I’m sitting in an office face to face with Vytautus Bieliauskas, the psychology department’s distinguished professor emeritus and retired chair, and he’s telling me an incredible story—his own—of escape and survival in pre-war Lithuania. It’s spring of 2002, and we’re talking about a story for Xavier magazine about Xavier’s involvement with two of Lithuania’s former Jesuit high schools that had been forced to shut down during the 50 years of Soviet occupation. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Jesuits began efforts to revive the schools, and Xavier got involved. Luckily, the University had Bieliauskas to help.
During our conversation about the schools, however, I keep coming back to his story, asking for more details about how he had to escape from his home country, from his hometown of Marijampole. He was only 19 in 1940 and had just come home from college. Despite his years, he clearly remembers that the next day, June 15, the Soviet army marched into town, and his parents told him he had to go. His was a Sophie’s Choice—stay home to protect his family and risk deportation to Siberia for articles he’d written critical of Communism, or flee to Rome via Germany and risk getting caught in Hitler’s growing empire. Both were bad choices, and both had profound implications for his future.
Such a choice at such a young age doesn’t present itself to most people. My own 19th year is a blur of uneventful experiences that have receded with my youth. Now I have two sons who have each passed the age of 19, though not by much. The choices in their lives seem so simple, so safe, compared to what the young Bieliauskas faced. For my boys, the choices were about where to go to college (both chose Xavier); whether to join the Air Force or Army ROTC programs; and for my youngest, whether to fight for a medical waiver after being denied admission to the Air Force because of a heart condition that has had no affect on his health and likely never will.
Ultimately, Bieliauskas chose to flee. His trip that August of 1940 included a harrowing dash across the border into Poland with German and Russian soldiers shooting at him and at each other. And he did get caught up in Hitler’s Germany where his visa was stamped “F” for “enemy of the state” because he would not join the German army. He did join the anti-Nazi underground, smuggling contraband in copies of Mein Kampf to Switzerland. Eventually he was jailed for his subversive activities. When the interrogator who was to question him died in an air raid, he was let go but remained under police supervision until the end of the war. He earned his PhD at a German university in 1943 and came to the U.S. in 1949 with a wife and growing family. Arriving at Xavier in 1958, he became a vital member of the psychology department and helped develop the master’s and doctoral programs, even beyond his retirement in 1988.
In choosing to flee, Bieliauskas took a risk that put his future in the hands of others. Though fraught with danger, it was a choice that ultimately allowed him to develop into a professional psychologist and faculty member whose work would benefit numerous students and people with mental illness. He did not know, when he headed for the border that summer, where his journey would lead him, but he was determined, if he survived, to do something valuable with his life. Ultimately, my older son chose the Air Force and is now a pilot serving the effort in Afghanistan—perhaps not the safest route but definitely a valuable one. And my youngest son chose to fight the medical decision that would deny him of his dream. He went through two rounds of appeals and rebuttals, each time seeking new information from his doctors, writing letters, and asking others to write letters on his behalf. It was not a life or death situation, as it was for Bieliauskas, not at all. But it was a choice that would determine what he would be able to do with his life. It was a choice that required a lot of follow-through on his part—especially if he were to succeed.
Today we mourn the passing of Vytautas Bieliauskas, who died on Thursday, April 25, at the age of 92—72 years since leaving his home in Lithuania. But we can enjoy the stories—the profile of him in Xavier magazine in 2010, a story about his workouts on the basketball court, the story about the Jesuit schools in Lithuania. And we can take a lesson from a man who made the best of a difficult choice and turned a second chance into a life well-lived.
We learned on Christmas Eve that the Air Force approved my son’s medical waiver. He was ecstatic. So was his older brother. His decision to fight for the waiver had proven successful, proving to him that some things are worth fighting for. Now as he packs his bags in preparation for the month-long Air Force leadership training program he was chosen to attend in June, he’s realizing that his future is what he makes of it. He made a choice and prevailed, and now it’s up to him, like Bieliauskas, to turn his second chance into a life well-lived.
– France Griggs Sloat