Category Archives: Lithuanian Journal

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 Ohio 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.”

Farm Girl

LITTLE-BEET-TOPPER-PC-001-E1575408158239.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

When my mother Angele Jurgelaityte was born in January 1928, it snowed until it got too cold to snow anymore. By the end of the month the thermometer rose to ten degrees below zero. When it warmed up the first week of February and the snow melted, a half-foot of slush was left behind. The next week there was heavy rain and her father’s fields were left under water. If it froze there would be acres of ice rink.

“I was born in an area we called the New Farm, in Suvalkija,” said Angele.

Suvalkija is the smallest of the five regions of Lithuania. It is girdled by the Nemunas River to the north. The region’s identity was molded in the 19th century when it was a part of Congress Poland. Suvalkija was an agricultural area, generating substantial sugar beet harvests. Sugar beet yield in Lithuania was almost half what it was in the United States, even though the country is 151 times smaller than the United States.

“My father’s name was Jonas Jurgelaitis. My mother’s name was Julija. We lived on a small farm. It was three miles from Marijampole.”

Marijampole is in the far south of Lithuania, bordering Poland and Kaliningrad. Lake Vistytis is nearby. The town was a center of book spreaders and freedom fighters in the long struggle leading to the country’s independence in 1918.

Their farm was thirty-seven acres. The nearest neighbors were out of sight, even though they were hard by. Woodlands of Scots Pine and Norway Spruce and copses of Birch were scattered along the periphery of their land. Her father kept a pair of horses, three to four cows, chickens, and a sounder of swine. Every week he loaded 10-gallon 90-pound milk cans into his wagon and took them to a local dairy. Their croplands were mainly devoted to sugar beets, a cash crop, harvested in early autumn.

Suvalkija has less forest than any other part of Lithuania. It has been brought to bear for tillage. Kazlu Ruda, a large forest, nearly 230 square miles of it, is in Suvalkija, but it is on sandy soil that doesn’t work for farming.

Rye, wheat, and barley have been cultivated in Lithuania for two thousand years. Potatoes got rolling three hundred years ago. The country has always been able to sustain itself with foodstuffs. After gaining home rule from the Russians, land reforms in 1922 turned over ground suitable for the plow to tens of thousands of new landowners. Two years later the Academy of Agriculture was established to oversee land exploitation and management.

“My mother was tall and thin and pretty. She looked like a Romanian, even though she was born near where we lived. I didn’t look like her, at all. I looked like my father.”

Her mother gave birth to eleven children in less than twenty years. Six of them survived infancy. Those that did survived World War Two, the forty-six-year subsequent Soviet occupation, and lived to see Lithuania regain its freedom.

Justinas was the oldest boy, born in 1919. “Justinas would invite his friends, and girls, to our house in the summer for dancing, before he joined the army.” Irena and the boys Sigitas and Jozukas were the youngest. Jozukas, the tenderfoot of the family, was two years old in 1938.

Julija started suffering chest pains that year, losing her appetite and losing weight. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a major killer in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost ninety years later tuberculosis is still prominent in Lithuania, one of the most highly TB-burdened countries in the world, falling behind most nearby countries in the prevalence of the disease.

“She went to the sanitorium in Kaunas the next year and got better.”

When family responsibilities and the family’s finances called her back, she got worse. Angele helped with the housework and cooking. She kept up her schoolwork, kept up her chores, and with her two older brothers nursed their mother.

“Irena and I went to school in Gizai, which was less than a mile from our house. In the winter, when it was snowy, my father hitched one of the horses to a sled and took us there. I went for six years.”

The family farm was five miles from Marijampole. It was forty miles southwest from Kaunas, the country’s second largest city. Vilnius, the capital, home to nearly a half million, was eighty miles away. It might as well have been a million miles away.

“We all had to work on the farm, but my father did everything. We had to work, since we were poor.” There were no hired men or seasonal laborers. “I mixed feed for the pigs and fed them. We earned our money by growing sugar beets. Irena and I helped, but Sigitas and Jozukas were too small. We pulled them out of the ground in the fall and used a big knife to cut the leaves away. We threw them in a cart and when we had enough to fill our wagon, my father hitched the two horses and took the beets to Marijampole.”

The family home was a frame house, clapboard siding painted green, two stories, although the second story was only an attic for storage and for smoking pork.

“We had another small house, a small barn where we kept wood for the fireplace.” They sawed their own cordwood. “On the second floor, up a ladder, there was hay for the animals and rye and barley for bread. Justinas and Bronius slept in a room beneath the loft.”

A brick-lined jumper duct fed heat from the farmhouse fireplace to the barn. Still and all, in the winter the young men gathered their blankets up and warmed them before going to bed. In deep winter the nights are 17 hours long.

Lithuania is a flat fertile country overlooking the Baltic Sea. The summers are mild, and the days are long, but the winters are cold and dark. Temperatures often drop well below freezing. The ground is ice and snow-covered from December to mid-March.

“We had a dog, in a house next to the barn, whose name was Sargis.” Saugotis means beware, watch out. “He was our guard dog, always tied up, who barked whenever a stranger came near. We had cats, too, who killed the mice and rats who ate our grain. We never let them into the house, though, they were only for outside.”

Barn cats lead a rough life, hunting vermin in outbuildings and fields. They sleep where they can, stay warm if they can. Living feral, they don’t live long.

The family knew everyone in their neck of the woods. Everyone was wary of strangers. Although they had no immediate neighbors, her mother’s father, a tailor, lived nearby, and her father’s mother also lived within walking distance.

“Whenever my mother made potato pancakes, she would sometimes give me a platter of them, and I took them to grandma’s house.” Her grandmother lived on the other side of the woods, with one of her father’s older sisters.

The family fed itself.

“We made our own bread and butter, made cheese, gathered eggs, and collected berries.” There were patches of wild blueberries at the edges of their fields. Although they didn’t have a cellar, they still canned pickles and beets. “We grew our own pigs and my father killed them.”

When the time came, Jonas selected a pig for slaughter, marched it to a clearing beside the barn, hit the animal between the eyes hard with a club hammer, and cut its throat. With the help of his two eldest sons he cleaned and skinned the pig with a sharp knife, keeping a knife sharpener at hand.

“We never sold our pigs to anyone. We ate all of them.”

Once the skin was separated from the muscle and fat, they cleaned out the guts and sawed the pig’s head off. After quartering the animal, Jonas found the hip joints and slid his knife into them, cutting off the two hams. He did the same thing when cutting the shoulders of the pig off. At the center, where the ribs are, he took whatever meat he could find.

They made sausages, bacon, and cured slabs of pork with salt and pepper. Jonas had built a closet around the chimney on the second floor of the house, which could be gotten to by ladder. There were no stairs. He smoked the pork in the closet, laying the meat on grates, opening a damper to vent smoke into the closet.

“I was scared of the upstairs, although the meat was delicious. When we ran out of food, we killed another pig.”

After her mother got sick, from the time she was ten years old, Angele cooked for the family. “My oldest brother Justinas helped me until he went into the army, and then Bronius helped.” She cooked up pork logs, made soup, and served bread and butter every day.

After Justinas apprenticed to a tailor, and learned the trade, he joined the army. Everyone knew a war was coming. “He became a cavalryman and was stationed near Marijampole. He rode home a few times, on his horse, in his uniform. He was so handsome.” He had just turned twenty-one.

When the Red Army invaded the Baltic states in June 1940, their troops numbering some fifty divisions, supported by tanks, they swept the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian forces aside in a matter of days. Justinas spent the rest of the war sewing and mending, first under the thumb of the Russians, then the Germans, and then the Russians again.

A woman whose husband had died, who had no children and who lived on a nearby farm, helped Angele learn to bake bread in their brick-lined oven. They made five and six loaves at a time, working up to ten pounds of dough at a time, baking the free-standing loaves loosely arranged in front of a smoldering pile of coals that had been burning for several hours, pushed to the back of the oven. They added wood as they needed it, shifting the fire from side to side.

“We always had bread. We never had tea or coffee, just water. When we could, we collected herbs, and had herbal tea.”

The house did not have electricity or running water or indoor plumbing. They had oil lamps and an outhouse and a well. There was a sink in the kitchen. “The well had a pulley and a bucket until we finally got a hand crank.”

In January 1940 a bitter cold wave enveloped Lithuania, driving temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The next month it dove to 54 degrees below zero, the coldest in 160 years. The Baltic Sea iced over. Some people froze to death and more than 10,000 in the Baltics were severely frostbitten, losing fingers and toes.

