Category Archives: Lithuanian Journal

Gone to German Land

MOM ALPS 1947

By Ed Staskus

“The bishop fixed it up for us,” said Angele Jurgelaityte

When Angele, 16 years old, Ona Kreivenas, her aunt, and Ona’s four children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the youngster Gema, got off one of the last trains the Prussian Eastern Railway ran from East Prussia to Berlin in late 1944 they were met at the station by Bishop Vincentas Brizgys.

The clergyman was Ona’s husband’s cousin. Her husband, a policeman, had been arrested by the Soviets Communists in 1941 and deported to Siberia, where he was still in a labor camp. Bishop Vincentas Brizgys had been the assistant to the archbishop of Kaunas. In the summer of 1944, he and the archbishop and more than two hundred other Lithuanian priests fled the country with retreating German forces.

In the fall a multitude of other Lithuanians followed as the Red Army swarmed the Wehrmacht and overran the Baltics. The fighting was thick tenacious terrible. Wartime losses of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were among the highest in Europe.

Ona had somehow located the bishop by telephone, and he arranged to meet them at the train station. He was wearing a dark suit and a homburg. He was carrying a basket of hot buns. He didn’t look like the churchman he was.

“He gave one to each of us,” Angele said. “I was so happy.”

What the bishop had fixed up was for them was passage to Bavaria. They landed in the north of the southeastern state. Bavaria shares borders with Austria, Switzerland, and the Czechoslovak territories. The Danube and Main flow through it, the Bavarian Alps border Austria, and the highest peak in Germany is there. The major cities are Munich and Nuremberg and the Bavarian and Bohemian forests are in the south.

“The bishop found a pig farm for us, people he knew. We lived in a two-room apartment above the slaughterhouse. There was another Lithuanian with us, a woman in her 20s, a fancy woman,” said Angele.

One of the two rooms was a kitchen. They lived and slept in the larger room, two adults, two teenagers, and three children. There was barely room to stand. The fancy woman kept to herself.

“We slept on cots. We worked, helping with the cows, and cutting clover. There was no town, just country everywhere. The German family we stayed with fed us. They were good people.”

There was no combat in their corner of the world. “We didn’t see any fighting all winter long,” said Angele. “The war ended when the Americans came. They wore nice uniforms, not like the Russians, who were filthy. They were friendly, completely different. They threw candy to us as they went past.”

Bavaria was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite places during the twelve years of the one thousand year Third Reich. He had a lavish residence at the Obersalzberg. Bavaria had been the scene of protests against Nazi rule in the late 30s, but it didn’t matter to the Fuhrer. He had his own SS security force. After the war was over Nuremberg was chosen for the military tribunals trying Nazi war criminals because it had been the ceremonial birthplace of the party and their annual propaganda rallies were held there.

Allied air forces bombed the hell out of it in 1944 and 1945. In January 1945 521 British bombers dropped six thousand high-explosive bombs and more than a million incendiary devices on the city. The historic old town was destroyed. Half of the rest of the city was destroyed. What wasn’t blown to bits or burnt down was damaged. Surviving the bombardment meant you had to then try to survive. The city was left with almost no heat no electricity no water supply in the middle of winter.

The Palace of Justice and the large prison that was part of the complex were spared. It was a sign of what was in store. It was spared because retribution was in the air.

“In the fall after the war ended, we had to leave the pig farm and go  to an American refugee camp near Regensburg. We had two rooms, but there was a Lithuanian man in the other room, so we had one room. We lived there and didn’t do anything.”

Before the Red Army closed the borders, padlocking the Baltics behind the Iron Curtain, about 70,000 Lithuanians were able to escape the country, almost all of them ending up in Germany. When the war ended about 11 million refugees had flooded into Germany, more than the total population of Austria. Many of them ended up in Displaced Persons camps in Bad Worishofen, Nordlingen, and Regensberg.

in the spring of 1946, Angele, Ona, and the children moved to a new camp.

“It was a castle that you got to down a long road through a forest in front of a lake. There was a big chapel and two big barracks. There were no owners anymore, and no workers, nobody. There were only the Americans and refugees. We were more than two thousand. We were all Lithuanians.”

The Schwarzenberg castle on the outskirts of Scheinfeld in Bavaria is northwest of Nuremberg. From 1946 until 1949 many thousands of Lithuanians were housed at the DP camp there while they waited for their chance to get to Australia, Canada, the United States, anywhere else.

