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Documents mysteriously lost, then later unexpectedly found again – on display in an exhibition

An exhibition has opened at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania: RETURNED. The Lost International Treaties of the Republic of Lithuania, 1918–1940. This is the first public display of documents, Lithuania’s international treaties with other states, testifying to the international acknowledgement of the Lithuanian state and the continuity of Lithuanian statehood. The exhibition is likewise something akin to detective fiction: facing the threat of danger, the most important international treaties of the Republic of Lithuania were removed from the country, put away for safe-keeping and then searched for for over a decade, until they were unexpectedly found in Canada before being returned to Lithuania in 2021.  
World-wide search launched for these important documents
In 1939, just a few days before the beginning of World War II, the diplomat of the then-independent Lithuania Jonas Vytautas Gylys packed and shipped two cases of documents out of Lithuania’s provisional capital city Kaunas; the cases contained bilateral treaties, agreements, diplomatic letters, conventions, protocols and multipartite international conventions. It is known that they ended up in Stockholm, but the documents’ subsequent journey to Canada is shrouded in mystery.
Diplomat and the exhibition’s scholarly consultant Dr Vytautas Žalys tells us: “Once we regained independence, we were certain that the treaties had ended up in Moscow. But a scholarly article was published in 1997 based on the memories of the former Lithuanian embassy attaché in Stockholm, Vladas Žilinskas; this was the first time we learned that before the war, those treaties had been taken away to Sweden for safe-keeping. This news that the documents had not been taken to Moscow with the onset of occupation aroused great interest among us. However, we were still doubtful – perhaps the Soviets had expropriated those treaties, just like the state’s gold reserves that were also kept in Stockholm. After a long period of enquiries, we learned that the documents had been taken to Toronto, Canada in 1949”.
Back in the Soviet period, Stasys Lozoraitis, the head of the Lithuanian diplomatic service still functioning abroad, tried unsuccessfully to search for the important state documents. Jonas Vytautas Gylys’ steps were traced to Toronto, negotiations took place with the diplomat’s widow, however, when Lozoraitis’ representatives arrived at the home of Vanda Gylienė after her death, the documents were nowhere to be found. “From that moment, we no longer had any idea where else we could look for those documents”, said Žalys.
An unexpected find in the street
Prof. Charles Hopkins, the holder of the UNESCO Chair at Canada’s York University in Toronto, the former neighbour of Gylys’ widow, arrived for the opening of the exhibition and inspected the restored treaties. “One day, once my neighbour had already passed away, I saw some boxes taken out onto the street near her house, they looked like they contained books. As I am a lecturer, and these were books, I couldn’t just leave them there, so I took them inside my own home. You know what, I had no idea I had just saved such important documents. Mrs Vanda (Gylys’ wife) had once mentioned in passing that she was looking after very important documents. When I looked through them, I saw that these papers were really nice, for example, a document written in Japanese had been placed in a box covered in a splendid fabric, I saw that the signatures under the documents were of truly famous figures, such as kings, the heads of major states”, says Hopkins.
Learning that there was a Lithuanian Museum-Archives of Canada in Toronto, one day Charles Hopkins telephoned the centre. The archive’s director Danguolė Breen answered. She recalled that a person had callled claiming to have a collection of documents of great importance to Lithuania: “He said he had interwar Lithuania’s international treaties. A year ago I had seen a list of the lost documents, and I thought – this can’t be true! Two days later I received all the boxes, I opened them, and immediately had to sit down. I thought to myself – wow, what do I have here... Here I am in Canada, yet before me – all of Lithuania’s past”.
Breen contacted the Lithuanian ambassador in Canada Darius Skusevičius, and from that moment the action took off at lightning speed. According to the ambassador, Breen knew the staff at the Lithuanian Museum-Archives of Canada well. “That same day, we took the documents to the embassy. These were several 50-kg boxes filled with interwar Lithuanian Government documentation. The next day, we sent out some of the less important documents via diplomatic post, while I myself flew to Lithuania with the most important international treaties”, ambassador Skusevičius relates the happy end to the story.
A presidential award to the person who returned documents testifying to Lithuania’s identity
On July 6, Statehood Day, president of the Republic of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda awarded Prof. Charles Hopkins, the holder of the UNESCO Chair at Canada’s York University in Toronto, the Officer’s Cross of the Order for Merits to Lithuania for his role in protecting and gratuitously handing over to the Lithuanian Museum-Archives of Canada unique documents relating to the history of diplomacy in Lithuania. “Today I am immensely pleased that the documents are back with their rightful owners, I am overjoyed”, said Hopkins.
