By Ed Staskus
When Angele Jurgelaityte knocked on her aunt’s door in late September 1941, Ona Kreivenas lived on a farm near Alvitas, where she taught school, and had on her hands a growing family. There were three children and an infant. Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and Gema, the new baby come into being a year earlier, were not any of them older than Angele. Even Mindaugas, the eldest, was three years younger than their thirteen-year-old cousin from Gizai.
Alvitas is a village on a lake of the same name. It is on the main road. There was a parish church built of stone, an elementary school, more than thirty houses, and almost four hundred inhabitants.
When Ona came to the front door, she was by herself. She had lost her husband a year earlier. She had since that day become a stern woman. “She was pretty, like a doll, but I was afraid of her. I broke a dish once and was scared to death of what she would say when she found out.” Her aunt bid hello to the teenaged girl, who she had been half-expecting, if not warmly, at least with a measure of relief.
Angele had spent the day walking to her aunt’s farmhouse from her family’s farm, where she decided she could no longer live with the stepmother her father had married the month before, six months after her mother’s death. She left three brothers and a sister behind.
“He was a police chief,” she about her uncle, Jonas Kreivenas. “The Russians deported him. He didn’t do anything bad. It didn’t matter, they just took him away.”
The Russians started planning mass arrests and deportations the year before, in 1940, after the Red Army occupied Lithuania and the adjacent Baltic nations. Jonas Kreivenas was one of the first arrested in 1940. They targeted government officials, nationalists, the well-to-do, Catholics, policemen, and anyone they decided was an “anti-Soviet element.”
If you were a party member, you were going to prosper, rather than get sent to Siberia.
“I had a friend not far from our farm whose father was a blacksmith, who didn’t read or write. When the Russians came, they threw out the mayor, in the town where they lived, and made him the mayor, because he was a Communist. Everyone high up, they threw out.”
The mass arrests began a year later the night of Friday June 13 as NKVD troops fanned out across the country, scooping up men and entire families, carrying them to Vilnius. Nearly twenty thousand Lithuanians were forcibly marched into the boxcars of seventeen trains on Thursday June 19 and railroaded to the far end of Russia. Three days later the German army invaded Lithuania, the Luftwaffe catching the Russian air force unaware on the ground and destroying it. By mid-week the new Wehrmacht had swept the old Soviet resistance aside.
The Russians were out. The Germans were in. “The Germans weren’t good, but life was better for us. At least they didn’t deport us. Most of us hated the Russians.”
An independent Lithuanian government was put in place, but it shortly became clear that the German military held all the power. Lithuanian Jews began to bear the brunt of the occupation. They were forced to wear yellow stars and their money and property was taken away.
That spring, before Jonas Kreivenas was taken away by the Russians, he had gotten everything he needed to build an upstairs indoor bathroom, lumber, tiles, fixtures, a sink, and a bathtub. It was going to be his summer project. When the war came back to Lithuania three summers later, in 1944, the second floor was still torn up, and the bathroom was still not a bathroom.
“The rooms were never finished upstairs.”
Jonas had started work on his bathroom, working in his spare time, walls and floors opened, but everything was still in boxes stacked up in corners. Every month Ona hoped against hope for her husband’s return. The house was brick, fitted with large front windows, four rooms on the ground floor, a kitchen and dining room, and two bedrooms. The second floor was a floor.
“They lived on a farm that wasn’t big, but a little bigger and much nicer than my father’s. It wasn’t primitive,” said Angele.
“Everyone had either a large farm or a small farm, although almost everyone had small farms. Mamyte had a larger farm. She sometimes had men come and do work, but I still ended up having to work much harder than I ever did at my family’s farm.”
There was a cellar where they kept canned food and apples for the winter. There were chickens, cows, two work horses, a horse for riding, and lots of pigs. “She had a herd of them. Mamyte had a pig killed when we needed one, and we ate them.”
She had to feed the pigs while they lived and fattened.
“We kept a big pot in the kitchen where I boiled potatoes for the pigs every day. I had to bring all the water in from the well, not just for the pigs, but for everything.”
