By Holly Dillemuth
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's grandmother moved her and her children to St. Louis from her hometown of Jurbarkas, Lithuania, to make a better life for her family in 1911.
"I know from one piece of evidence that they were looking for more freedom," he told Illinois Times in a phone interview Jan. 18.
The only remnant of her journey sits in Durbin's Washington, D.C., office - a Catholic prayer book in Lithuanian, which his grandmother had hidden inside her baggage. The book, which dates to 1863, Durbin says, was considered illegal in those days because Lithuania had prohibited any prayer books written in the native language. With his grandmother's prayer book in hand, he and a U.S. aide traveled Jan. 13 to Vilnius, Lithuania, for the 20th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" and a one-day visit to Minsk, Belarus.
The day commemorated the memory of 13 killed in a 1990 Soviet attack on TV Tower in Vilnius.
"Because of the heroic sacrifices of the victims of Jan. 13 and those who stood with them, because of the courage of President Landsbergis and other brave Lithuanian patriots famous and unknown, no one in this nation lives in fear of the tyranny that once punished Lithuanians who only wanted the freedom of their faith, the freedom to speak and the freedom to vote," he said in an address to the Seimas, otherwise known as the Lithuanian Parliament. "Today, we can proclaim fearlessly and proudly: 'Laisva lietuva,' which means in English, 'free Lithuania.' Now and always."
Lithuania was recognized as an independent nation in 1991 and was the first former Soviet republic to win independence.
Durbin, who says he "only knows a handful" of Lithuanian, has visited the nation six or seven times, he says. He first stepped onto Lithuanian soil in 1979, and traveled with a congressional delegation to watch historic Lithuanian elections in early 1990.
Durbin says he saw how the Russians had imposed their language and their culture on Lithuania.
"But to see Lithuania today is encouraging. It is a beautiful country and Vilnius is a beautiful city. It is one of the real secret gems of Europe."
During his two-day visit to Vilnius, Durbin met with deputy speaker of the Lithuanian Parliament Irena Degutiene, President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite, Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, as well as former Lithuanian presidents Valdas Adamkus and Vytautas Landsbergis.
Durbin also met with Belarusian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergei Martynov and the families of imprisoned election candidates who were jailed by Belarusian President Alekandr Lukashenko for opposing the ruler many describe as the last true dictator in power.
"We have to let Lukashenko know that this type of conduct is totally unacceptable," Durbin says. He said he will contact Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week about Lukashenko's conduct.
The assistant majority leader in the U.S. Senate, Durbin is also widely known as the highest ranking Lithuanian-American in U.S. government. But he is the first to remind you that he's "not Lithuania's senator" in the nation's capital, he's "the senator from Illinois," he says.
Even so, Durbin likes to keep his roots in plain sight.
On the wall behind his desk in Washington, D.C., you'll find a framed certificate of naturalization for his mother, Ona Kutkaite, which he says he keeps "as a reminder that this son of a naturalized American citizen is now the United States senator of this great state," Durbin said.