Category Archives: Lithuanian Journal

Stalking the Ukraine

By Ed Staskus

   Even though Ukraine wasn’t Ukraine in the 14th century lots of folks called it that so that is what it was. The word itself means borderland. The Lithuanians visited every summer. They did it for their health, if not for the health of the natives. When they did they had good times marauding and looting and drinking too much whenever the devil got the better of them. They didn’t control the land so much as take advantage of it. The less governance the better is the way they saw it. “We do not change old traditions and do not introduce new ones,” they said.

   They were freebooters who became empire builders. The boyars rode fast horses, big and fit, were outfitted in chain mail, wore conical metal helmets, were armed with lances, swords, and knives, and carried a black shield emblazoned with the red emblem of the Columns of Gediminas. They weren’t draftees or recruits. Those who were, walked and died where they stood. The boyars were tough men who could be dangerous in the blink of an eye. The Golden Horde warned would-be enemies of them, “Beware the Lithuanians.” That was all they ever said.

   They had to be rough and tough. When they went to war they didn’t launch cruise missiles and kill their enemies at great distance, checking the body count with drones. They hacked their enemies to pieces with long swords face to face and watched them bleed to death in the mud at their feet.

   By the end of the 14th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the biggest country in Europe. Today it is one of the smallest countries in Europe. When they were growing fast and furious they didn’t do it by being soul brothers or good trading partners. They did it by getting on their horses and taking what they wanted. They didn’t bother explaining.

   The Grand Duchy got started in the early 13th century when Prince Mindaugas united his Baltic forest clans, swamp tribes, and fiefdoms into a feudal state. They were desperate times. The Teutonic Knights were on a rampage. They wanted to incorporate all of Lithuania into the Teutonic Order. They never stopped trying. Between 1305 and 1409 they launched 300-some military campaigns. They slaughtered more peasants than anything else. The Lithuanians beat them back time and again. Finally, in 1410, at the Battle of Grunwald the Lithuanians and Poles destroyed the Teutonic Knights. Most of the order’s leadership was killed or taken prisoner. The Grand Master ran away. They never recovered their former power. When the carnage was over, the Lithuanian-Polish alliance became the dominant political and military force in the region.

   When I was a kid almost everybody called the Ukrainians Russians. We didn’t call them that because we knew what was up with the Reds. They had done the same thing to Lithuania, enslaving the country, and reaping something anything everything for nothing. Both of my parents came from there after WW2, so we knew what was up. We didn’t have to read between the lines of whatever Washington and Moscow were forever saying.

   Even though Ukraine didn’t become a nation-state until 1991, after getting their feet wet for a few years after WW1, it was extant in the 14th century, and well before that. We all knew about the Ukrainians when I was growing up, The first Ukes came to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1880s. They settled in the Tremont neighborhood. Their idea was work hard in the factories of the industrial valley, get rich, go back home, buy some land, and live happily ever after. Between the world wars lots of former freedom fighters came. They were goners if they had stayed. Stalin was itching to get his hands on them. Most of them settled in Parma, a southwest suburb, where they built churches, schools, and started their own aid associations and credit unions.

   We didn’t live in Parma, but on the east side along the lake. Nevertheless, among the Poles, Hungarians, Croatians and Slovenians, and anybody else who could sneak into the country when the Statue of Liberty wasn’t looking, there were some Ukrainian families in our neck of the woods. One of them operated a gas station on St. Clair Ave. not far from where we lived. One of their handful of sons who was our age messed around with us summers, when we had three no-school months to mess around in. His name was Lyaksandra. It sounded like a girl’s name, so we called him Alex.

   We played pick-up baseball at Gordon Park, from where we could see Lake Erie. We once asked him, taking a break in the action, what he thought about the Russians. He growled, made an obscene gesture, spit sideways, and said, “There are lots of Russki’s in Ukraine. They are liars about everything. They aren’t all bad, but they all hate themselves. We hate them, too.”

   Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe. It is bordered by Russia and Belarus, as well as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, among others. It has coastlines along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It has its own language. Most people speak Russian, as well. The Muscovites are always trying to convince them to drop the Uke talk and speak only Russian.

   “We don’t talk that Russki talk anymore,” Alex said. “Not here, no way.”

   In the Middle Ages Ukraine, which is about the size of Texas, was the epicenter of East Slavic culture. It was, at least, until the Kievan Rus was destroyed by Mongol invasions in the 13th century. Somebody is always trying to beat up on Ukraine. From then to the 20th century Ukraine was variously ruled by the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Tsars of Russia. Everybody wanted to be the boss of the Ukes. It’s a miracle they have prevailed and are still prevailing, facing the long odds of going against the vaunted Red Army.