“There was no future for us in Germany,” said Angele.

There were no repatriation plans, either. There was no going back. The system of revolving displacement would have meant the end for many of them, suspicion and persecution for the rest. The Russians had no plans on letting returning Lithuanians off easy. They had no plans on letting any Lithuanians of any kind, unless they were natives who had converted to Communism, off easy.

The camp outside Nuremberg was administered by an American Army officer of Lithuanian descent. The military’s concern was providing shelter, nutrition, and basic health care. Although the Americans looked after vital supplies, everybody in the camp lent a hand, The DP’s prepared their own food, sewed new clothes from cloth and old clothes donated by the Red Cross, and published their own daily newspaper. They printed their own money. The currency could be earned by working around the camp and spent at the canteen, where you could buy shaving cream, combs, and cigarettes.

“We had our own doctors, our own church, and even a school. My best friend was Maryte. Her parents were teachers. They taught the high school classes in the camp. Her mother knew how to sew, too. She would take old clothes that had been donated to us, take them apart, and make new dresses. Whenever she made a dress for Maryte she made one for me, too.”

Angeles’s aunt talked to her about learning to become a seamstress.

“She wanted me to learn how to sew, like my older brother Justinas, so I would have some way to make a living. I said no.” She had turned down her aunt’s advice at home about becoming a farmer. She had no plans sewing for a living either. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but she knew for sure what she didn’t want to do.

After her friend Maryte moved to Nuremberg, taking classes in x-ray technology, and was on the way to becoming a nurse assistant at the Army Hospital there, she wrote Angele.

“She told me about it, told me it was a 10-month course, and told me to come join her.”

Angele packed a satchel with her clothes and slipped away as the weather warmed one morning in 1947. She said goodbye to Ona and her four kids. “By then mamyte was teaching kindergarten at the camp and she had her children around her.” Mindaugas was grown a few years older, now a teenager, and could take care of his three sisters. When Angele left, she left more space for them in their quarters. She walked and hitchhiked the forty miles to Nuremberg. Even though there were travel restrictions, a German government barely existed to enforce its own laws, and the only thing she had to worry about was an over-zealous American officer in a Jeep.

When she got to Nuremberg she asked where the hospital was and found her way there. It had been rebuilt after the ferocious bombardments two years earlier. She was assigned a bed in a small room, twelve feet by twelve feet, sharing it with three other women.

“There were four of us, me, Ele, who was 24 and tall, Koste, who was 28 and stocky, and Monica, who was the oldest and had been a nurse in Kaunas. One of our teachers was a Lithuanian and she helped me. I lived in the barracks at the hospital. I worked in the hospital, cleaned, changed beds, and did whatever they told me to do. I studied whenever I could. There wasn’t time to do very much else.”

They had to do something, though. Many of them were young. They staged dances at the hospital. “Somebody would play the accordion.” Whenever they could they went into town on Saturdays.

“We took a train, went to the movies, and the music shows. We loved it. Everything was so clean. It was all smashed during the war but two years later you wouldn’t have believed there had even been a war.”

There had not only been repeated bombing and shelling of the city, especially the medieval part of it, there had been street-by-street house-to-house room-to-room fighting in April 1945. The city was rebuilt after the war and was partly restored to its pre-war aspect. “The Americans did it,” said Angele. “You could see them doing it every day.”

The German government was being resurrected, as well, and order was the order of the day.

“One day we were waiting in line for the movies, eating grapes, and spitting the seeds on the sidewalk. When a policeman saw us, he came over, and told us it was our responsibility to keep the city clean. He made us pick up all the seeds.”

The circus was even better than the movies or musical theater. It is in the movies and theater that people fall in love. It is the circus that leaves a fantasy memory.

“Whenever it came to town, none of us could sleep.”

The Nazi era was good for circuses since they were not considered subversive. They were left alone by the regime. Between the two wars, through the 1930s, Germany was the epicenter of the European companies and their large tents. There were more than forty travelling circuses with their clowns, acrobats, and animals. They were mostly family-run enterprises.

The last years of the Second World War, however, were bad for business, many circuses losing all their equipment and animals. The postwar years boomed again after 1946. Circus Europa toured Germany in 1947.

