The vault of Our Lady of the Šiluva chapel in Washington

The vault of Our Lady of the Šiluva chapel in Washington

The fresco above the main entrance depicts emigration (a Vytis of Lithuanian coat of arms going across the ocean from the grave of the unknown soldier in Kaunas, Lithuania to the Freedom statue of New York).

The emmigration artwork

The emmigration artwork. The slogan declaring "for God and Fatherland" is very appropriate for the chapel's decor

Lithuanians constructed this chapel in 1966. It may well be said that the permit to build it was miraculous in itself, as Lithuanians were sidelined originally but received the right after one other community backed off (having been unable to raise the money). Currently, many American communities have their chapels in the National Shrine, yet most of them have chapels in the basement where they can be only small. Merely a few communities have large main-church chapels like the Lithuanians do.

Graves of the famous Lithuanians in Washington

Washington, DC has never been an industrial city so it failed to attract a larger Lithuanian community. Therefore, save for the largely ceremonial chapel in its National Shrine, it lacks a Lithuanian church. Lithuanian mission with monthly mass operates at Epiphany parish (2712 Dumbarton St., NW) since 1985, however.

Despite this, Washington (its suburbs, to be precise) has no shortage of famous Lithuanian graves.

The Lithuania-related famous soldiers are buried in the Arlington National Cemetery while the civilian cemeteries have many graves of those Lithuanians who fled the Soviet Genocide in the 1940s, were accepted by the USA as refugees and chose Washington as their residence.

In Arlington, the most famous graves are that of Walter Sabalauski (original Lithuanian: Vladislovas Sabaliauskas), who is far more famous in the USA than Lithuania as he spent most of his life there and fought in numerous USA‘s wars. An air assault school was named after him and his regular gravestone is in the book of top Arlington graves.

Walter Sabalauski grave in Washington

Walter Sabalauski grave in Washington

The Arlington grave of Samuel J. Harris, on the other hand, is more famous among Lithuanians. He is the sole non-Lithuanian-American who has died for Lithuania. This happened in 1920 when he was part of the US soldiers dispatch to Lithuania to train its newly-established army, as it fought an uphill struggle at its War of Independence against Poles, Russian imperialists, and Russian communists. Communists were those who shot Samuel Harris in Kaunas. Afterwards, Lithuania built him a pretty Arlington gravestone with both Lithuanian and USA coats of arms and paid his wife a pension. During the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Harris‘s grave served as a site of Lithuanian-American events, presumably aimed at inspiring the USA to help Lithuania once again.

The Lithuanian side of Samuel Harris's grave

The Lithuanian side of Samuel Harris's grave

The American side of Harris's grave

The American side of Harris's grave

Another area for famous Lithuanian graves is the Cedar Hill cemetery beyond the Washington DC limits. There, the famous Lithuanian-American poet Henrikas Radauskas lies, known for his decisively urban poetry. As per the cemetery rules, only his surname could have been inscribed on the gravestone but an overgrown grave plaque has a citation of his poem (translation: „and the blooming of a green leaf you have taken with you“).

Henrikas Radauskas's grave

Henrikas Radauskas's grave

Statesman Kazys Škirpa was another interee at the Cedar Hill (his pretty grave with the Columns of Gediminas is empty now, however, as his remains have been reinterred in Kaunas after independence). Kazys Škirpa was one of the masterminds of the 1941 anti-Soviet June revolt. While the revolt was successful and the Soviets fled, the Škirpa‘s dreams of being able to reestablish a free Lithuania were too far-fetched as Lithuania was swiftly occupied by the Nazi Germany, who effectively put the would-be-prime-minister-of-Lithuania Škirpa at a house arrest in Berlin and, as he continued to demand independence, he ended up a political prisoner in the Nazi Germany. Freed after World War 2 ended, he fled to the USA, where he led the pro-Lithuanian-freedom movement at one time.

Kazys Škirpa's grave

Kazys Škirpa's grave

Škirpa‘s grave is surrounded by other Lithuanian graves, all of them adorned by Lithuanian symbols (such as Vytis and the Iron Wolf). Further up the hill lies the Lithuanian linguist Leonardas Dambriūnas who helped publish the first Lithuanian-language encyclopedia in Boston.

