Category Archives: Lithuanian Journal

Spanky and Our Gang

By Ed Staskus

   When the Soviet Union was in charge, there wasn’t a Mafia in Lithuania. The Russians wouldn’t allow it, since they were the Black Hand themselves and didn’t brook any competition. When anybody tried to muscle in on the action the KGB shoved them into a boxcar with a free ticket to Siberia in their pockets.

   But as soon as the Commies were gone in December 1991, it was the same story less the boxcars. The next morning the Lithuanian Mob popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The homeboys were just as poisonous as the Russians.

   Nobody could call his own tune in a kiosk, no matter how pint-sized, built onto the side of their house selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes without being on the lookout for them. The gangsters would appear in their grim track suits demanding protection money, or else. It was like Spanky and Our Gang, except “or else” meant they might burn your house down, whether you were in it, or not.

   Like Little Scotty, Spanky’s best friend, they always said, “That’ll learn ‘em.” Of course, Little Scotty was only eight years old, and hardly knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t an arsonist, either. It was only a slapdash kid’s movie.

   If you paid up, you could sleep soundly at night. If anybody went into business across the street, all you had to do was tell your Mob man about it, and the competition disappeared. If you were looking for cheaper gum, they pointed the way to fake Dubble Bubble. 

   It wasn’t just businesses, big and small, that paid protection money. That’s what the Mob called it, like they were doing you a favor, although everybody else called it extortion. It was the same as 1930s Chicago but set in the new frontier world of Eastern Europe. It was all up for grabs.

   “Whenever I stayed in Vilnius in those years, the 90s, I stayed at my friend Birute’s house,” my sister Rita said. She was a travel agent in Cleveland, Ohio. She often visited the native land leading tours of emigrants. “Her husband built a big house and the first time I saw it I thought, the Lithuanian Mob has got to have their eyes on this house. I hope she has police protection, even though they weren’t much better than the Mafia.”

   Corruption was so endemic after Lithuania won independence that the Internal Investigation Service was established in 1998 with its own special jurisdiction. It was on top of the Immunity Service, responsible for preventing and investigating corruption within the police force. There was rot top to bottom.

   Targeting malfeasance became more urgent leading up to the country joining the European Union in 2004. Europe had long prided itself on its trustworthy policemen. Only Croatia had more fast and loose law enforcement than Lithuania. The nation introduced a score of anti-corruption measures, to little apparent effect. More than 60% of the country’s citizens continued to believe crooked lawmen were widespread and oozing spreading fast.

   If you can’t trust the cops, who can you trust, although it’s best to never trust a policeman in a raincoat, especially if it’s not raining, unless he’s Columbo, who always wore a raincoat, rain or shine. He always wore the same one, too. “Every once-in-a-while I think about getting a new coat, but there’s no rush on that, since there’s still plenty of wear in this fella,” he explained.

   Lithuania’s policemen wore coats full of holes. The graft was like moths, eating away at the wool. They needed new coats in a bad way.

   “One of our cousins could have used a policeman the day she lost her kid,” Rita said. “But they’re not always there when you need them.”

   It was winter when our cousin picked up her six-year-old from school, sitting him down in a little red wagon, and pulling him along behind her. Somewhere down the line he fell out of the wagon. She didn’t notice, trudging through the snow, until she got home. When she did, she rushed back, but he wasn’t anywhere on the path they had taken. There wasn’t a badge in sight. When she called the local station, nobody answered. Sunset in Lithuania in early January is at around four o’clock. She finally found him making snow angels on a side street by himself in the darkness. None of the streetlights were working.

   Another of our cousins had a son, Gytis, who was grown up, and had gotten involved with the Mob. He owed them money but was unable to pay his debt. They were looking for their loot. When they got sick and tired of waiting, they rigged his car up to blow up. The next morning when he started it, it blew up, but the gangsters hadn’t used enough dynamite. They also stuck it under the trunk instead of the front seat. Gytis was hurt, breaking an arm in the blast, but survived.

   “I had to go from Vilnius to Marijampole one night and my relatives sent Gytis,” Rita said. “I couldn’t believe it. Why Gytis of all people? The Mob was after him! His arm was in a cast, and he had a friend with him. His friend was from Samogitia and I could barely understand a word he said. It didn’t help that he was smoking Bulgarian cigarettes and coughing up a storm.”

   They were driving a beat-up Trabant, an East German car, which had a reputation for getting old fast. It got old the minute it rolled off the assembly line. Car ownership was exploding in Lithuania, but it was the best they could do. Gytis put her in the back seat and told her to lay low. They didn’t take the highway or the secondary roads. They drove back roads, which were hardly roads, at all. They weren’t paved. The Trabant ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

   “Stay here,” Gytis said when he and his friend tramped away.

   “It was pitch black as could be,” said Rita. “I stayed in the car because there was nothing anywhere. I would have just been wandering around, having an out-of-body experience.”

   After more than an hour, Gytis and his friend came back with an open bucket of gasoline. She didn’t ask where they found it. When they finally pulled into the driveway of our Uncle Justinas’s house, she jumped out of the car, nearly ripping the Trabant’s back door off its hinges.

   By the time Gytis grew up, he was fatherless. His mother went through three husbands. She left her first husband after he tried to kill her twice. One day he wired the front door lock so she would be electrocuted when she put her key into the lock. It didn’t work. Another day he veered off the road and rammed the passenger side of their car into a tree. That didn’t work, either. She was unhurt, although he was a mess, and had to be hospitalized.

   Her second husband was working at Chernobyl in 1986 when the nuclear power plant melted down. Even though he returned home, he suffered from radiation poisoning, and shortly afterwards committed suicide. She took care of his grave faithfully, cleaning and decorating it. Her third husband was a good man, but a year after their marriage she came home from her job as a seamstress and found him dead on the floor from a heart attack. After that she got the message, giving up and remaining a widow.

   “My Uncle Juozukas had a son, Edvardas, who was a policeman, and he always told me to watch out for the police,” said Rita. “He said they were rotten through and through.”

   “Make sure you always have cash with you if you’re ever driving alone, because if you get stopped by them, you will have to pay them,” Edvardas said.

   “You mean I will have to pay the fine right on the spot?”

   “No, you will have to pay them off right on the spot. Otherwise, they will keep you on the side of the road all day and night until you do.”

   Our cousin Mikolas shook his head up and down and said, “That’s right. If their pockets are empty, and even if they aren’t, they will stop you no matter if you have done something, or not.”

   The year before, after the birthday party his parents threw for him, the police were waiting outside and followed Mikolas home. They were after his birthday money. “Maybe somebody told them about the party, maybe not, but I had to hand all of it over,” he said.

   The police car parked behind him when he pulled into his driveway. One of the policemen counted the money he finally handed over to them and said, “It’s not nearly enough, since I have to pay some of it out back at the station, but OK.” He threw the birthday cards and envelopes out the window, backing over them on his way out.

   “You are scum between my toes,” is what Spanky used to say and would have said. When Mikolas asked the cops what he had done, they said, “Nothing, and make sure it stays that way.” They were in the thievery business, not the law-and-order business.

   Edvardas was an honest policeman. He couldn’t condone or handle the rampant corruption. He quit the police force after a few years. Sometimes you’ve got to live with yourself, not the rotten apples. There’s no sense in letting canker have its way, just because it says so.

   When Rita asked our Uncle Juozukas how much he paid the Mob for protection when he was selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes out of the kiosk he built onto the side of his house, he said, “Peanuts, but peanuts I couldn’t afford to pay.”

   There were loads of peanuts up and down and all around the country, as well as bags of peanuts, and truckloads of peanuts, and it all added up to keep the crime wave going full steam ahead. At least until the engine got overheated. When it did there was hell to pay.

   After journalists, businessmen, and prosecutors started getting murdered by the Mob, the country got good and shocked, and repercussions soon followed. The Vilnius “Godfather” Boris Dekanidze was put to death while the Kaunas “Godfather” Henrikas Daktaras was locked up. His jailers lost the key and he stayed locked up forever.

   In the 1990s the Mob employed persuasion, intimidation, and violence to get what they wanted, including pocketing public property for themselves. Everything was on hand on deck in play. In the new millennium the worm turned. The Mob put their brass knuckles away and put on business suits, employing persuasion, intimidation, and bribery to get what they wanted. It wasn’t lowlifes cashing in on the gum and cigarette market anymore. It wasn’t bringing a trunkful of booze back from Poland. It wasn’t stealing used cars. It was the new dodge of cashing in on state and private legal and illegal deals, drugs, sex trafficking, internet gambling, and money laundering. They stashed their brickbats in the basement and repositioned themselves as venture capitalists.

   Not all of them, though. Some stayed true to their roots. Several years later, more than three hundred armed policemen at the crack of dawn broke down the doors of nearly a hundred homes and apartments and arrested members of ONG, the country’s most dangerous crime group. Elite Lithuanian ARAS units dragged away dozens of groggy men wearing wrinkled tracksuits, hands handcuffed behind them. The haul included “a large number of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, ammunition and explosive substances,” according to a Europol press release, as well as a boatload of sports cars and luxury sedans.

   The hoodlums operated out of Kaunas for the most part, smuggling guns and drugs, keeping their shady lawyers and accountants busy and themselves living the high life. They used “various money-laundering schemes that involved legal entities and limited ownership of assets worth millions of euros and maintained strong links with other organized criminal groups in Lithuania and abroad,” a Kaunas Police Department news release said.

   The way most crime lords see it, you can get much farther with a gun and a kind word than you can with a kind word alone. Their guns gone, there wasn’t much they could say. Kindness wasn’t part of their vocabulary. They didn’t even know how to spell the word.

   In the end, locked up inside police stations and handcuffed in cages in courtrooms, few kind words were spoken. There was some rude spanking on the horizon on their way to prison. Alfalfa, Spanky’s right-hand man, his hair neatly parted down the middle, always had the last word when asked if he had any last words for evildoers.

   “Yeah, see ya!”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Up in Smoke

By Ed Staskus

   When my father died the funeral service was at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Lithuanian church on Cleveland’s east side, the memorial service was at the Lithuanian Club up the street, and he was buried on the grounds of All Souls in Chardon, forty miles farther east, where many Lithuanian Catholics ending their days on the south shore of Lake Erie end up.

   All Souls Cemetery covers some 250 acres, features over 109 developed acres and 7 mausoleums, and could be a golf course if it wasn’t a boneyard. If someone’s got the blues, it’s where to go. It’s the place to bury your troubles.

   Two years later, paying my respects on a sunny summer day, visiting my father in the mausoleum where he is interned, and later wandering about the cemetery, I stumbled on the burial place of Antanas Smetona. The name rang a bell. When it came to me, I remembered he was the first and last president of Lithuania during the inter-war years.

   Walking back to my car I passed a headstone 50-some years old. Red and white artificial flowers lay on the ground. Engraved on the stone was a man’s name, his date of birth and death, and the inscription “He Done His Damnest.” It wasn’t the kind of epitaph I expected, which would have been more along the lines of “Always in Our Hearts” and “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Had the man gone to Heaven or Hell?

   Antanas Smetona did his damnest, too. 

   He was born into a family of farmers, former serfs, the eighth of nine children. Their homestead was near a small lake, almost dead center in the middle of Lithuania. His father died when he was eleven, making a last wish that his youngest son be sent to school. He was the only one of his brothers and sisters to ever get an education. The instruction was in Russian, because the Russians were in charge and Lithuanian talk was forbidden. Lithuanian literature was closed down. Lithuanian history was closed down.

   He was a top student and won a tuition waiver. He supported himself by superintending his dormitory and giving private lessons. After graduation he made his way to Latvia, got involved with the Lithuanian National Revival, got into trouble, made his way to St. Petersburg, got involved in the February 1899 student protests, and got deported back to Lithuania.

   After he was allowed to return, he got involved with Lithuanian book smugglers, got arrested, got thrown into a castle that doubled as a prison, somehow got acquitted, cracked his books, graduated university, and made his way out of Russia. He never went back. He went back to the homeland.

   Russia was like a cemetery with a big fence around it. Those inside couldn’t leave unless they were thrown out. Those outside didn’t want to scale the fence to get inside unless it was a matter of life and death.

   Antanas Smetona got married and went to work for the Vilnius Land Bank. When he wasn’t working, he was working with several Lithuanian nationalist groups and writing editing publishing circulating news and editorials advocating national unity and independence.

   When the First World War started, he chaired the Central Committee Relief Society and pressed demands on the Germans, who had pushed the Russians out of the country in 1915, that Lithuania be granted its independence. A year later he began editing and publishing the newspaper Lithuania’s Echo. His message, stated in the first issue, was the speedy establishment of an autonomous and sovereign Lithuanian state.

   Russia didn’t like that, since they had controlled the country for more than a hundred years, but they had their own problems, namely the Eastern Front, where they were busy suffering six million casualties and three-and-a-half million captured. On top of that more than a million civilians were dying of war-related causes. Adding to the anvil chorus, the Bolsheviks were breathing down their necks.

