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Why President Smetona's wife smoked Russian cigarettes and refused to talk to Polish ambassador in their native tongue

Lietuvos Respublikos Prezidentas Antanas Smetona ir jo šeima: žmona Sofija Smetonienė, sūnus Julius, dukra Marytė Smetonaitė-Valušienė ir žentas Aloyzas Valušis
Archyvai.lt nuotr. / President Antanas Smetona and his family: wife Sofija Smetonienė, son Julius, daughter Marytė Smetonaitė-Valušienė, and son-in-law Aloyzas Valušis
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Alfonsas Eidintas, historian and Lithuania's former ambassador to the USA, Canada, Mexico, Israel, and Norway, has recently published a second book on Lithuania's inter-war president Antanas Smetona. The book is called "Antanas Smetona and His Environment" and the author has kindly agreed to let 15min.lt share some of its chapters. The following is an extract from a chapter on Smetona's wife, Lithuania's first First Lady, Sofija Smetonienė.

Unlike her reserved husband Antanas Smetona, Sofija was talkative and full of energy, partial to good company, a woman of action and resolution. Chodkauskai, a noble family of Antanas Chodkauskas, Sofia's father, who married his cousin Marijona Chodkauskaitė, lived in Gavenonys estate (Šiauliai region) and used Polish among themselves, speaking Lithuanian to peasants only, yet Sofija had sympathized with the Lithuanian national movement from her early days.

Her father would invite Lithuanian students, recommended by the linguist Jonas Jablonskis, to teach his children. During the summer of 1895, a young student from the University of Saint Petersburg, Antanas Smetona, stayed in Chodkauskas' house, teaching his elder son Romanas Lithuanian. Besides Sofija, the family included her sister Jadvyga, their elder brother Romanas and younger Tadas.

Sofija had a talent for learning languages – she picked up German from her German governess that she later improved even more while living in a German boarding school in Mitau, where she graduated from a gymnasium. Sofia's grandmother on her mother's side was a Curonian German, so even her mother spoke better German than Polish.

Sofija, born on 13 January 1885, was 11 years Smetona's junior – which at the time was considered a rather sharp age difference between spouses – and met him, still a student, in Gavenonys.

Young, pretty, lively and talkative 19-year-old, freshly graduated from Mitau Gymnasium, married 30-year-old bank employee Smetona in 1904 and the two moved to Vilnius. It wasn't long before Sofija joined the local Lithuanian society, exhibiting her fairly good voice in choirs and operettas, playing in amateur theater productions, actively participating in charity work. Speaking fluent German, she assisted as interpreter and mediator during the German occupation in World War One.

The Smetona family soon became the centre of Lithuanian cultural life in Vilnius, their home was frequented by the likes of Antanas' university mate J.Tūbelis, reverend V.Mironas, author Kazys Puida with his wife Ona Pleirytė-Puidienė, L.Gira, Mikas and Kipras Petraukas, painter A.Žmuidzinavičius, sometimes even by M.K.Čiurlionis and Petras Klimas. Sofija was a good expert on all the policies of her husband and participated in their making without the slightest sign of ennui (unlike many politicians' spouses who would and still do invest most of their time into updating their wardrobes).

Sofija Smetonienė was reputed as a steadily pleasant hostess who would always invite new acquaintance for a visit at her home. Priest and author M.Vaitkus wrote after a visit at Smetona's in Kaunas: “I found Mrs Sofija at home. Tall, slim. Elongated and slightly dark face. Eyes vaguely Mogul. Slight swelling and shading under the eyes. In general, features quite distinctive and uncommon. One can see a good race. The lady often holds a lit cigarette in between her right-hand fingers which makes them sallow. The cigarette owner, moreover, often touches it with her lips, savors it more fully, leaving marks on lip corners. She received me very simply, almost amiably. We started conversing about routine facts of life, as if we were old acquaintances. By the way, is Mr Smetona home? Yes, she said. And then the lady showed me where to go.”