   The Russians are finding out what it is like to go toe to toe with somebody who is not afraid of them and has the up-to-date American rockets and artillery to back up their bravado. The Ukrainians are fighting an existential battle. Their backs are against the wall. They have nowhere to fall. The Red Army is fighting to save its skin and make it home alive for Defenders of the Fatherland Day. The soldiers throw their uniforms into the nearest sewer when they desert.

   When I was a boy I played with toy soldiers. There wasn’t any such thing as a Lithuanian mounted  boyar toy soldier, so I pretended that anybody on a horse was a Lithuanian knight. They were always the good guys. They won every fight battle and war. They were my heroes. I didn’t know what sons of bitches they must have been. They weren’t any different than anybody else in power back then. They were all sons of bitches, including the Holy Roman Church, whose popes ruled by the sword whenever the pen wasn’t convincing enough. 

   In the early 16th century Pope Julius I, the Fearsome Pope, imported Swiss Guards to be his personal bodyguards. He strapped on armor and led the Papal State armies against the Venetians, the French, and the Spanish. His armor plating covered every inch of him just in case the grace of God didn’t get it done, including a helmet made to look like a miter. Everybody on his side was allowed to join the Holy League. Everybody else was badmouthed and excommunicated.

  After Pope Julius died a rumor had it that if he was denied entrance at the Pearly Gates, there would be hell to pay. He would storm them, St. Peter or no St. Peter, and never mind his set of silver and gold keys. It was every man for himself and God against all.

   Until the end of the 14th century Lithuanians didn’t give a damn what the Vatican did. They were pagans. They were the last pagans in Europe. The word “Lithuania” is first mentioned in 1009, in an account of the murder of Saint Bruno by “pagans on the border of Lithuania and Rus.” He was trying to convert them. That was a mistake. Their headman, whose name was Dievas, ruled the universe from his kingdom in the sky. He didn’t like anybody popping up with new ideas about Heaven and Hell. Perkunas, the god of thunder and lightning, was his right-hand man and enforcer. The holy fires were guarded by Vaidilutès, the Lithuanian equivalent of Vestal Virgins. They buried their dead with food and household goods. The last pagan grand duke was buried with his hounds, horses, and falcons.

   When they finally joined the God-fearing club it was a political move. They were doing a dynastic union with Poland, and one of the conditions the Poles laid down was that the Lithuanians had to convert to church-going and dump their veneration of the forces of nature. It didn’t change their business plan in Ukraine, other than to make them more organized. They transitioned from frat parties to fancy dress balls.

   The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had controlled Belarus for some time and when they went after Ukraine they got it, extending their control to the open steppe and eventually to the Black Sea. The Ukes learned to “Beware the Lithuanians.” When they started to get what they wanted they left their freebooting days behind and started building castles to keep their loot secure. It was  a ten-day ride from Vilnius to Kiev. Why not ditch the seasonal exploitation and make the most of the four seasons?

   It wasn’t their land, but it is finders keepers. They meant to keep what they had subjugated. The Ukrainians didn’t have a say in the matter. They told the Ukes, “We may not be perfect but we’re Lithuanians so it’s almost the same.” The Ukes said, “We promise not to laugh when your oven is on fire.” The Lithuanians weren’t offended. They just said, “Show us the goats.”

   They built the Lutsk Castle, which later became a museum. They built the Olyka Palace, which later became an insane asylum. They built the Kremenets Castle, which later fell into ruins after the Cossacks sacked the city at the bottom of the hill. In the meantime, the boyars lived the high life. They started with red borscht, green borscht, and cold borscht. They feasted on holubtsi, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, rice, and stewed in tomato sauce. They ate slabs of kholodets, a cold jellied meat broth. They drank vodka between courses. Ukrainians to this day drink more vodka than beer. When they were done with dinner they went to bed, snoring and cabbage farting in their sleep.

   Even though the Lithuanians always said the Ukrainians welcomed them with open arms, they built their castle-fortresses on high hills with steep inclines, the rockier the better, fitted with one main gate and plenty of towers, arrow slits, battlements, and dungeons. They kept big rocks and hot oil handy to toss down on door-to-door salesmen. If you ended up in the dungeon you found out soon enough they weren’t playing Dungeons and Dragons.