   When the Council of Lithuania was formed, Antanas Smetona was elected Chairman and in February 1918 he signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania. The next year he was elected the first President of the Republic of Lithuania. His tenure didn’t last long. The next year a new man was elected, and he was out. He taught classes at the University of Vilnius and got involved with the paramilitary group the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union.

   Five years later he led a coup d’etat, deposing the then president and seizing the office for himself. A year later he suppressed the parliament. Two years later he assumed dictatorial powers. For all his editorializing about autocratic czars, he became an autocratic czar. For the next nine years he ruled by decree, his own new constitution vesting in him both executive and legislative powers. Whenever there were new elections he ran as the only candidate.

   He added his name to the rise of totalitarianism and dictatorship in the 1930s, joining Benito Mussolini, Francesco Franco, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. He went from idealism and high-mindedness to cynicism and the inside track. Realpolitik is not about democracy and human rights. It is the struggle for power. It’s like Adolf Hitler said, “It is not truth that matters but victory. If you win, you need not have to explain. If you lose, you should not be there to explain.”

   Although there aren’t many children nowadays who would accept guidance counseling from Adolf Hitler, there were plenty of men and women eighty and ninety years ago who were all ears. That’s why cemeteries by 1945 were overflowing with indispensable people, not including the dictators. They make their own beds.

   Antanas Smetona may have been a patriot and a loyalist, doing his best to restore Lithuania to nation statehood, but he was nonetheless a dictator. He may have repressed the Iron Wolves, a radical rightist movement led by his former Prime Minister who he had earlier removed from office, but his own Lithuanian Nationalist Union took part in the 1934 Montreux Fascist Conference. He may have believed in political parties, but his was one-party rule and he was the host boss ringleader of the party. He styled himself as the Tautos Vadas, or Leader of the People.

   Under his rule Lithuania “moved decisively towards a dictatorship of what might be termed the ‘fascism from above’ variety,” according to Martin Blinkhorn, British historian and author of “Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919 – 1945.” The Russians, the Muddy Mississippi of Fascism themselves, said he was trying to “adapt Italian Fascist concepts to Lithuanian conditions.” He was more centrist and moderate in his authoritarianism than many others, but he also believed he was the most qualified and experienced person to run the country, and he rigged the elections to make sure it stayed that way.

   Not that it did him any good. By 1938 he was being squeezed by Nazi Germany and the Commies. He had never been able to get Vilnius back from the Poles. Now he had to surrender Memel to the Germans. When the Russians presented an ultimatum to his government in 1940, he urged armed resistance, but nobody agreed that Lithuania’s armed forces, numbering some twenty thousand, was up to the task of going toe to toe with the five-million-man Red Army.

   “I do not want to make Lithuania a Bolshevik country with my own hands,” he said from the steps of the Presidential Palace in Kaunas and left the country. A month later Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union. He wasn’t on hand to try to stop it.

   When he got to the border Antanas Smetona and his bodyguard waded across the Liepona rivulet into Nazi Germany. When he did, he went from lightning rod to lightning bug. The next day his family convinced the Lithuanian crossing guards to let them go, too, since the big fish was already gone. The provisional government wanted him back, but what could they do?

   The Germans put him up in a hunting lodge in the Masurian Lake District. From there he was moved to Berlin, then traveled to Bern, Switzerland, and lastly to Rio de Janeiro. He finally landed on his feet in the United States where four hundred guests greeted him at New York City’s Pierre Hotel for dinner and an evening function. He briefly lived in Pittsburgh and Chicago before finally settling down on the east side of Cleveland.

   When I grew up on the east side in the late 1950s and 60s, Eastern Europe was right across the street. There were Serbs Slovenians Croatians, plenty of Poles, and lots of Lithuanians. Everybody had their own church and their own watering holes. Everybody had their own talk in their own language about the mother land and their new place new lives new future in the USA.

   Antanas Smetona and his wife Sofija moved in with their son Julius on Ablewhite Avenue on the northeast side of the city, off Eddy Road, near Lake Erie. Julius worked as a grinder for Standard Tool and was married to Birute Nasvytyte, a former concert pianist, raising their two children. The self-styled President-in-Exile worked on his memoirs and visited Lithuanian communities across America speaking about the plight of the mother country and his hopes for its post-war independence.

   “What the Magna Carta was to the English, what the rights of man of the French Revolution were to personal liberty, the Atlantic Charter is to nations, especially small nations like ours,” he said.

   When my parents bought a two-and-a-half story duplex with a backyard big enough for a pack of kids, their first house in the United States, doubling up with my father’s sister and her family in 1958, all of us recent immigrants, it was about a mile from the exile’s residence. When I attended the Iowa-Maple Elementary School my first school year in Cleveland I sat in a classroom a stone’s throw from the house. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, that the ex-president of Lithuania died in that house less than twenty years earlier.

  The day he died, Sunday January 9, 1944, he and his wife were in their upstairs bedroom relaxing. It had snowed lightly on Saturday and the windows were frosty, below freezing. They smelled something foul and saw smoke oozing into their room from under the door. 

   The furnace had been acting up lately. “The night before yesterday coal fumes made me dizzy. I could not think clearly. Now I have completely recovered,” he wrote in his journal two months earlier. This was worse. His thinking days were soon going to be over.

   The overheated furnace caught fire, leapt up the chimney, and swept through the house. The man and wife bolted out of the room and down the stairs, but he turned around, stepping back into the bedroom, grabbing a fur-lined overcoat to throw over his head. By the time he turned again to flee his wife was in the front yard. He never made it out of the house alive.

   Fire Battalion Chief Tom O’Brien said afterwards the fire had a “head start,” making it difficult to fight. The coal room was red-hot. By the time they extinguished the blaze and accounted for everyone, they went looking for Antanas Smetona. They saved the house but found him face down in the second-floor kitchen dead of suffocation. Police outlined in chalk where his body was found, and other policemen carried him out on a stiff board.

   The pull out the stops funeral was at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and was presided over by Bishop Edward Hoban. The Cleveland Police Mounted Unit saluted as his coffin was carried out the front door. He was buried in Cleveland’s Knollwood Cemetery but in 1975 was moved to Chardon, next to his wife, who died in 1968.

   Although the inter-war years in Lithuania are often referred to as the Smetonian years, there is no monument to the man in Vilnius. “I really wouldn’t want to say whether I’d approve a monument to Smetona, or not,” Remigius Simasius the mayor of the city said. In the end he didn’t say. There is still some bad blood about the putsch and his authoritarianism.

   “Perhaps not so much for the coup itself than for disbanding political parties and essentially destroying the opposition,” said Vilnius University historian Alfredas Bumblauskas.

   When I went back the next summer to visit my father, I walked to where I knew Antanas Smetona was six feet up. The polished granite slabs are on a wall above Grace and Philip McGarry and below Michael and Anna Pula. Someone had fixed fresh flowers to both Antanas and Sofija’s facings. The sepulchral stone was spic-and-span.

   I thought of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s song, “There’s just one kind favor I’ll ask of you, see that my grave is kept clean.”

   No matter what, whether he had done the best he could, or not, whether he was a statesman or a tyrant, whether he was in Heaven or Hell, the earthly remains of the man were beyond reproach in his neat as a pin final resting place at All Souls. 

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Back in the USSR

By Ed Staskus

   Lithuania has got loads of historical show-and-tell. There is the Ninth Fort, Trakai Island Castle, and the Hill of Crosses. The capital city Vilnius has the Gates of Dawn, the Palace of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and the Bernardine Cemetery. The cemetery can be heavy going, though, since after heavy rain bones from older graves tend to float to the top and stick out of the ground tripping up passers-by.

   Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings are extant all around the city. There are 16th and 17th century churches. Winding narrow streets characterize the oldest stretches of Vilnius. The historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 1990s, soon after the country lost its Commie overlords. 

   There are dozens of tour groups, from Baltic Holidays to Discover Lithuania to Vilnius with Locals. There are hundreds of tour guides who will guide you to places in plain sight and off the beaten path, brimming with anecdotes and history and the know-how of when and where to stop for a cup of coffee and lunch.

   Pavelas Puzyna, a native of the city, got his start while studying archaeology at Vilnius University. He dug up something new. It was a small rusty metal box. “I was at the market and saw a box with the Sigma logo on it. Inside the box was the flash for a camera. They made cameras and the first Lithuanian computers. Finding the box was like a drug to me. I immediately started to research Soviet-era factories and got interested in the history of industrial Vilnius. I’m a big fan of the city. I thought it would be a good idea to make a tour.”

   He had already been having second thoughts about archaeology. “There are some job problems with it,” he said. Never underestimate the cold feet of an empty piggybank or the pedal to the metal of cold cash.

   The Age of Discovery led to the Age of Colonialism, when European countries went far and wide to Asia Africa and the Americas, trading conquering controlling the natural resources, benefitting themselves strategically and economically. They created sugar plantations in the West Indies and rubber plantations in the East Indies. They commanded herds of elephants to explore and exploit India. 

   The world was their oyster. It was tasty, but it was risky hard work, no matter that they were playing the natives for suckers. Caravan routes thousands of miles long were an uphill struggle and boats routinely sank in storms, their treasures gone for good.

   That wasn’t for the Russians. “Why bother?” the tsars said, downing strong coffee and chain-smoking. “We’ll just go next door.” They sent their conscripts, whose military service was for life, or the end of the soldier’s life, to the Ukraine, the Khanates, and the kingdom of Poland Lithuania. The faceless minions of the Empire followed, sucking the life out of whatever the Imperial Army had won.

   The Iron Curtain got drawn in Eastern Europe in 1945. After the clampdown in Lithuania was history, when the Russians were pushed out once and for all in 1990, they left much of their reign behind. Some of the things they left behind, besides a bad taste, were zavody, Eastern Bloc factories.

   Even though Pavelas went looking for zavody, the first thing he found was a 1975-built civil defense bunker beneath a socialist sweat shop in Naujamiestis, a former industrial district next to Naujaninkai, the district where he lives.

   “The bunker was underneath a factory that used to make sliding electric garage doors,” he said. “It was all trashed out. I thought maybe I could talk to the person in charge and offer to look after it. Small enterprises were renting space in the former factory and one of them, a car repair shop, gave me the phone number of the owner of the whole place.”

   He called and was able to get through. “He’s a real millionaire, a Lithuanian guy, and I was able to talk to him. I told him your bunker is a mess, can I maybe look after it, clean it up, be like the overseer?” Although he didn’t expect an answer that very minute, the big man on the other end of the line said yes. 

   “It was bizarre but after that I was like a little kid on Christmas.”

   The Russians started building A-bomb storm cellars in the early 1950s, especially beneath schools, apartment complexes, government buildings, railway stations, and smokestack enterprises. “There was an all-important rule then, that big factories had to have a bunker,” Pavelas said. They were equipped with steel doors, filtered ventilation, food water and medical supplies. Participation in civil defense training was compulsory for all able-bodied men and women.

   “If World War Three had started, like the Russians were afraid of, people would have had to live there.” Nobody said anything about what they were going to do in their shelters after a rocket from the tombs had wiped Lithuania off the map.

   Nuclear weapons in the mid-1980s blasted holes in the ground 200 feet deep and 1,000 feet in diameter, blowing everything within a half mile to smithereens. Only skeletal remains would have remained within three miles of impact. After a month-or-two of radiation decay it would be safe enough to go outside, except it wouldn’t be safe.

   There wouldn’t be any power for light heat refrigeration, no running water, no sanitary systems, millions of unburied dead, and an ecological balance gone out of its mind. Stress, malnutrition, and damaged immune systems would be fecund ground for the contraction and transmission of disease among survivors.

   Pavelas took rags brooms and candles to the bunker. “The place didn’t have electricity. It was dark, but I cleaned it” He came back with wiring and light bulbs. He came back with curtains for the no-windows. A year later he was conducting his first tours of the air raid shelter.

   Tour guides escort people on sightseeing excursions, cruises, or through public buildings, art galleries, and native places of significance. They describe points of interest and respond to questions. Many of them research topics related to their site, such as history and culture.

   “What’s special about our shelter is it’s almost all authentic, just like from the Soviet times,” he said. Some bunkers have been transformed into Cold War and KGB museums, but Pavelas played it close to the vest. “Ours is original, what you would have seen in those days. It’s the only one in Vilnius like it.”

   A year after his first tour Pavelas cooperated with Albertas Kazlauskas to form Gatves Gyvos, which means Streets Alive, and Albertas bought the bunker. “He was working for a bank and when the Litas was being converted to the Euro, he thought it would be an opportunity to make a tour company. He’s the owner, a great guy and a great friend. I’m the main tour guide and main handyman.” They upgraded the bunker tour and made it a success, at least until the Covid-19 pandemic brought it to a standstill in 2020.

   “We did non-stop tours,” said Pavelas. “I was working nine in the morning until ten at night. The bunker was a money maker although it also eats money.”

   Despite his success, or perhaps because of it, Pavelas expanded his tours to include Soviet-era factories located in the Naujamiestu and Zirmunu districts. “They used to make everything, from vodka to electronics. After learning a lot about Soviet Lithuanian factories, I thought people would be interested in them, too.” His favorite is the former ELFA factory.   