“I loved the circus. I would have gone alone if I had to,” Angele said.

In mid-summer 1948 Angele got a week’s vacation from the Army Hospital. She and her friend Benas, his friend Porcupine, and two of the Porcupine’s friends took a train the 170 miles to Zugspitze on the border of Germany and Austria. On two sides of the Zugspitze are glaciers, the largest in Germany. Mountain guides lead climbers up three different routes to the summit at nearly ten thousand feet.

“Benas had thick dark hair and his father was a minister back home. He was a good friend to me. Everybody called his friend Porcupine because Koste called him that. He thought he was Koste’s boyfriend, even though that’s not what she thought.”

They got there at night and stayed in a small hotel.

“There were two rooms at the end of the corridor. We three girls went into one of them. There were two beds, so we pushed them together and slept together. The boys took the other room. In the morning I went to the big window and threw open the heavy drapes. I had to take a step back. The mountain was right there. I was astonished and afraid. For a second I thought it was going to fall in on us.”

They rode a rack railway the next day up the northern flank of the mountain. “It went around and around.” At a landing they sunned themselves. “Even though there was snow everywhere, and people were skiing, looking like ants below us, we lay in the sun before going farther up.” They took the Eibsee cable car to an observation deck. “The gondola was all glass. You could see the whole world.” From the deck at the top a path led to a cross.

The 14-foot gilded iron cross had been lifted to the peak of the Zugspitze in 1851 by twenty-eight bearers under the direction of Karl Kiendl, a forester, and Christoph Ott, a priest. Father Ott was the brainstorm behind the cross, motivated by a vision of the mountain, “the greatest prince of the Bavarian mountains raising its head into the blue air towards heaven, bare and unadorned, waiting for the moment when patriotic fervor and courageous determination would see that his head too was crowned with dignity.”

The Porcupine and his two companions wouldn’t go to the cross. The path was icy and narrow. “Only Benas and I went. There was a ladder attached to a rock face you had to climb to get to it, where it stood on a flat space.”

In 1888 the cross had to be taken down and repaired after being struck numerous times by lightning. It was leaning and scarred, holes gouged out by the lightning. A year later it was taken back to the top, onto the East Summit, where it had stayed ever since.

The side rails of the metal ladder were secured by bolts to the rock.

“I was near the top when a bolt came loose and the ladder jerked free there,” Angele said. “I stopped and couldn’t go up or down. I stayed as still as I could. I was scared to death.”

She had survived a Russian invasion, her mother’s death, a subsequent German invasion, followed by another Russian invasion, making tracks out of Lithuania, implacable separation from her family, landing in DP camps in Bavaria, the American invasion of Germany, the collapse of the German government, and finding her way to work at the Army Hospital In Nuremberg, all in the last 8 years, all by the time she was 19 years old.

She was determined a broken ladder was not going to break her, not be the end of her. Benas helped her from the top, extending his belt, and another pilgrim helped her from beneath, coming partway up and slowly carefully easing her down. Benas quickly slid down the side rails without incident.

Faith can be churchy, or it can be personal. There isn’t anything that’s a matter of life and death except life and death. Life and death at ten thousand feet is personal, cross or no cross. They took their time on the icy path back to the observation deck.

The rest of the week they hiked, took local trains to nearby alpine towns, ate drank smoked talked had fun while it lasted.

At the end of their vacation they went back in Nuremberg. In her room, alone for a few minutes, Angele thought about the two men, Vladas the soldier and Vytas, working for a relief organization, both refugees from Lithuania, like her, who wanted to marry her. Vladas brought her food and Vytas played cards with her.

Getting married may not be a matter of life and death, except when it is. She thought she was probably going to marry one of them, and thought she knew which one it would be, but she knew for sure she wasn’t going to be staying in Europe. Making her way somewhere where there was a future was the most important thing on her mind.

She wanted a bright future, not a dark past. She had to go and find it. The man she married would have to be the man who wanted to go with her. No matter what, she was going to have to fix it up for herself.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get the monthly update in your in-box.

 

Never Look Back

NEVER LOOK BACK.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

The new lightning war starting in 1939 won the Third Reich most of Europe and substantial parts of Russia. But five years later the Red Army was poised to take revenge on its enemy. When the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front tried to weather the storm and fight out of encirclements, the Russians did what the Germans would have done, fed armor into the attack, maintaining mobility, forcing the issue deep into rear areas, faster than their enemy could regroup.

