Consul shares Lithuanian heritage with fellow Alaskans
Svaja Vansauskas Worthington was just 18 months old when her family fled Lithuania to escape the devastation caused by World War II. Between the forced evacuation of the Jewish quarter in the Vilnius ghetto, and the change from a pre-war Russian-occupied Lithuania to a wartime German occupation and then a re-occupation by the Russians again, Lithuania’s future looked grim. Her family moved to the displaced persons camp in the American quarter in Berlin, Germany, and her father worked several years to relocate his family to the United States.
But Worthington, now a longtime resident of Chugiak, said her Baltic heritage was never lost. She grew up in Chicago’s Lithuanian community, learning traditional folk songs, dances, art, cooking and the Lithuanian language, even as she learned English at public school.
In 2013, when she was named the Honorary Consul from the State of Alaska to the Republic of Lithuania, Worthington’s journey from being a displaced person and an immigrant, to a naturalized citizen and active part of the local community, came full circle.
“It came to me purely by accident,” Worthington said. “It was not anything I was looking for.”
Her son, Gajus Worthington, made the connection for her. He’d made a business acquaintance of Simonas Satumas, then an attaché with the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D.C. In fall 2012, Satumas attended a transportation conference in Anchorage, met Svaja and asked her to become an honorary consul.
“He was a very nice young diplomat,” Worthington said. “We had a quick small reception for him. He emailed me and asked if I would like to apply for the position of honorary consul.”
Worthington applied in October 2012. When she travelled to Lithuania in Feb. 2013, she was invited to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vilnius, the capital city, where she was presented with a certificate naming her Honorary Consul from the State of Alaska.
“It was such a beautiful certificate and it was very moving to me that it was presented to me in Lithuania,” Worthington said.
For the past 40 years, she and her husband, Robert Worthington, have called Alaska home, raising four children together. The couple first came to Alaska in the late 1960’s, when Robert took a ranger position in the Denali National Park and Preserve for a summer.
“We lived in a cabin,” she said. “Mount McKinley was right around the corner. Wolves howled behind our cabin.”
Eight years later, the couple returned with their four children. Robert worked as a lab technician at Providence Alaska Medical Center, and Svaja worked as a stay-at-home mom before teaching English literature and linguistics at three local universities.
Today, she teaches one English class in the fall semester at University of Alaska Anchorage’s Chugiak-Eagle River campus.
“I’m retired now,” she said. “So that is all I have time for teaching one class.”
As Alaska’s consul to Lithuania, she attends local events to teach others about Lithuanian culture.
“Of course, everyone knows about the basketball players,” she said.
It makes for an easy icebreaker to transition conversations into the long history of warriors and kings associated with the small nation that once ruled much of Europe, or the picturesque beauty that draws a significant tourist trade.
“It is a very friendly place to visit,” Worthington said. “Tourism is really growing there, and in the summer the streets are filled with people. It is quite a nice destination and not very expensive once you get there. It is very modern and all of the young people speak English.”
She’s considering leading a tour to Lithuania for Alaskans, but her most pressing business is supporting visits from Lithuanians to Alaska.
In June, she will support the visit of Žygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian ambassador to the United States and Mexico. He is scheduled to address the Alaska World Affairs Council, and meet with state officials regarding oil and gas trade between Alaska and Lithuania.
Worthington said the Lithuanian government is highly interested in lessening its dependency on Russian oil.
Centuries of occupation by the “Russian bear” has not been forgotten, she said, despite the fact that Lithuania gained sovereignty in 1990 after Lithuanians filled the streets in Vilnius and Kaunas demanding freedom.
“I can tell you that Lithuania would like nothing better than to have good relations with Russia,” Worthington said. “However, with the problems Ukraine now experiences with Russia, the sense of security of the people of Lithuania has definitely been affected and they are very nervous. They know the cost of a provoked Russia.”
More recently, Worthington completed the Alaskan tour of Edvinas Minkstimas, a rising star in the world of classical piano, who was born in Lithuania but now lives out of Washington, D.C., where he works as a Steinway Artist.
Worthington said her work as consul is a continuation of her lifelong efforts at sharing her Lithuanian culture and heritage.
“Lithuania has been a big part of my life always,” Worthington said. “I always have been aware of it. It was my first language. Before I became consul, I taught my children and grandchildren the culture of Lithuania.”