   When the Russians occupied Lithuania during World War Two, the country was largely agricultural. To communize it, they industrialized it. From 1940 to 1959 industrial production in Lithuania increased 9.1 times, while in Russia itself it increased only half as much. Much of the work was in automobiles, tools, and metal processing, and most of it was exported to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

   It was full speed ahead in 1963, with plans on the books to build more than 700 new factories, including a synthetic materials factory in Kaunas, a refrigerator plant in Ukmergė, and a glass factory in Panevėžys. A furniture factory in Vilnius was going to be one of the largest in the USSR.

   “When the Soviet Union collapsed all the factories were owned by the government, by Moscow,” Pavelas said. “It became like a race after independence, about who could take over the factories first. ELFA was bought and sold and bought until the last CEO standing, who wasn’t that great of a person, shut it down. There’s still a small office on the fifth floor, but it doesn’t exist anymore.”

   After the Soviets went belly up Lithuania suffered a significant recession as well as a corrective inflation. It was a mess. There were major trade disruptions because the Russians had been the country’s main trade partner. Radical privatization didn’t helpsince much of it was out and out piracy, resulting in a 40% drop in GDP in the first half of the 1990s.

   “The ELFA factory produced electric motors for fridges, washing machines, and drills. They made reel to reel tape recorders and record players, by the millions a year. They were shitty compared to Japanese and American production but in Soviet terms the quality was as good as it got.” 

   The Lithuanians who worked there worked at what was in effect a company town. Entire families were employed in the factories, fathers and mothers and their progeny. “It was child, son, and grandpa and great grandpa,” Pavelas recounted. Some of the factories had their own campgrounds, on their own lakes, and sponsored soccer teams and singing chorales. Instead of a baton the Muscovites led sing-a-longs with a truncheon. Chin music was the consequence of being out of tune.

   “The complex takes up about 5 hectares of space and had more than five thousand workers, many of them women. The most memorable item they made is the ELFA-001 reel to reel machine. It cost thousands and only 50 of them were ever made. Another is a small and very powerful motor made for Soviet submarines. Subs have a tower and towers have windows. The windows needed windshield wipers like in a car.”

   Another of his favorites is the Sparta plant. “It means speed and fast work,” he said. “Their main product was socks, which they made millions of them year after year. Now the factory is being demolished. I’m glad I had the opportunity to save some items, like stained glasses from the canteen.”

   Albertas makes traditional tours of the Old Town, his wife Victoria leads tours for children, mixing entertainment with snippets of history, and Pavelas makes what he calls non-traditional tours, both on the job and privately.

   “My main goal is to research industry in Vilnius, its economics mostly during the Soviet times, why and what it was doing here,” he said. “I’m also interested in the industrial history of Lithuania, from the end of the Industrial Revolution, through the inter-war years, and into today.”

   The Covid-19 pandemic threw businesses of every kind everywhere for a loop, although if anyone needed to isolate, an underground bunker built with two-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls just might be the ideal place. In the meantime, waiting for vaccination efforts to ramp up and results to happen, they sat it out.

   “My guess is that if not for the pandemic our bunker would be one of the famous places in Lithuania,” Pavelas said. “What we opened is the only one in Vilnius and the very first. We had different people come and see it, from deaf people to many foreigners. The bad days came when the lockdown started.” It was all hanging by a thread.

   During the second lockdown in Lithuania the sightseeing business was declared out of bounds. “We don’t get any money right now, and we are just trying to survive, but when it is over, people are going to be pouring back in. Our site is unique, in a class by itself.” He felt they were on the edge of something.

   It doesn’t always pay to call it a day. The smart money is usually on history repeating itself, which it usually does. The sticks and stones thread is a long unbroken line to a bunker somewhere.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Tough as Nails

By Ed Staskus

   My grandmother hit the deck pretty as a prayer book the day she was born. She didn’t come into the world tough as nails. She wasn’t that way as a girl, a young woman, a schoolteacher, a newlywed, or a wife and mother. But that was the way she was when World War Two ended and she was waking up to her second year in a Siberian prison camp. She survived by being that way for nearly twenty years, in the middle of nowhere, slaving away, stuck in the dark ages.

   She was born near the tail end of the Gilded Age, although it wasn’t anywhere near Wall Street. She missed out on the mischief of the robber barons. She was born in Russia during the fin de siècle. She missed the debates convulsing Europe concerning the moral responsibility of art. Even if she had heard the arguments, it’s doubtful she would have cared. She missed the Boxer Rebellion, the Second Boer War, and the Philippine-American War. But when the pea shooters of those conflicts were put away, she got to live through the blitzkrieg of World War Two.

   Growing up she had an inkling most Lithuanians hated Muscovites, for taking over the homeland, forbidding the native language, and exploiting everything they touched. By the time she was grown up and gone to Lithuania she knew for sure Russia was feared and distrusted on all its borders.

   My grandmother Antonina met my grandfather Antanas when he was stationed in Saransk. It is in the Volga basin where the Saranka and Insar Rivers meet. The garrison was four hundred miles east of Moscow. Antanas Staskevicius was a Lithuanian officer in the Russian Imperial Army. He was more than a thousand miles from home. My grandmother came from a nearby small town. She earned her teacher’s certificate in Saransk. She was teaching kids their Cyrillic ABC’s.

   The whistle-stop was founded as a fort, on the left bank of the Isar River, at the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before World War One its commercial life revolved around honey, meat, and leather. After the war its factories stayed closed for more than ten years when there weren’t any available fuels or raw materials.

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

   Antanas courted Antonina and they got married sooner than later. They had a daughter, Eugenia, in 1917. They called her Genute. Another daughter, Gaile, was born the next year. My father was born six years later, in 1924, in Siauliai in the north of Lithuania. He was named after King Vytautas the Great. His mother called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the little prince, the pickle prince, and the rotten prince.

   Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, which is a hill less than ten miles from the town. It is covered with tens of thousands of wooden crosses, crucifixes, and statues. It was after Tsarist forces crushed the November Uprising of 1831 when the first of them appeared.

   By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than a hundred years, having been disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time, it had been under the thumb of the Russian Empire. Late that year, when the war finally ended, and Russia was being convulsed by its Bolshevik revolution, Antanas and his new family went home to a newly independent country.

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

   Lithuania had declared independence in February 1918 and for almost three years fought Soviet Russians, West Russians, and Poles for their homeland. Finally, in 1920 they formed their own government, although they later lost Vilnius to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war with little bloodshed. In September 1939 the Poles found out they were in the frying pan and Vilnius was off the menu.

   After the fighting my grandfather was awarded land for serving his country. The family had a house in town but lived on a farm most of the time. They spoke Russian at home. Except for what he picked up among his friends, so that he had a sprinkle of street cred, my father spoke little Lithuanian until he started school.

   During World War One most of Siauliai’s buildings were destroyed and the city center was obliterated. Since its founding in the 13th century, it had burned down seven times, been struck by pandemics seven times, and World War Two was the seventh war that wrecked it. It was a winsome town between disasters.

   “When my father became the governor of the district, we moved to the city there,” Vytas said. It is a royal town founded in the early 16th century on the plain of the Nevezis River, about fifty miles east of Siauliai. During the interwar years Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor. Antanas was the governor of Panevezys until 1938.

   Vytas went to grade school and high school there, but then his father was made governor of Zerasai, which was more-or-less a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai had burned down and been rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Tsar Alexander’s son, but after the war to end all wars was over and done with the name was thrown out the window.

   “When my father became the governor, my mother didn’t want to move there, since it was far from where we lived, so I stayed with her,” Vytas said. “But I didn’t get along with the other students in town. It was a strict school, and everybody had to dress nice. On my first day of high school, I was dressed too nice, like I was going to a wedding, with a tie and everything, and everybody laughed at me. ‘Where are you from, the sticks?’ they all said. I didn’t make any friends there.”

   He told them, “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 that was easy for me. But when I got there, I found out they only had English as a second language. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.” He soon spoke Lithuanian, Russian, and English.

   All during the 1930s the world had been changing fast. It changed a lot faster the last year of the decade. Father and son moved back to Siauliai. “The Russians came in 1940. All the high officials were let go and they selected new people who they wanted in the driver’s seat. 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 the Russians.”

   The family spent more and more time on their farm, renting out their house in Siauliai. “It was only a few miles from our farm to town. I used to walk or bicycle there. But the mood was bad. Everybody was on edge. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”

   The Russian invasion of Lithuania was completed by the late summer. Businesses were nationalized and collectivization of land began. As the Soviet presence expanded the family discussed leaving the Baltics. “Why don’t we go to Germany?” Antonina asked. She wasn’t a fan of her Muscovite kith and kin. She had an insider’s track making judgment calls about them.

   “We had a chance to leave the country and go somewhere else. My mother wanted to go. We talked about it often.” But my grandfather didn’t want to leave his native land. “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.”

   In the fall of 1940, a company of Red Army infantry commandeered their house and farm for several days. “They didn’t do anything crazy, or mistreat us, but they hadn’t washed in months. They stunk and they rolled their cheap tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took us a week to air out the house.”

   The family stayed on the farm through the winter. Then, as the mass arrests and deportations of more than17,000 Lithuanians began in June 1941, my grandfather was picked up by NKVD plainclothesmen. “He was gardening in our yard, 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,” Vytas said. “I’ll help you out, my father said. He walked over to the car with them. They pushed him into it and drove away.”

   Vytas was in school 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 up clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. They 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 times have changed.” The old order was out. There was a new order. Asking for help meant getting nowhere.

   “He was a Communist and had been in and out of jail because of it. He was always in trouble. My father always 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 would be in jail again. He wouldn’t help my father when he was arrested. Everything’s different now, he said.”

   My grandfather, who had once commanded the local police, stayed stuck in his jail cell. “They didn’t let my mother talk to my father,” Vytas said. “We went there several times, but they didn’t let us see him. We never saw him again.”

   Antanas Snieckus, the top dog of the Lithuanian Commies, supervised the mass deportations. He decided who was an “Enemy of the People.” Teachers, priests, policemen, civil servants, politicians, anybody who was a member of the Nationalist Union or the Rifleman’s Union, and landowners were on the list. More than 17,000 of them were deported. When they checked their tickets, they discovered the deportations had no expiration date.

   My grandfather was taken to Naujoji Vilnia and shoved into a boxcar. The train left Lithuania on June 19, 1941. Four days later, at the Battle of Raseiniai, the 4th Panzer Group, part of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, wrapped up the complete destruction of the Red Army armor and air forces in Lithuania. Within a week the Nazi’s controlled the stomping grounds.

   Antanas Staskevicius was transported to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He was put to work sawing down trees in the middle of winter. He starved to death the next winter of 1942. Anton Chekhov, a noted Russian short story writer, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the “most beautiful city in Siberia.”

   “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, please take us to the railroad station. I said OK and they all got into my wagon. It was him and his wife and their two children. I took them to the station. After that I never saw them again. The next day one of our neighbors told me the secret police had come to the teacher’s house that same afternoon looking for him. Anybody from an educated family, the Russians were worried about all of them. They were afraid all the high-class people were against them.”

   When the NKVD began mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting, especially by the body politic. It was every man for himself and God against all, unless you were a dyed in the wool comrade. “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 and write, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a Communist.”

   My father’s mother Antonina, sister Genute, and he stayed on the farm after the Nazi takeover. His sister Gaile was living in Vilnius. There was an uneasy peace. “The day the Russians left and before the Germans came, I was in Vilnius,” Vytas said. “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 everything 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 to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to somebody 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, he said all right, and wrote one out for me.”

   He took a train north and walked home, but when he got there, he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the farm. “They were there three weeks, more than seventy of them. I couldn’t even get into our house since the officers had taken it over. But those Germans were good men. They didn’t do our farm any harm. They had their own tents and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank beer together at night.”

   His father’s 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.

   “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 anything. 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 farmhands out to till the ground in a nearby field. When his nearest neighbor saw them working, he ran across the road towards them.

   “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted waving his arms.

   “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. My hand was almost cut off. The boy who was helping me ran over. When he saw what happened, and saw my injured hand, he passed out.”

   While the war dragged on across Europe, he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his impaired hand and farmhands everywhere were deserting the land. “I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew the Germans gave Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and sang at night while they got drunk. One morning I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were all gone. I had to go back to the Germans and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer exploded, shouting that I hadn’t looked after them, shouting that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouting 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 came back.”

   In 1944 the Red Army stormed back into Lithuania. My father escaped with a mechanized company of Wehrmacht, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. They told him he had five minutes to decide whether he was coming with them as they retreated.

   “An officer said the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses.” The hill was on fire. “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.” It was time to go, come hell or high water.

   His sister Genute, not on the farm that day, fled separately. She got across the border into East Prussia, and later into Germany. His sister Gaile didn’t make it out. “She had a problem at the border. The Russians had taken that area, so she was forced to stop in a town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her. After the war she finished trade school, became a nurse, and never told anybody where she was from. The Communists never found out anything about her.”

