By Ed Staskus
When my mother Angele Jurgelaityte was born in January 1928, it snowed until it got too cold to snow anymore. By the end of the month the thermometer rose to ten degrees below zero. When it warmed up the first week of February and the snow melted, a half-foot of slush was left behind. The next week there was heavy rain and her father’s fields were left under water. If it froze there would be acres of ice rink.
“I was born in an area we called the New Farm, in Suvalkija,” said Angele.
Suvalkija is the smallest of the five regions of Lithuania. It is girdled by the Nemunas River to the north. The region’s identity was molded in the 19th century when it was a part of Congress Poland. Suvalkija was an agricultural area, generating substantial sugar beet harvests. Sugar beet yield in Lithuania was almost half what it was in the United States, even though the country is 151 times smaller than the United States.
“My father’s name was Jonas Jurgelaitis. My mother’s name was Julija. We lived on a small farm. It was three miles from Marijampole.”
Marijampole is in the far south of Lithuania, bordering Poland and Kaliningrad. Lake Vistytis is nearby. The town was a center of book spreaders and freedom fighters in the long struggle leading to the country’s independence in 1918.
Their farm was thirty-seven acres. The nearest neighbors were out of sight, even though they were hard by. Woodlands of Scots Pine and Norway Spruce and copses of Birch were scattered along the periphery of their land. Her father kept a pair of horses, three to four cows, chickens, and a sounder of swine. Every week he loaded 10-gallon 90-pound milk cans into his wagon and took them to a local dairy. Their croplands were mainly devoted to sugar beets, a cash crop, harvested in early autumn.
Suvalkija has less forest than any other part of Lithuania. It has been brought to bear for tillage. Kazlu Ruda, a large forest, nearly 230 square miles of it, is in Suvalkija, but it is on sandy soil that doesn’t work for farming.
Rye, wheat, and barley have been cultivated in Lithuania for two thousand years. Potatoes got rolling three hundred years ago. The country has always been able to sustain itself with foodstuffs. After gaining home rule from the Russians, land reforms in 1922 turned over ground suitable for the plow to tens of thousands of new landowners. Two years later the Academy of Agriculture was established to oversee land exploitation and management.
“My mother was tall and thin and pretty. She looked like a Romanian, even though she was born near where we lived. I didn’t look like her, at all. I looked like my father.”
Her mother gave birth to eleven children in less than twenty years. Six of them survived infancy. Those that did survived World War Two, the forty-six-year subsequent Soviet occupation, and lived to see Lithuania regain its freedom.
Justinas was the oldest boy, born in 1919. “Justinas would invite his friends, and girls, to our house in the summer for dancing, before he joined the army.” Irena and the boys Sigitas and Jozukas were the youngest. Jozukas, the tenderfoot of the family, was two years old in 1938.
Julija started suffering chest pains that year, losing her appetite and losing weight. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a major killer in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost ninety years later tuberculosis is still prominent in Lithuania, one of the most highly TB-burdened countries in the world, falling behind most nearby countries in the prevalence of the disease.
“She went to the sanitorium in Kaunas the next year and got better.”
When family responsibilities and the family’s finances called her back, she got worse. Angele helped with the housework and cooking. She kept up her schoolwork, kept up her chores, and with her two older brothers nursed their mother.
“Irena and I went to school in Gizai, which was less than a mile from our house. In the winter, when it was snowy, my father hitched one of the horses to a sled and took us there. I went for six years.”
The family farm was five miles from Marijampole. It was forty miles southwest from Kaunas, the country’s second largest city. Vilnius, the capital, home to nearly a half million, was eighty miles away. It might as well have been a million miles away.
“We all had to work on the farm, but my father did everything. We had to work, since we were poor.” There were no hired men or seasonal laborers. “I mixed feed for the pigs and fed them. We earned our money by growing sugar beets. Irena and I helped, but Sigitas and Jozukas were too small. We pulled them out of the ground in the fall and used a big knife to cut the leaves away. We threw them in a cart and when we had enough to fill our wagon, my father hitched the two horses and took the beets to Marijampole.”
The family home was a frame house, clapboard siding painted green, two stories, although the second story was only an attic for storage and for smoking pork.
“We had another small house, a small barn where we kept wood for the fireplace.” They sawed their own cordwood. “On the second floor, up a ladder, there was hay for the animals and rye and barley for bread. Justinas and Bronius slept in a room beneath the loft.”
A brick-lined jumper duct fed heat from the farmhouse fireplace to the barn. Still and all, in the winter the young men gathered their blankets up and warmed them before going to bed. In deep winter the nights are 17 hours long.
Lithuania is a flat fertile country overlooking the Baltic Sea. The summers are mild, and the days are long, but the winters are cold and dark. Temperatures often drop well below freezing. The ground is ice and snow-covered from December to mid-March.
“We had a dog, in a house next to the barn, whose name was Sargis.” Saugotis means beware, watch out. “He was our guard dog, always tied up, who barked whenever a stranger came near. We had cats, too, who killed the mice and rats who ate our grain. We never let them into the house, though, they were only for outside.”
Barn cats lead a rough life, hunting vermin in outbuildings and fields. They sleep where they can, stay warm if they can. Living feral, they don’t live long.
The family knew everyone in their neck of the woods. Everyone was wary of strangers. Although they had no immediate neighbors, her mother’s father, a tailor, lived nearby, and her father’s mother also lived within walking distance.
