No Man’s Land

By Ed Staskus

   My grandmother was a Russian, a schoolteacher in Saransk, when my grandfather met her before the start of World War One. He was a Lithuanian. The town and the garrison were in the Penza, four hundred miles southeast of Moscow. It was somewhere but in the middle of nowhere. Antanas Staskevicius was an officer in the Russian Imperial Army, not that he wanted to be, but the Muscovite landlords of the Baltics demanded it.

   Saransk later became the capital city of the Republic of Soviet Monrovia, but long before that happened my grandfather had returned to Lithuania. Native soil is always better than the Saransk’s of the world. Home is where the heart is, but not necessarily where the heart is forcibly relocated.

   The town in the Volga Basin was founded as a fort, on the left bank of the Isar River, at the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before the First World War its commercial life revolved around leather, meat, and honey. After the war its factories were closed for more than ten years when there weren’t any available fuels or raw materials. In the meantime, the Kremlin stayed stocked with vodka and caviar.

   “My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there in the Czar’s army with an infantry regiment,” my father, Vytas Staskevicius, said. “It was a hard post for him, because back then they said drinkers go to the navy and dimwits to the infantry.” The Imperial Russian Army had more than a million men, most of them conscripted, and most of them dirt-poor peasants. There were a quarter million Cossacks, too. Only the Cossacks knew what they were doing.

   “He met and courted my mother, Antonina, and they got married. They had my older sister, Eugenia, in 1917. We called her Genute. My sister Gaile was born the next year.” Vytas was born six years later, in 1924, in Siauliai. “My father named me after King Vytautas the Great.” His mother called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the little prince and the rotten prince.

   Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, a hill where there had once been a fortification less than ten miles from the town. It is covered with tens of thousands of crosses, crucifixes, and holy statues. It was after Czarist forces crushed Lithuania’s November Uprising of 1831 when the first of them appeared.

   By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than one hundred years, having been disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time, it had been under the thumb of the Czars. In late 1919, when the Bolshevik Revolution had become a Civil War, Antanas Staskevicius went home to a newly independent Lithuania.

   “Lithuania didn’t have many officers when they formed their own army,” said Vytas. “Most of them were men who had been conscripted into the Imperial Army before the war. My father fought in the post-war battles around Klaipeda and after that he served in the secret service in Kaunas, which had been made the capital.”

   Lithuania declared independence in February 1918 and for almost three years fought Russians, West Russians, and Poles for their land. Finally, they formed their own government, although they lost Vilnius, their historic capital, to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war with no warfare after 1920. “After the post-war fighting with the Poles my father got some land for serving his country, near Siauliai. We lived on a farm.”

   During World War One most of Siauliai was destroyed and the city center was obliterated. Since its founding in the 13thcentury, it had burned down seven times, been struck by plague seven times, and World War Two was the seventh conflict that wrecked the town. It was rebuilt after every catastrophe.

   “We lived there for several years, but then my father became the governor of the Panevezys district and we moved to the city there.” Panevezys, a royal town founded in the early 16th century, is on the plain of the Nevezis River, about fifty miles east of Siauliai. During the years between the world wars Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor. My grandfather was the governor of Panevezys until 1938.

   Vytas went to grade school and high school in Panevezys, but his father was later transferred to Zerasai, a place that was a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai had burned down and been rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Czar Alexander’s son, but after the Great War the name was expunged. There was no love lost between the Baltics and the East Slavs.

   “When my father became the governor of Zerasai, my mother didn’t want to move there, since it was more than seventy-five miles from where we lived, so I stayed with her. But I didn’t get along with the students at the high school there. It was a strict school and everyone had to dress nice. On my first day of classes I was dressed up too nice, like I was going to a wedding, with a tie and everything, and everybody laughed at me. Where are you from, they all said. I didn’t make any friends there.”

   He told everyone, “I’m going to Zerasai.” He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father. “We always studied a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying it was easy for me. But when I got to Zerasai I found out they only had English as a second language, no Russian. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.”

   All during the 1930s the world had been changing fast. In 1940 the Lithuanian world changed even faster. Father and son moved back to Siauliai. “The Soviets came that year. All the high officials were let go and the Russians selected new people who they wanted to run the country. They said they didn’t run the country themselves, we Lithuanians did, but it was the Lithuanian Communists who were in charge, so it was actually the Rus.”