   In July the Red Army captured Panevezys. Later that month they took Siauliai, inflicting heavy damage on the city. 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 Lithuania in 1944,” my father said.

   He found out his mother my grandmother had been deported. “Somebody 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. She was sent to a prison camp.”

   Between the tail end of World War Two and 1950 more than 87,000 Lithuanians were deported, forced to work in logging and gold mines, forced to live in barracks with leaky roofs and drafty windows, if there were any windows. More than a third of them died. Some of them resigned themselves. A few escaped.

   My grandmother was released from the Gulag in the early 1960s, one of the last deportees to be let go. She was not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai. She was forced to relocate to Silute, to an aboveground bomb shelter-style apartment. She was still on somebody’s shit list. 

   Silute is to the west of Marijampole, in the south of the country. The Nemunas River floods there almost every year, soaking the lowland pastures. Migrating birds call it home away from home because of the delta and all the water. A large part is forested and home to more than three hundred villages.

   My mother’s family, none of whom escaped the country during the war, lived near there. When she and my sister visited Lithuania in the early 1980s, they made plans to visit Antonina. They kept their plans close to the vest. The scheme was for there to be three of our uncles, three wives, my mother and sister, and some of our cousins in three cars. “My mother would be in one of the cars, I would be in another, and the third car would be a decoy, if it came to that,” my sister Rita said.

   The secrecy was necessary because they weren’t allowed to go anywhere except within the city limits of Vilnius, where they were staying. When they asked about Silute and Siauliai, they were told they were out of bounds. Every place outside of Vilnius was out of bounds. The Intourist official at the front desk of the Gintaras Hotel leaned forward and told my mother it was because of missile installations.

   “Are there missile installations in every town in the whole country?” she asked.

   “I know sarcasm from naïve American when I listen to it,” the official sneered.

   Their convoy didn’t get far the first day of the familial excursion. They were stopped by a roadblock on the outskirts of Vilnius. The police were waiting for them. “They knew,” said Rita. “Somebody had overheard something. Somebody talked. They waved us off the road.”

   The police glanced at my Uncle Justinas’s papers and told him to go back. They went to the second car. Everybody had to show their papers. My mother was the best dressed of anybody in all three cars. She was all decked out. They asked her where she lived.

   “The Gintaras Hotel.”

   “Turn around, fancy lady, go back to the hotel.”

   They went to the third car.

   My Uncle Sigitas and his wife Terese showed their papers. Rita was sitting in the back with our cousins. They showed their papers. When it was Rita’s turn, she said, “You’ve seen their papers. I live in the same place.”

   “What’s your name?”

   “Jurgelaitis, just like them,” she lied.

   He asked her something in Russian. She didn’t understand a word of it and glared at him. The stare-down between Soviet cop and American gal took a few minutes. It was a stalemate.

   “The next time I see this one she is going to have to answer,” the policeman warned my uncle. “Turn back.”

   They turned around and the convoy went back to Vilnius.

   Undaunted, a few days later, a day before leaving the USSR, Rita was picked up by Uncle Sigitas before dawn before breakfast at the back of the hotel for an end run to Silute. She skittered into the car, and they sped off. The streets were empty in the autumn gloom.

   “He was a crazy driver, always yelling, ‘Somebody’s following us!’ He stayed off the highway, and the main roads, instead going up and down different ways. I thought the drive was going to take two hours, but it took much longer.” It took five hours on empty stomachs. It was worse than the Aeroflot flight from Moscow, which had been bad enough. Rita had tossed the bad food tray under her seat in mid-flight.

   They were stopped several times, but every time Uncle Sigitas was allowed to stay the course. The roadblock police didn’t explain why. They just waved him onward. When they got to Silute they asked around and found the house where Antonina was living.

   “She lived in a two-room apartment, in a rectangular four-unit building, almost like a concrete log cabin, that looked like it was built hundreds of years before there even was concrete,” said Rita. She had a low-tech security system, a rusty nail she used to lock the front door. There wasn’t a back door. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. The windows needed caulking. The roof was long overdue.

   She was in her late 80s. She had gone through tough times, but she still had a lot of life in her. She had seven grandchildren in the United States. Rita was the first one she ever saw. She gave my sister a big smile and a big hug, even though she was a small woman and had to reach up. She was barely five feet tall.

   She wasn’t the Man of Steel, like the ringleader who squashed her and the Baltics under his thumb, but he was dead and gone, a downspout memory, and she still had plenty of what it takes. How you start is how you finish. They had lunch, cold beet soup, potato dumplings, and mushroom cookies with strong hot tea. It was a roots buffet on a beat-up wood table. Rita didn’t throw anything under her chair.

   “How did you like it?” Uncle Sigitas asked on their way back to Vilnius.

   “It’s the best food I’ve had in Lithuania so far,” Rita answered.

   Antonina passed away in 1985. She didn’t die of anything special, dying in her sleep. She was in her early 90s. She had fought tooth and nail to survive in a no mercy Siberia and was worn out. Even the toughest nails one day become the last nail in the coffin. Her time was up.

   When she died my father bought a mass for her at our Lithuanian American church in Cleveland, Ohio. He had been raised a Catholic and was still a true believer. I wasn’t on the same page, but I wasn’t going to slam the good book shut that day. When my turn came to say a prayer, I said a prayer for the dead, asking God to grant my grandmother eternal peace.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Fried Eggs on Toast

By Ed Staskus

   The first language I spoke was Lithuanian and until I started meeting other kids on the street it was the only language I spoke. All my first friends in Sudbury, Ontario, were other small change in the same boat, visiting my old country parents with their old country parents. When spring broke early my second year of life, I started meeting other children, boys and girls on the block of nine houses on our dead-end street. 

   They all spoke English and many of them spoke French. We spoke English on the street, which was how I picked up enough of it to get by. French was for talking about cooking fashion politics and popular culture. We didn’t know anything about those things, so we stuck to English.

   My close friend and arch-enemy Regina Bagdonaite, who I called Lele, lived a block away. She and I played together, burning up the pavement, except for those times that she saw me dragging my red fleece blanket behind me. When she tried to take it away and I resisted, starting a tug of war, she resorted to biting me on the arm. It was then squabbling and pushing started in earnest, all hell breaking loose.

   Lele didn’t begin learning English until the first day she went to school.

   “All my friends were Lithuanian during my childhood in Sudbury,” she said. “When I started kindergarten, I didn’t speak a word of English. Many people over my lifetime had a chuckle when I told them I was born in Canada, but English is my second language.”

   Time is money is the watchword in the grown-up world, but time is candy is what works for many children. The young wife who lived next door to my parents had a daughter and they visited some afternoons. She always brought candy and while our mothers talked, Diana and I sat at the kitchen table with a paper bag of candy between us. Whenever one of us was ready for another piece, we jiggled the table vigorously before making a grab for the bag.

   My parents an immigrant couple bought a house as soon as they could, the same as every other Lithuanian who ended up in Sudbury. They had three children inside of five years. They didn’t have a TV, but they had a telephone and a radio, as well as a washing machine and a fridge. They knew their neighbors, but all their close friends were other post-war DP’s, most of them working in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a city, but it was a company town first and foremost.

   By 1950 it had long been associated with mining, smelting, and a broken-down landscape. The environment was said to be comparable to that of the moon. Decades of mining and smokestacks had acidified more than 7,000 lakes inside a circle of 10,000 square miles. 

   “I didn’t like Sudbury,” my mother said. “All the trees were dried up and dead. It was god-forsaken as far as the eye could see.” 

   More than 50,000 acres of the hinterland were barren. Nothing grew there. Another 200,000 acres were semi-barren. There was substantial erosion everywhere. It wasn’t a wasteland, but it was a wasteland. All anyone had to do was walk up a rocky promontory and look around.

   As early as the 1920s “The Hub of the North” was open roasting more than twice as much rock ore as any other smelting location in North America. The aftermath poisoned crops. The result made it one of the worst environments in Ontario. It blackened the native pink granite, turning the rose and white quartz black. 

   “My husband worked two weeks during the day and two weeks during the night,” my mother said. “He walked to work, except when it was too cold, and whoever had a car would pick him and others up. In the morning he left at seven in the morning and got home at seven at night. When he worked nights, he got home at seven in the morning. The kids and I would wait by the window for him to get back.”

   Sudbury is in a basin. It is the third-largest impact crater on Earth. It was created about 200 million years ago when an enormous asteroid rocketed through the atmosphere and hit the ground with a blast. World-class deposits are found there and mined extensively.

   The city’s reputation as a rocky badlands was known far and wide by the time Angele and Vytas Staskevicius got married in 1949 and bought their house on Stanley Street a year later. Despite the industrial blight of the past half-century, there was a growing working-class population. They were a part of that population. The newlyweds were two of the displaced willing to take whatever work was offered in return for getting out of the Old World.

   “All our friends, the Zizai, Simkai, Bagdonai, all had children,” Angele said. “Since our living room was a little bigger than most, they often came over on Saturday nights. The men played bridge while we made dinner. The kids ran around, we drank, smoked, and danced. We put the kids away and talked all night.”

   Whoever had the opportunity to get married got married as fast as they could. There wasn’t an overabundance of eligible women in Sudbury. Henry and Maryte Zizys saw each other three times before they got hitched. The Simkai and Bagdonai stretched it out for a few months. The married men drank at home. The single men drank in bars, usually with other single men.

   The early Lithuanians who went to the New World weren’t Lithuanians, since the country didn’t exist at the time. It had once been its own empire but had since been taken over and was part of the Russian Empire. Many who fled to the United States were mistakenly documented as Polish, since there was a language ban in their homeland and scores of them spoke Polish as a second language.

   The first Lithuanians in Canada were men who fought in the British Army against the Americans in the War of 1812. For the next 130 years most of those who left the Baltics and went to Canada did so for economic reasons. After World War Two they fled toil and trouble after the Soviet Union reincorporated Lithuania into its realm. 

   “All of us hated the Russians for what they did” my mother said.

   The Russians deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberian labor camps during and after the war. Sometimes they had their reasons. Other times the reason was slaphappy. The neighbors might have complained about you. The new Communist mayor might have taken a dislike to you. A cross-eyed apparatchik might have thought you were somebody else. It didn’t matter, because if you ended up in a boxcar going east, your future was over.

   The house Vytas and Angele moved into was on a newer extension of Stanley Street north of Poplar Street. It wasn’t in any of the city’s touted neighborhoods, but Donovan was nearby, and so was Little Britain. Downtown was less than two miles to the east. 

   Stanley Street started at Elm Street where there was a drug store, tobacconist, five-and-dime, fruit market, bakery and butcher shop, restaurants, a liquor store, and the Regent movie theater. The railcars were being replaced by busses and the tracks asphalted over. The other end of Stanley Street dead-ended at a sheer rock face on top of which were railroad tracks. The Canadian Pacific ran day and night hauling ore. When the train wailed, we wailed right back.

   My mother and her friends shopped on Elm Street. When I was still a toddler, I rode in a baby carriage. After my brother and sister were born, they rode in the carriage. I didn’t fit anymore, having become a third wheel.

   “He was unhappy about it,” Angele said. “I told him he was a big boy now and had to walk to help his brother and sister, but he still didn’t like it. He made a sour face.”

   My father spread topsoil in the front yard of our new house and threw down grass seed. The backyard was forty feet deep but sandy and grass wouldn’t grow. He built a fence around it to discourage us from climbing the rocky rounded hill over which the railroad tracks curved west. 

   Even though children imitate their elders, they don’t always listen to them.

   “We always told the kids they weren’t allowed to climb the rock hills,” said Angele. “One day I couldn’t find Edvardas. He wasn’t in the house or in the yard or anywhere on our part of the street. I called and called for him. When he didn’t answer, all I could do was wait outside. When he finally came home, he had pebbles in his pockets. Where have you been? I asked him.”

   “I was looking for gold, mama,” I said, handing my mother pebbles that had a glint of shine. “I found some and brought them back for you.”

   Our house on Stanley Street was ten blocks from the vast open pits on the other side of Big Nickel Mine Drive. Logging and farming were what men worked at through the middle of the 19th century, but after 1885 big deposits of nickel, copper, and platinum were discovered in the basin. The impact of decades of roasting ore on open wood fires killed most of the trees not being logged for the fires, except poplar and birch, which dotted the city and our street.

   “We had two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a nice living room,” said Angele. “Upstairs was a half bath and two rooms We rented those rooms. We usually rented to women or a couple who were new to Sudbury. Where they took a bath, I don’t know. We charged $11.00 a week for a room and saved all the money we got. Right before we left for America, my husband was able to buy a used car.”

   When Bruno and Ingrid Hauck came to Sudbury from Germany, they rented a room for several years. “She watched the kids sometimes, so Vytas and I could go to the Regency to see a movie,” said Angele. They saw “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” We saw “Lady and the Tramp” and fell in love with the movies.

   When I was four my parents had a New Year’s Eve party at our house, inviting their friends. A few minutes before the magic moment my mother cut her eye adjusting the elastic strap of a party hat under her chin while sliding it up over the front of her face.