“Whenever my mother made potato pancakes, she would sometimes give me a platter of them, and I took them to grandma’s house.” Her grandmother lived on the other side of the woods, with one of her father’s older sisters.
The family fed itself.
“We made our own bread and butter, made cheese, gathered eggs, and collected berries.” There were patches of wild blueberries at the edges of their fields. Although they didn’t have a cellar, they still canned pickles and beets. “We grew our own pigs and my father killed them.”
When the time came, Jonas selected a pig for slaughter, marched it to a clearing beside the barn, hit the animal between the eyes hard with a club hammer, and cut its throat. With the help of his two eldest sons he cleaned and skinned the pig with a sharp knife, keeping a knife sharpener at hand.
“We never sold our pigs to anyone. We ate all of them.”
Once the skin was separated from the muscle and fat, they cleaned out the guts and sawed the pig’s head off. After quartering the animal, Jonas found the hip joints and slid his knife into them, cutting off the two hams. He did the same thing when cutting the shoulders of the pig off. At the center, where the ribs are, he took whatever meat he could find.
They made sausages, bacon, and cured slabs of pork with salt and pepper. Jonas had built a closet around the chimney on the second floor of the house, which could be gotten to by ladder. There were no stairs. He smoked the pork in the closet, laying the meat on grates, opening a damper to vent smoke into the closet.
“I was scared of the upstairs, although the meat was delicious. When we ran out of food, we killed another pig.”
After her mother got sick, from the time she was ten years old, Angele cooked for the family. “My oldest brother Justinas helped me until he went into the army, and then Bronius helped.” She cooked up pork logs, made soup, and served bread and butter every day.
After Justinas apprenticed to a tailor, and learned the trade, he joined the army. Everyone knew a war was coming. “He became a cavalryman and was stationed near Marijampole. He rode home a few times, on his horse, in his uniform. He was so handsome.” He had just turned twenty-one.
When the Red Army invaded the Baltic states in June 1940, their troops numbering some fifty divisions, supported by tanks, they swept the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian forces aside in a matter of days. Justinas spent the rest of the war sewing and mending, first under the thumb of the Russians, then the Germans, and then the Russians again.
A woman whose husband had died, who had no children and who lived on a nearby farm, helped Angele learn to bake bread in their brick-lined oven. They made five and six loaves at a time, working up to ten pounds of dough at a time, baking the free-standing loaves loosely arranged in front of a smoldering pile of coals that had been burning for several hours, pushed to the back of the oven. They added wood as they needed it, shifting the fire from side to side.
“We always had bread. We never had tea or coffee, just water. When we could, we collected herbs, and had herbal tea.”
The house did not have electricity or running water or indoor plumbing. They had oil lamps and an outhouse and a well. There was a sink in the kitchen. “The well had a pulley and a bucket until we finally got a hand crank.”
In January 1940 a bitter cold wave enveloped Lithuania, driving temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The next month it dove to 54 degrees below zero, the coldest in 160 years. The Baltic Sea iced over. Some people froze to death and more than 10,000 in the Baltics were severely frostbitten, losing fingers and toes.
When Julija had a relapse, she went back to the sanitorium, but returned home soon after in the fall. “A taxi brought her back. My mother said she had to be with her children.” She was not fully recovered. When winter bore down again, she ran down and became bedridden.
Jonas laid down rough wide planks over the packed dirt floor in one of the three rooms. He moved a metal stove into the room. His wife died in her bed, the head of the bed at the window, early the next spring. She was forty-three years old.
Her father re-married four months later. “He needed a woman to take care of Sigitas and Jozukas.” Jonas had decided to ask the nearby widow with the farm, the woman who had helped Angele bake bread, but by then she was spoken for by another man. He found a single woman in Gizai.
“It was where we always went. My school was there, and there was a church, a police station with a policeman, and a hardware store that had everything. Whenever we had a coin we bought candy there.”
Jonas’s new wife was younger than Julija had been and healthy. She had a daughter a year older than Angele, even though she had never been married. The wedding was in early September. It wasn’t long after the move-in before Angele realized she couldn’t stay.
“My new mother and my father started arguing. She loved the younger ones, and she loved her own daughter, but they started arguing about me. My father stood up for me, but he needed a wife. I don’t know what I was thinking, but one day I left.”
It was late September. She packed a loaf of bread, some cold pork, what clothes she could carry, and set off in the morning at first light for Alvitas, for her aunt’s house. Ona Kreivenas was her mother’s sister. Her aunt’s husband, a police captain, had been deported to Siberia by the Russians that summer, leaving her with three children and giving birth to a fourth.
Even though two German army groups had smashed into the country in late June that summer, ousting the Russians, by then it was too late for Jonas Kreivenas, who didn’t come back from Siberia for fifteen years, and when he did, found out his wife was living in Philadelphia, in the United States.
“I knew life wasn’t going to be any easier in Alytus, but I had to go.”
Alvitas is about fifteen miles from Gizai. It took her most of the day to walk there. She passed a small prisoner of war camp crowded with Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht. When she got to her aunt’s farm the sun was near to setting.
“I lived with my aunt for the next three years, until the Russians came again, and we had to run to Germany. I never went back home, except to visit, as a guest. I loved my father, and my brothers and sister, but I couldn’t go back.”
When Angele woke up early the next morning, she had a new home and a new mother. “She was my parent now. They were my family.” She helped her aunt make breakfast. There was strong black tea at the table. The first frost wasn’t far away, but that morning it was an Indian summer.
A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”