   Imperialism is never cozy and consensual. It’s more like assault and battery. The movers and shakers of power politics don’t get thrown in jail until long after they are dead. My friend Alex had never heard of Lithuanians living it up in Ukraine. He was surprised to hear they had once been a super power. He was chagrined to find out there were more invaders of his homeland than he had realized.

   “How come the Lithuanians push us around back then?” he asked. Most of us playing ball at Gordon Park were second generation Lithuanian Americans. We weren’t even teenagers, yet. None of us had a good answer, much less a sensible answer of any kind.

   “Somebody always wants to be the top dog,” Kesty said.

   “No, that wasn’t it,” Arunas said. “They just wanted to have somebody else do all the work, like make dinner and clean the toilets.”

   “It was the Ukrainian girls,” Romas said. “Ukrainian girls are hot.”

   Romas was over-sexed, and everybody knew it. Nobody had any other ideas. We went back to playing ball in the summer sun. When we got overheated we walked to the shore and sat on the edge of a cliff in the breeze. Lake Erie was in front of us, the water rippling, the tips of the waves white.

   “Can we see Ukraine from here?” Alex asked.

   “No, it’s that way,” Arunas said pointing over his right shoulder. When we looked all we could see was Bratenahl, where rich people lived in mansions. They made the rules, for what they were worth. Our grade school class practiced duck and cover once a month, just in case the Russki’s dropped an atomic bomb on Cleveland. We brought our own lunches every day but wondered where our next lunch was going to come from if all the food stores got blown up. Many of the Bratenahl bluebloods had their own fallout shelters. They didn’t worry overmuch about starving.

   All good things must come to an end. The Lithuanians were strong in Ukraine for several centuries, but the deal they made with Poland reaped a better harvest for their next-door neighbors than my ancestors. The Poles say, “A good appetite needs no sauce.” By the mid-16th century Lithuanians were sauce. Their goose was cooked. The dynastic link was changed to a constitutional one by the Union of Lublin in 1569. Ukraine was set free of the Lithuanians but was annexed by Poland the next day.

   The more things change the more they stay the same, until they don’t. The new would-be colonialists calling the shots in the Kremlin are finding that out, to their discomfiture. They make a wasteland and call it New Russia. They have been looking grim lately. Meanwhile, Lithuania has joined NATO and gone out of the plunder and pillage business. The boyars are rolling over in their graves.

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

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On the Working Side of the Rail

By Ed Staskus

   “Mom, can you write me a note for school tomorrow saying I can’t be an altar boy,” I asked my mother after we had finished watching every minute of “The Wide World of Disney” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She gave me a sharp frown. I gave her my best first-born smile.

   Every Sunday night my parents nibbled sliced-up smoked eel while my brother, sister, and I munched handfuls of popcorn from paper bags sitting in front of the Zenith TV console in the basement. It was a family ritual. We loved Walt Disney, but The Great Stone Face wasn’t a chip off the old block. The circus acts and comedians were fun, but the opera singers and dramatic monologues were dull as turned off. None of us understood what the Little Italian Mouse was up to, either.

   I asked my mom for the note after we were out of the tub, in pj’s, and book bags ready for Monday. I wanted it to be short and sweet, as though it were no big deal, routine, really. I thought something along the line of all my spare time was already being spent on my studies would be appropriate.

   I knew I was on shaky ground, though. My parents went to mass every Sunday, which meant we all went. “Everybody went to church back then,” my mother says. “There were two masses every Sunday. The church was full of people. We went early to get a pew.”

   My mother always went to church because she had always gone. “I grew up that way,” she said. My father was a true believer. He was an accountant and counted on getting to heaven. Even though he wasn’t a betting man, he put his money on Pascal’s wager. 

   The wager argues that a thinking person should live as though God exists and try to believe in him. If God doesn’t exist, there will only be a few finite losses, like good times with too much money and too many girlfriends. When you are dead and gone you won’t miss them. But if God does exist, there are infinite gains, like spending eternity in heaven, and no infinite losses, like spending eternity in hell. 

   After he told me about the parlay there was no arguing with him about whether I was going to faithfully serve out my altar boy time. “St. George is one of the Holy Helpers,” he said. I helped myself by biting my tongue. Everybody at school knew George was a stud, the Trophy Bearer.

   The most embarrassed I ever was as a child was when my parents made me go to Sunday mass dressed up in a Buster Brown sailor suit. Something criminal happened to the costume before the next service. It was never found alive again. I had to go to confession after telling my mom I had no idea what happened to it. 

   The fashion show took months to live down at school. I had to fight my way out of several mean-spirited jibes. There will be blood in grade school.