Vacationing in Palanga in 1925, Antanas Vireliūnas, a known linguist who was very ill at the time, felt his health deteriorating (liver inflammation), his lips and tongue turning black and face yellow. Prof. Iz.Tamošaitis visited the patient, accompanied by S.Smetonienė. She told Tamošaitis, who seemed out of his depth: Vireliūnas would not last long. Indeed, he passed away on 23 July.

Friends talked his family out of transporting the body to cemetery in Kaunas – it was summertime, long distance. They agreed to bury the departed in Palanga. Coffin had to be bought in Klaipėda and brought to Palanga. But how to transport it, by what means, where to get it? While men were discussing it, S.Smetonienė procured a car. All that remained for A.Smetona, reverend Šniukšta, Iz.Tamošaitis, and Parlamentarian Kvieska to do was to say homage speeches in the funeral, silently thanking S.Smetonienė for solving all the practical problems.

Experienced diplomats from the US and Germany were often delighted by her liveliness, ability to quickly find mutual understanding, find their favor, maintain conversations with foreigners. Harry Carlson, American consul in Kaunas 1924-1926, characterized Sofija in one of his wires thus: “Mrs Smetonienė is a highly educated woman of Polish origin, there are indications that her family belongs to Polish nobility. She is exceptionally charming and can be said to be one of the three most important Lithuanian women at the moment. She takes great interest in her husband's politics, although she shows no open interest in any sort of social work, she has not been observed paying any particular attention to education or charity. She is certainly a delightful conversationalist, although her talks always contain certain sharpness and irony when she discusses people and events. Mrs Smetonienė is an ardent gambler and it is well known that she plays rather large sums.”

And here is what Soviet diplomat Sobolevsky though of S.Smetonienė: “Smetonienė is sensible, always in the loop, shows lively interest in everything, well-informed.”

Sofija Smetonienė was ready to sacrifice any prior engagement for the sake of her dearest friends. She instantly accepted an invitation to a dinner party held by US diplomats in the honor of Frederick Coleman, head of the American mission in the Baltic states, but shortly afterwards remembered that, unfortunately, she and the President had already been invited to the USSR embassy (as Smetonienė herself put it, she was invited by the “Bolscheviken”).

However, came 12 October and Smetonienė arrived to the American dinner party, declaring that she had withdrawn her promises to the soviets because she prefered present company, even though she’d got into trouble with the Foreign Ministry for not accompanying the President to the Soviets' event. She recounted how she’d spent half an hour arguing with Prime Minister Voldemaras. She did not leave the party before 1 AM, when the President's adjutant came to fetch her, as usual.

Smetonienė was exceptionally fond of the company of F.Coleman – who would occasionally come to Kaunas on business – because he'd gladly play cards with her.

On 27 October, American Consul Heingartner became witness of the following scene at the President's palace: the guests who arrived for 5 o'clock tea were greeted by the President, descending down the stairs in seemingly good humor. After Smetonienė arrived, everyone drank coffee and started to play a new game (a game of dice called golf), getting instructions on its finer points from one of the guests. Smetonienė had never seen the game, yet she cracked it instantly – faster than any of the gentlemen in the room – and played it with great zest, inviting everyone for another round the following day. “She is a born gambler,” Consul Heingartner noted in his diary.

Upon Sofija's becoming the First Lady again (1926), diplomats noted, somewhat surprised, that the new status made not the slightest change in her attitudes – she remained just as cheerful, honest, frank and slightly mocking of those she did not like. Smetonienė mostly smoked Russian cigarettes. She complained that since her husband became President, he had been smoking too much. He had much on his mind and was smoking to calm his nerves.

On 9 September 1927, an armed uprising erupted in Tauragė and other towns, mostly instigated by the social democrats, but by the evening it got stamped out, culprits arrested. Quite unpleasant for the Smetona family – and on the eve of their daughter Marytė's wedding...

Even though developments of the uprising aupset the family a great deal, they hardly could cancel all the wedding arrangements.