   The family went to their farm, while renting a house in Siauliai, dividing their time between town and country. “It was only a few miles from our farmhouse to town. I used to walk or bicycle to Siauliai. But the mood was bad, very bad. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”

   The Russian annexation of Lithuania was completed by the late summer of 1940. Businesses were nationalized and collectivization of land began. As the Russian presence expanded the family discussed leaving the Baltics.

   “Why don’t we go to Germany?” my grandmother asked.

   “We had a chance to leave the country then and go somewhere else.,” my father explained. “My mother wanted to go. We talked about it often, about going to Germany.”

   But my grandfather didn’t want to leave Lithuania. “I have never done anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I have always been good to people. They aren’t going to put me in jail.” He stopped short of laughing it off.

   In the fall of 1940, a passing troop of Russian infantry commandeered their farm for several days. “They didn’t mistreat us or do anything bad,” my father recalled. “They stunk bad, though. They hadn’t washed in months. They rolled their Bulgarian tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took a week to air out the house.” The tobacco came from the infertile fields of the Rhodope mountains, which were suited to little else other than tobacco.

   The family stayed on their farm through the winter. Then, as the mass arrests and deportations of almost 20,000 Lithuanian policemen and politicians, dissidents, and Catholics began in June 1941, my grandfather was picked up by NKVD plainclothesmen. It was a mild cloudless day.

   “He was gardening in our yard, weeding the cabbages, wearing a shirt, old pants, and slippers when they drove up, a carload of Russians, and stopped, saying there was something wrong with their engine. ‘I’ll help you out,’ my father said. He walked over to their car with them. They shoved him into the back seat and drove him to jail. He never came back.”

   Vytas was in school in Siauliai taking his final exams that morning. “My mother called the school and told me my father had been taken. I ran out of class and went home right away on my bike.” His mother packed clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. She went to see him the next day.

   “The man who was running the jail was a Jewish fellow. He had grown up with us and was a friend of our family, but when my mother asked him to help us he said the old days were over.” There was a new boss in town. There was a new order.

   “He was a Communist and had been in and out of jail because of his political activities. He was always in trouble. My father usually let him go after a few days, telling him to not get involved in politics anymore. ‘Just be a nice boy,’ he would tell him, but then the next thing we knew he was in jail again. He wouldn’t help my father when he was arrested. ‘Everything is different now,’ he said. Times had changed. Everybody was looking out for themselves, only themselves.”

   The man who had once commanded the local police stayed in stir. “They didn’t let my mother talk to my father. We went to the jail several times, but they never let us see him. We didn’t ever see him again.”

   Antanas Staskevicius was taken to Naujoji Vilnia and loaded onto a boxcar. The train left Lithuania on June 19, 1941. Four days later, between June 23 and 27, at the Battle of Raseiniai, the 4th Panzer Group, part of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, effected the almost complete destruction of Russian armored forces in Lithuania. Within a week Nazi Germany seized all of Lithuania.

   My grandfather was transported to Russia’s far east to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He was put to work logging in the thick forests and starved to death in the winter of 1942. Anton Chekhov, a noted Russian short story writer, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia. My grandfather was never able to catch the tour bus there.

   “The morning after my father was arrested, I drove our horse and wagon to school to finish my exams. I had to deliver milk to my teacher’s family, too. But when I stopped at his house, he ran out with his family and said, ‘Help take us to the railroad station.’ I said OK and they all got into my wagon, his wife and he and their two children. I took them to the station. After that I never saw them or ever found out what happened to them. The next day one of our neighbors told me the Russians had gone to the teacher’s house that same afternoon looking for him. Teachers, lawyers, anybody from an educated family, they were worried about all of them. They were afraid high-class people were against them.”

   When NKVD men began mass arrests of Lithuanians, officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting by Lithuanians among themselves. It was every man for himself, unless you were a Red. “If you were a Communist then you were all right. The father of one of my friends was a metal worker. He didn’t even know how to read, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a Communist.”

   Antonina, Genute, and Vytas stayed on the farm after Antanas’s arrests arrest. Gaile was living in Vilnius. When the mass arrests intensified, they became alarmed. “We were determined about leaving the farm. It was dangerous everywhere. We went into the forest. But then my mother told me to go to Vilnius and tell Gaile our father had been arrested. She wanted her to know to be careful. I took a train to Vilnius, but as soon as I got there, I got a phone call saying my mother had been arrested. When I got back to Siauliai, I found out she was being deported. Somebody probably complained and informed on her. We had land, 160 acres, so we were considered capitalists. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. There was no real reason that I ever found out about for why they took her. I went to the train station but didn’t see her anywhere. She was sent to a prison camp.”