   The St. George church school and parish hall were all in a package, a rectangular two-and-a-half story brick building on Superior Avenue and East 67th Street. The church was on the top floor, the school on the middle floor, and the hall on the half-in-the-ground floor. The hall doubled as a civil defense shelter in case of nuclear war, even though it was unclear what we going to do down there after the atomic bomb had blown Cleveland, Ohio, to kingdom come.

   I was glad my mom didn’t down-press me about it, but wrote a note, sticking it in an envelope, sealing it, and finishing it off with my teacher’s name on the front. A small whitecap of uncertainty took shape in my mind at my mom’s readiness to do my bidding, but I put my doubts to rest and slept the sleep of the blessed.

  The next day I gave the envelope to my third-grade teacher, Sister Matilda, a gnarly disciplinarian who had press-ganged me and a half-dozen other boys the second week of school. I found out later it was an annual recruitment drive.

   She read the note, smiled, and said, “Very good, you start next Monday.”

   How could that be? What happened between last night and now? My own mother had tricked me, I realized. When I asked her about it, she said, “As a mother I do the possible and leave the impossible to God.” I had already heard God helps those who help themselves, but that didn’t seem to be working out for me.

   The St. George edifice was the biggest Lithuanian building in Cleveland, built in 1921. It was at the center of the ethnic district and many parishioners had businesses and institutions, like the newspaper and some kind of historical outfit, nearby. The east side along Lake Erie was full of Poles, Serbs and Slovenians, and Lithuanians.

   The parish priest, Father Ivan, short for his civilian name Balys Ivanauskas, lived in a seven-bedroom Italianate-style rectory a stone’s throw from the church. It had been built for a big family in the 1880s. Our teachers, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God, lived together in a slightly smaller house on Superior Avenue two or three minutes away. There were eight of them, not including the Mother Superior. They could have used some of Father Ivan’s empty bedrooms.

   The sisters were a hard-boiled bunch. They were serious as could be about us taking our studies seriously and behaving in class. Those were rules number one and two. There were no other rules. They weren’t above hitting us with rulers riding crops rolled-up Catholic Universe Bulletins and their hands. Nobody’s parents ever complained about it, so none of us ever complained about it to them.

   What would have been the point? They would only have asked, “What did you do?”

   The nuns never sweated getting the job done. In fact, they never sweated at all. Wearing thick bulky habits, they should have been the first to perspire whenever it got hot, but they never did. Nobody knew how they did it, if it was part of their training or some kind of black magic.

   Even though I wasn’t baptized at St. George, I acted as a bump on a log at many baptismal fonts. One time a baby spit a stream of pea green apple sauce puke on my surplice and another time another one burped and farted and messed up Father Ivan. I had to run back to headquarters and get wet rags. I sprayed the boss with the new-fangled aerosol Lysol a busybody had donated.

   I received my First Communion there and was confirmed there. The First Communion happens when as a Catholic you attain the Age of Reason. I don’t know how any of us were ever given the host when we were, because I definitely had not attained the Age of Reason, nor had anyone in my class, unless they were faking it.

   My reason was affected by reading boy’s books in my spare time, adventures about running for your life full moons spies foreign lands secrets ray guns tommy guns spitfires hooded supervillains risky back alleys conspiracies and the bad guys foiled at the last minute by the good guys. The paperbacks seeded my dreams and I cooked up twisty exploits every night, waking up happy I had survived. 

   Once we were thrown to the lions, we got trained in the basics, how to dress, the call and response, and how to arrange the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the big Missal. We learned how to hold liturgical books for Father Ivan when he wasn’t at the altar, when he was proclaiming prayers with outstretched hands. We brought him thuribles, the lavabo water and towel, and the vessels to hold the consecrated bread.

   We helped with communion, presenting cruets of wine and water for him to pour into the chalice.  When he washed his hands standing at the side of the altar, we poured the water over them. If incense was used, we presented the thurible and incense to Father Ivan, who smoked the offerings, the cross and altar, after which we smoked the priest and people. It had one flavor, a sickly-sweet rotting pomegranate smell.

   The thurible was a two-piece metal chalice with a chain that we swung side to side. God forbid anybody got slap happy and swung it too high, hitting something with it, and spilling the hot coals, threatening to burn the church down. That was when Father Ivan became Ivan the Terrible.

   We rang a handbell before the consecration, when the priest extended his hands above the gifts. We rang the bell again when, after the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest showed the host and then the chalice. 

   “Ring dem’ bells” is what we liked doing best.

