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A little bit of Lithuania: The small museum, honorary consulate in Chugiak

Updated: Jun. 22, 2021 at 11:03 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - On a hillside in Chugiak stands a bright yellow house with a yellow, green and red flag waving in the wind. The small structure serves two purposes, one as a museum and the other as the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Lithuania.

“I thought this would be the best way to represent Lithuania,” said Svaja Vansauskas Worthington, an honorary consul.

It’s open for anyone who’d like to visit, or perhaps learn about the eastern European nation. Inside, people will find traditional clothing, books, trinkets and family heirlooms. Some from Vansauskas Worthington herself, while others have been gifted by fellow Lithuanians.

This undertaking, and honorary post, is a labor of love for her, but it’s not one she had planned.

“It was completely unexpected,” she said.

A dinner that her son, who lives in California, had with a Lithuanian diplomat turned into Vansauskas Worthington playing tour guide for the envoy when he later visited Alaska. That visit would then lead to an opportunity,

“He contacted me and said, ‘how would you like to be honorary consul for Lithuania in Alaska?’,” Vansauskas Worthington said smiling, who noted her beaming pride and excitement stem from her upbringing.

Vansauskas Worthington was born in Lithuania, but the nation’s complicated past forced her family to flee when she was young.

“I was born in 1942, and in 1944, we have to leave Lithuania because the Soviet troops were advancing and my grandparents and an aunt had already been arrested and sent to the Gulag,” said Svaja.

Almost 50 years passed before she returned to the land of her birth. That trip occurred in 1999, nine years after the nation regained its independence from Soviet Union rule.

“I wanted to go to Lithuania earlier but Soviet laws were very tricky,” Vansauskas Worthington said. “And I thought if I went there I don’t want to get into the hands of the Russians so having Lithuania being free just meant everything.”

Vansauskas Worthington said most consulates are run by business-minded representatives who look to promote commerce between Lithuania and the rest of the world, but she is merely a retired academic, so she sees the job as a way to educate people about the nation.

“There’s something magical about Lithuania,” Vansauskas Worthington said. “Those of us of Lithuanian descent grow up thinking it’s kind of almost a mythic place.”

When visitors make their way through the small museum, people will notice items such as traditional clothing, old photographs and paintings. However, hanging on the wall, one item stands out above the rest — a bright, tie-dyed T-shirt with a skeleton dunking a basketball.

Without context, the item appears out of place, but that tee was worn by the 1992 Lithuanian Men’s Basketball team as a warm-up jersey in the nation’s first Olympic competition after regaining independence.

“Oh yes, yes, you probably know that basketball in Lithuania is called a second religion,” Vansauskas Worthington said with a smile.

According to a Lithuanian basketball team documentary, “The Other Dream Team”, the Olympic tee was funded by the Grateful Dead. Before the 1992 Summer Olympics kicked off, a local newspaper shared the Lithuanian basketball team’s plight, which somehow got into the hands of the band. Members of the band decided to sponsor the squad for the tournament. Lithuania would go on to secure a bronze medal in Barcelona that summer.

Given the geopolitical implications of the time, Vansaukas Worthington and many others considered it a major feat in the nation’s history.

“Absolutely, the basketball players are heroes,” she said.

The tie-dyed shirt is a single example of what can be found in a museum that is operated by Vansaukas Worthington, who showcases those items as an expression of love for her heritage and home country.

“I did this because I wanted to, but I also think it’s a good way to represent Lithuania and the richness of its culture and its history,” she said.

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