When Julija had a relapse, she went back to the sanitorium, but returned home soon after in the fall. “A taxi brought her back. My mother said she had to be with her children.” She was not fully recovered. When winter bore down again, she ran down and became bedridden.

Jonas laid down rough wide planks over the packed dirt floor in one of the three rooms. He moved a metal stove into the room. His wife died in her bed, the head of the bed at the window, early the next spring. She was forty-three years old.

Her father re-married four months later. “He needed a woman to take care of Sigitas and Jozukas.” Jonas had decided to ask the nearby widow with the farm, the woman who had helped Angele bake bread, but by then she was spoken for by another man. He found a single woman in Gizai.

“It was where we always went. My school was there, and there was a church, a police station with a policeman, and a hardware store that had everything. Whenever we had a coin we bought candy there.”

Jonas’s new wife was younger than Julija had been and healthy. She had a daughter a year older than Angele, even though she had never been married. The wedding was in early September. It wasn’t long after the move-in before Angele realized she couldn’t stay.

“My new mother and my father started arguing. She loved the younger ones, and she loved her own daughter, but they started arguing about me. My father stood up for me, but he needed a wife. I don’t know what I was thinking, but one day I left.”

It was late September. She packed a loaf of bread, some cold pork, what clothes she could carry, and set off in the morning at first light for Alvitas, for her aunt’s house. Ona Kreivenas was her mother’s sister. Her aunt’s husband, a police captain, had been deported to Siberia by the Russians that summer, leaving her with three children and giving birth to a fourth.

Even though two German army groups had smashed into the country in late June that summer, ousting the Russians, by then it was too late for Jonas Kreivenas, who didn’t come back from Siberia for fifteen years, and when he did, found out his wife was living in Philadelphia, in the United States.

“I knew life wasn’t going to be any easier in Alytus, but I had to go.”

Alvitas is about fifteen miles from Gizai. It took her most of the day to walk there. She passed a small prisoner of war camp crowded with Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht. When she got to her aunt’s farm the sun was near to setting.

“I lived with my aunt for the next three years, until the Russians came again, and we had to run to Germany. I never went back home, except to visit, as a guest. I loved my father, and my brothers and sister, but I couldn’t go back.”

When Angele woke up early the next morning, she had a new home and a new mother. “She was my parent now. They were my family.” She helped her aunt make breakfast. There was strong black tea at the table. The first frost wasn’t far away, but that morning it was an Indian summer.

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

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

Motor City Clampdown

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “What about me?” I asked.

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

   “Where are we going?”

   “You’re going to jail,” he said.

   “Why? I didn’t do anything.”

   “This is a stolen car,” he said.

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

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

   “We already found him.”

   “And?”

   “He said you stole the car.”

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

   “Have you ever been to Massachusetts.”

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

   “All right, sit tight,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “He’s not my friend,” I said.

   “In any case, you’re free to go.”

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

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

   My father brushed my naivete aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Man Army

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 1924 the state-sponsored revolt in Klaipeda was signed sealed delivered, the country competed in the Summer Olympics for the first time, and his older brother suddenly unexpectedly died. The next year his mother was shot dead at a wedding.

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

“A group of Communist agitators, people who wanted other people’s land, came to the wedding, started a ruckus, started shooting guns, and my grandmother was accidentally shot and killed,” said Leo.

The Communist party of Lithuania was formed in 1918 and remained illegal until 1940. They were out for blood, though. There is only so much land to go around in small Baltic-like countries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

He jumped to his feet, hurriedly dressed in his uniform, threw on a winter coat, and fled his room. Making his way to the motor pool, he found a truck with keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. There were plenty to go around. Opel manufactured 95,000 of the 2-ton 4 x 4 Blitz Utility trucks during the war. He quickly signed it out, turned it over, and drove away unnoticed. He drove straight for the front. His plan was to break through the line and surrender to the Americans.

When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.

He didn’t get shot by either side and what went down is, he surrendered. He was relieved and confident that the war was over for him. But by the time the war was actually raising the white flag he was in his third army. At least he was finally on the winning side.

“My grandfather Juozas was a gigantic guy,” said Leo. “I’m six foot four. My father Leonas was five nine and maybe one forty pounds.” In the end, what counts is what you do.

Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of what he called “the whole shebang” in Europe. He knew there was more to winning the war than armor. “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

He got married again. His wife Louise taught school. They raised a family. He went to work as a butcher in the meat department of a grocery store for more than thirty years, rarely missing a day.

He built their house on three acres of land. One acre of it was devoted to a garden. Leo recalled, “I must have moved 5,000 wheelbarrows of manure as a child. Whenever our car parts factory friends went on strike, I delivered food to them in the morning before school.” His older sister Katherine still lives in the family home.

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

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

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

One Step at a Time

 

By Ed Staskus

His mother was a Russian, a schoolteacher in Saransk, when his father met her before the start of World War One. The town and garrison were in the Penza, four hundred miles southeast of Moscow. Antanas Staskevicius, a Lithuanian, was an officer in the Russian Imperial Army.

Saransk later became the capital city of the Republic of Soviet Monrovia, but long before that happened Antanas Staskevicius had returned to Lithuania.

Saransk was founded as a fortress, on the left bank of the river Isar, at the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before First World War its commercial life revolved around leather, meat, and honey. After the war its factories were closed for more than ten years when there weren’t any available fuels or raw materials

“My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there in the Czar’s army with an infantry regiment,” said Vytas Staskevicius. “It was a hard post for him, because back then they used to say drinkers go to the navy and dimwits to the infantry.”

The Imperial Russian Army had more than a million men, most of them conscripted, most of them peasants. There were a quarter million Cossacks, too. Only the Cossacks knew what they were doing.

“He courted my mother, Antonina, and they got married. They had my older sister, Eugenia, in 1917. We always called her by the name of Genute. My sister Gaile was born the next year.”

Vytas was born six years later, in 1924, in Siauliai. “My father named me after King Vytautas the Great.” His mother called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the little prince.

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

By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than one hundred years, having been disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time it had been under the thumb of the Russian Empire. In late 1919 , when Russia was being consumed by its Bolshevik revolution, Antanas Staskevicius went home to newly independent Lithuania.

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

Lithuania declared independence in February 1918 and for almost three years fought Soviets, West Russians, and Poles for their land. 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 warfare until the start of World War Two.

“After the fighting my father got some land for serving his country, near Siauliai. We lived on a farm.”

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

“We lived in Siauliai for several years, but then my father became the governor of the Panevezys district and we moved to the city there.”

Panevezys, a royal town founded in the early 16th century, is on the plain of the Nevezis River, about fifty miles east of Siauliai. During the interwar years Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor.

“My father was the governor of Panevezys until 1938.”

Vytas went to grade school and high school in Panevezys, but then his father was transferred to Zerasai, a place that was a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai had burned down and been rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Czar Alexander’s son, but after the Great War the name was expunged.

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

He told everyone, “I’m going to Zerasai.” He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father.

“We always studied a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying it was easy for me. But when I got to Zerasai I found out they only had English as a second language, no Russian. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.”

All during the 1930s the world had been changing fast. In 1940 the Lithuanian world completely changed. Father and son moved back to Siauliai.

“The Soviets came in 1940. All the high officials were let go and the Russians selected new people who they wanted to run the country. They always said they didn’t run the country themselves, we Lithuanians did, but it was the Lithuanian Communists who were in charge, so it was actually the Russians.”

The Staskevicius family went to their farm, while renting a house in Siauliai, dividing their time between town and country.

“It was only a few miles from our farmhouse to town. I used to walk or bicycle to Siauliai. But the mood was bad. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”

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

“Why don’t we go to Germany?” asked his mother Antonina.

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

But his father didn’t want to leave Lithuania.

“I have never done anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I have always good to the people. They aren’t going to put me in jail.”

In the fall of 1940 a passing troop of Soviet infantry commandeered their farm for several days.

“They didn’t do anything bad, or mistreat us, but they hadn’t washed in months. They stunk bad. and they rolled their cheap tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took a week to air out the house.”

The family stayed on their farm through the winter. Then, as the mass arrests and deportations of almost 2-,000 Lithuanian policemen and politicians, dissidents, and Catholics began in June 1941, Antanas Staskevicius 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. I’ll help you out, my father said. He walked over to the car with them and never came back. They shoved him into their car and drove him to jail.”

Vytas was in school in Siauliai taking his final exams that morning.

“My mother called the school and told me my father had been taken. I ran out of class and went home right away on my bike.”

His mother packed clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. She went to see him the next day.

“The man who was running the jail was a Jewish fellow. He had grown up with us and was a friend of our family, but when my mother asked him to help us he said the times have changed.”

There was a new order.

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

The man who had once commanded the local police stayed in his jail cell.

“They didn’t let my mother talk to my father. We went to the jail several times, but they never let us see him. We never saw him again.”

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

Within a week Nazi Germany seized Lithuania.

His father was transported to Russia’s far east to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He worked logging in the thick forests and starved to death in the winter of 1942. Anton Chekhov, a noted Russian short story writer, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.

“The morning after my father was arrested I drove our horse and wagon to school to finish my exams. I had to deliver milk to my teacher’s family, too. But when I stopped at his house, he ran out with his family and said, help take us to the railroad station. I said OK and they all got into my wagon, he and his wife and their two children. I took them to the station. After that day I never saw them again or ever found out what happened to them.

“The next day one of our neighbors told me the Russians had come to the teacher’s house that same afternoon looking for him. Teachers, lawyers, anybody from an educated family, they were worried about all of them. They were afraid high-class people were against them. “

When Russian NKVD men began mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting by Lithuanians among themselves. It was every man for himself, unless you were a Red.

“If you were a Communist then you were all right. The father of one of my friends was a metal worker. He didn’t even know how to read, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a Communist.”

His mother, sister Genute, and Vytas stayed on the farm after his father’s arrest. His sister Gaile was then living in Vilnius. When the mass arrests intensified they became alarmed.

“We were determined on leaving the farm. It was dangerous. We went into the forest. But then my mother told me to go to Vilnius and tell Gaile our father had been arrested. She wanted Gaile to know to be very careful. I took a train to Vilnius, but as soon as I got there I got a phone call saying my mother had been arrested.

“When I got back to Siauliai I was told she was being deported. Somebody probably complained and informed on her. We had land, 160 acres, so we were considered capitalists. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. There was no real reason that I ever found out about for why they took her. I went to the train station, but didn’t see her anywhere. She was sent to a prison camp.”

His mother was released from the Gulag in 1956, after Stalin’s death, but not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai.

“My God, you’ve gotten older,” was the first thing Antonina said when she saw her son Vytas again in 1979, thirty-eight years after being transported to Siberia.

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

“The day the Russians left and before the Germans came, everybody rushed to the food warehouses and broke into them. It wasn’t that we were robbing them, but everybody was doing it, since there was no food. Gaile and I went, too. We filled up our bags with bread and pork, all kinds of food, and took 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 in to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to someone who had known my father, and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any more 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 back to Siauliai and walked home, but when he got there he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the farm.

“They were there about 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 quarters and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank wine together at night.”

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

“It was a model farm,” said Vytas. “Every summer students from the agricultural academy would tour our farm. When I came back, my sister Genute was there, but she wasn’t interested, so she didn’t do any work.

“I started taking care of things, even though I didn’t know anything, nothing. I knew the cows had to be milked and the milk had to go to the dairy. But about growing crops, and the fields, I didn’t know anything.

“But I worked as though I knew what I was doing.”

That fall he sent his farmhands out to till the ground in a nearby field. When his nearest neighbor saw them working he ran across the road to him.

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

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

A year later he was on a horse-drawn mower cutting hay when he saw storm clouds gathering. He thought he would be better served walking the horses, so they could pull the mower faster, and jumped down from his seat.

“As I hopped down I stumbled and fell right on the blades of the mower. The horses stopped dead. 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.

As the war dragged on he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his injured hand and farmhands everywhere were deserting the land.

“I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew they used to give Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and sang at night. One morning after a month I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were all gone.

“I had to go back to the Germans and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer shouted that I hadn’t looked after them, shouted that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouted that they weren’t going to give me anymore. In the end I said, I need five more, so they gave me five more. I kept them locked up after that and they were still there until the Russians came back.”

In 1944 the Red Army stormed into Lithuania. Vytas escaped with a mechanized company of Germans, 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 or not he was coming with them as they retreated.

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

His sister Genute, not at the farm that day, fled separately. She got across the border into East Prussia, and later into Germany. His other sister, Gaile, wasn’t able to escape Lithuania in time.

“She had a problem at the border and didn’t make it. The Soviets had taken that area, so Gaile was forced to stop in a little town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her. In the end the three of them were forced to stay there.

“She finished school, became a nurse, and never told anyone where she was from. The Russians 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 Siauliai in 1944,” said Vytas “I was very glad to get out in time.”

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.”

Scouting Out Campfires

 

By Ed Staskus

   “Scouting is a man’s job cut down to a boy’s size.”  Robert Baden-Powell

   My father was born on a family farm outside Siauliai in 1924, six years after Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence and two years before the start of what is known as the Smetonic Era. The small city, the capital of northern Lithuania, is home to the Hill of Crosses, a spiritual statement and folk-art site of about one hundred thousand Christian crosses.

   Siauliai goes back to 1236 to the Battle of Saule against the Teutonic Knights. The merciless war between the Teutonic Order and Lithuania was one of the longest in the history of Europe. The first Cristian church was built in 1445. Until then Lithuanians were steadfast pagans. They believed Hell was a fine place to end up, if it came to that, since Lithuania was cold, and Hell was warm.

   In the 19th century Jews were encouraged to go to Lithuania for its entrée and their prosperity. The city was majority Jewish by 1910. Šiauliai was famous for its leather industry. The biggest leather factory in the Russian Empire was there. A battleground during both World Wars, it saw tens of thousands run for their lives during the wars, never to come back.

   My grandfather was a native and a former officer in the Czarist Army. My grandmother was Russian and a former schoolteacher. They met when he was stationed far southeast of Moscow. “In those days drunks went into the navy and dimwits into the infantry,” he said. He thanked God every day he had been impressed as an officer by Lithuania’s overlords.

   Vytas Staskevicius was a Boy Scout early on. Since his father was the police chief of their province, and since Antanas Smetona, the President of the country, was the Chief Scout, and since there were privileges provided to scout troops in schools by the Ministry of Education, Antanas Staskevicius, back from the Russian badlands, involved his son in scouting as soon as he grew to be school age.

   I found myself a Boy Scout in the early 1960s in Troop 311, the Cleveland, Ohio troop my father became Scoutmaster of. We wore official Boy Scouts of America neckerchiefs and carried unofficial knives in scabbards on our belts. We hiked trails through woods, although most of us were hapless with a compass, instead relying on ingenuity, stamina, and dumb luck to find our way.

   Boy Scouts got their start in 1907 when a British Army officer gathered up twenty boys and took them camping, exploring, and pioneering on an island off England’s southern coast. The next year the army officer, Robert Baden-Powell, wrote “Scouting for Boys.” That same year more than ten thousand Boy Scouts attended a rally at the Crystal Palace in London.

   The first scout patrol of ten boys and two girls in Lithuania was organized in 1918. The next year there were two patrols, one for boys and another for girls. During the inter-war years more than 60,000 boys and girls participated in scouting, making it one of the most popular activities among youth culture at that time. In 1939, just before the start of World War Two, there were 22,000 Lithuanian scouts, or almost one percent of the country’s population.

   Four out of five Lithuanians were farmers or lived in the country and camping was everyone’s favorite part of scouting. It’s what probably accounts for my father’s fondness for the outdoors and all the scout camps he was later Scoutmaster at. They weren’t all sun-kissed and starlit summer camps, either.

   Winter Blasts were camps in thin-skinned cabins in the highlands of the Chagrin Valley at which the scouts earned cold weather Merit Badges. We were reassured that exploring outdoors in December was fun. We always built a fire first thing in the morning in the cabin’s Franklin stove, kept it well stoked, and hoped we wouldn’t freeze to death in the long night.

   In the summer a grab bag of Merit Badges was up for grabs. There were more than a hundred of them, from sports to sciences. I learned the six basic Boy Scout knots, from the sheet bend to the clove hitch, and earned my Pioneering Badge, although I never learned to properly knot a tie, even later in life, when my wife always helped me with it.

   My father was forever putting up and tearing down tents, finding lost stakes and poles, and persuading my mother to repair rips in canvas. He told us sleeping outdoors was manly robust healthy, no matter how much rain leaked onto our sleeping bags. He thought fresh air was a tonic for boys.

   He led us searching for adventure in duck puddles. He had a maxim that a week of camp was worth six months of theory. To this day some of his former scouts are lousy at theory but always vacation in either the woods or at the seashore.

   It wasn’t just the Boy Scouts, either.

   For many years he was the boss at Ausra, a two-week sports-related, Lithuanian-inflected, and Franciscan-inspired summer camp at Wasaga Beach on the Georgian Bay north of Toronto. Although the campers did calisthenics every morning, went to Mass after breakfast, and spoke Lithuanian whenever they had to, what we actually did most of the time was run around in the woods like madmen, play tackle football in the bay, and sing off-key long into the night at the nightly bonfires.

   Singing around a bonfire is even better than singing in the car or the shower.

   When Vytas was nine years old he was one of the nearly two thousand homeboys at the 1933 Reception Camp in Palanga when Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, came to Lithuania. Palanga is a seaside resort on the Baltic Sea known for its beaches and sand dunes. Then a sleepy resort, today it’s a summer party spot.

   He never forgot having been at that camp, seeing scouting’s leader and guiding light, if only on that one occasion. “He was a hero to us, someone who gave his life to something bigger than himself, even though we were all smaller than him,” he said.

   The scout founder’s son, who was with him in 1933, didn’t forget, either. “I particularly remember the warm and friendly welcome we received as we came ashore on Lithuanian soil,” recalled Peter Baden-Powell in 1956.

   Five years later Vytas was at the Second National Jamboree in Panemune, the smallest city in the country, which commemorated both the 20th anniversaries of the foundation of the Lithuanian Boy Scout Association and the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.

   Things change fast, though. Two years later the Soviet Union invaded, the country’s independence was overturned, and scouting was outlawed. During the war and successive occupations, first by the Russians, then the Nazis, and then the Russians again, both of his parents were arrested and transported to concentration camps. His father died of starvation in a Siberian labor camp. His mother spent 20 years in the Gulag.

   In 1ate 1944 he fled to Germany, made his way buying and selling black market cigarettes, and after the war worked for relief organizations dealing with the masses of displaced people. He met his wife-to-be in a hospital in Nuremberg, where she was a nurse’s aide, and he was being operated on several times for a wound that almost cost him his right hand.

   He found passage to Canada in 1949, married Angele Jurgelaityte, who had emigrated there a year earlier, and by 1956 was the father of three children. In 1957 he left Sudbury, Ontario, where he had worked in nickel mines for almost seven years, first as a black powder blaster and then as an ore hauler, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. We followed a half-year later. He worked as an elevator operator for seventy-five cents an hour, less than half of what he had been making in the mines, swept floors stocked warehouses did whatever he could for a paycheck, and took classes in accounting at Western Reserve University at night.

   While in Canada he wasn’t involved in scouting.

   “There weren’t any children, or they were all still babies,” my mother said. “All of us from Lithuania, and there was a large community of us in Sudbury in the early 1950s, were all so young. We were just starting to rebuild our lives, getting married and having children, but it was taking time for them to grow up to scouting age.”

   Robert Baden-Powell always counseled that Bot Scouts should be prepared for the unexpected and not be taken by surprise. “A scout knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens,” he said. By that guiding light scouting stood my father in good stead through the 1940s.

   When his parents were arrested by the NKVD and deported, he took over the family farm. He was 17 years old. When he fled their farm in 1944 with ten minutes notice about the Red Army being on the horizon, he barely crossed the border before it was closed for good. When he landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1949, everything he had was in a small suitcase and there were twenty dollars in his wallet. In the event, he still had five dollars left when he knocked on Angele’s door in Sudbury, almost six hundred miles away.

   In Cleveland, living in a Polish double he bought and shared with his sister’s family, who had also fled Lithuania, he found work full-time at the Weatherhead Corporation, went to school at night, and after earning a degree in accounting went to work for TRW. He made his way up the ladder, finally managing his division’s financial operations in South America.

   After taking early retirement in the late-1980s he helped found the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union and as director built its assets into the tens of millions. In the 1990s he formed NIDA Enterprises and managed it through 2008, when he was in his 80s. He believed the workingman was the happy man. “Nothing works unless we do,” he said. He believed there was value in work. He believed work without effort was valueless.

  Because of World War Two and its dislocations, living rough and subsequent emigration overseas, as well as the demands of rebuilding a life and building a family, he didn’t participate in scouting for many years. But once a scout always a scout. “What you learn stays with you long after you’ve outgrown the uniform,” he said.

   When he took over from Vytautas Jokubaitis as Scoutmaster of Troop 311 they were big shoes to fill. Vyto Jokubaitis was a tireless advocate for his countrymen who became director of Cleveland’s Lithuanian American Club. He was awarded the Ohio Governor’s “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1994.

   My father worked with Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts for nearly twenty years, although even after giving up scouting, until his death in 2011, he never really stopped scouting. While Scoutmaster he helped affiliate Troop 311 with the American Boy Scouts, opening up camping and jamboree venues, as well as linking it to the traditions and activities of scouting worldwide. In the late 1960s he established an ancillary scouting camp at Ausra, the campsite on the Georgian Bay, where Cleveland’s scouts enjoyed two weeks of camping, and by many accounts, some of the biggest nighttime bonfires they ever experienced.

   “Dad loved bonfires,” recalled my brother Rick, who was also a scout. “It was a rule with him, that there be one every night. Some of his log cabin-style fires were as big as dining room tables and were still smoldering in the morning when we got up for our morning exercises and raising the flags.” When asked what bonfires meant to him Vytas said, “Sometimes it takes looking through campfire smoke to see the world clearly.”

   Although they never exactly warmed to it, he introduced winter camping and hiking to his troop, even encouraging them to try snowshoes. “I don’t remember ever falling down as much as when I tried walking on top of snow drifts wearing snowshoes,” recalled one of his scouts. “But he said it didn’t matter how many times we fell down, it only mattered that we get up and try again, although getting up while stuck in snowshoes is easier said than done.”

   He stressed achievement by encouraging the pursuit of Merit Badges, especially those that involved self-reliance and taking your chances. “One summer at a Canadian camp at Blue Mountain we were taken on a two-night canoe trip,” my brother said. “We were supervised, but only given a compass, a canteen, and a big bag of chocolate chip cookies. We had to make the round-trip up the bay and back to the camp ourselves without any help. They told us it was both a duty and a challenge to find our way, and we did it, and I still remember how accomplished we all felt when we did that.”

   In the 1970s he inaugurated Scautiu Kucius, a kind of Boy Scout’s Christmas Eve, a tradition that endures to this day. Every year, a weekend before Christmas, Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts gather and feast on twelve foods representing the twelve apostles, sing carols, and kick their shoes off over their heads to see what girl they will land near, which is old-school marriage-making..

   Another annual event he was invested in was the Kazuke Muge, a scouting craft fair, fund-raiser, and parade held every March in the community hall of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cleveland’s Lithuanian church. He organized and promoted it for many years, making sure stalls were assembled for the craft sales, arranging indoor games and entertainment, and encouraging everyone to support the scouts.

   Although he did much for the movement, as a Scoutmaster he didn’t try to do everything for his charges. He thought it better to encourage boys to educate themselves instead of always instructing them. “When you want a thing done ‘Don’t do it yourself’ is a good motto for a Scoutmaster,” said Robert Baden-Powell. Like him my father believed that to be true.

   “There is no ideal way to do things,” he explained to Gintaras Taoras, one of his scouts. “There is no absolute wrong way to do things. Everyone has different ways to accomplish something. It will just take some faster to accomplish the task and others longer, but you both end up at the same end point. Learn through your mistakes.”

   Gintaras, who would become a Scoutmaster in his own right, when asked what person had made a difference in his scouting career, said it was Vytas Staskevicius. “Brother Vytas was never afraid to try anything new. He always gave us the chance to do things ourselves, like getting our camps organized and set up. If we got it wrong, he didn’t harp on us getting it wrong. He would ask us how we could have done things differently, what we learned, and we would then move on.”

   After World War Two the Lithuanian Boy Scouts Association began to re-organize. In 1948 a National Jamboree was held in the German Alps. More than a thousand displaced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were there. In 1950 there was a Lithuanian presence at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

   In 2014 Gintaras Taoras was in the front ranks when the 65th anniversary of scouting for Lithuanian immigrants on four continents was recognized at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D. C.  “Scouting is a powerful movement providing life-changing opportunities to today’s Lithuanian youth,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian ambassador.

   “I wish to personally congratulate the Lithuanian Scouts Association,” said Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama and National President of the Boy Scouts of America.

   The Centennial of Lithuanian scouting was celebrated in 2018. My father was one of many Scoutmasters who kept scouting alive. Although he had since passed away, whatever scout camp in the sky he is at, he is sure to be smiling through the smoke of a celestial bonfire at how Lithuanian scouting has resurrected itself one hundred years later.

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.”

Waking Up On Wasaga Beach

 

By Ed Staskus

   There might be flies on some of you guys, but there ain’t no flies on us.” Traditional Camp Song

   My brother and I both went to Ausra, as Kretinga was then known, starting in the early 1960s, later joined by our younger sister, who continued going into the 1970s, after we had grown older than the age limit. When that happened there was no love lost in our goodbyes, watching our sister leave for camp, while we ate crumbs at home.

   Everybody who was going waited all year for the first day of stovykla, or camp, and two weeks later, when it was over, saying goodbye to fellow campers felt like summer was over, even though it was still only mid-July. We ran around in the woods like knockabouts, there were bonfires, and it was awesome to hang out with our friends. We would have traded any day in the real world for five minutes at summer camp.

   Austra was a summer camp in Wasaga Beach, ninety miles up from Toronto. It is just north of the provincial park and the town’s honky-tonk boardwalk. Americans, Canadians, and anybody who had a drop of Lithuanian blood in them was good to go. After the first year we never wrote letters home. The first year we weren’t allowed to be campers anymore we wrote letters asking for an exemption.

   Founded in 1957, Ausra was a sports culture religious boy and girl runaround camp all wrapped up in a package deal on the southern shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The camp was and still is on twenty-four acres of sand. The sand is bare-bones and fresh and gets into everything, your ears, shoes, pockets, sleeping bag, and toothbrush, on the first day and only drops out of sight after you get home. The trees surrounding our camp are what we disappeared into for two weeks, far from home.

   The drive from where we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, to the camp was longer then. The highways weren’t all highways like they are now. Some of them were just roads. My father had bought a Chevrolet Brookwood as soon as there were three of us, a blue and white station wagon that was twice as big and long as any sedan. The third-row seat faced backwards. We called it the way back window, playing the license plate game and cows on my side.

   The rear window was where my brother and I always sat. Our little sister had to sit alone on the middle bench seat. She wasn’t allowed in the back with us, although we let her play rock paper scissors with us, since she was so bad at it. My brother and I found out from a friend of a friend she counted her lucky stars to have the middle seat to herself. When we asked her why, she just laughed like Woody Woodpecker.

   We were always so excited about going to camp we couldn’t sit still. It took forever to get there. I don’t know how my parents endured the 12-hour trip with the three of us in the back. I do know my father had stuck a globe-like compass on top of the dashboard next to a plastic St. Christopher figurine staring straight watchful ahead. When he started chain-smoking was when we knew things were getting sketchy.

   When the camp opened it slept eight boys to a Canadian Army surplus tent pitched over a plank floor. By the time my sister went to camp, wood A-frames were replacing canvas. Boys stayed on one side of the camp and girls on the other, while the smaller kids slept in roughhewn twin barracks. There were close to two hundred of us. In between were the sports field, a parade ground, and an all-purpose open-air hall, adjoined by an amphitheater of tiered logs.

   The amphitheater was where we sang songs, acted out skits, and had a lauzas, or bonfire. Everyone ran down to the bonfire and sing-along as soon as it started getting dark. There was so much wood we had a fire every night, as big as a log cabin burning down. “It’s not like now, when you have to drive to the convenience store and buy it,” my brother said. “They only have bonfires on weekends, and they are more the size of flashlights than three-alarm fires.”

   Our camp activities director had been in the Foreign Legion. Bruno wore a black beret, a checked kerchief tied around his neck, and carried a hand axe on his belt. He mostly just picked up wood from the forest floor. Our woodpile was always sky high for a rainy day. Even though we were often reminded to never play with matches in the woods, every night it seemed to take a full box of stick matches and a half-gallon of gasoline to start the fire.

   Everybody cheered when the whoosh happened.

   The days were mostly sunny, sometimes windy and wet, but at camp there was no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. The nights were often massively starlit and frequently damp. The summer sky at summer camp is big and windy. It’s clean and full of life, too. We didn’t shower when we were at camp. Everybody was expected to clean themselves at the communal sink in the latrine. It wasn’t just a pit, but a cinder block building that teemed with daddy long-leg spiders at night.

   Some kids hardly ever washed anything besides their hands and face, and it could get disgusting, but none of us cared too much about it. One time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him into the car when his two weeks were up, and he hadn’t cleaned all over even once.

   “No, go back, go hose yourself off! What is wrong with you?” his mother asked through her nose.

   One year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. We tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood, they left itchy clusters on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a bedbug sniffing dog.

   The Beagle was so good at his work he sniffed out a bedbug hiding in the folded page of a paperback book. The next day everyone whose tents were plagued by the bugs piled their stuff in garbage bags and threw the bags inside whatever cars were at the camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.

   Bruno told us that a Canadian had invented plastic garbage bags. He was proud of that because he had become a Canadian citizen. He always had something historic to tell us. Sometimes we heard what he had to say. Most of the time we didn’t.

   In the morning every morning at seven o’clock we were rousted from our cots by marching music and rag-tagged to the sports field for calisthenics. We stretched and did jumping jacks and ran the track. Afterwards we ran back to our tents, changed into clean shirts, and after raising the Lithuanian, Canadian, and American flags, sometimes preceded by lowering underpants hoisted in the night, we raced to breakfast.

   We had porridge and scrambled eggs and Post Top 3 cereal. We always had PB&J on Wonder Bread. Sometimes we had sandwich’s all day if something went wrong and there wasn’t anything else. The sweet jelly was a hit with bees and wasps. Metallic colored dragonflies, agile and powerful fliers, had the run of camp. If the spring had been soggy there were mosquitos.

   After breakfast we pushed the long tables to the side, lined our benches up in rows, and sat down for services. Father Paul, Ausra’s resident Franciscan, said mass every day on a makeshift altar. He didn’t have any kids, being a priest, but he was good with kids. He cemented his reputation in the early days when a camper swiped the wine for communion.

   “I was about 12 years old and drank it with a girlfriend,” said Dalia Daugvainyte. “The trees whirled around us along with the stars that night.”

   She had to go to confession the next morning. Father Paul let her off the hook with less than a million Hail Mary’s and a solemn vow to never do it again. “Knowing him, he probably hid a smile,” she said. Since the confessional was out in the open, he probably had to turn his head to the side.

   Late mornings we were free. We cleaned up our tents, messed around, and played volleyball, the national game, according to our sports counselor. One day we played volleybat, which was baseball but with a volleyball. We found out it was hairier than it sounds when the pitcher, who was closer to home plate since he had to lob the volleyball, broke his wrist fending off a line drive.

   Every afternoon, barring mid-summer thunder and lightning, we assembled for the best part of the day, which was going to the longest freshwater beach in the world, a ten-minute hike from the camp. We lined up in our swimsuits and towels and tramped through a stand of pines and birches to the Concession Road gate and past the corner variety store to the New Wasaga Beach coastline. Whenever we could, we made a run for it, breaking out of our two-by-two ranks, and snuck into the variety store for bottles of Bubble-Up and bags of Maltesers.

   Bruno was unlike most of the other counselors. He wasn’t a parent or a young adult. He was a wiry man in his forties with wavy hair who wore his khaki shorts hiked up to his belly button and led our formation to the beach. He had been a Foreign Legionnaire during World War Two and every summer thought he knew how to assemble children for close order drill, only to see us scatter pell-mell as soon we got close to the dunes.

   Fish-n-chip shacks on stilts and fat family cars, which were then still allowed to park on the beach, dotted the wide sand flats. The surf line was a hundred yards out, the water flat as a pancake. We didn’t swim so much as play in the water, running and belly flopping, tackling one another, flinging Wham-O Frisbees, and splashing every girl we saw.

   “You’re getting us wet,” they yelled, even though they were in the lake the same as us. One girl I liked hated getting water in her eyes and up her nose. She wore enormous green goggles and said they were for swimming, even though she always just stood and floated around in one spot.

   What none of us ever noticed was the loose cordon of watchful camp counselors on the outskirts of our horseplay, keeping their eyes peeled as we played. Walking back to camp behind Bruno we would sing “Hello, goodbye, Jell-o, no pie” because we knew we would be having Jell-o for dessert when we got back. Sometimes I walked with the pretty goggle girl.

   Bruno liked to snack on koseliena, or headcheese, and thought we should, too, but our kitchen had the good sense never to serve it, fearing mass nausea. We ate four times a day, served by eight volunteer cooks, older ladies, who made burgers and French fries, pork chops and mashed potatoes, and kugelis, or potato pudding.

   Potatoes were a staple, like Wonder Bread.

   Going swimming on the bay shore was the only time we were allowed to leave camp. It was a strict rule. Everybody feared the consequences, which was expulsion from the camp. One summer a fifteen-year-old was spotted cavorting on the Wasaga Beach boardwalk and given the choice of going home or spending the remainder of the camp in the kid’s barracks.

   He chose a top bunk in the barracks, his new campmates a gaggle of eight and nine-year-old’s.

   Two other boys who had messed up did penance another summer by staging a memorial to Darius and Girenas, the 1930s aviators who died flying from America to Lithuania. After a week building a model of the orange monoplane, they strung a clothesline over the bonfire pit, and painted rocks depicting the route, from New York to Newfoundland, Ireland, and finally Kaunas.

   That night, with the whole camp assembled at the amphitheater, they pulled the plane along the rope, telling the spellbinding story of the ill-fated flight, when near the marker depicting Kaunas, they yanked too hard on the guide rope. The plane careened backwards, shook and shuddered, plunging down too soon and too fast and crashed into the bonfire, exploding into flames.

   Everybody hooted hollered groaned wolf whistled. It was the buzz of the camp for days. The girl with goggles under her pillow was quiet. Somebody said one of the pilots had been her great uncle. I bought her a bottle of Orange Crush from the variety store to cheer her up.

   Although Ausra no longer exists, except perhaps in memory, the summer camp on the shore of Georgian Bay is still there in the same place. More than half a century after tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled Europe for North America it thrives on the thin, sandy soil of Wasaga Beach.

   Toronto’s Church of the Resurrection bought the land for the camp from a parishioner for a nominal amount in the 1950s and operated it until 1983, when it was re-christened as Kretinga. Since then it has evolved into three camps. There are two weeks for English-speaking and two weeks for Lithuanian-speaking children of Lithuanian descent, and another week for families whose children are too young for the other camps.

   There is a weeklong basketball camp in August. In 2014 Mindaugas Kuziminskas, a former Kretinga camper, played for the Lithuanian National Team in the World Cup in Spain. Summer after summer many of the same children and families across generations return. “It’s my second home,” said one camper, while another said, “Greatest camp in the world!”

   “I love this camp so much and I have been going since forever,” another camper wearing a double-sided Kretinga t-shirt summed up.

   My nephew goes to Kretinga and eats in the same mess hall as my brother and I did, shoots hoops on the same asphalt court, and every summer helps restore the same sand map of Lithuania behind the flagpoles. I asked him if he was going back next summer.

   “Oh, yeah,” he said. “My friends and I have been together for five years in the same cabin. Waking up and being at camp is the best time of the year. We get there the first day and there are high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. We punch each other and laugh it up. When all the moms and dads are finally gone, we have sandwiches in the mess hall. Father says a prayer and the camp commander makes a speech.”

   He had already made his plans for when the talking was over.

   “After the next two summers, after my last year at camp, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s a sure thing. I can’t wait to go back.”

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.”

The End of Taupa

arrested-in-handcuffs-e1583003662982.jpg

By Ed Staskus

   When one-time CEO Alex Spirikaitis was arrested on the afternoon of Monday, October 21, 2013, he had been on the run for ninety-some days, accused of embezzling more than $10 million from the Taupa Lithuanian-American Credit Union in Cleveland, Ohio.

   It was almost half of the cash, assets, and member deposits of the small non-profit bank.

   He had changed his appearance by growing hair on his formerly shaved head and shaving his goatee. Despite speculation that he had fled to Europe or South America, he was apprehended in the Collinwood neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side.

   “He was actually walking down the street when we spotted him,” said FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson. His disguise had only gotten him so far. Although he had left behind multiple semi-automatic weapons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition secreted away at the credit union, he was arrested without incident.

   “He did not put up a fight.”

   Stealing money with a smile and a fountain pen is one thing. Shooting it out with the Federal Bureau of Investigation is another thing. They aren’t the same thing, by a long shot.

   The FBI would not reveal how he been tracked to Collinwood, only that they had “developed information based upon advanced investigative techniques that led to his apprehension,” a brief statement said.

   He was less than three miles from closed down boarded up Taupa Credit Union.

   Modern credit unions date to mid-nineteenth century Germany, where they were conceived as people’s banks leveraging social capital to serve farmers and the working class. The first credit union in North America began operations in 1901 with a ten-cent deposit. Today more than 8000 of them in the United States serve over 90 million members with total assets of nearly $800 billion.

   Managed by their members, most credit unions are not-for profit cooperatives taking in deposits, promoting thrift, and making loans. Unlike banks, individuals combine to manage and control their own money. They are near and far in many shapes and sizes. Credit unions range from corporate entities to community institutions serving local schools and churches.

   When Augis Dicevicius emigrated from the homeland to Cleveland in the early 2000s, he soon opened an account at Taupa. It was in the neighborhood, the employees at the credit union were from the immigrant community, spoke Lithuanian, and over time became more like friends than bankers.

   “It was like loyalty,” he said, describing why he kept an account there.

   “There is a level of trust from both sides of the counter at Taupa because you know who you are dealing with,” said Algis Gudenas, former chairman of the credit union’s board of directors, three years before the National Credit Union Association liquidated it. “I think the slogan of Taupa more or less says it all, save with one of your own.”

   From the 1930s on when the federal government began to charter them, credit unions grew steadily, especially among immigrant groups. They were instrumental in helping establish Poles, Germans, Italians, and the more recent Asian and Hispanic immigrants in their new locales. When creating the Office of Ethnic Affairs in 1976 President Ford cited “the ethnic church, school, and credit union” as fostering “a sense of neighborhood.”

   Wherever Lithuanians have settled in the United States, from coast to coast, they have formed their own credit unions. Founded in 1969, the California Lithuanian Credit Union has assets of $72 million. The thriving Boston Lithuanian Federal Credit Union celebrated its 33rd anniversary in 2013. From its roots in the basement of a church hall in the early 1950s, Toronto’s Parama has grown to become the world’s largest Lithuanian credit unions.

   Already by 1906 in Cleveland the Lithuanian Building and Loan Association, sometimes simply known as the Lit bank, had been established, even though the community numbered less than a thousand at the time. After World War Two it evolved into the Superior Savings and Loan. In the 1980s, when Cleveland was by then home to more than sixteen thousand former Lithuanian natives and their children, Taupa was founded.

   It served the community for almost three decades.

   With approximately 1100 members and $24 million in assets, located a short walk from both their church and the Lithuanian Village cultural center, Taupa was a stable institution, healthy and growing, year after year, even in an economy often troubled by bank failures and recessions.

   At least it was until the evening of July 16, 2013, when police and federal agents surrounded Alex Spirikaitis’s $1.7 million home in Solon, a bedroom suburb 25 miles southeast of Cleveland. It was four days after the decision had been made by the state to liquidate the credit union, determining it was insolvent and had no viable prospect for restoring operations.

   Armed with a warrant for his arrest for fraud, when authorities approached the home they were met by his family, who told them he was inside, but was refusing to come out. He was going to tough it out.

   “Family members left the house with us and we thought, from the information we gathered, that he was not going to willingly come out,” said Special Agent Vicki Anderson.

   The police decided to regroup, the size and layout of the large house playing a big part in their decision to wait for daylight. After a night-long standoff, the neighborhood cordoned off for safety’s sake, and TV news crews at the ready, tactical teams entered the house in the morning.

   But the police came up empty. He was not there. He had run away, fled from the consequences, not that it did much good. “A horse may run quickly but it cannot escape its tail,” is how a Lithuanian proverb puts it.

   Before the first members made their first deposits in 1984, the credit union was just a hope and a dream.

   “We were in our kitchen having coffee one morning, talking about it like we had for months,” recalled Angele Staskus. “That was when my husband suddenly said yes, we were going to go ahead.”

   Believing Cleveland’s Lithuanian immigrants and descendants would be better off banding together for their savings and loan needs, Vic Staskus took his brainchild to an ad hoc committee made up of Vytautas Maurutis, Vacys Steponis, Gintaras Taoras, and Vincas Urbaitis. Taupa was coined as the bank’s name and they were shortly chartered by the state.

   At a meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help church attended by fewer than twenty people, they collected $4000.00 in deposits, convinced local Lithuanian attorney Algis Sirvaitis to donate space for an office, and hired Rimute Nasvitiene, who became Taupa’s first employee.

   “At first we did everything by hand,” said Vic Staskus. Later that year the Toronto credit union offered them their old computing machine. “It took four of us to bring it into our office, since it was as big as a table, and on top of that we lost most of our small office space to it.” Fortunately, through a friend at IBM, they were shortly able to secure a more modern system.

   After they purchased their own building from a retiring Lithuanian doctor in 1985, deposits began to pour in.  “That was a problem,” Vic Staskus recalled shortly before his death in January 2011. “We had no loans, so we were earning very little. We asked one of our board members to take out a loan. But he said he didn’t need anything. Every time we asked him, he said no. We were finally able to convince him and he took a loan out for $500, and gradually people began to realize we were lending.”

   By 1990, when Vic Staskus left Taupa, the credit union had nearly $8 million in assets and delivered most of the same services all banks did. “I knew we could offer better rates and interest, and I always believed we could offer as many advantages as banks to our members,” he said. Taupe was on solid footing and growing.

   Alex Spirikaitis joined Taupa in the early 1990s, at first working at the front counter as a clerk, later promoted to assistant manager, and eventually taking on the role of CEO, as the credit union quadrupled its assets in those years.

   “He lived on the same street as we did, in the neighborhood, just down the street from the credit union, when we were children,” said Rita Zvirblis, who served as secretary for Taupa’s board of directors in its early years. “He was a really nice kid, really quiet.”

   Former board director Ricardas Sirvinskas described the new CEO as well liked, especially by older members, because he spoke Lithuanian fluently. “The older generation of Lithuanians, they really liked Alex very much.”

   After he was arrested, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth McHargh unsealed an affidavit revealing the extent of the embezzlement, which was more than $10 million, making it one of the largest cases of fraud against a credit union ever n the country. The largest, involving the St. Paul Croatian Credit Union, was coincidentally also in Cleveland, Ohio.

   The criminal complaint against Alex Spirikaitis was for allegedly making false statements to a credit union from 2011 through 2013.

   “He printed out numbers he wanted to report to auditors and the National Credit Union Association and taped them over the real numbers from the true Corporate One Federal Credit Union bank account statements,” the affidavit states. “Mr. Spirikaitis then photocopied the altered documents resulting in a document that mimicked the appearance of a statement coming directly from Corporate One.”

   The machinations were on the order of “Get Smart.”

   “Everybody accepted the financial statements Alex provided us, and everybody appeared to be happy with them,” said Vincas Urbaitis, a founding member of the credit union who sat on its board for more than 25 years until resigning in 2011.

   “I guess everybody just got duped.”

   During the summer, as Alex Spirikaitis remained on the loose, federal prosecutors seized his wife’s luxury SUVs and moved to take legal possession of his home. Court documents revealed that the down payment for the house, the construction of which took a year, was paid with two checks totaling $100,000 from the former CEO’s personal account at the credit union.

   “All remaining checks, totaling approximately $1,555,132, came from Mr. Spirikaitis in the form of Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union official checks,” court documents said. “While working at the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union, Mr. Spirikaitis never made in excess of $50,000.”

   The luxury Adirondack-style house on a five-acre lot featured two full kitchens, an indoor swimming pool, entertainment room with big screen and movie projectors, five-and-a-half bathrooms, and an elevator.

   Alex and his wife had a luxury suite at FirstEnergy Stadium for Cleveland Browns football games. They drove one of their nine cars downtown for home games. They celebrated touchdowns with fancy drinks.

   “No Trespassing” signs surrounded the house on all sides.

   “I don’t think anybody from the board of directors knew or anyone within the Lithuanian community knew he was building a house,” said Vincas Urbaitis. “He was not very social. But he was not antisocial, either. He would talk to you about the business aspects of the credit union, but I don’t even know who his close friends were.”

   He was a kind of chameleon. Everybody noticed him, but nobody recognized him. He wasn’t a public man, after all. Ricardas Sirvinskas described Alex Spirikaitis as a quiet person, keeping to himself, and only rarely attending social events in the Lithuanian community.

   Although court documents were not completely clear regarding the final tally of money missing, Vincas Urbaitis was bewildered why examiners had not verified the statements prepared by Alex Spirikaitis.

   “They never went to the bank, Corporate One, and asked independently as to how much money was in the accounts,” he said.

   Vytautas Kliorys, board president of Taupa at the time it was closed and liquidated, also questioned the credit union’s third-party audit firm and examiners. “The board believed that it had all the procedures in place to prevent this sort of event,” he said. “We had received excellent and very good reports from the annual state exams, and we had even gone one step further than required and used an outside CPA firm to perform annual independent audits.”

   Paul Hixon, VP of marketing at Corporate One, had no comment other than to say the National Credit Union Association was investigating. Officials said it would take up to six months to complete a full forensic account process.

   The Lithuanian community reacted to the credit union’s closing with dismay. “For those in Cleveland that have been watching the news for the last few days know that the Lithuanian community in Cleveland has been in the spotlight,” said Regina Motiejunas-McCarthy, co-host of Siaurinis Krantas Lithuanian Radio.

   “Not because of something good but because of a tragedy.”

   The unexpected closure of the credit union affected all of its members, freezing their accounts for several months-and-more, even though they were insured, as well as severely impacting some businesses, including the Lithuanian Community Center.

   “Like many other businesses that have their accounts there, we are all scrambling to open new checking accounts with basically no liquid cash other than from sales over the weekend,” Ruta Degutis, president of the community center, said when news of the closure became official.

   “Alex assumed a public trust when he became CEO of Taupa, to help better the lives of others,” said one of the members. “It was not given to him as an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.” After thirty years Cleveland’s Lithuanian community lost one of the pillars of its community.

   Within days of his arrest U.S. Magistrate Kenneth McHargh found the former bank officer indigent and qualified for a court-appointed public defender. Since a “Go Bag” filled with blank identification cards, mobile phone cards, and stored value cards that could be used in lieu of cash had been found in his office, the magistrate also ruled he be held behind bars without bond. Assistant federal public defender Darin Thompson did not challenge the no-bond ruling.

   The defendant and his lawyer agreed to waive his right to a detention hearing. The case was bound over to a federal grand jury. Alex Spirikaitis left the U.S. District Court in downtown Cleveland as he had entered it, hands handcuffed behind him, a policeman beside him guiding him away.

   In the same courtroom the following year Alex Spirikaitis and Vytas Apanavicious pled guilty to bank fraud. Vytas Apanavicius of VPA Accounting, providing bookkeeping and accounting services, conspired with the group, depositing and transferring funds to hide overdrafts and withdrawals, according to Steven Dettlebach, United State Attorney. Michael Ruksenas of Naples, Florida, and John Struna of Concord Township, Ohio, were subsequently charged for their roles in the conspiracy.

   At the end of the day, Alex Spirikaitis was sentenced to eleven years in prison, not so much a punishment as a consequence, the wages not of sin but of breaking the faith.

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

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

Welcome to Sudbury

By Ed Staskus

 

   When my mother first saw my father at the Nuremberg Army Hospital in Germany, he was 23 years old and out cold on a surgical table underneath a white sheet. She was 19 and wearing a cotton nurse’s dress with a button-on apron. It was 1947. Everybody was regrouping and rebuilding.

   The military hospital had been built in 1937 and personally dedicated by Adolf Hitler. Just like 90 percent of Nuremberg, the city that was Hitler’s favorite and the ideological capital of the National Socialists, it had been hit hard by strategic bombing. One night more than 500 British Lancasters carpet bombed the city, and the six-story central section of the hospital was severely damaged.

   By the time Angele Jurgelaityte and Vytas Staskevicius met it had been taken over and rebuilt by the United States Army.

   He was living in a refugee camp near Hanau, 200 kilometers north of Nuremberg, and Angele was a nurse trainee at the Army Hospital. She shared a single room with a bath down the hall in an adjoining building with three other young women. They were officially known as displaced persons, displaced from Lithuania, which had first been annexed by the Russians in 1940, then invaded by the Germans in 1941, and finally re-occupied by the Russians during the Baltic Offensive of 1944.

   They both fled Lithuania like jumping out of a window. He was jump started by a truck-full of Wehrmacht soldiers, stationed at a Russian prisoner-of-war camp nearby, who stopped at his farm and told him he had five minutes to decide whether to come with them as they retreated from the rapidly advancing Red Army.

   “I was born in Siauliai. My father was the Director of the Department of Citizen Protection there. He was the police chief,” he said. “We had a farm, too, in Dainai. It was a model farm. We had all the newest tools, cutting and sowing implements. Excursions would come to our farm from all over the country.”

