Today on New American Voices – another installment in our occasional series of profiles of the people from various countries and of various backgrounds who work as journalists and broadcasters at the Voice of America. We introduce you to Kestutis Ciziunas, an editor on the European desk in VOA’s newsroom.
Kestutis Ciziunas, known to his colleagues as Kes, began his life as a Displaced Person, or DP. That’s what the United Nations called the millions of people who fled their native countries toward the end of World War Two in advance of occupying Soviet forces. His parents escaped from Lithuania in July of 1944. Kestutis was born in Germany that September. Soon afterward the family found itself in a Displaced Persons’ camp.
“After the war, people who did not want to or could not go back to their homelands because of fear of the Soviets or Soviet occupation were placed in camps for Displaced Persons. Usually the camp was for members of a single community, or two communities, and you spoke the native language, they had their own schools, their own choirs, their own churches and things like that there. My parents were teachers there, in the camp school. I remember running around with children, running in the playground, that’s my main memory.”
Kestutis Ciziunas was four years old when his family managed to come to the United States, sponsored by distant relatives. Like most post-World War II immigrants, his parents had to take whatever jobs they could find to make a living in the new land.
“My father got various factory jobs, though he was an educated person. He continued writing articles and books for the Lithuanian community, but that was in his spare time. He worked in bakeries, he worked in a plant where they were dyeing material for clothes. Okay. He was completely frustrated, but he put his wife -– who happened to be 20 years younger than he was -– but he put her through college, he put her through several degrees, and she became a professor of nursing, and he put me through college, too. Then he retired.”
In college Mr. Ciziunas studied East European and Russian history. He received a Master’s degree and completed coursework toward a doctorate, aiming to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a professor. But marriage and imminent fatherhood caused him to change his plans – and his profession.
“At the time you couldn’t get a job, essentially, … there was very little interest in teachers at the time, so I went into journalism. I got a job with a local newspaper in northern New Jersey, that was a weekly newspaper, then I got a job with a daily newspaper, and through the daily newspaper I got a job with VOA, with the Lithuanian Service.”
Throughout his growing-up years, Mr. Ciziunas – like the children of many immigrants who were forced to leave their native country – kept in close touch with his ethnic community.
“First of all, my first language was Lithuanian. We always spoke Lithuanian in the family. Then we moved to a city where there was a Lithuanian church, and we went to church in Lithuanian, we had our own little Saturday school where we studied how to read and write in Lithuanian, we had our own clubs and we had our own dance groups. And then you went to summer camps, all run in Lithuanian. Later I met my wife at a college summer camp.”
This grounding in Lithuanian, as well as his journalistic experience, served Kestutis Ciziunas well in his job with the Lithuanian Service of the Voice of America, which he joined in 1973. He served as a reporter, writer, interviewer, and radio broadcaster to Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the dark days of the Cold War. He says the experience was challenging and rewarding, but after six years, he decided to expand his professional horizons.
“Basically, let’s be realistic, I "plateaued out". The gentlemen who had been in the service for 30 years, they were not retiring, and I would like to get a better salary – to be honest with you, that was the reason - and you look for more opportunities all the time. So I went into the newsroom, I could write news because I had the experience in the daily newspapers, and I made use of that, and then I got myself promoted into the East Europe editor at the time and everything in Eastern Europe started falling apart, and I had the background to run and to understand what was going on.”
The late 1980s and the early 1990s were an exciting time for the editor of the East European and USSR desk in the VOA newsroom. Kes Ciziunas says the daily stream of news chronicled the downfall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet empire, and then the tentative, often traumatic and sometimes violent steps the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union took toward democracy, capitalism and a civil society. For Mr. Ciziunas, VOA’s role at the time was crucial.
“That I could broadcast the truth to the people of Eastern Europe. What I believe to be the truth, not propaganda, not anything that was government restricted. Whether it was good or bad, we told them what was going on, what was happening. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they didn’t, what can you say. But we told them the truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Kestutis Ciziunas continues to write and edit news from Europe for use by all of VOA’s broadcast services. And in this way he continues to maintain ties with a part of the world that, he says, will always have a special resonance for him – both professionally and personally.
English Feature #7-37956 Broadcast October 20, 2003