   “I had to lay down and didn’t see New Year’s Day,” she said, disappointed.

   When she woke up my father and Rimas Bagdonas, her dancing partner in the local Lithuanian folk dancing group, were washing the night’s dishes. Rimas worked in the mines, and wrote plays in his spare time, staging them in the hall of the nearby French Catholic church hall. We all went to church there once a month when the visiting Lithuanian priest made his rounds. It cost ten cents to sit in a pew. My brother, sister, and I sat for free. Piety and silence were mandatory.

   “I was just in my twenties, but in one of Rimas’s plays I was the mother of a dying partisan,” Angele said. “I made myself cry by thinking about the time I cut my eye.”

   September through November are cold, December through February are freezing, and March into mid-May are cold in Sudbury. The first snow by and large falls in October, but it can show up as early as September. The season’s last snow comes and goes in April, although May sometimes sees a late icy shower. There are never any flurries in June, July, and August. 

   My father learned to ice skate and taught us on a rink in the front yard. He hosed water out on the lawn on bitter cold days where it started freezing in minutes. When it was frozen hard as rock, we laced up our skates and went skating. Whenever all the kids on the block joined in it got pell-mell fast. My two friends from across the street and I dazzled the girls with our figure 8s.

   In the 1950s in Sudbury sulfur dioxide formed a permanent, opaque, cloud-like formation across the horizon as seen from a distance. There was lead nickel arsenic and God knows what else in it. The ground-level pollution wasn’t as bad, a gray haze, but was worse on some days than others.

   When it got worse, my father built an igloo for us to play in.

   It snows a hundred and more inches in Sudbury. After the streets and sidewalks are cleared there is plenty of building material. He formed blocks 4 inches high and 6 inches thick. When there were enough blocks to start, he made a circle leaving space for a door. After he stacked them, he used loose snow like cement, packing it in. He put a board across the top of the igloo door and another at the top of the dome for support. Halfway up were small windows and around the top several air holes.

   As long as there was daylight there were daylong Eskimos in the igloo.

   Our furnace in the basement ran on coal. It was delivered once a week by truck, the coal man filling up the bin in the basement down a chute. Every morning my father shoveled coal into it, lit the fire, and stoked the coal. At night either my mother or he banked the furnace, salvaging unburned coal and putting the ashes in bags. They saved some in a container on the front porch for the steps whenever they got iced over.

   My mother told us to never go in the basement. She didn’t invent a Babadook in the basement, but she didn’t want us down there messing around. One day I started down the stairs to see what my dad exactly did every morning. I tripped over my own feet and tumbled the rest of the way down. I was back on my feet in a second, ran up the stairs and into the kitchen, and started to bawl, even though I was unhurt.

   The furnace heated a boiler that created steam delivered by pipes to radiators throughout the house. We were forbidden to stand on the pipes or scale the radiators. It was the basement all over again.

   “I didn’t have to worry about Richardas and Rita, they were too small, but Edvardas was always trying to climb up on the radiator in the living room. I told him he was going to fall off and one Sunday night, while I was cooking, he fell off and broke his collarbone, although he didn’t cry when it happened. He seemed more surprised than anything else.”

   For the rest of the next week, my arm in a sling, my mother fed me my favorite food every morning, fried eggs on toast. I was the envy of my sidekicks on the street, the two Canadian boys from whom I had learned most of my English. After finishing their pancakes or porridge, they ran to our back porch and watched me through our kitchen window go one-handed at my sunny side up breakfast.

   I always saluted my pals with half a piece of gooey toast before getting back to business.

Photograph by Rimas Bagdonas.

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.”

Kitchen Party

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By Ed Staskus

Some years later living in a Polish double in Cleveland, Ohio, the last winter we lived in the old neighborhood off St. Clair Ave., before moving to the new neighborhood in North Collinwood where a school and convent adjoining the Lithuanian church had just been built, I watched my 9-year-old sister Rita walk up the stairs in her new American winter coat and remembered the blimp-style snow suit my mother made for her in Canada.

   She looked like one of the astronauts in ‘Destination Moon.’ I had seen the Technicolor sci-fi movie on a 15” black and white “Atomic Age” Zenith. It had a sharp picture, at least until it warmed up, when it would sooner or later start arcing and hissing. It was always on the verge of blasting off.

   It was space, the new frontier, brought to life by space the old frontier, at least until the TV went black. Rockets were hot. Project Mercury was done and gone, launching the first American astronaut on a suborbital flight in 1961. John Glenn lifted off on an Atlas rocket in 1962 to become the first American to orbit the Earth.

   Rita wore her space suit winters in Sudbury, Ontario. It was where my mother Angele Jurgelaityte married Vytas Staskevicius in 1949 and gave birth to me in 1951, my brother in 1952, and my sister in 1954. It was the trifecta. When she did, she gave up her job as a nanny for the Lapalme’s, known as “The Largest Family in Sudbury.” The Lapalme’s had 13 kids. She went to work raising her own family in her own house. 

   “I spent all my time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and watching my kids,” she said.

   The day she got married she was good at boiling pork and making soup. That was about it. “I didn’t know how to make any other food.” The first time she bought ground meat for a meatloaf, she bought too many pounds by far of it. “We didn’t have a refrigerator and I had to ask one of our neighbors to keep it for me.” She learned to stick to the basics, fruit in season, fresh meat from a butcher shop, eggs, cheese, bread, milk, and coffee.

   “No matter how much I ate I couldn’t put on weight,” she said. “I was thin as a pencil.” She saw a doctor who told her not to overthink nor overeat her slender figure. “You’ll want it back some day,” he told her.

   My mom and dad rented an upstairs room to a German couple who were recently arrived in the country, Bruno and Ingrid Hauck, in order to bring in some income. They charged $11.00 a week and soon converted a second upstairs bedroom to accommodate more boarders. There was a half bath.

   “I don’t know where they went for a real bath,” my mom said. Our family lived on the ground floor. We had a full bath. Once a week in the tub was de rigueur at our house.

   “I loved having kids, but we still had to go out sometimes,” she said. My dad bought her a fur coat after Rita’s birth. Fur was more a north country necessity than a big city luxury, and didn’t cost an arm and a leg, especially since it wasn’t mink and came from the nearby outdoors.

   They couldn’t afford a babysitter but made friends with the Hauck’s, who helped out. “Ingrid loved the kids, especially Rick. She watched them so we could go out.” They walked to the movie theater on Elm Street on Saturday nights. After the movie they took a stroll.

   When she worked for the Laplame’s it was as a mother’s helper for a year. J. A. Lapalme, a local businessman, promised her he would help get boyfriend out of Germany and into Canada. He went to his office every day and every day she waited for word about the sponsorship.

   “One week he was in Montreal,” she said. “When he got home, he didn’t say anything about it. I was in the kitchen washing dishes. I asked him if he had done it, sponsored Vytas, but he said he forgot. I got so mad I threw the washcloth on the floor.”

   She ran upstairs, down the hallway to the back, into her room, slammed the door, and threw herself on the bed.

   He knocked on the door a minute later, came in, and said, “I’ll fix it tomorrow.”

   “He did it the next day,” she said.  

   Vytas went to work in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a mining town. Either you worked underground, or you worked in an ancillary business. He wasn’t low man on the totem pole, like pick-axe men, but he had to watch his step in the 3,000-foot-deep dim damp mineshafts. A wrong step could be a last step. His first job was packing black powder. He worked as a blaster, the man responsible for loading, priming, and detonating blastholes, breaking rock for excavation, creating rock cuts.

   Sudbury is the regional capital of northeastern Ontario, 230 miles north of Toronto and 140 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie. It lays in a 200-million-year-old crater, surrounded by the Canadian Shield, and has hundreds of lakes within its boundaries. Lake Wanapitei is the largest city-contained lake in the world.

   Sudbury’s economy went boom and bust through the years as demand for nickel fluctuated. It was high during World War One, fell sharply when the war ended, and rose again in the 1920s and 30s. It was one of the richest and fastest-growing cities in Canada through the 1930s. During World War Two one mine alone accounted for all the nickel used in Allied artillery. With the advent of the Cold War Sudbury supplied the United States with most of its military grade nickel.

   Angele and Vytas lived in an old two-story clapboard house on Pine Street after their wedding and a one-day honeymoon at a nearby lakeshore park and local hotel. They saved everything they could and couldn’t afford, and with the help of a loan from J. A. Lapalme, were able to buy a new house on a new dead-end stretch of Stanley Street.

    Stanley Street stretched four blocks from Elm Street, a commercial thoroughfare, past Pine Street to Poplar Street. When it was extended to the nearly sheer rock face on top of which the Canada Pacific ran hauling ore, it became five blocks. Several new homes were built. All of them had basements and coal furnaces.

   “There were three on our side of the street and three on the other side when we moved in,” said Angele. There were no sidewalks. “One of the houses on the other side was bigger. It was the builder’s home.”

   Storm windows had been neglected on their new house, regardless of the long winters.  “We hadn’t signed for the house, yet, and Vytas insisted he put in second windows. He put them right in.” They might have been immigrants, DPs from Eastern Europe, but they didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the icy wind blew.

   The builder had four children, two of them boys. I played with them in the summer, climbing the sloping rock hills behind our house, and planning on how to someday climb the steep cliff at the end of the street. Our parents forbade us the fantasy, while we bided our time, waiting for them to turn their backs for a second.

   My mother spoke Lithuanian fluently, Russian and German competently, English just barely, and French not at all. Everybody in Sudbury spoke English and French. It was hearing it on the grapevine and listening some more for her to be able to go shopping.

   “I listened to people. I learned English by talking to them.”

   The first Lithuanians came to Canada in the early 1900s to work in Nova Scotia’s mines. They established a parish and built a church in 1913. Another wave of immigration, tens of thousands, took place after World War Two. Most of them went to Ontario. They spread out to London, Hamilton, and Toronto. Some of them went to Sudbury. There was ready employment there.

   For all its work and prosperity, the mining town was known as one of the ugliest cities in Canada. Logging for the reason of roasting ore on open fires and the smoke that resulted despoiled the landscape, leaving behind scattered poplars and birches, the only trees able to endure the harm. The small city and its vast environs were often compared to the landscape of the moon. What birds there were carried their nut and seed lunch boxes from tree to tree because the trees were so far and few between. They never said goodbye, though. The nest is where the heart is.

   “The summers were short and steamy,” my mom said. “There were no trees anywhere. There was one here and there. The rocks got hot and made everything hotter. Winter started in October, and it was cold.”

   When spring came, there wasn’t much to it. Decades of indiscriminate logging, massive mining operations, and smelter emissions had wiped out almost all the vegetation. The pollution poisoned lakes and streams. The dearth of trees meant a dearth of mulch, leading to widespread soil erosion. As a result, frost was severe in the winter, and it was too summery in the summer.

   It was colder than cold in winter. The average temperature was below zero. “Our best friends, Henry and Maryte Zizys, had to go home on the bus one weekend after visiting us and it was 45 degrees below zero.” The average snowfall was above average for northern lands. The last frost in spring was in May. It came back early in autumn, if it had ever gone away in the first place.

   In the winter, once she got the hang of it, my mom sewed clothes. When she started, she had sewn little except a button back on a shirt or skirt. “But when you have to do something, I did it,” she said. She learned to sew the same way she learned to speak English. She rummaged cheap clothes from second-hand stores and took them apart to see how they had been put together. She cut up adult pants, reusing the zippers, and made children’s pants. “The zipper in pants was hard to figure out.” She learned by doing what she was doing.

   “I found out it was just common sense,” she said.

   She bought a used foot-powered Treadle Singer sewing machine in good condition. A rubber belt operated it. It stretched from the balance wheel to a flat metal bigfoot pedal at the bottom. The power came from the rhythm of the sewer’s feet. The stitch length couldn’t be adjusted. Only a single straight stitch is possible with treadle machines. But once she got into the swing of things, both delicate and durable stiches become more workable. Within a few years she was making curtains and tablecloths for herself and her neighbors.

   She sewed dresses for her friends. She made a dress for Irma Hauck. “I sewed a coat for Maryte Zizys and other Lithuanians.” She learned to make pants for the men, cuffs and all. She sewed winter suits for us. I got a German army winter field coat and matching wool pants. Rick got a Space Cadet zip up one-piece suit. Both of us wore snug form-fitting hats based on “Atomic Rulers of the World.”  Rita’s snow suit was puffed up like a dirigible, cinched at the waist, and paired with a white rabbit furry hat. She was “The Thing from Stanley Street.” We chased her with make-believe ray guns.

   When my father learned how to ice skate at a local rink, he bought us skates. He flooded the front yard with hose water, and when it froze solid taught us how to skate. Whenever Rita fell she never felt a thing, her puffy suit protecting her. But sometimes she couldn’t get back up, lacking leverage, the sharp gusty wind rolling her over and over.

   “When I lived in Nuremberg, at the Army Hospital, one of my roommates, Monica, read my palm, and said I would have three children, but one of them would die young,” my mom said. “When it was time to take the taxi to the hospital for Rita, my third child, I was so scared I fell down on the living room floor and couldn’t go.”

   Vytas got her to her feet and inside the car. In the event, my sister survived, fortune teller or no fortune teller, ray guns or no ray guns, rock solid rink ice or not.

   In the spring, between pregnancies and births, Angele performed in plays resurrected from the homeland. She danced with a folk-dance group. They practiced in the church hall and did turns on local stages, once going to Sault Ste. Marie for an outdoor dance jamboree.

   “Rimas Bagdonas was always my partner,” she said. “He was tall and a good dancer.”

   Vytas and Angele met Rimas and Regina Bagdonas in Sudbury. They met everyone they knew for the first time in Sudbury, since everybody else they had known in Lithuania was either stuck behind the Iron Curtain or had emigrated to one corner of the wide world-or-other. Many of them died in the war.

   Rimas worked for Murray Mines and hosted a Lithuanian radio program in his spare time on Sundays. He sang and danced and played the piano, violin, harmonica, and accordion. He was one of the church organists and one of the accordionists for folk dancing performances.

   He worked deep down in the rock for eight years. In 1957 he was told in order to get promoted he would have to change his last name. A manager suggested Rimas Bags or Rimas Bagas. He didn’t like the idea, at all. He worked in the dark but was beginning to see the light.

   “My dad told them he was born a Bagdonas and would die a Bagdonas,” his daughter Lele said. “So, a family decision was made that he would leave to find a job. We stayed in Sudbury. That November after he found work, we moved to Hamilton. My dad’s first job was at the Ford plant in nearby Oakville.”

   By 1957 most of the Lithuanians in Sudbury were thinking about talking about planning on leaving or had already left for greener pastures. They were moving to Toronto Montreal and the northern United States. My father made a foray south of the border, exploring where we might go to live and work.

   Mining has been and is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Some of the worst workplace disasters ever have been collapses and explosions. The most common accidents are the result of poisonous or volatile gases and the misuse of explosives for blasting operations. Especially dangerous below ground is mine-induced instability. It is a major threat for all miners. None of the DP diggers wanted to be dug out of rubble after surviving WW2.

   At the start of the 1950s Sudbury had a population of about 40,000 and of the 14,000 men in the labor force more than 8,000 of them worked in mining and smelting. Ten years later, due to the high demand for labor, the population of the city doubled. But at the outset of the 2000s Sudbury had the smallest proportion of immigrants of any city in Ontario, the Italians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians almost all gone.

   In the meantime, Sudbury modernized its mining and reclaimed its landscape. They changed the climate. Nearly 9 million trees were planted over a 30-year period. It was one of the largest re-greening projects in the world. Better late than never.

   “I hated my husband having to work in the mines,” my mom said. “Whenever a miner died, you never heard it on the news or read about it in the newspaper. We only ever found out by word- of-mouth.”

   My sister’s godfather moved to Chicago. My brother’s godfather moved to San Diego. My godfather moved to Los Angeles. Henry and Maryte Zizys moved to Montreal. The Hauck’s moved to Detroit. Almost every DP who came to Sudbury for the chance to get out of Europe and for the available work went somewhere else.

   “My husband worked nine hours a day for two weeks and then nine hours a night for two weeks,” Angele said. His days of getting up, shoveling coal into the furnace on bitter mornings, having breakfast, walking or hitching a ride to the mine, working his shift, getting home, having dinner, seeing his kids for few minutes, took up most of his day. 

   “When he worked nights, we barely saw him. He would come home in the morning, have a bite to eat, and go to bed.”

   Refugees and displaced people believe in hard work as the way to get ahead. It’s often the only thing they have to believe in. Everything else has been left behind.

   “When the men were working day shifts, we had parties on weekends at our house,” my mom said. “We had a big living room and the Simkiai, Povilaiciai, and Dzenkaiciai would come over.” Rita, Rick, and I got shoved into a bedroom to fend for ourselves.

   The husbands played bridge in the kitchen long into the night, drinking beer and homemade krupnickas, which is a kind of Lithuanian moonshine, smoking Export “A” and Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes until the card table was under a pall of smoke. The wives put food out, mixed cocktails, and kibitzed the card players. They danced to records. They kicked back and talked.

   “We didn’t have TV’s so we talked.”

   They talked about their kids, their neighbors and friends, their baznycia and bendruomene, who was getting married and who was getting dumped, the movies, shopping cooking the butcher baker and candlestick maker. They talked about the local doings. The men talked about their jobs, who knew and didn’t know what they were doing. They put us back to bed when they spotted us listening. They talked long into the night in the living room.

   When it got dark outside, and started snowing, the black rock face of Sudbury got muffled in white. When the wind picked up drifts built up against the side of the house and the windows. After that there wasn’t much to see. They didn’t talk about what had been, but about what was going to be. Up ahead was what mattered to them.

   “One day a door will open and let the future in,” Angele said. In the meantime, she made sure the front door was securely latched. There was no sense in letting Old Man Winter crash the party.

Photograph by Vytas Staskevicius.

Ed Staskus posts feature 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.”

Close to the Bone

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By Ed Staskus

   Afterwards, my mother could never remember exactly where she met her first grown-up boyfriend, Vladas the soldier. “It was in Nuremberg, but I don’t know if I met him at one of the dances at the hospital or at a coffeehouse or out walking,” she said.

   It might have been at the city zoo, where she went most days weather permitting, leading twenty thirty children from the ward where she worked, children who were recovering from the war, for a walk in the fresh air and sunshine. Her youngest niece, Gema, was one of the kids.They threw groundnuts to the elephants, even though elephants don’t like nuts and hardly ever eat them.

   Angele and her friend Maryte, her friend from the same DP camp in Bavaria, who was the friend who told her about starting over in Nuremberg, when they had the chance the two of them jumped on the tram for the two-mile ride to town, where they slipped into a restaurant or coffeehouse, ordered coffee and got an earful of music for an hour-or-so.

   “Someone was always playing a piano. We would sit and listen and order another coffee if we had to so we could stay and listen some more.”

   Angele Jurgelaityte was living at the Army Hospital in Nuremberg, studying to be a nurse assistant. She fled Lithuania in late 1944, when she was 16 years old, on her aunt’s horse-drawn wagon, in a line of carts and wagons miles long. Three other Lithuanian women and she shared a small room, all of them training and working, on the grounds of the hospital.

   Vladas was a Lithuanian Army officer who served as a guard at the war crime trials a couple of years earlier and was still stationed in the city. He wanted back to the homeland, but it wasn’t looking likely.

   Many Baltic military officers, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, were assigned security functions in the Allied zones after the war. They guarded bridges and buildings. Some of them kept an eye on Germany’s war criminals during the series of thirteen Nuremberg trials. After the suicides and executions of those Nazis judged to have committed genocide and crimes against humanity, some of the officers and their units stayed in the city, protecting weapon arsenals, food supplies, and the airport.

   “He was my first boyfriend. He was my friend, but he was a father to me, too,” Angele said. It was summer, three years after the end of the war. She was 20 and he was 33. He had access to food most Germans and no refugees had access to. He brought her some of it. He brought her oranges and apples. One day he brought bananas.

   “I had never had one before.”

   Vladas was married with a home and a six-year-old daughter in Lithuania. He told Angele his wife was dead. He explained how he had been deployed when the Russians swarmed the Baltics, got caught up in the retreat, and couldn’t rescue retrieve his wife and child. They were left behind to fend for themselves. When his wife died soon afterwards, his daughter was taken in by his mother.

   “When he told me his wife was dead, I didn’t believe him. I told him that, about not believing him, but he didn’t say anything.” Instead of trying to explain, he wrote a letter to his mother. She sent him a letter in return. He took it to Angele.

   “He brought it to me unopened. We sat down together on a sofa and he gave it to me. I opened it.” The only thing inside the envelope was a black and white snapshot of the headstone on the grave of his wife.

   “I was dumbstruck, but no matter, I wasn’t ready to get married. At the same time, I was friends with Vytas.” She was getting only so close to Vladas. She hadn’t told and he didn’t know about Vytas, her other boyfriend in the making, a young man her own age, who was in the fast lane.

   “I told Vladas, sorry, we have to end it. Besides, he had only talked to me about marriage once, while Vytas told me a hundred times we were going to get married.”

   Vytas Staskevicius was from Siauliai. It is both a district and a city in northern Lithuania. The road getting there is the gateway to the Hill of Crosses, a pilgrimage site created in the 19th century as a symbol of resistance to Russian rule. There are more than 100,000 crosses on and around the hill.

   His father, who had been governor of the province, was arrested in 1940 and died of starvation in a forest labor camp in Siberia. His mother, a native of Russia, was picked up and deported to Siberia in 1944, where she still was and would remain for another eight years.

   He severely hurt his hand in an accident on the family farm during the war, and after fleeing Lithuania in early fall 1944, black marketed whatever he could get his hands on, worked on and off for the American Army, and was now working for a relief agency. He had gone to the Army Hospital in Nuremberg several times, starting in 1947, where Dr. Rudaitis, a Lithuanian specialist, was performing reconstructive surgery on his injury.

   Angele met Vytas the second day he first came to the hospital. He was unconscious on an operating table. They met again and started talking and seeing each other after he was back on his feet. “We went for walks and to the movies,” she said. They didn’t go to any theaters, as much as Angele enjoyed musical theater. The show would have got in the way. They didn’t hold hands, being careful not to get off on the wrong foot, since his hand was healing.

   “I liked him. He was a steady man, not a fancy man.” When he came back to the hospital in spring 1948, they got reacquainted, getting more intimate, growing closer. Intimacy is healing when the lifeline to your home has been broken and your bones broken, too. They heal better when they have a reason.

   When he went back to Hanau, she put her nose to the grindstone. It was all she could do. She had gotten her certification and was saving everything she could for passage to North America, where she was determined to go to build a new life.

   “I couldn’t go home, I couldn’t stay in Germany, and there wasn’t any future for us in Europe,” she said. “All of us were trying to go somewhere.”

   She was being paid in the new Deutsche Marks for working at the hospital, unlike many others who were paid partly with money and partly with cigarettes, or only with cigarettes, which were a kind of currency in post-war Germany. Vytas was paid room and board and 32 packs of Turkish cigarettes a month working for an international relief outfit in Hanau.

   “Everybody smoked,” said Angele.

   She was smoking in a hallway one day when Vytas’s bone doctor approached her. “I put my hand behind my back,” she said. There was no hiding the smoke, however.

   “Dr. Rudaitis gave me a long lecture about not smoking. Finally, he left.”

   By the time he did the cigarette had smoldered down to a butt and she had to stub it out. It was like burning money. Deutsche Marks cost too much to burn, she thought, and thought about quitting, but didn’t, not just then.

   Apart from study and work and more work, writing letters, breakfast dinner sleep, the four Lithuanian roommates, Ele, Koste, Monica, and Angele, talked, played cards, and talked some more in their single room.

   “We played rummy and talked all the time, about our friends, politics, the future, and the movies.” They all enjoyed the circus, too, but only Angele went to the city’s theaters.

   “I loved going to the musical shows. Maryte and I would go together.” One day on their way they stopped and got a strip of pictures taken of themselves, their heads close together, in a coin-operated photo booth kiosk.

   “We were in our seats, during the show looking at our pictures, and laughing when someone behind us complained. An usher came and told us we had to move to the back row and be quiet or we would have to leave.”

   They sat in the back row quiet as mice the rest of the show.

   Their room at the Army Hospital was fitted with four twin beds, a sofa, and a table. The table barely sat the four of them. They played cards among themselves and sometimes with friends, although men rarely played with them, except Vytas.

   “He would come to our room when he was having another operation on his hand and always play cards with us, squeezing himself in. He was the only man who did.”  By then she was almost certain he was the one she was going to marry.

   “None of my friends wanted me to be friends with him. Koste and Monica thought he was the wrong man. Ele wanted me to be friends with her brother, but he and I both knew we didn’t like the other one, at all.”

   She was hoping Vytas would be able to get a job at the Army Hospital. One of the maintenance men, a fellow Lithuanian refugee, told them he was moving on and had recommended Vytas. When the time came, though, he changed his mind at the last minute, deciding to stay.

   “After that we weren’t friends,” Angele said. She was vexed her man was not going to be able to be nearby all the time. The more she thought about it the more ticked off she became.

   One evening she saw the maintenance man walking down the long corridor towards their room. She dashed inside, poured a thick glass tumbler full of water, opened the door slightly, and positioned the glass on top of the door. She left it ajar. When she heard him passing, she called his name out. He pushed the door open, the glass tumbled over, and his head shoulders shirt were drenched with water.

   “He got so mad!” said Angele.

   “Who did this?” he yelled.

   “The girls were all in the room. They saw what I had done but all of them said they didn’t know who did it.”

   “This is so childish!”

   It probably was a childish prank. At least it wasn’t deadly serious. He changed his shirt and toweled off his drenched head. Many heavy bombs had fallen on the heads of everyone in and around Nuremberg for more than a year. Better a tumbler of water than being rumbled by explosions. Better to be a rumble fish with a chance to swim away.