“The Russians came fast,” said Angele Jurgelaityte. “We listened to the radio every day. We could hear booms in the distance, cannons. The Germans were on all the roads. The Russians were to the north and the east of us. We knew they were coming.”

The angelface of her aunt’s family, the family Angele was staying with near Alvitas, Lithuania, didn’t know, but everyone in the Baltics knew the Communists were coming back and there was going to be hell to pay.

It was the summer of 1944 that Soviet forces went on the offensive. The Germans were steadily implacably pushed back on a shifting front. A Red Army Tank Corps advanced to Vilkaviskis, four miles from their farm. The Russian 33rd Army entered the town and a few days later secured the rail depot at Marijampole. The Third Panzer Army mounted a counterattack, but after grim tank battles was finally forced to retreat to Rybartai, rolling back to a last-ditch defensive line in the Baltics.

“It was one day in the afternoon that a lady, a teacher, who was a friend of mamyte’s, with two kids, a small boy and a small girl, came to our farm from Vilnius,” Angele said. The woman and Angele’s aunt, Ona Kreivenas, had studied and graduated together from teacher’s college. She was in a horse drawn wagon with her children and what chattels and valuables she could pack and carry. She had come from the capital in a rush. She told them there were Russian tanks hiding on the nearby farm tracks.

The next morning Ona, Angele, and the children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the toddler Gema, loaded their wagon with clothes, blankets, and food. They hitched two horses to the wagon and tied a cow to the back. “We took milk with us when we left, for Gema, and hoped we would find more when we were gone.” They took whatever they could shoulder. They left their buggy behind and let the riding horse, the rest of the cows, and all the pigs and chickens loose.

“We let everything go. What could you do? The Russians would have just stolen all the animals.”

Ona took her money and what jewelry she possessed with her in a handbag she could keep close. She packed a trunk with her sewing machine, china, vases, artifacts, and family heirlooms. They lugged it behind the barn, where the remains of months of potatoes thrown down to feed the pigs were scattered.

They cleared a space, dug a four-foot deep hole, and buried the trunk. They threw potato scraps back over the overturned ground. When they were done, they left the family farm, in two wagons, two women and seven children on the move, sudden displaced refugees in their own country.

“We moved back about fifteen miles.”

They went southwest towards East Prussia. “We went to a big farm. When we got there, there were already hundreds of people in the fields, with their wagons, and their families. The farmer slaughtered and cut up pigs for us. All the women made food. Everybody was talking about the war, about what to do.”

There was heavy fighting between German and Soviet troops in the Baltics. As the fighting raged, more than 130,000 Latvians escaped to Sweden and Germany. In total, the country lost almost 20% of its population during the war, either dead or gone. The Great Escape in Estonia started in the summer and continued through the fall. It is estimated 80,000 Estonians fled from the Red Army to the West. Almost a 100,000 Lithuanians joined them, clogging the roads to Poland, Prussia, and Germany.

Ona stole back to her farm during the week the Panzer divisions were holding their own. The countryside was nearly deserted. She found the trunk they had buried underneath the pile of potato scraps behind the barn dug up and gone.

“There was just a big hole. The Russians took it. They used metal sticks to poke into the ground. Her sewing machine was gone, all gone.”

They slept rough, out of doors, like everybody else. “We slept on blankets on the ground. When it rained, we slept under the wagon and stretched a tarp out, to keep the water away.” Every day it got darker. Over the course of September, the length of the day in Lithuania rapidly decreases. By the end of the month the daylight is two hours less than it was at the start of the month.

The encampment stretched out for six weeks. They dug latrines and filled barrels with water. They picked apples off trees and blueberries from bushes. They took especial care of their horses. They greased the axles of their wagons, making sure the grease bucket was always full of animal fat and tar, and making sure they had a spare axle. Without one a broken axle would be a disaster, bringing them to a standstill.

The children played games whenever they had idle time.

“We played the ring game,” Angele said. “We all sat in a circle and passed around a pretend ring, like a twig or a pebble. Sometimes we passed it, but other times we didn’t. We just pretended to give it to who was next to us. One of us was it, like in tag, who had to guess who had the ring. If they were right, they got a prize, like a pencil. If they were wrong, they had to sing a song or do a dance in the middle of the circle.”

When they finally left the farm, they left in the early evening. They heard over the radio that morning that the Russians had come closer. They spent the day packing and preparing. It was now or never.

“Most of us left, although others of them stayed. Some of the farmers wanted their land back. They didn’t want to leave.” It was all they had. It was all they had ever known. They were loath to give it up. “Mamyte had to go, leave. The farm didn’t matter. Her husband had already been taken by the Communists. She knew they would take her, too, send her away to Siberia, and her children would be left behind, orphans.”

It rained that day and the rest of the night.

“The road was crowded on both sides. There were thousands of wagons, wagon after wagon, all going one way. There wasn’t a single car or truck, just horses. We knew the Germans were somewhere ahead of us and the Russians somewhere behind us. But we didn’t see any soldiers anywhere, at all.”

Ona was at the reins of the two-horse team, her seven-year-old daughter Ramute beside her holding the three-year-old Gema, and Carmen, Mindaugas, and Angele walking. Most of the refugees were walking, their wagons jam-packed with possessions and provisions. Their friend from Vilnius with her two small children was in the wagon behind them.

Before the war, Lithuania’s population was almost 3 million. After the war it was closer to 2 million. Some Lithuanians ended up dead. Many were deported. Others ran for their lives, displaced. The displaced were forced to make new lives in different countries all around the world, whatever country they could get to, whatever country would take them, whatever country they could slip into.

When the Soviet re-invasion happened, some Lithuanians tried to flee across the Baltic Sea to the Nordic countries, but only a few were successful. Patrol boats apprehended them, and they ended up imprisoned in labor camps. Most fled west, while others went south to Hungary, Romania, and the Balkans.

“On the way we met my uncle on the road, my mother’s brother, Uncle Jankauskas and his family.” Her uncle’s wagon fell into line with them. The progression of wagons stretched as far as the eye could see, forward and back. They soon crossed into East Prussia. There were no guards. They had all fled. The border lay forsaken.

“I was so sad leaving Lithuania,” Angele said.

Russian warplanes strafed and bombed the column of evacuees several times. The Red Air Force was bombing and strafing at will, both German Army and refugee columns alike. Forest and brush on both sides of the road were set on fire. There was dark smoke in the sky day and night. Wagons and carts wended their way around rain-filled craters.

“It was all just wagons. They knew we were refugees They dropped bombs and shot their machine guns. I don’t know why they did that. Whenever we heard airplanes, we all ran and jumped into ditches beside the road. I was afraid, but somehow I knew I wouldn’t be hurt by them.”

What was called the Baltic Gap had grown so large and menacing to the Reich that Adolf Hitler moved his headquarters from Berchtesgaden to Rastenburg in East Prussia. The German situation on the Eastern Front was desperate. The fighting was hard and bitter. It was a fight to the finish.

The hinterland was torn up, wrecked forlorn abandoned.

“Most of the people on the farms had run away. We would go into their houses and find dried fruit, pickles, mushrooms, pork, and wine.” They ransacked barns, pantries, and root cellars. “We took all the food we could find, all of it. It rained all the time, it was cold, we walked and walked, and everybody was hungry.”

The rain and asphalt were hurtful to their cow. The animal was as careful as could be on the poor traction of the wet road, stepping timidly with its rear feet spread wide. But the cow was walking with an arched back. They finally had to do something. They knew the long miles and pavement weren’t good for it. They thought she might be going lame. Angele’s uncle looked at the cow’s hooves and saw lesions. An ulcer was forming on one hoof.

“Mindaugas and I found a family that hadn’t run away. We went to their farmhouse and sold the cow to them.” They gave the money to Ona and she hid it on her person. She had plans for it.

One cold night when they stopped to rest her uncle said, “Kids, jump up and down to warm yourselves up.” When Angele hopped instead of jumped, he grasped her under the armpits. “He grabbed me. We were jumping up and down and he dropped me by accident.”

She broke her wrist. “It hurt bad, but there were no doctors to help me.”

When they got to a town with a railroad station, there weren’t any doctors there, either. The skilled and the smart had already left. Everybody else was hoping against hope. Angele’s wrist had to take care of itself.