   His mother was released from the Gulag in 1956, after Stalin’s death, but not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai. The Communists didn’t want her stirring up trouble, even though they were stirring the pot. “My God, you’ve gotten older,” was the first thing Antonina said when she saw her son again in 1979, come from the United States to behind the Iron Curtain. It was thirty-eight years after she had been transported.

   After his mother’s arrest and exile my father, not yet 17-years-old, left Siauliai and moved to Vilnius, staying with his sister Gaile and her husband. At the time almost everyone living in Vilnius was either Polish or Jewish. Lithuanians in the former capital city of Vilnius were relative strangers in their own land.

   “The day the Russians left and before the Germans came, everybody rushed to the food warehouses and broke into them. It wasn’t that we were robbing them, but everybody was doing it, since there was no food. Gaile and I went, too. We filled up our bags with bread and pork, all kinds of food, and took as much as we could home. When the Germans arrived, they put a stop to it.”

   He stayed in Vilnius for several months, but then decided to go home before the end of summer. The family farm had to be cared for, but, first, he had to get a travel permit. “I couldn’t get in to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to someone who had known my father and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any for the time being and to come back, but after we talked about my father a little more, he said all right, and wrote one out for me.”

   He took a train back to Siauliai and walked to the farm, but when he got there, he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the  homestead. “They were there about two weeks, more than seventy of them. I couldn’t even get into our house since the officers had taken it over. Those Germans were good men. They didn’t do our farm any harm. They had their own quarters and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank wine together at night.”

   His father’s business practice had been to have a foreman run the farm. The foreman hired three men and three women every spring. Although the farm had chickens and pigs, and draft horses to do the heavy work, it was mostly a dairy farm with more than twenty cows.

   “It was a model farm,” said Vytas. “Every summer students from the agricultural academy would tour our farm. When I came back, my sister Genute was there, but she wasn’t interested, so she didn’t do any work. I started taking care of things, even though I didn’t know much, which was almost nothing. I knew the cows had to be milked and the milk had to go to the dairy. But about growing crops, and the fields, I didn’t know anything. But I did everything as though I knew what I was doing.”

   That fall he sent his hired hands out to till the ground in a nearby field. When his nearest neighbor saw them working, he ran across the road towards them, waving his arms.

   “What in the hell are you doing?” he yelled.

   “I told him we were preparing the ground for next year. He said, ‘You’re ruining this year’s seed and you won’t have any grass next year.’ We stopped right away. I learned what to do.”

   A year later he was on a horse-drawn mower cutting hay when he saw storm clouds gathering. He thought he would be better served walking the horses, so they could pull the mower faster, and jumped down from his seat. “As I hopped down, I stumbled and fell on the blades of the mower. The horses stopped right away. My hand was almost cut off. The boy who was helping me ran over. When he saw what happened, he passed out.”

   While the war dragged on across Europe, he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his injured hand and farmhands everywhere were deserting the land. “I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew the Germans used to give Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and sang at night. One morning after a month I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were all gone. I had to go back and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer shouted that I hadn’t looked after them, shouted that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouted that they weren’t going to give me anymore. In the end I said, I need five more, so they gave me five more. I kept them locked up after that and they were still there when the Russians returned.”

   In 1944 the Red Army stormed back into Lithuania. My father escaped with a mechanized company of Germans, whisked up by them in their vehicles as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. They told him he had five minutes to decide whether or not he was coming with them as they retreated.

   “They told me the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses. They were in a big hurry. I only had time to fill a bag with a few clothes, a little money, and photographs of my parents.”

   His sister Genute, not at the farm that day, fled separately. She got across the border into East Prussia, and later into Germany. His other sister, Gaile, wasn’t able to escape Lithuania in time. “She had a problem at the border and didn’t make it. The Russians had taken that area, so Gaile was forced to stop in a little town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her.” In the end the three of them were compelled to remain where they were.

   “She stayed there after the war and finished a trade school, became a nurse, and never told anyone where she was from. The Communists never found out anything about her. If they had, it would have been the end of her.”

   In July the Red Army captured Panevezys. Later that month they took Siauliai, inflicting heavy damage on the city. Black smoke filled the sky. Two months later the counterattacking German 3rd Panzer Army was destroyed and for the next nearly fifty years Lithuania became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

   “I was glad to get out of Siauliai in 1944,” my father said. He fled to the German border and landed in Hamburg. “There was no future in Lithuania anymore. I was very glad to get out in time.”

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street and Made in Cleveland To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


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