   I started low man on the totem pole which meant the 7 o’clock morning shift. Even though everybody went to church, nobody went to church first thing in the morning Monday through Friday. At least, almost nobody. The big man was always there and at least one of his altar boys. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, pour myself a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice, catch a CTS bus on the corner of St. Clair Avenue and East 127th Street, toss exact change into the fare box, stay away from the crazy people, run through the church to the sacristy, get into my uniform, and make sure I had my cheat sheet.

   The mass was performed in Latin, most of the time the priest’s back to the congregation, and we followed his lead. There were prescribed times we had to respond by voice to something Father Ivan recited. It was when we offered Holy Communion that I finally faced the nave and saw the only people in church were old older oldest unemployed worried about something or in the wrong place. 

   One benefit to hardly anybody being in the pews first thing in the morning was whenever I made a mistake, it usually stayed between me and my maker. That is, unless Ivan the Terrible, who had eyes in the back of his head and hearing better than a moth, saw and heard what I had done wrong.

   Moths have the best hearing in the world, next to priests, who are accustomed to listening to whispers in the confessional. I was waiting for my turn one afternoon after school when I heard Father Ivan bellow, “What did you say?” and the next thing I knew a red-faced boy burst out of the booth running followed by the dark-faced priest. 

   I quietly slipped away. There was no need to put myself in harm’s way for somebody else’s mortal sins.

   When I started Father Bartis was in charge, but the next year Father Ivan became the parish priest. He was a burly man. None of us knew where he came from or how old he was, although we guessed he was between 30 and 60. He ran the parish until 1980. He smoked, we could smell it on his breath when he got close to us, and sometimes we caught a whiff of spirits. We all knew what strong drink smelled like because almost everybody’s parents drank.

   He liked to take walks and mind his own business, unless he was minding ours. We were always under the gun. He was irascible to begin with and screwing around with his life’s work brought out the worst in him. Our school janitor said he never met anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible. Father Ivan was short-tempered, but his bark was worse than his bite. The nuns put him to shame when it came to crime and punishment.

   All of us carried cheat sheets. Latin was a foreign language, as well as a dead language. None of us were taking classes in it and none of us knew what we were saying. Our responses during mass were rote, except when something went wrong, when we improvised with mumbles. It wasn’t speaking in tongues, but Father Ivan warned us exorcism was imminent if we didn’t learn our lines.

   The Eucharist was the high point of mass. It got us off our knees and on our feet. We helped in the distribution by holding a communion plate under everybody’s chin when the priest gave them the wafer. There would have been hell to pay if there was an accident, the wafer falling out of somebody’s mouth, landing on the floor.

   It would have meant saying a million Hail Mary’s and a thousand turns around the Stations of the Cross.

   After acquiring seniority, I was promoted off the morning shift and started serving at Sunday masses, funerals, and weddings. Sunday mass was more of the same, only longer and more elaborate, but at least I got to sleep in and go to church in the family car instead of the city bus with strangers.

   Funerals seemed to always be scheduled on Mondays and Fridays. It happened so often I began to think weekends coming and going were a dangerous time. At one Friday funeral Father Ivan spoke glowingly of all the good works the deceased had done and how he was sure the man was going to heaven. “The way to the brightness is through good works,” he said. “The first thing we all have got to do is do good.”

   We were standing on either side of the dead man. The other altar boy leaned over the open casket and said to me, “What you got to do first is be dead.”

   The corpses didn’t bother us over much, but the mewling coffin sounds freaked us out.

   None of us especially enjoyed funerals, not because we were near at hand to the dead, but because they were sad dismal and mournful and on top of everything else we rarely were gifted with cash. It dismayed us to see the family light twenty thirty candles at a votive stand and push folded ones and fives into the offering box.

   Weddings were a different story. It was festive. Everybody was in a good mood. It was always a sunny day. The brides looked great in their white dresses with trains. Heaven help the altar boy who stepped on a moving train and yanked it off.

   The number one perk of serving at a wedding was we were always rewarded in hard cash. The best man was usually the man who slipped us an envelope and told us what a great job we had done, even though we never did anything special beyond kneeling and standing around most of the time, like we always did.

   Weddings in July and August were often hot and humid. Before one of them the groom himself paid us in advance in Morgan silver dollars, ten of them for each of us. It was a windfall. We stowed them away carefully. I wrapped mine up in a handkerchief. Everyone was sweating during the ceremony, and when it came time for communion, I reached into my pocket for the handkerchief to dry my hands. It would have been bad if I let the cruet slip. 