   “You did it,” he said, pointing at Angele.

   “I did not do it,” she lied.

   During the war Nuremberg was a production center for armaments. It was densely populated, as well, well-suited for the purposes of the deadly area bombing strategy the British had devised. They used a mix of explosive and incendiary bombs, seeking to create firestorms on the ground.

   From February 1944 until the end of the war nearly twenty major raids involving more than eight thousand USA Army Air Force and RAF Pathfinder planes bombed the city. B-17’s, B-24’s, and Lancaster’s attacked plants making motorcycles, engines for submarines, and parts for tanks. They destroyed more than a hundred other factories. They destroyed the marshaling yard, the main railway lines, and the Reichsbahn. They destroyed industrial and infrastructure targets everywhere, since by that time the Allies exercised air supremacy.

   It was mess at the end of the war, blown up, torn apart, families lost and separated. Koste, Monica, and Angele were alone in Germany. Only Ele had family with her, two brothers. By 1947 all were looking for a way out.

   At the end of summer 1948 Angele was ready to go. She had not been able to get permission to go to the United States. She was going to Canada, instead. She didn’t have a sponsor, but since she worked in the children’s ward at the Army Hospital, she had the skills to be a nanny once she was there.

   All she had to do was get there. It was now or never. It was time to stop marking the time.

   After VE Day there were about twelve million DP’s in Europe. Some half of them were repatriated to their homelands within a few months. Almost four hundred refugee camps were set up in the Allied zones in Germany for the rest.

   Two years after the end of the war American policy was revised so that every refugee who wanted to emigrate had to have a sponsor. When not enough were found, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, providing for more than 200,000 DP’s to enter the United States. Nearly half of those designated were Ukrainian, who under no circumstances wanted to go home, home meaning almost certain death.

   Many Russian refugees flatly refused to board transports bound for Mother Russia. Some Baltics killed themselves rather than be repatriated. General Dwight Eisenhower banned the use of forced repatriation in the American zone.

   By the 1950s about a million DP’s had been absorbed by Western European countries. Approximately half a million were accepted by the United States and a further half million by other nations, more than forty of them. Some refugees remained in camps through the decade. It was only near the end of 1960 that the last refugee camp was finally closed.

   As she was packing to go to Hamburg, Angele got a note from Vladas. “Merry Christmas on the first day of the holidays. My squad visited my quarters to wish me a happy holiday, but I wasn’t happy with them or myself.”

   On November 16, 1948, she caught a morning train for the Port of Hamburg, boarded a repurposed troop carrier, sailed up the Elbe River, the next day crossed the North Sea, and the rest of the week rode out the rough Atlantic Ocean. It was the second half of the month of Lapkritis.

   Lapas means leaf in Lithuanian and kristi means fall.

   “It took nine days to cross the ocean and I was sick for nine days,” Angele said. She landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, boarded a train with the Canada-bound refugees who had been on the S.S. Marine Flasher, disembarking 27 hours later in Montreal, where she was shuffled around like a second cousin for several weeks before getting her walking papers, and caught a second train to Sudbury, Ontario, riding the rails for another 24 hours.

   Sudbury is the largest city in northern Ontario and by land area the largest in the province and the fifth largest in the country. Its economy was dominated by the mining industry for most of the 20th century. The big mining companies were the major employers in the city and the world’s leading producers of nickel. Outside the city proper the landscape looked like the landscape of the moon.

   The use of open coke beds into the mid-20th century and logging for material to burn resulted in the nearly complete loss of trees far and wide. By the 1940s all the pink-gray granite for fifty miles had long been turned black by air pollution from the roasting yards.

   She was going to be the nanny for the Lapalme’s, one of the leading families in the city, reportedly “the largest family in Sudbury.” Five of the children were under ten. They were going to be her responsibility. She celebrated Christmas alone that winter, at a desk writing a letter to Vytas.

   “Two of the grown-up Lapalme’s, in their early 20s, are in the next room with their friends, young French couples, dancing, as I write to you. They invited me to join them since one of them had been in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany and speaks German, but I said thank you, no.”

   She stayed by herself in her room. The song “Chattanooga Choo Choo” on the record player bubbled through the gap under the door. The Lapalme’s were dancing to the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The big-band man’s airplane had disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel four years earlier when he was traveling to France to entertain Allied troops. Only his music was still alive.

   “You don’t understand how lonely it is to be here. I am waiting,” Angele wrote.

   “She’s gonna cry, until I tell her that I’ll never roam, so Chattanooga choo choo, won’t you choo-choo me home?” She skipped over the rest of the song as the needle grooving the record started to skip, marking the time now and then and shaping the time to come in her own mind’s eye.

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.”

Farm Girl

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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.”

Motor City Clampdown

By Ed Staskus

   Antanas Kairis was a year-or-two older than me, good-looking, and quick on the uptake. I met him at a party at a large house on Magnolia Dr. in University Circle, close to the Music Settlement. Dalia and Algis Nasvytis, who were near my age and who I knew through the community, lived there with their younger sister, Julia, and their parents. It was a week before Christmas.

   They sometimes threw their house open, clearing the big room in the back for kids teenagers young adults to dance to records. The grown-up adults mingled, smoking and drinking and chatting. It was cold and had snowed for days beforehand. The house was brick, two stories with a front facing slate roof and gables, and windows galore. All lit up it sparkled going up the walk in the frosty night.

   Andy was from Boston and had come to Cleveland, Ohio, to see his girlfriend, who was from Dearborn, Michigan. When I called him Tony, the lingo for Antanas, he said, “Call me Andy.” Aida was blonde and beautiful and visiting friends. She didn’t know the Nasvyciai, but her friends did, and she knew Andy.

   I didn’t know I was standing next to him until Aida sauntered off to dance with another boy. 

   “What do you know, I drive all day, and she slips off with somebody else,” he grumbled smiling devilishly.

   It took me a second to realize he was talking to me. I was wall flowering more than dancing. At least he had a girl to complain about. I didn’t often strike up conversations with strangers. Andy was more silver-tongued than me, by a long shot.

   He wanted a cigarette. We went out on the back terrace, and he lit up. I didn’t smoke. He did most of the talking. By the time we went back in it seemed like we were fast friends. I didn’t see much of him the rest of the night. He only had eyes for Aida. He clapped me on the back when I was leaving with my ride, saying he hoped we would meet again. I said sure, even though I didn’t expect to ever see him again.

   I don’t know how Andy got my number but just after the first of the year I found myself on the phone with him. He was driving to Dearborn to see Aida the next weekend and wanted to know if I wanted to go along. I cleared it with my parents, even though they didn’t know his family or him, and he picked me up the next Friday morning. He looked like he had driven all night.

   He was driving an almost new two-door GTO hardtop 428. GTO stands for The Great One. It was red, what Pontiac called Montero Red. It was a cool car inside a hot color. It had street cred, and more. I waved goodbye and piled in. When we got to the corner of our street, he asked me if I minded driving. I said I didn’t mind and drove all the way to Dearborn while he slept.

   Dearborn was 170 miles away. We made it in record time in the smooth as silk muscle car. The engine had a throaty sound and handled like doing simple arithmetic.

   Henry Ford was born on a farm in Dearborn and later built an estate there. He pioneered the mass production of automobiles, and his world headquarters was based there. He forged the River Rouge Complex there, the largest factory of his empire. He had a reconstructed historic village and museum built, immortalizing his youth. The open land is planted with sunflowers and his favorite crop, which was soybeans. The crops are never harvested.

   There were lots of Poles Germans Italians and Lithuanians in Dearborn. If there were any African Americans, I didn’t see them. “Negroes can’t get in here. Every time we hear of a Negro moving in, we respond quicker than reporters do to a fire,” said Orville Hubbard, the mayor from 1942 to 1978. “As far as I am concerned, it is against the law for a Negro to live in my suburb.” The Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1965 found Mother Hubbard guilty of posting racist newspaper clippings on City Hall bulletin boards. However, he was never taken to court on the issue. He was an equal opportunity bigot. He complained that “the Jews own this country,” that the Irish “are even more corrupt than the Dagos,” and when Middle Easterners started moving into Dearborn after the Six-Day War that “the Syrians are even worse than the niggers.” In 1970 his son John Jay Hubbard ran for mayor against him but got beaten to a pulp.

   The unofficial slogan of the lily of the valley burg was “The Sun Never Sets on a Negro in Dearborn.”

   We found Aida’s house without too much trouble, except for stopping at several gas stations and asking for directions. Her parents were suspicious of Antanas but brushed me off as a harmless sidekick. They agreed to let us sleep in their furnished basement that night and Saturday night and fed us lunch. It was hot beet soup with black rye bread and kugelis. I wasn’t surprised it wasn’t burgers and fries.

   We went out on the town, visiting the Automotive Hall of Fame. We went to the Henry Ford Museum and rode in a Model-T. We went to the Fairlane and sat in an old bus. We went to the movies and saw “In the Heat of the Night.” We stopped at a tavern with a neon sign in the window saying “EATS.” Andy explained I was with him, and they let me in. We had burgers and fries. Andy had a beer. Aida and I had Sprite.

   On the way back Double A sat in the back seat making out. We were at a stop light minding our own business waiting for the green to go when a car pulling up next to us got too close and broke off the GTO’s sideview mirror. There wasn’t one to begin with on the passenger side which meant now I didn’t have any. The young woman driving the white Chevy Corvair, one of the worst cars on the road, looked at me, looking chagrined. She put the car in park and got out. I noticed her compact car didn’t have side mirrors from the get-go.

   The Corvair is on most lists of “The Ten Most Questionable Cars of All Time.” 

   I was standing beside the driver’s door looking at the broken mirror lying in the road when I noticed Andy bolting out of the back seat and making a beeline to who-knows-where. He hit the pavement running and disappeared down a side street. When the police appeared, I pointed to the broken mirror and explained what happened. Aida and I sat in the car while they went about their business. They wrote a ticket and gave it to the guilty girl. She drove away in her Corvair waving goodbye.

   “We’ve called your parents and they’ll be here to pick you up soon,” one of the policemen told Aida. She looked worried. “Are your parents strict?” I asked. She nodded yes.

   “What about me?” I asked.

   “You’re coming with us,” the policeman said.

   “Where are we going?”

   “You’re going to jail,” he said.

   “Why? I didn’t do anything.”

   “This is a stolen car,” he said.

   The city hall the police station and the district court were all in a row on Michigan Ave. I was taken to the police station, photographed and fingerprinted. They put me in a holding tank. It smelled bad, like a toilet with a dead rat in it. A man in a suit showed up and took my statement. 

   “I didn’t steal that car,” I said. “Find Antanas. He’ll tell you.”

   “We already found him.”

   “And?”

   “He said you stole the car.”

   “What! That’s not true. Why did he run away if he didn’t steal it? I didn’t steal anything, he did.”

   “Have you ever been to Massachusetts.”

   “No, except once a couple of years ago when there was Boy Scout Jamboree there.”

   “All right, sit tight,” he said.

   I sat tight that night and the next night and the night after that until my court appearance on Monday. I was shuffled into a cell with three other men, two of them there for drunk and disorderly and one of them, an African American, for being in Dearborn after the sun went down. He called us honkies. We ignored him.

   “I don’t trust anyone that hasn’t been to jail at least once in their life. You should have been, or something’s the matter with you,” John Waters once said.

   I didn’t trust the two drunks and slept with one eye open. My fears were put to rest the next day when they sobered up. They built Ford Mustangs at River Rouge. The complex included 93 buildings with nearly 16 million square feet of factory floor space. It had its own docks on the dredged-our Rouge River, 100 miles of interior railroad track, its own electricity plant, and an integrated steel mill. It was able to turn raw materials into running vehicles within its own space. 

   “You leave your brain at the door,” one of them said. “Just bring your body, because they don’t need any other part. It’s a good thing, otherwise I would lose my mind. They tell you what to do and how to do it.”

   “Hey, there ain’t a lot of variety in the paint shop either,” the other one complained. “You clip on the color hose, bleed out the old color, and squirt. Clip, bleed, squirt, clip, bleed, squirt, clip, bleed, squirt, scratch your nose. Only now the bosses have taken away the time to scratch my nose.” 

   “Yeah, the line speed used to be 40 or 45 cars an hour twenty years ago but now it’s working its way up to a 100. A lot of the time I have to get into the car and do my job sitting on raw metal. I was always going home with black and blue marks on the back of my legs. I made a padded apron to wear backwards so I would be more comfortable.”

   “I was a two-bolt man for a while,” the painter said. “There were two bolts and I put in one and secured it. Then I put in the other one and secured it. They came pretty fast, so it’s time after time. I always had a sore shoulder. It just wears you down in your bones.”

   A rolling rack of paperback books came by, and I grabbed a couple of Perry Mason mysteries. We were fed morning noon and night. I took naps whenever I wanted to. By Monday morning I had gained a pound or two, easing into my motel tan, and was well rested.