Earlier in the summer, within days of the Red Army’s collapse, the Einsatzgruppen followed the German army into Lithuania, their mission to liquidate Jews. Synagogues were set on fire and thousands of Jews killed in the streets. The Germans claimed rioting was a menace to public order and rounded up the country’s Jews, isolating them in ghettos to “protect them.”
By the end of the next summer Angele was still working hard but tired of being a hired hand. “I was young, and I had a lot of energy. I didn’t get tired. I watched the kids. Carmen was my best friend. I loved Gema the most. Ramute cried too much. She bent her fingers backwards until they hurt, and then started crying, saying that her hand hurt. I had to work all the time.”
She worked from before sunup to sundown. “I was the cook and made soup every day. I made the beds and I had to work all around the farm.” She washed dishes and put them away. She washed clothes by hand and hung them on a line outside to dry. She washed the kids, keeping them clean.
“I was her sister’s daughter, but I was her house maid, too.”
She made the fire that had to be made for eating every day. Coal had to to be hauled inside and ice knocked off the stairs in wintertime. Mindaugas was a strong boy and helped as much as he could. Carmen helped, too. Ramute was too small to do much and Gema was too small for anything. Ona went to town to teach school every day. In the summer she worked in the fields. Everybody did what they could.
One day when she was on the second floor, Angele overheard through an open window her aunt talking to a man in the front yard about that spring’s seeding.
“I have a servant, but she’s still young, and only so good to me,” said Ona.
She realized her aunt was talking about her, about her being more a servant, less a niece. “I promised myself from that moment that when I grew up, I would never be anyone’s servant, that no one would ever say that about me again.”
She put feed and water out for the chickens. She gathered eggs early and often. She collected them twice a day, so they stayed clean. It kept the chickens from eating them, as well. She herded cows to their milking stalls. She wore knee-high boots when walking knee-deep in pig mire. She put pebbles in the manger with the oats so the horses wouldn’t eat too fast. She mended fences the best she could when the pigs and cows bumped into them.
Angele and her father were sitting together under a gathering summer dusk in Gizai one day. “My father always called me Aneluke.” He told her his plans for the future. “Aneluke, when I die, I am going to leave the farm to you.”
Her aunt talked to her about vocational classes at a nearby farm school, where she could learn animal husbandry, vegetable production, and seasonal planning.
But after working on her father’s farm, and then working on her aunt’s farm, she had made up her mind farming wasn’t in her blood. “I didn’t like animals, and I hated the ground, the earth. I was never going to grow up to be a farmer.”
She was fourteen years old. She didn’t say anything to her father, but she told her aunt no.
When Angele’s grandfather died, Ona and her children went to Gizai for the funeral, but Angele had to stay behind and watch both the baby and the farm. “I was so unhappy,” she said.
She thought about her future, even though she was on between the war going on all around them. She thought about meeting boys. She thought about changing her name.
“I never liked my name. That’s why my father called me Aneluke.”
Her youngest brother didn’t like his name, either. Even though he been christened Mindaugas, after the legendary king, he changed it. When he told everybody far and wide young and old his new name was Jozukas, everybody went along with him, and he became Jozukas from then on.
She made friends with a boy she met at a dinner at a neighboring farm. They sat next to each other and talked. “I liked him, but one day Mindaugas and I were going to Vilkaviskis in the buggy when I saw him on the road. He was on a bike and a girl was walking beside him, walking towards us. They were holding hands. After that, I didn’t like him at all.”
No matter that the farmhouse remained unfinished, her aunt decided to wire up the farm. Although electricity was available in the cities, voltage drops over distance often made rural electrification impossible, or simply too costly. When farmers had the chance to tap into a network, they often jumped at the chance.
Their fertile croplands paved the way out of the dark for the Kreivenas family.
Ona arranged for the work to be done, making plans through her relations. They found an electrician for her. “Mamyte sent me to Vilkaviskis, to pick him up, the electrician from Kaunas, who was coming on the train.”
Vilkaviskis, on the banks of the Seimina River, is almost fifty miles northwest of Alytus. After she hitched up one of the horses to their wagon, it took her and Mindaugas all day to get there. They skirted the ruins of the Jewish quarter. That night they slept in the wagon, and the next morning set off for home, taking the electrician with them.
