In 2014 we commemorate the 140th anniversary of President Antanas Smetona’s birth and 70 years from his death. This exhibition presents a short, however the most dramatic episode in the President’s life – the forced retreat from Lithuania and the last years (1940–1944) spent in exile.
The President departed to Germany in the middle of June of 1940, when the troops of the Soviets were marching into Kaunas. While leaving the Presidential Palace he said: “I don’t want to sovietise Lithuania with my own hands”. Antanas Smetona was hoping to do more good for the country by leading the government formed in exile than becoming a puppet president in the hands of the Soviets. At that time many people regarded this move as high treason. The efforts of masters of the Soviet propaganda were not in vain: the caricature of the President with rolled up trousers crossing the Liepona River is deeply rooted in our historical memory. However, according to Envoy in London Bronius Balutis, President Antanas Smetona had to be congratulated on successful escape from the red butchers at the last moment. In his letter of May, 1941, diplomat Balutis wrote to the President: “At that time some people thought that you need not have done that and should have stayed in your country. They had no idea who we are dealing with. The fate of Estonian and Latvian Presidents has shown that your premonition was right and more successful both personally and politically.” Today most Lithuanian historians also state that the President’s retreat was a courageous and timely decision.
This exhibition gives details about the dramatic circumstances under which the President and his family members departed from Lithuania, their wanderings in European countries and reaching the New York port. The photographs and press clippings of the time portray the active and diverse public and political activity of the President in America: attending Lithuanian communities, giving lectures, meeting high-ranking US state representatives, giving public speeches on the annexation of Lithuania. When obtaining the US visa, Antanas Smetona promised to lead a life of a private person, however to his death he was titled as “His Excellency the President of the Republic of Lithuania” or “Exiled President of Lithuanian Republic”.
Despite public respect, there was also a darker side of the President’s life in America: a part of Lithuanians in the USA accused Antanas Smetona of dictate, escape from Lithuania and non-resistance to the Soviets and did not want him to participate in political activity. Active President’s work was also hindered by the US Government for which the President of Lithuania in exile became an obstacle when the USA became an ally with the USSR during the World War II. All plans of Antanas Smetona were discontinued by his death during the fire on January 9, 1944. The mysterious circumstances of this fire still cause various rumours. Since only the President died during the fire incident and no one else from the house was hurt, it was suspected that this might have been done by NKVD.
The exhibited photographs and publications of the time are complemented by a film “Antanas Smetona” created in 1981 in the USA. The right to demonstrate these documentary shots in the exhibition was granted by the Lithuanian Central State Archives. Visitors will be introduced to the fates of members of Antanas Smetona’s family and photographs from a personal album shared by the President’s grandson Vytautas Julius Smetona and his daughter Ann Marie Smetona who both live in the USA.