   When I did, the silver dollars fell out pell-mell from my handkerchief, rolled down the two steps in the gap between the altar rail, past the bride and groom, and down the center aisle of the nave. A man stuck his foot out and corralled them with his shoe. I was alarmed until I saw it was my uncle, who was an accountant like my father.

   Jon Krokey, a fellow traveler at Holy Family, dropped the Roman Missal, after which there was hell to pay. It is a large heavy book that includes all the words and prayers the priest uses during the mass, except for the readings. 

   “I was low man, so I got to get up in the middle of the night to serve at 5:30 mass,” he said. “While transporting the giant book I dropped it and it bounced down the stairs all the way to the communion rail. Father Andrel chewed me out in front of the congregation, which was ten elderly women in the front pews, all wearing babushkas. When he was done spewing, I quit. After that all the nuns at school mean mugged me like I was the Antichrist.”

   My tour of duty ended at the end of sixth grade, when my parents moved out of the neighborhood and I transferred to another Catholic school. They already had a full complement of altar boys, so my services weren’t needed there. I was happy enough to go back to being a spectator. I was glad to be flying kites in the park.

   When St. George closed in 2009 it was the oldest Lithuanian parish in North America. 

   At the last mass three priests presided and there was a host of altar boys and girls. Back in the day we would have welcomed girls to our ranks. They were better at cleaning than us and we knew we could boss them around, although they were also getting to be nice and sweet friendly to have as friends.

   The altar was given away to another church. The playground and parking lot were sold, and the grounds converted to greenhouses. The rectory was boarded up. The convent was long gone, since the school had closed long before. A chain link fence was set up all around the building, and that was that. There were no more dragons real or imagined for the soldier saint to slay. The day of the Trophy Bearer was done. George took a knee.

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

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 more than ten years, in the middle of nowhere, slaving away. She stayed alive, though it was no way of life stuck in the Soviet 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.”

Hammer the Sickle Blues

By Ed Staskus

   “Man, I had a dreadful flight, I’m back in the USSR, you don’t know how lucky you are, boy, back in the USSR.”  The Beatles

   When Angele Staskus went to Lithuania in 1977 with her daughter, she had not been on native ground for thirty-three years. Her daughter, Rita, 17 years old, had never been there. They flew from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City to Moscow to Vilnius. It took two days to travel the five thousand miles.

   It was in 1944 that Angele Jurgelaiyte, then a 16-year-old farmer’s daughter, fled Alvitas near Marijampole in the south of the country, the German Army retreating pell-mell and the Red Army storming the front. She shared a wagon drawn by two horses with her aunt and her aunt’s four children. A milk cow was tied to the back of the wagon. She fled to East Prussia to Germany to Canada. Nobody else in her immediate family got away before the clampdown. They got to stay in the USSR for the next five decades.

   Angele got married to Vic Staskevicius, another Lithuanian refugee, in Sudbury, Ontario. They had three children and the family emigrated to the USA in the late 1950s. After they got there they became Mr. and Mrs. Staskus. They started at the bottom. Everything looked like up to them.

   The first time Rita saw her first Russian  airport, she wasn’t impressed. “The Moscow airport was crappy, gray on gray, and there were birds and bats flying around inside the terminal. Everybody looked sick, like stomach flu was going around.”

   “The color of truth is gray,” said the French writer Andre Gide. He was wrong. The Commies were wrong, too, and their favorite color was wrong. Social material political truth at any cost is more trouble than it’s worth, sparing no one, not during the countless bloodthirsty 20th century grabs for glory and power, for sure. It’s not black and white either, no matter what the insincere masterminds say. The color of truth is more like Sgt. Pepper’s Crayola 64 Colors. 

   The Sheremetyevo airport served most of the international flights arriving and departing the capital city. The airport was originally built as a military airfield in the late 1950s with one runway. In the early 1970s a second runway was added. A single terminal still served both runways. Half the people waiting for their flights looked like they might commit suicide any second.

   “We had to go through customs. The higher-ups, police, and soldiers all looked grim. Everybody going to Lithuania was smuggling something. My mom kept telling me to flash a smile at the soldiers, most of whom were young, like me. We had gum and cigarettes in my suitcase, but they never went through it.”

   A woman behind them wearing an oversized fur coat wasn’t so lucky. “She had all kinds of stuff sewn into the lining of her coat. They ripped the lining apart and took all of it.” The police put her stuff in their pockets.

   There were several eateries in the terminal, but neither mother nor daughter ate while waiting for their connection. “The food looked horrible, and what was the point of bad food and bad service without a smile?” asked Rita.