“He was hard to understand,” she said about him. Lithuanians from different regions of the country have accents and often have their own way of saying things. “There was a man from Zemaitija once, we could hardly understand what he was saying. They drop the endings of their words.”
Until 1941 Vilkaviskis had a large Jewish community. That summer SS death squads, helped by Lithuanian collaborators, killed more than three thousand Jews. It was virtually every single one of them in the town. The SS tore down and destroyed their homes afterwards. In 1943 more Jewish ghettos were demolished, and the living transferred to concentration camps. When the war ended almost all of them weren’t alive anymore.
The genocide rate in Lithuania, where anti-Semitism had been endemic for generations, was more than 90%, one of the highest in Europe.
There was a severe shortage of sugar throughout Europe, disrupted by worldwide conflict and blockade. The German military needed it to support its armed forces and its war effort at home. Sugar beet planting in Poland and the Baltics was ramped up. In 1942 more than 20% of Lithuanian farmers, the most ever, cultivated sugar beets. Production was expected to increase by 25% in 1943. Potatoes were in high demand. Grain was in high demand. The Axis paid in Reichsmarks, better money in Europe than anybody else’s.
Ona Kreivenas invested her bounty in electrification.
“The electrician put in wires and lights. The black box was in the kitchen.” They were warned to never touch it. “We didn’t have to use oil lamps anymore. We were so happy.”
Carmen, Ramute, and Angele slept in the dining room, an improvised bedroom in the four-room house. To the left of the foyer was the kitchen and to the right was the dining room. Ona had the large bedroom and Mindaugas the small one. At the back of the house stairs led to a root cellar.
“We read books at night until mamyte told us lights out. She was a strict mother. We would always turn the light off right away. She knew when we did because she had a blinking light in her room which told her when the lights had been turned off. We pretended being quiet until we knew she was asleep, and then turned the light back on so we could read some more. After we got tired of reading, we turned the light off and talked until we finally fell asleep.”
In March 1943 the German authorities closed the Academy of Education and all Lithuanian schools of higher education. Ona taught grade school and wasn’t affected. She continued going to work. Everybody was uneasy. The war on the Eastern Front wasn’t going well for the Germans. The Wehrmachct was losing the ability to mount offensive operations.
“I couldn’t go to school because I had to work so much. I finished six grades, and I wanted to learn, so mamyte found a tutor for me. I went to her house for two years, studying high school.”
She wanted to be somebody other than a maid or farmhand.
Two months later in May the Gestapo outdated Lithuania’s local electorates. In September the last Jews in the ghetto of Vilnius were dragged out to the streets. Those who could work were sent to labor camps. The rest were shot.
When the New Year 1944 came, news was broadcast that Antanas Smetona, the first and last president of independent Lithuania, who fled his home and country in 1940, had died in a house fire in Cleveland, Ohio. His death closed the chapter on the interwar years, when Lithuania had been free and clear.
“We had a radio and listened to the news every day. We knew it was bad for the Germans. We knew the Russians were coming back.” Everybody was worried and scared about the return of the USSR. “We all knew something bad was going to happen.”
In early August 1944, the German army was driven out of most of Lithuania by Soviet forces and Russian hegemony was re-established. They were the same days of the war that marked the Battle of Normandy in the west, which soon led to French liberation and independence.
“When the Russians came, it all happened in one day. We got our wagon, the horses, the four children, and a cow. We needed the cow and left as fast as we could.”
They and hundreds of other families camped at a large farm only a few miles from the East Prussian border, biding their time. When the Red Army again pushed west in September, and what was left of the German army fled before them, the refugees crossed the frontier.
“We got across the border into East Prussia at night. It was a wet cold night. There wasn’t a single border guard. Nobody else in my family, none of my brothers and my sister, nobody, made it out before the border was closed by the Russians.”
She was free for the moment in German land, but her family kinsmen friends and the rest of the country were under the callused thumb of Moscow, now and for the next nearly fifty years.
Photograph by Antanas Sutkus
Ed Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio. Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction.