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Lithuanians In Poland Worry and Hope For Families Across Border

April 19, 1990

PUNSK, Poland (AP) _ Had Josef Stalin’s hand shaken a little, this town might have been in Lithuania.

But the postwar boundary between Poland and the Soviet republic was drawn just to the east of Punsk, and thousands of ethnic Lithuanians are today Polish citizens.

Now this Lithuanian-speaking national minority - by far the majority in Punsk and the surrounding rolling farmland - is on the outside looking in as the independence-seeking republic faces down Moscow.

″They are worried, scared, full of hope ... There is a lot of concern here because of their families. They are praying a lot for them,″ said the Rev. Ignacy Dziermiejko, the bilingual parish priest who wears a little Lithuanian flag pinned to his cassock.

Residents of Punsk put up Lithuanian and Polish flags after watching the March 11 television broadcast when Lithuania’s parliament declared independence from Moscow.

Tensions heightened April 3 when the Soviets, without warning, shut the nearby border crossing between Poland and Lithuania, the republic’s only road into another country.

For the Lithuanians in Poland, the border closing meant no more visits with relatives on the other side, and an abrupt halt to contacts eased less than three years ago when the border was opened.

For four decades, the Communist regimes in Moscow and Warsaw officially ignored the existence of the many ethnic minorities east and west of the border. At times, they repressed the minorities’ efforts to maintain their own cultural, linguistic and religious traditions.

There are 260,000 ethnic Poles living in Lithuania, part of which was Polish territory before World War II.

About 5,000 ethnic Lithuanians make up 80 percent of the population of Punsk, named for the Lithuanian word for a place for hay. Another 5,000 live in the province, and there are an estimated 10,000 more ethnic Lithuanians spread across Poland.

On a recent spring day, the bells at the 109-year-old Roman Catholic church rang out in support of Lithuania as residents drafted a letter to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and spread word of a planned weekend demonstration.

Masses are still said in Lithuanian, and Poland’s only Lithuanian grammar school is here. The Baltic Lithuanian language - completely unrelated to Slavic Polish - is taught at the local high school.

Poles and Lithuanians say they generally mix peacefully in this tranquil rural region. They are less and less willing to be manipulated, as they once were by governments exploiting ethnic differences for political ends.

Poles here express a healthy respect for the way the Lithuanians ″stick together″ to protect their interests.

And the Lithuanians appreciate the relatively better life in Poland, despite the country’s considerable economic problems. For Lithuanians crossing the border, said one, ″Poland is the West.″

Both groups watch the events unfolding in Lithuania warily.

To some in Poland, which last year became the first East bloc country to have a non-Communist government, the tense confrontation brings into question the Soviet government’s resolve toward introducing democratic reforms.

″Nothing has changed. It took three minutes to close the border - one phone call from Moscow,″ said Maciej Surel, a Polish businessman in the nearby heavily Lithuanian town of Sejny.

An exhibit of paintings by Andrzej Strumillo, a well-known Polish artist of Lithuanian heritage, was turned back at the border crossing April 4. The paintings were en route to the Lithuanian city of Kaunas for a long-planned cultural exchange.

″It should be a warning to the United States that the Soviets can break a bilateral agreement,″ said Strumillo, who paints at a renovated farmhouse in Sejny.

Strumillo’s name shares a typically Lithuanian ending with that of the legendary Lithuanian ruler Jagiello.

Jagiello’s 1386 marriage to a Polish princess led to a gradual merger between Poland and Lithuania. But in 1795, when Poland was partitioned, Lithuania came under the control of Czarist Russia.

Poland and Lithuania both returned as independent states after World War I. In 1920, Poland took the heavily Polish city of Vilnius by force to earn the lasting bitterness of Lithuanian patriots.

Under the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Red Army swept through Lithuania and eastern Poland after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.

The post-World War II border placed much of eastern Poland inside the Soviet Union and left Lithuania a Soviet republic.

Under Gorbachev, the Soviets have officially disavowed the Hitler-Stalin pact, but its effects remain.

Some have questioned the Lithuanian drive for independence as a too hasty challenge that could threaten the wider reforms advocated by Gorbachev.

But the Lithuanians of Punsk are ″with their whole hearts behind independence,″ said the village leader, Romas Vitkauskas.

″The Soviet system has passed its time and it can’t work anymore. Change can’t come from one person, Gorbachev, but other places and people must be involved,″ he added.

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