After the New Year the German population of East Prussia, most of whom had not cut and run, began to evacuate as the Red Army rapidly advanced. Within weeks it turned into helter-skelter flight as more than two million of the two-and-half million men women children of the enclave bolted into the Polish Corridor heading for Germany. The winter weather was biting, the roads were a mess, and the civil authorities were overwhelmed. There was panic and quagmire and many thousands died, some caught in combat, others swept away in the chaos.

But before that happened, Ona Kreivenas had already sold their wagon and horses and everything they couldn’t carry and managed against the odds to get tickets for a train going to Berlin. The Prussian Eastern Railway connected Danzig and Konigsberg to Berlin. A month later, the last week of January 1945, the last train to Berlin ran the rails. There was no traffic on the line after that.

“The train was completely full. The corridors were full, too.” They stood in a tight group in the corridor. The passenger cars were red and had ten large windows on both sides. They were pressed against one of the windows. Some of the windows were smashed and the passageway was as cold as the outside.

“We had a pillow for Gema, who slept on the floor, but we stood all night and all the next day.”

The twin locomotives pulling the long line of passenger sleeping baggage cars and a caboose had been given camouflage livery. On the front was painted the Hoheitsadler, an eagle, Germany’s traditional symbol of national sovereignty, holding a swastika in its talons. By the time they crossed Poland and entered Germany, the talons and swastika were covered in coal soot.

Lehrter Bahnhof was the Berlin terminus, adjacent to Hamburger Bahnhof, built in the late 19th century just outside of what was then Berlin’s boundary on the Spree River.  It was in the French neo-Renaissance style, the façade covered in glazed tiles. The station had long been known as a “palace among stations.” But it had been severely damaged by Allied strategic bombing and was near to shambles.

When they finally got off the train in Berlin, tired and stiff from standing, they were met on the platform by Bishop Brizgys.

The clergyman was Ona’s husband’s cousin. Vincentas Brizgys had been the assistant to Juozapas Skvireckas, the archbishop of Kaunas. During the summer of 1944, he and the archbishop and more than two hundred other Lithuanian priests fled the country with several retreating German divisions. Ona had somehow located him by telephone, and he arranged to meet them at the train station. He was wearing a dark suit and a homburg and carrying a basket of hot buns.

“He gave one to each of us. I was so happy,” said Angele

The Third Reich’s war economy was on the verge of collapse. The whole country was in the same sinking ship. There was a shortage of hot buns and everything else. When they looked around, the buns the bishop had brought were the only cheer they could see. There wasn’t going to be any traditional roast goose this holiday season.

Angele looked at the four children and her aunt. She glanced up and down the platform. Bishop Brizgys led them out of the station into the city. The Red Army numbering over four million men was massing on the Vistula River and along the East Prussian border. Their superiority was ten to one in infantry and twenty to one in artillery and planes. Berlin and its three million residents were already a wreck, the day and night Allied bombing taking a monstrous toll.

The late afternoon was a gray haze. There was smoke in the sky. She looked past the rubble in the street. When she looked ahead, she thought it was going to be a bare-bones winter on German land.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get the monthly update in your in-box.

 

 

Flesh and Blood

BETWEEN THE WARS.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

When Angele Jurgelaityte knocked on her aunt’s door in late September 1941, Ona Kreivenas lived on a farm near Alvitas, where she taught school, and had on her hands a growing family. There were three children and an infant. Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and Gema, the new baby come into being a year earlier, were not any of them older than Angele. Even Mindaugas, the eldest, was three years younger than their thirteen-year-old cousin from Gizai.

Alvitas is a village on a lake of the same name. It is on the main road. There was a parish church built of stone, an elementary school, more than thirty houses, and almost four hundred inhabitants.

When Ona came to the front door, she was by herself. She had lost her husband a year earlier. She had since that day become a stern woman. “She was pretty, like a doll, but I was afraid of her. I broke a dish once and was scared to death of what she would say when she found out.” Her aunt bid hello to the teenaged girl, who she had been half-expecting, if not warmly, at least with a measure of relief.

Angele had spent the day walking to her aunt’s farmhouse from her family’s farm, where she decided she could no longer live with the stepmother her father had married the month before, six months after her mother’s death. She left three brothers and a sister behind.

“He was a police chief,” she about her uncle, Jonas Kreivenas. “The Russians deported him. He didn’t do anything bad. It didn’t matter, they just took him away.”

The Russians started planning mass arrests and deportations the year before, in 1940, after the Red Army occupied Lithuania and the adjacent Baltic nations. Jonas Kreivenas was one of the first arrested in 1940. They targeted government officials, nationalists, the well-to-do, Catholics, policemen, and anyone they decided was an “anti-Soviet element.”

If you were a party member, you were going to prosper, rather than get sent to Siberia.

“I had a friend not far from our farm whose father was a blacksmith, who didn’t read or write. When the Russians came, they threw out the mayor, in the town where they lived, and made him the mayor, because he was a Communist. Everyone high up, they threw out.”

The mass arrests began a year later the night of Friday June 13 as NKVD troops fanned out across the country, scooping up men and entire families, carrying them to Vilnius. Nearly twenty thousand Lithuanians were forcibly marched into the boxcars of seventeen trains on Thursday June 19 and railroaded to the far end of Russia. Three days later the German army invaded Lithuania, the Luftwaffe catching the Russian air force unaware on the ground and destroying it. By mid-week the new Wehrmacht had swept the old Soviet resistance aside.

The Russians were out. The Germans were in. “The Germans weren’t good, but life was better for us. At least they didn’t deport us. Most of us hated the Russians.”

An independent Lithuanian government was put in place, but it shortly became clear that the German military held all the power. Lithuanian Jews began to bear the brunt of the occupation. They were forced to wear yellow stars and their money and property was taken away.

That spring, before Jonas Kreivenas was taken away by the Russians, he had gotten everything he needed to build an upstairs indoor bathroom, lumber, tiles, fixtures, a sink, and a bathtub. It was going to be his summer project. When the war came back to Lithuania three summers later, in 1944, the second floor was still torn up, and the bathroom was still not a bathroom.

“The rooms were never finished upstairs.”

Jonas had started work on his bathroom, working in his spare time, walls and floors opened, but everything was still in boxes stacked up in corners. Every month Ona hoped against hope for her husband’s return. The house was brick, fitted with large front windows, four rooms on the ground floor, a kitchen and dining room, and two bedrooms. The second floor was a floor.

“They lived on a farm that wasn’t big, but a little bigger and much nicer than my father’s. It wasn’t primitive,” said Angele.

“Everyone had either a large farm or a small farm, although almost everyone had small farms. Mamyte had a larger farm. She sometimes had men come and do work, but I still ended up having to work much harder than I ever did at my family’s farm.”

There was a cellar where they kept canned food and apples for the winter. There were chickens, cows, two work horses, a horse for riding, and lots of pigs. “She had a herd of them. Mamyte had a pig killed when we needed one, and we ate them.”

She had to feed the pigs while they lived and fattened.

“We kept a big pot in the kitchen where I boiled potatoes for the pigs every day. I had to bring all the water in from the well, not just for the pigs, but for everything.”

Earlier in the summer, within days of the Red Army’s collapse, the Einsatzgruppen followed the German army into Lithuania, their mission to liquidate Jews. Synagogues were set on fire and thousands of Jews killed in the streets. The Germans claimed rioting was a menace to public order and rounded up the country’s Jews, isolating them in ghettos to “protect them.”

By the end of the next summer Angele was still working hard but tired of being a hired hand. “I was young, and I had a lot of energy. I didn’t get tired. I watched the kids. Carmen was my best friend. I loved Gema the most. Ramute cried too much. She bent her fingers backwards until they hurt, and then started crying, saying that her hand hurt. I had to work all the time.”

She worked from before sunup to sundown. “I was the cook and made soup every day. I made the beds and I had to work all around the farm.” She washed dishes and put them away. She washed clothes by hand and hung them on a line outside to dry. She washed the kids, keeping them clean.

“I was her sister’s daughter, but I was her house maid, too.”

She made the fire that had to be made for eating every day. Coal had to to be hauled inside and ice knocked off the stairs in wintertime. Mindaugas was a strong boy and helped as much as he could. Carmen helped, too. Ramute was too small to do much and Gema was too small for anything. Ona went to town to teach school every day. In the summer she worked in the fields. Everybody did what they could.

One day when she was on the second floor, Angele overheard through an open window her aunt talking to a man in the front yard about that spring’s seeding.

“I have a servant, but she’s still young, and only so good to me,” said Ona.