   On the way to the courtroom, I saw Dandy Andy in another group and jumped him, only to be separated from him in no time flat. I spit out he was a rotten goddamned fink. He gave me the finger and that ended our so-called friendship on the spot. In the courtroom I saw my father, who had taken the day off and driven to Dearborn. When my turn came a police detective and an assistant district attorney talked to the judge first. When they were done the judge crooked his finger at me to approach the bench.

   “Your friend has admitted stealing the car in Boston to go joyriding and so we are dropping the charges against you,” he said.

   “He’s not my friend,” I said.

   “In any case, you’re free to go.”

   Automobile theft was rampant all over the country, with almost a million of them going missing every year. Michigan was one of the states that led the way. My case was open and shut, thank God. Stealing cars was a trap door to prison. I left with my father, who wasn’t happy, but happy I had been sprung loose.

   “I still can’t believe another Lithuanian would do that to me, especially lying about stealing the car,” I said on our way home.

   My father brushed my naivete aside.

   “In Lithuania whenever anyone is driving, they are cautious of people on the side of the road trying to flag them down, trying to get them to pull over,” he said. “More often than not it’s a trick to get you out of your car so that a second man can either steal what’s in your unattended car or drive off with it. Everybody knows if you absolutely must leave your car, say you are involved in an accident, be sure to turn off the ignition, take the keys, and lock the car. Lietuviai are no saints, believe me.”

   He tapped out a Pall Mall, lit it, and drove in silence while he smoked.

   “What do you think the moral of your lost weekend might be?” he asked ten minutes later stubbing out his cigarette.

   I looked at the pivoting globe compass and small painted statue of St. Christopher on top of the dashboard, wiggling slightly on their magnetic bases. Even though the compass told him what direction he was going in, my father was terrible with directions, often getting lost. He didn’t like asking for them, in any case, and relied on St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Unfortunately, St. Christopher never said a word about anything.

   I couldn’t think what the moral might or might not be. I knew it was going to be some kind of clampdown.

   “Never trust anybody driving a stolen car, not any Lithuanian, and not even yourself,” he said.

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.”

One Man Army

By Ed Staskus

   There has never been an excess of men who fight for a guerrilla group and three armies, one of them twice, during any single war. An army a day keeps the lion’s share of men busy enough. Leonas Lucauskas stayed busier than most other combatants during the struggle that was World War Two, serving in the Lithuanian, German, and American armed forces. He fought with partisans in the forests. He may not have had as many lives as a cat, but it was close enough.

   “My father Leonas was born in 1916, in the Ukraine,” Leo Lucas said. “My grandfather Juozas and grandmother Stanislava were living in Poltava, insanely far from Marijampole, which was their home.” He meant the 700 miles was insanely far given the state of Russian roads and railroads. The Eastern Front, where millions of men were slaughtering each other at the time, was closer.

   “He was a professor, teaching there during the war,” Leo said.

   The school was the Poltava National Technical University. It was founded in 1818 by the wife of the governor-general of the province, the granddaughter of the last Ukrainian strongman before the Russian Empire absorbed the country in the 18th century. For hundreds of years Lithuanian and Polish freebooters controlled vast tracts of the Ukraine and were a law unto themselves. They were no match for the Cossacks, however, who were later no match for the Russians.

   The main building on campus was built in the early 1830s as the home of the Institute of Noble Maidens. It had an Empire-style look. When the institute became the technical university, women were forbidden to attend. The empire was out of bounds.

   After the war the family, including Leonas’s older brother and sister, who were twins, went back to Lithuania. They settled near Iglauka, not far from Lake Yglos, His father taught school in Marijampole, 12 miles to the west, and they lived on a farm. His mother’s family were prosperous owners of acreage and property.

   In 1924 the state-sponsored revolt in Klaipeda was signed sealed delivered, the country competed in the Summer Olympics for the first time, and his older brother unexpectedly died of an illness. The next year his mother went to a wedding. While there she was shot dead.

   It had been Russian Imperial policy to leave the country in a non-industrial state. The inheritance system after the land reform of 1863 forbade the partition of plots. There were many landowners at the reception. They stuck together socially, friends, neighbors, and families bound by the old-time way.

   The Communist party of Lithuania was formed in 1918 and remained illegal until 1940. They were out for blood, though. There is only so much land to go around in small Baltic-like countries. It was a zero-sum struggle. “A group of Communist agitators, people who wanted other people’s land, came to the wedding, started a ruckus, started shooting guns, and my grandmother was accidentally shot and killed,” Leo said.

   Years later, Leonas told his son the challenge of his life after his mother’s death was, should he take revenge when he grew up? They lived in small towns, everybody knew everybody else, and everybody knew who the Communists were. Should he kill them when he grew up? He decided he wouldn’t.

   When he grew up, he got married, had a daughter, and was planning on going to school to study medicine, but then World War Two happened. His father was assaulted shot and killed by fifth column collaborators in his home. Leonas joined the Lithuanian Army and the Soviet Union invaded. 

   It was never a fair fight. In mid-June 1940 a half-million Red Army troops poured across the borders. Within a week the Baltics were overrun, one week before France fell to Nazi Germany. Josef Stalin blew his nose into his walrus mustache. Adolf Hitler did an awkward jig grinning behind his toothbrush mustache.

   Leonas took to the trees, joining a group of partisans, staying in the fight for the next year. It wasn’t any more dangerous than anything else in dangerous times. He had been working in their fields when his father was killed. “They were killing landowners. My father’s luck was just the luck of being in the fields,” Leo said. “They would have shot him if they had been able to track him down.”

   A year later Lithuania was invaded by the German army. Most Russian aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The Wehrmacht advanced rapidly, assisted by Lithuanians, who saw them as liberators. They helped by bringing their weapons to bear, controlling railroads, bridges, and warehouses. The Lithuanian Activist Front and Lithuanian Territorial Corps formed the native backbone of the anti-Soviet fighting.

   Leonas was one of many who joined the German Army, being assigned to a Baltic Unit. Three years later he was having second thoughts. The Russian Baltic Offensive of 1944 was in full swing. The Red Army on the march to “liberate the Soviet Baltic peoples.” An NCO by then, Leonas and his men were ordered to man the front line and hold it at all costs. It was costing them dearly every day. 

   “The rich Lithuanians were officers,” Leo said. They weren’t in the tranches getting their heads shot off. “The enlisted men were getting killed. They all wanted to get away.”

   There was a small airstrip nearby for reconnaissance and resupply. Junker 52s were flying in and out with ammunition first aid food and hope in the grim hopelessness. Leonas and three other men from his unit were unloading one of the planes at a side door by means of a ramp, the front and wing-mounted engines roaring, when with hardly a word spoken between them, they made up their minds on the spot to steal it and fly to safety.

   Two of the men rushed up the ramp and threw the German pilots out the door, while the other Lithuanian and Leonas kept watch, guns at the ready. He was the last one to scramble into the plane and was shot in the back of the foot just before slamming the door shut.

   “I was playing on the floor one day,” Leo said. It was the late 1960s. “My dad was relaxing, shoes and socks off, sitting on the sofa in the living room reading a newspaper. I saw a scar on his heel and asked him what it was. He said it was a bullet wound. He rolled up his pants and showed me three more on both legs.”

   One of the Lithuanians returned the shooting with a MG15 machine gun set in the dustbin turret, while the other two men dragged Leonas to the cockpit. None of them had ever flown an airplane. He was the only one of them who had ever even driven a car.

   How hard can it be? he thought. With bullets slamming into the corrugated aluminum fuselage, he found out it wasn’t hard at all. He pushed on the throttle, got the Junker going as fast as he thought it would go, raised the nose, and “Iron Annie” lifted itself up into the air.

   They quickly came up with a plan, planning to fly to Switzerland. They got as far as the Poland to Germany border when they ran out of gas. The plane wasn’t the fastest, 165 MPH being its top speed, and it could go about 600 miles on a tankful. When they went down, they were headed in the right direction. All they needed was another full tank.

   It solved their landing problem, since Leonas had already told his confederates he had no idea how to land the plane. The Junker hit the ground hard and every part of it broke into pieces. When Leonas came back to life he was in a field hospital. He never found out what happened to his countrymen.

   The doctors and military men asked him who he was and what happened. He answered them in German, in High Deutsch, not Low. “My father spoke Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and German.” He was wearing the right uniform when found, was speaking like a householder, and they assumed he was one of them. Leonas bit his tongue about who he really was, thanking God for his good fortune.

   After he got out of the hospital he was deemed not fit enough for combat and assigned to the motor pool. Soon after that he drew a lucky number and was assigned to be the driver for a general. It was lucky enough until several months later, when early one morning, in the middle of winter, he got a wake-up call from one of his motor pool sidekicks.

   “Don’t come to work today,” the man said.

   “What do you mean?”

   “Your general died late last night. One of the first people the Gestapo will want to talk to is you.”

   He knew it was true. He knew what had happened to anybody and everybody involved in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in mid-July. Nearly 5,000 people were executed. He would never be able to stand up to scrutiny. They would stand him up in front of a firing squad.

   His general was probably out carousing in their Tatra 87, slid on some ice, smashing into a tree, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter whether he died in the arms of his mother or was assassinated. His goose was cooked if the SS got him. They literally cooked people to death.

   The Tatra 87 had been the car of the year the last five years. Sleek futuristic BMW-engine fast and high-tech as could be, it was the vehicle of choice for German officers. Unfortunately for them, it was sloppy, handling like pudding, killing its drivers right and left. Leonas always kept it under 40 MPH. It was the vehicle of choice of the Allies, too, at least for their mortal enemy. They thought of it as a secret weapon, killing more high German officers than died fighting the Red Army.

   He jumped to his feet, threw himself into his uniform, threw on a winter coat, and fled his room. Making his way to the motor pool, he found a truck with keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. There were plenty to go around. Opel manufactured 95,000 of the 4 x 4 Blitz trucks during the war. He quickly signed it out, turned it over, and drove away unnoticed. He drove straight for the front. His plan was to break through the line and surrender to the Americans. When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.

   He didn’t run out of gas and didn’t get shot by either side. In the event, he surrendered. He was relieved and confident that the war was over for him. But by the time the war raised the white flag he was in his third army. At least he was finally on the winning side.

   “My grandfather Juozas was a gigantic guy,” Leo said. “I’m six foot four. But my father Leonas was five nine and maybe one forty pounds.” In the end, what counts is what you do. Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of what he called “the whole shebang” in Europe. He knew there was more to winning the war than armor. “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” he said.

   At the beginning of 1945 the Allied Expeditionary Force on the Western Front had 73 divisions ready to go. The Germans had 26 divisions. The Battle of the Bulge ended in an Allied victory. Adolf Hitler held a meeting with his top men, instructing them to hold the Americans and British off as long as possible. By that time, however, his top men were flat tires. He boarded a train and never went back to the Western Front. At the end of January, he gave the last speech he was ever to give. It didn’t do any good. 

   After surrendering, Leonas spent time in a DP camp, until being recruited by the Americans. They were looking for men who spoke multiple languages and he fit the bill. He had been picking up bits and pieces of English. Russian and Polish are among the Top 10 hardest languages to learn. English is no slouch, either. He persevered with the new grammar book and served as a Sergeant. In 1946 and 1947 he was in Nuremberg, where war crime trials were being conducted. The men who propagated the National Socialist German Party either committed suicide, were executed, or were locked up forever.

   As the hard-fought civilization-saving decade of the 1940s wound itself down, Leonas emigrated to North America, finding work as a lumberjack near Sudbury, Ontario. “It was an indentured servant kind of job,” said Leo. More than two-thirds of the Canadian province is forest, in land mass the equivalent of Fascist Germany and Fascist Italy combined. “He was never quite sure where he was.” He wasn’t, at least, a mile down in Sudbury’s nickel mines.

   Making it in a company town is unlikely. Since there is no competition, housing costs and groceries bills can become exorbitant, and workers build up large debts they are required to pay off before leaving. It can be slavery by another name. Leonas determined to find another way, his own way.

   He and several other men pooled their resources, found a broken-down car, scavenged parts from other wrecks, filled the tires with enough cotton to get them to roll, and hit the road. He ended up in St. Catherine’s, near Niagara Falls, and later, finding the opportunity to go to the United States in 1950, took it and settled down outside Buffalo, New York, where he stayed the rest of his life. 

   He got married again. His wife Louise taught school. They raised a family. He went to work as a butcher in the meat department of a grocery store for more than thirty years, rarely missing a day. He built a house on three acres of land. One acre of it was devoted to a garden. “I must have moved 5,000 wheelbarrows of manure as a child. Whenever our factory friends went on strike, I delivered food to them in the morning before school,” Leo said. His older sister Katherine still lives in the family home.

   Leonas often hung from his heels in the garage to prove he could still do it. “My father was a strong man.” said Leo. Sometimes men are strong because it’s the only choice they have. Spinning your wheels doesn’t get it done. He smoked and drank with his friends at the local Italian and Polish social clubs. He rarely missed a dance. He was an affable strong man.

   Once he was done, he never enlisted in any other man’s army again.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”