Lithuanian traces in the National Mall

While there is no Lithuanian-American memorial or museum in the Washington‘s famous central National Mall, there are Lithuanian traces.

Among the aviation pioneers described in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum are the Lithuanians Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, who became instant martyrs in Lithuania after their New York-Kaunas flight failed near its destination.

Darius and Girėnas image in the Smithsonian museum

Darius and Girėnas image in the Smithsonian museum

The sculpture garden near the Air and Space Museum has a statue „Figure“ by Lipchitz, a Jewish sculptor from Druskininkai, Lithuania. The Smithsonian Holocaust museum has images of Eišiškės town Jews.

Sculpture by Lipschitz in the National Mall

Sculpture by Lipchitz in the National Mall

You may also search for Lithuanian names on the famous Vietnam war memorial, where all the Americans who died at this war are listed (however, take note that far from every Lithuanian-American had a Lithuanian surname by that time).

A memorial that is more important to Lithuanians is the memorial of 100 million communist victims, which also, by its nature, commemorates over half a million ethnic Lithuanians who perished under the Soviet occupation of Lithuania and Lithuania Minor. Sadly, the memorial is very small and even such a monument took many years to build, this depicting the rather sad situation with the commemoration of communist-genocides victims in the USA, which is often opposed by the world powers such as Russia.

Lithuanian partisan re-enactors at the communism victims memorial

Lithuanian partisan re-enactors at the communism victims memorial

Lithuanian organizations in Washington

Washington, DC and its suburbs house various pro-Baltic umbrella organizations such as The Joint Baltic American National Committee (est. 1961) which unites Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian members. These three nations have been united by history as all three suffered Russian Imperial, German and Soviet occupations.

One organization that is not Lithuanian but is inherently related to Lithuania is the Voice of America, the studios of which may be visited on tours. Created as a radio station to present the information from the free world to the nations behind the Iron Curtain, the Voice of America have been popular in Lithuania as well. Currently, however, there is no longer a Lithuanian-language programming in Voice of America as Lithuania itself now has a free media.

Voice of America building

Voice of America building


The map

All the Lithuanian locations, described in this article, are marked on this interactive map, made by the "Destination - America" expedition (click the link):

Interactive map of Washington (DC) Lithuanian sites


Destination America expedition diary

The US capital of Washington did not have a historic Lithuanian community. After World War 2, however, it attracted numerous Lithuanian intellectuals. The hub of their activity was the Lithuanian embassy, never closed by the USA which never recognized the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. There, in the oldest building of the Lithuanian diplomacy, where beleaguered representatives of a destroyed state spent the Cold War, we have also spent a night.

Washington may lack a Lithuanian club or a church, but its status as the US capital attracted the concerted attention of all US Lithuanians, who created a massive Lithuanian chapel in the US’s biggest Catholic church.

There are also minor Lithuanian-related sights in the famous Smithsonian museums, e.g. the Museum of Aviation has a picture of Darius and Girėnas, among other key pilots.

In the Arlington National Cemetery, we found the graves of Lithuanians who died for the USA and an American who died for Lithuania.

The post-war Lithuanian intellectual refugees were mostly buried in the Cedar Hill, including the poet Henrikas Radauskas and statesman Kazys Škirpa. Their graves were yet another locations on which no online information existed; thanks to Marija Schmidt, a daughter of a WW2 refugee Lithuanian linguist Dambriūnas, we have discovered them and marked on our map.

Augustinas Žemaitis, 2017 09 30.

More info on the Destination America expedition

The leader of Destination America project Augustinas Žemaitis (left) stands with Lyra Puišytė (middle) near the Lithuanian embassy in Washington, DC

The leader of Destination America project Augustinas Žemaitis (left) stands with Lyra Puišytė (middle) near the Lithuanian embassy in Washington, DC

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  1. It is wonderful to see a memorial chapel dedicated to Lithuania and heritage. We are losing our history as we get older and it is good to see that there is something to see, as my granddaughter saw on a recent trip. long live Lithuania!

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