Memoir praises local kindness

FAIRMONT – Janina Nawarskas is proud to be an American, proud in a way that makes her eyes tear and her voice catch as she talks about the struggles she went through prior to coming here, and the struggles she endured as a young immigrant.

Her home has been in Connecticut for many years now, but her deepest roots in this country can be found in the Fairmont area, thanks to a couple who sponsored the trip for she and her father, two homeless refugees seeking safety in a strange new land.

Janina (Kogelis) Nawarskas chronicles her story in her memoir: “A Child Lost: My Life’s Journey from War-Torn Europe to Proud American.” The book will be available in the near future to check out at the Martin County Library in Fairmont, signed by the author with a note of thanks to the residents of Fairmont, “who opened their hearts to two Lithuanian refugees in their search for peace and freedom in America.”

As a young child, Nawarskas enjoyed a comfortable life with her family, spending summers at her parents’ beach house and her grandparents’ farm. Then, the summer of 1944, Russia began to move into the Baltic countries.

“At the very young age of 7 years I had to steal away in the depth of darkness from my grandparents’ farm that was about to be overrun by the enemy,” she wrote.

The Kogelis family, like many Lithuanians, had fled for Germany, hoping to find sanctuary. Instead, when they arrived at the border weeks later, they were stopped by German soldiers. Nawarskas was separated from her father, Leonas, who was sent with the other men to labor camps. She would not see him again for three years.

The women and children were transported to another camp in Dresden, where her mother, Sophia, would die of health complications at age 36. Nawarskas was 8.

When the war ended, families worked to reunite, posting messages on public boards in hopes their loved ones would read them and learn of their location. In 1947, thanks to such a message board, Nawarskas was reunited with her father.

Like other Lithuanian refugees, the pair could not return to their home country, which was still under Russian control, so they contacted the National Welfare Catholic Conference. They were matched up with a sponsor seeking a father and daughter, in the small town of Sherburn, Minnesota.

The required documentation took two years to complete. But finally, on Oct. 25, 1949, they boarded a U.S. Army freighter that would pull into Boston Harbor 10 days later.

They then boarded a train for a four-day ride that took them to Minnesota.

In Sherburn, they met their sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Temple. The couple had provided the fare for the trip and would shelter them for a year, in exchange for farm work.

Life was pleasant with the Temples, and the people of the community went out of their way to make the father and daughter welcome, including several women delivering a gift of nice used clothing.

Nawarskas was enrolled in grammar school and though she was scholastically advanced and could speak several different languages, her English was limited, which made learning difficult. The teacher, Mrs. Dahlke “made an extra effort and volunteered her time to assist me during the school recess period as she encouraged me in the development of my English-speaking abilities and played a major role in my blending into a new culture and community.”

After completing their contract with the Temples, Nawarskas and her father moved to Fairmont. Her father found a job at a bakery, washing baking pans for $5 per day. When he lost his job, there were no welfare programs to assist them, but they did the best they could with what they had, Nawarskas wrote.

Though life was bleak at times, there were moments that helped make the hardships easier to bear. One such moment took place around Christmas. Nawarskas was at a drug store where the local radio announcer was interviewing patrons. He asked her what she wanted for Christmas, and she described as best she could a sweater and skirt she had seen in a store window, though she could not afford them since her father had lost his bakery job.

Several days after the interview, Nawarskas was out with her father, helping him look for a job. She went with him to the cannery to interpret for an interview, and the company agreed to hire him.

“When we arrived back at our basement apartment, we found it full of gifts and Christmas cards with donations from the radio station and the residents of Fairmont who had heard the interview conducted by the radio announced. As I opened one of the gift boxes I shocked my father with my joyous scream as I saw the white sweater and green skirt that I admired days before.”

When Nawarskas finished the year at the school, she and her father left Minnesota to join her brother, who had written to encourage them to join him in Waterbury, Conn. Joining them at the bus station were about 50 Fairmont residents who gathered to say goodbye and send the refugees off with small gifts and some cash, since Nawarskas’ father had spent all their money on bus tickets, she said in the phone interview, recalling a memory that didn’t make the book.

Nawarskas’ story goes on to include her father’s remarriage and her own marriage at the young age of 17. She wrote about her 25-year career with the U.S. Post Office, her children and her grandchildren, and her return visits to Lithuania.

The book is self-published, written over a three-year span while attending a class for memoir writing.

“I’m still here, I’m still here in this wonderful country, and I’m proud to be here,” Nawarskas told the Sentinel. “… In America we have freedom, and I know how important that is.”