At 7 PM, 10 September 1927, a smart-dressed crowd of Kaunas society and foreign diplomats congregated in the town's Arch-Cathedral. Marytė Smetonaitė was marrying President's adjutant, captain of the hussars Aloyzas Valušis. The Cathedral was full of people from all sections of society, most of them standing as all seats were taken. Sofija Smetonienė led captain Valušis to the altar, the President with Marytė following behind.

Photographers' flashes and buzzing of movie cameras constantly disturbed the ceremony. Archbishop declared the couple husband and wife and read a letter from the Pope. The newlyweds left through the side door while all the diplomats were shaking hands with the President and his wife. Only one foreign diplomat got invited to the wedding ball – the US vice-consul Ch.Gerrity, a personal friend of the Smetona family. Gerrity later told his consul that 75 people attended the wedding, raising champagne glasses on the arrival of the newlyweds to the Pressident's palace.

Each of the newlyweds received a glass of champagne and the young captain threw the emptied glass to the floor – such was the custom here. High clergy and military officers in full-dress uniforms surrounded the tables. After dinner, the bride danced with every one of the guests. Members of Sofija Smetonienė's bridge group sent the young couple an antique silver plate as a present.

***

Both sisters – Sofija and Jadvyga Chodkauskaitė – were true patriots and would always maintain Lithuanian pride. Sofija Smetonienė was wife of President Antanas Smetona and Jadvyga – spouse to Prime Minister Juozas Tūbelis. Both were famous for their passionate patriotism. Poland's envoy in Kaunas Franciszek Charvat has reported that in his meetings with the Smetonas, the President would talk to him in fluent Polish, while his wife Sofija would not use her native tongue and insist on talking to the Pole in French, a language that she spoke rather poorly.

The Smetonas usually spent their vacations in Palanga – upon arrival, the President's family would be greeted by burgomaster Jonas Šliūpas and other distinctive town citizens, after which the President would go to his summerhouse. The Smetonas spent their holidays swimming, sunbathing, and resting. After 1934 – the year of Smetona's 60th anniversary – the family found a new holiday spot, Užugiris Court near the President's home village.

The Smetona family spent their holidays in Užugiris differently than in Palanga – Smetonienė would take care of the house, the President's sister Julija oversee the fields. Cooking was Sofija's responsibility.

One evening, A.Smetona agreed to visit duke Konstantinas Radvila who was one year Smetona's senior and a widower with three grown-up children.

In his youth, the duke had been renown for his great physical strength, his passion for hunting and a collection of over 70 rifles. His residence, Taujėnai manor, was a splendid building, but upon closer look appeared to be rather neglected. After the land reform (1922), the duke was left with merely 80 ha of his formerly gigantic estate, not quite enough to maintain his wide lifestyle.

As the President's car stopped outside the manor, two uniformed footmen came instantly and the duke, attired in beautiful antique clothes, emerged from an antechamber to greet the guest.

This was a symbolic meeting – after all, Smetona's forefathers once slavishly toiled in the fields of the duke's ancestry. His younger sister Taida Radvilaitė escorted them to a tastefully arranged table. As she spoke no Lithuanian, the party communicated mostly in Polish, even though the duke was fluent in Lithuanian, with a slight regional accent.

Duke Konstantinas was a well-educated man, graduate of Riga Polytechnics with a degree in forestry from a German university. After the meal, Radvila conducted Smetona around the manor, showing rooms furnished with Louis XIV furniture, paintings, vases and sculptures, presents and prizes for excellent shooting. The guests were also shown into a glasshouse filled with tropical plants.

When footmen closed the car door and saluted the out-bound President, the duke remained in his manor and prospectless life, while Smetona returned to his wife in Užugiris Court – this is how the family preferred to call their new property, avoiding the more traditional “Užugiris Manor.”

Next week, what were Smetona's attitudes towards Polish national minority and the Vilnius question and why his adversaries would call him "King of Jews."

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