Lithuania’s ambassador in Canada Darius Skusevičius states that the returned prewar Lithuanian legal documentation could be compared to the Act of 16 February. “However, in this story we should first of all thank the state of Canada – it never recognised our incorporation into the Soviet Union, which is why independent Lithuania’s consuls could live and work here. Also, Canada has always paid great attention to national communities – it is thanks to this state’s policies that we are today witnesses to the happy ending of a truly dramatic story”, Skusevičius highlights.
The importance of this continuity was further stressed by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania and signatory to the Act of the Independence of Lithuania Dr Laima Andrikienė. She remind us that “The reinstated Republic of Lithuania, which is in its 33rd year, is not a new or young democracy, as we were tried to be called for a number of years after the historic March 11. International treaties witnessing the state of affairs at the time with other countries was the foundation on which we could develop the reinstated Republic of Lithuania’s interstate relations”.
In turn, in the welcome speech of exhibition patron Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis, read at the opening by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Egidijus Meilūnas, it was stated that “Lithuania’s history is a clear sign to the leaders at the Kremlin and all other dictators that it is impossible to force their will upon freedom- and democracy-loving nations and to enslave them. We are certain of our brotherly Ukrainian nation’s total victory against Russia, still fostering its outdated imperialistic illusions”.
The finest and most important Lithuanian international treaties – on display at the exhibition
The exhibition that opened at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania features a total of 29 international treaties, which the Republic of Lithuania had signed with 19 European, Far Eastern, North and South American states in 1920–1938. This is but a fraction of the 105 legal acts testifying to international agreements that were returned to Lithuania, which Lithuania’s diplomats evacuated abroad on the eve of World War II.
The documents are now kept at and were specially restored for display by the Lithuanian Central State Archives. The treaties were returned to Lithuania in a rather poor state, having been kept in unsuitable conditions for a long time, however, thanks to the highly experienced archive conservators, they have been resurrected for a new life, and are displayed in this exhibition, revealing their initial appeal.
Visitors to the exhibition are invited to see unique signs of the establishment of the Lithuanian state – international political, trade, utilitarian and arbitration, consular, extradition (for the transfer of individuals suspected or accused of criminal activity) and legal assistance, administrative, optation (citizenship) and technical treaties of the Republic of Lithuania signed between 1918 and 1940.
According to the exhibition curators, the exposition is supplemented with prewar documentary visual material, as well as a film narrated by Charles Hopkins showing where he found the documents and where he kept them. It is also possible to see the restoration process.
Those interested in legal matters will find numerous unusual things, by today’s standards: in those days, treaties would be written in a foreign language (usually French), however here we have treaties written in English, German, Russian, Portuguese, Latvian and other languages. A translation into Lithuanian would also be attached alongside the official treaty text. These texts illustrate changes in the Lithuanian language over the course of a hundred years as they contain terms no longer in use today, in some cases even the names of states have been translated very liberally and would not comply with contemporary norms.
At this exhibition, visitors to the museum will be able to see the original treaties and autographs of famous Lithuanian and foreign politicians, diplomats and heads of state, such as Pope Pius XI, Emperor of Japan Hirohito, King of the United Kingdom George V, King of Denmark Christian X, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, President of the United States of America Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the Weimar Republic Paul von Hindenburg, and many others. There’ll also be an impressively sized map showing Lithuania’s borders with Russia; visitors will have the opportunity to inspect decorative authorisation and treaty ratifying documents, noting their special, elaborate binding, the colourful threads and intricate state stamps used to authorise the treaties, as well as the initials-only stamps of diplomats who signed the provisional treaties and special protective cases and folders in which the treaties were stored. The exposition is supplemented with photographs from this era that captured the moments of signing, famous political and diplomatic figures, as well as documentary film recordings from the lives of diplomats at the time.
Exhibition curators – Dr Vilma Akmenytė-Ruzgienė, Džiuginta Kasiulaitienė, Dr Živilė Mikailienė. The exposition can be seen at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania Exhibition Centre until September 18, 2022.

Exhibition organisers: National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, Lithuanian Central State Archives, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania


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Published:: 2022-07-07 10:14 Modified: 2023-08-22 10:23
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