   They flew Aeroflot to Vilnius. “They brought us food, butter and buns, but they were hard as rocks,” Rita said. “You couldn’t even bite into them.” She tossed them under her seat. “The stewardesses were all so surly, down at the mouth, that I started laughing about it.” The flight attendants did a slow burn.

   When they landed in Vilnius, the stale buns rolling to the front of the airplane, passenger loading stairs were rolled to the door. The terminal was built in 1954. “It was a gray rectangular building, like a warehouse, like in Moscow.” There were sculptures of soldiers and workers outside and wreaths, bay leaves and stars, and the Soviet hammer and sickle inside.

   “It was even crappier than the Moscow airport.”

   Inside the terminal was a tight-knit group of more than forty of their relatives. “They came running up to us. One of them asked, do you speak Lithuanian? When I said yes, everybody started talking at once.” Some of the people looked a little like her, while others looked a lot like her mother. They were her uncles, Justinas, Juozukas, Sigitas, and her aunt Irena. There were nieces and nephews. When the excitement died down, they drove to the Gintaras Hotel, near the railroad station.

   The Gintaras was where foreigners stayed, all foreigners from anywhere, who visited Lithuania. It was a hard and fast rule. Signs warned against making a commotion. “The kids were running up and down the hallway, while the adults were all in our room. It was crowded since it wasn’t a big room, at all.”

   They had brought pens, gum, and cigarettes. “My uncle Justinas lost the pen I gave him, and when I offered him another one, he said, no, he wanted the same pen I had given him. Nobody could find it, so I pretended to find it, and gave him a new one.”

   Everybody wanted the American cigarettes they had smuggled in. “Russian cigarettes were nasty. They smelled bad.” The Belomorkani cigarettes didn’t come with a filter, but with a hollow cardboard tube attached to a thin paper tube filled with tobacco. The tube was like a disposable cigarette holder. They were popular in the Baltics because of their cheap price. They were notorious for being the strongest cigarette in the world.

   “Everybody was smoking in minutes, the men, the women, and the older kids. It was non-stop.” 

   The Prima brand was imported from Bulgaria. It was a better quality of tobacco. But since the Belomorkani was the only available fag in most of the hinterland, that is what everybody smoked. A low-lying ashy cloud soon hung down from the ceiling. Even though cigarette advertising wasn’t allowed in the USSR, almost everybody smoked. 

   “After twenty minutes you couldn’t see across the room.” Rita noticed one of her cousins was chain-smoking. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

   “I don’t,” he said.

   “We brought Bubble Yum because that’s what they wrote us they wanted. All they had was crappy hard gum that would break your teeth when you started to chew it.” Introduced just two years earlier by Life Savers, Bubble Yum was the first soft bubble gum ever created. “They would chew the Bubble Yum for a half hour and then put it back in its wrapper, putting it away in their pockets or purses.”

   One afternoon Rita was sitting in a nearby park talking with her uncle Sigitas. He took his wallet out of his back pocket. He filled his hand with a wad of cash.

   “We have money, but there’s nothing to buy,” he said.

   “We went to a butcher shop. There were only two kinds of meat and both of them were loads of white fat. My aunts were always cutting fat off. It was gross. Even the herring was bad. I mostly hated the food. It turned my stomach.”

    There was a store near the hotel. It was called the Dovana Krautuve, or Gift Store. It was for Western tourists only. Lithuanians weren’t allowed to shop there, or even go inside it. They went there one day on a tour bus. “They had amber, wooden dolls, artsy stuff there. They just wanted our American dollars. When we were leaving, they gave each of us a bottle of Coca-Cola.”

   Back on the bus, Rita asked the driver if he liked Coke.

   “Yes, I had some in 1955,” he said. “It was good.”

   “That was twenty-two years ago,” she said. 

   “Yes, I understand,” said the bus driver.

   She gave him her bottle of the sweet soda.

   “The Young Communists were always following us around, telling us their world was just as good as ours, that they had everything we had, and more. When I had to take my contacts out on the bus, one of them said, we have those, too. That was wacky because none of my relatives had contacts and none of them knew where to get any unless it was the black market.” She finally told the Young Communists to cut it out. “Your BS isn’t doing anything for me,” she said.

   While inside the hotel, nobody talked about anything that might compromise them. “All the rooms were bugged. Everything was bugged.” Everybody was constantly watched, one way or another. Telephones were tapped. Mail was opened. Black government sedans followed people around.