   Angele woke up the same morning while babysitting her aunt’s kids to find the family hitching their horse to a cart, tossing in rucksacks, clothes, a small trunk of valuables, tying the family cow to the back of it, and hurriedly jumping in. They trudged away, one grown-up and five children.

   “I was from Suvalkija, in the southwest, from the farm of Gizai, five kilometers from Marijampole. My family was all still there, but I couldn’t go back, so I went with my aunt. There wasn’t anything else I could do. On the way we had to sell the cow and jump into ditches when planes bombed us.”

   She never saw her parents again and only re-united with any of her family more than forty years later.

   Vytas lost his parents to political persecution as the Nazis and Communists traded ideological blows, and Angele lost her parents to the vagaries of a world war, and both were then cut off from what remained of their families and homes by what was fast becoming the Iron Curtain.

   “The Communists took my father in 1940 because he was a government official,” Vytas said. “They took him in the summer just as he was, with only the shirt on his back and wearing sandals. Later the mass deportations started, and my mother was arrested. She spent fifteen years in Siberia and when she was released after Stalin’s death she wasn’t allowed to return to Siauliai. My father was sent to Krasnojarsk and starved to death in a labor camp there in 1942.”

   Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of short stories in history, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.

   Three years after fleeing Lithuania they were both in central Bavaria, biding time, like almost 10 million other Eastern Europeans who had decamped to Germany in 1944 and 1945.

   Vytas severely injured his right hand in a hay mower accident in 1942, when he was 18 years-old and had to take over the operation of the family farm. He was at the Nuremberg hospital for a series of what would be mostly successful operations to restore the use of the hand to him.

   “In 1940 in Siauliai the mood was very bad,” he said. “We felt that something terrible was going to happen. When my parents were sent to Siberia, I had to maintain the family farm. I was on a horse drawn mower cutting hay when I saw that rain was coming, so I jumped down and walked with the horses so they would pull the mower faster. As we went, I tripped and fell down right on the blades.”

   The horses stopped. It started raining. Blood gushed from his arm.

   “My hand was almost cut off. The farmhand who was helping me ran over, and seeing my injured hand, passed out.”

   One of Angele’s roommates told her there was a new arrival, teasing her that he was a young and good-looking man from Lithuania, but it wasn’t until she was transferred to the bone section of the hospital that she met him. When she finally saw him, he was in an operating theater, having a small part of a bone taken from his leg and put into his hand.

   She saw him every day for the next three months on her rounds as he recovered, now fully conscious, and more than ever conscious of her. “She took care of me,” he said, while she remembers that, “It felt so right to be with that guy.” As winter gave way to spring, they began to take walks on the hospital grounds, and in the nearby wooded parks, and then into Nuremberg to the zoo and downtown to watch American movies.

   He was eventually discharged and went back to Hanau, where he gave up black-marketing cigarettes and chocolate he was liberating from troops in the American Zone and found work as a bookkeeper for the International Refugee Organization. They stayed in touch. In the middle of the year, he returned to Nuremberg for more surgery, staying two months as he recovered, as well as romancing Angele with long walks and talks. When he went back to Hanau, they continued to write one another, dating by mail, like people had done in an earlier age.

   By 1948 Europe’s refugee camps were rapidly emptying as people left for Canada, Australia, the United States, or anywhere they could get a visa and a fresh start. “No one knew where they would end up,” Angele said. “You couldn’t go home and there was no future in Germany. We had nothing and there were no opportunities.”

   She chose to go to Canada, sponsored by a French-Canadian family in Sudbury, Ontario, to be an au pair for their expansive brood. She sailed in December 1948, and after landing wrote Vytas about where she was.

   He already had papers allowing him to enter the United States, papers that had been hard to get. He had an uncle and friends there and was tempted by the prospect. His best friend wanted to emigrate to Australia and suggested they go together. He debated with himself about what to do. Angele won the debate. He wrote her a letter in early 1949 and proposed he come to Canada, they get married, start a family, and try the hands at a chicken farm, since they had both grown up on farms. She knew how to get dinner started by breaking their necks, since that had been one of her chores.

   Two months later he got her return letter and started searching for a way to get to Canada, rather than the United States. Almost 4000 miles away in Sudbury, but on almost the same latitude as Hanau, Angele was sure she had made the right decision.

   “He wasn’t a lady killer and I liked that,” she said. “He was a steady man. And he was interesting. I didn’t want a boring man. He was the right guy for me.”

   Once Vytas secured permission to go to Canada, he took a train to Bremen in northwestern Germany, but couldn’t get a boat, passing the time in a boarding house in the Altstadt. After several more dead ends he found himself traveling back through Bavaria, across the Alps, and south of Rome to Naples. He waited for three weeks, living on espressos and cheap Neapolitan pizzas, and finally managed to secure a berth on a boat going to Nova Scotia.

   “There were millions of us trying to get out of Europe,” he said.

   He arrived in Sudbury after a two-day train ride from Halifax early on the morning of September 7, 1949, with the clothes on his back, five dollars in American money in his wallet, and a small suitcase more empty than full. When no one met him at the train station he asked a policeman for directions to Angele’s address on Pine Street. He walked the three miles from the Canada Pacific terminal to her doorstep.

   He found the house, stepped up to the door, and knocked. “What are you doing here,” she asked opening the door, wiping her wet hands on a kitchen towel, surprised to see him. She hadn’t been expecting him until the next day, September 8th.

   Standing on the steps, looking up at her, nonplussed, he said, “I came to marry you.”

   The next day he moved into a nearby one-room apartment, sharing it with another man for the next two weeks. There was only one bed, but he worked during the day and slept at night, while the other man worked at night and slept during the day.

   His first job in Sudbury was making cement cinder blocks for the LaPalme Cement Works, owned and operated by the large family for whom Angele was the domestic. The day after his initiation into cement-making he appeared again at her door and told her he ached from tip-to-toe and was going back to Germany. “Save your breath to cool your soup,” she said. She gave him a back rub and sent him back to the cement factory.

   They were married two weeks later, on a Saturday, on a sunny day in what was usually an overcast month, in a ceremony presided over by two Catholic priests, one French-speaking and the other Lithuanian-speaking. The following afternoon they went on a picnic and took a room at the Coulson Hotel for their honeymoon. The hotel was John D’Arcy Coulson’s, a Sudbury native who played one year in the NHL for the Philadelphia Quakers, scoring no goals but ranking third in the league in penalty minutes.

   Neither Vytas nor Angele spent a minute in the penalty box that night.

   Monday morning both of them went back to work. Within a year they bought a house on Stanley Street and started a family, but set aside their plans for a chicken farm, since Sudbury’s landscape was more suited to rock collecting than farming. Vytas went to work in the city’s vast network of mines, judging the work easier than cement making. It wasn’t, at first, but he eventually rose in the ranks, driving underground loaders and ore trains.

   “I worked in the nickel mines for seven years, 3300 hundred feet underground,” he said. “There were many Lithuanians working in Canada. Some cut down forests, which was very hard, and some worked in the mines, which was dangerous. I started by laying track for the trains that carried the rocks, but later I got an easier job driving the tractors.”

   Angele became her own au pair within a couple of years, at the end of the day raising three children. In 1957 they left Sudbury behind and went to the United States, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where they lived together for the next fifty years.

   “Most of the Lithuanians we knew in Sudbury started looking for better work.” There was only so far up they could go in the company town. “Many of us left for Montreal, Toronto, and south of the border. We all started to go our separate ways. As soon as our turn came up to go to the United States, Angele and I started getting ready.”

   He earned a degree in accounting from Case Western Reserve University. They bought their first home. He got a good job with TRW and helped found Cleveland’s Lithuanian Credit Union in the early 1980s.

   In 1979, after almost four decades, he saw his mother again.

   “It was the first time I went to Lithuania. She was living in Silute, and we tried to travel there secretly, but were caught in Ukmerge and told to return to Vilnius. The next day I got permission to go for one day and I was able to get a car. I visited my mother and we spent three hours together.”

   Angele and Vytas went back to Sudbury several times to visit their sponsors.  They went to Lithuania after the country’s declaration of independence in 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never again to the Army Hospital in Nuremberg, which had survived the war but was closed and torn down in 1994, there being no further need for it. The grounds were used to build apartments and homes for the burgeoning city. A new generation had come of age.

   “We never forgot where we met, all we had to do was close our eyes and go there’” Vytas said. “But, where we came from and where we were going, our family, home, and community, was always more important to us. Everything else was in the past. We had our own place now.”

   Home is where you hang your hayseed hat miner’s helmet accountant’s visor and foul weather gear.

A version of this story appeared in Bridges Magazine.

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.”