   Angele and Rita stayed at the Ginraras Hotel for a week. Everybody knew somebody was always listening in. Nobody said anything. Their room wasn’t small, but it wasn’t large, and the bathroom was even smaller. The room was a bathroom and a shower all at once. There weren’t any sliding doors or shower curtains. “There was a drain in the middle of the floor, and whenever we showered the spray would get all over the tiled walls and sink and toilet. Everything got wet. The whole room became a shower.”

   After they towel dried the room and themselves off, they visited with their relatives. It was what they did more than anything else. There weren’t many sights to see in Vilnius, even if you could go there.

   “You never asked anybody, even your own flesh and blood, what they did. They would always say, ‘I have responsibilities.’ If you lived in Vilnius, you probably had a normal job, but not in Marijampole.” Most of her kinfolk lived in the country and farmlands southwest of the rural town. They finagled and horse traded, going to Poland, smuggling whatever they could, doing things that weren’t altogether legal, or so the Russians said, so it wasn’t prudent to ask them too much

   The goal was to be a ‘pasikaustes,’ somebody who has the smarts prowess right stuff to make it happen. It literally means putting a horseshoe on yourself. Everybody needed good luck in the clampdown. That’s why they were always wheeling and dealing.

   They were waiting for the Russians to get the hell out of their country. They had once waited more than a hundred years. They could wait another hundred if they had to, although who wanted to do that? They were already bitter and alienated. ‘Laikiu nesulaukiu’ means not being able to wait for something to happen. “I wait but I can’t wait.” It’s like being in jail for a crime you didn’t know you had committed.

   They made plans to go to Silute to see Rita’s paternal grandmother, who was in her 80s. Angele had never met her. Rita couldn’t imagine her.

   Silute is to the northwest of Marijampole, two-some hours away. 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 fifth of the area is forested. It is home to more than three hundred villages.

   Antonina was Angele’s husband’s mother. She was a Russian woman, had been a young schoolteacher in the middle of nowhere, and married Rita’s grandfather when he was an officer in the Imperial Army, stationed in the middle of nowhere. “She was taken a few years after my grandfather was deported in 1941 and dragged away to Siberia for more than ten years.”

   Rita’s mother’s family, who lived in the south of the country, made plans to take them to Silute. They kept their plans close to the vest. The scheme was for there to be three brothers, three wives, three cars, Angele and Rita, and some of their cousins. “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.”

   The secrecy was necessary because they weren’t allowed to go anywhere except within the city limits. When they asked about Silute, Siauliai, and Zarasai, the other points of the compass to Vilnius, they were told they were all out of bounds. Everywhere outside of Vilnius was off limits. The Intourist official, the Soviet tourism monopoly, at the front desk of the hotel leaned forward and told Angele and Rita it was because of missile installations.

   “Are there missiles in every town in the whole country?” asked Angele.

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

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

   The police glanced at Justinas’s papers and told him to go back.

   They went to the second car. Everybody had to show their papers. Angele was the best dressed of everyone 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 Gintaras.”

   They went to the third car.

   Sigitas and his wife Terese showed their papers. Rita was sitting in the back with three of her cousins. They all 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.”

   He asked her something in Russian. She didn’t understand a word and glared at him. The stare-down between cop and girl took a long minute.

   “The next time I see this one she is going to have to answer,” the policeman warned Rita’s uncle.

   “Turn back,” he said, shooting everybody a dirty look. 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 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 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 streets. 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.

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

   After Josef Stalin’s death many political prisoners in Siberia were set free. She was one of them. Her chain gang days were over. Her husband was long dead, dead of starvation in 1942, in a forest labor camp. She was sent back to Lithuania, but not back to Siauliai where the family farm didn’t exist anymore. She still wanted to go there but was told to go live in Silute. The Russians shrugged her off when she asked why.

   “She lived in a two-room apartment, in a rectangular four-unit building, almost like a log cabin, that looked like it was built a thousand years ago,” said Rita. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. The floors were dirt. The windows needed caulking. The roof was several generations overdue.

   “She was in her 80s. She had gone through tough times, but 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 her granddaughter a big smile and a big hug, even though she was a small woman and had to reach up.

   She wasn’t made of steel, like the Muscovite ringleader who squashed her and the Baltics under his thumb, but he was gone, a tinhorn memory, and she still had plenty of what it takes. How you start isn’t always how you finish.

   They had lunch, cold beet soup, potato dumplings, and mushroom cookies with strong hot tea. Rita didn’t throw anything under the table. It was an old-school buffet on an old round wood table.

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

   “It was the best food I’ve had since I left home,” Rita said.

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

HOMESPUN.jpeg

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.”