She realized her aunt was talking about her, about her being more a servant, less a niece. “I promised myself from that moment that when I grew up, I would never be anyone’s servant, that no one would ever say that about me again.”

She put feed and water out for the chickens. She gathered eggs early and often. She collected them twice a day, so they stayed clean. It kept the chickens from eating them, as well. She herded cows to their milking stalls. She wore knee-high boots when walking knee-deep in pig mire. She put pebbles in the manger with the oats so the horses wouldn’t eat too fast. She mended fences the best she could when the pigs and cows bumped into them.

Angele and her father were sitting together under a gathering summer dusk in Gizai one day. “My father always called me Aneluke.” He told her his plans for the future. “Aneluke, when I die, I am going to leave the farm to you.”

Her aunt talked to her about vocational classes at a nearby farm school, where she could learn animal husbandry, vegetable production, and seasonal planning.

But after working on her father’s farm, and then working on her aunt’s farm, she had made up her mind farming wasn’t in her blood. “I didn’t like animals, and I hated the ground, the earth. I was never going to grow up to be a farmer.”

She was fourteen years old. She didn’t say anything to her father, but she told her aunt no.

When Angele’s grandfather died, Ona and her children went to Gizai for the funeral, but Angele had to stay behind and watch both the baby and the farm. “I was so unhappy,” she said.

She thought about her future, even though she was on between the war going on all around them. She thought about meeting boys. She thought about changing her name.

“I never liked my name. That’s why my father called me Aneluke.”

Her youngest brother didn’t like his name, either. Even though he been christened Mindaugas, after the legendary king, he changed it. When he told everybody far and wide young and old his new name was Jozukas, everybody went along with him, and he became Jozukas from then on.

She made friends with a boy she met at a dinner at a neighboring farm. They sat next to each other and talked. “I liked him, but one day Mindaugas and I were going to Vilkaviskis in the buggy when I saw him on the road. He was on a bike and a girl was walking beside him, walking towards us. They were holding hands. After that, I didn’t like him at all.”

No matter that the farmhouse remained unfinished, her aunt decided to wire up the farm. Although electricity was available in the cities, voltage drops over distance often made rural electrification impossible, or simply too costly. When farmers had the chance to tap into a network, they often jumped at the chance.

Their fertile croplands paved the way out of the dark for the Kreivenas family.

Ona arranged for the work to be done, making plans through her relations. They found an electrician for her. “Mamyte sent me to Vilkaviskis, to pick him up, the electrician from Kaunas, who was coming on the train.”

Vilkaviskis, on the banks of the Seimina River, is almost fifty miles northwest of Alytus. After she hitched up one of the horses to their wagon, it took her and Mindaugas all day to get there. They skirted the ruins of the Jewish quarter. That night they slept in the wagon, and the next morning set off for home, taking the electrician with them.

“He was hard to understand,” she said about him. Lithuanians from different regions of the country have accents and often have their own way of saying things. “There was a man from Zemaitija once, we could hardly understand what he was saying. They drop the endings of their words.”

Until 1941 Vilkaviskis had a large Jewish community. That summer SS death squads, helped by Lithuanian collaborators, killed more than three thousand Jews. It was virtually every single one of them in the town. The SS tore down and destroyed their homes afterwards. In 1943 more Jewish ghettos were demolished, and the living transferred to concentration camps. When the war ended almost all of them weren’t alive anymore.

The genocide rate in Lithuania, where anti-Semitism had been endemic for generations, was more than 90%, one of the highest in Europe.

There was a severe shortage of sugar throughout Europe, disrupted by worldwide conflict and blockade. The German military needed it to support its armed forces and its war effort at home. Sugar beet planting in Poland and the Baltics was ramped up. In 1942 more than 20% of Lithuanian farmers, the most ever, cultivated sugar beets. Production was expected to increase by 25% in 1943. Potatoes were in high demand. Grain was in high demand. The Axis paid in Reichsmarks, better money in Europe than anybody else’s.

Ona Kreivenas invested her bounty in electrification.

“The electrician put in wires and lights. The black box was in the kitchen.” They were warned to never touch it. “We didn’t have to use oil lamps anymore. We were so happy.”

Carmen, Ramute, and Angele slept in the dining room, an improvised bedroom in the four-room house. To the left of the foyer was the kitchen and to the right was the dining room. Ona had the large bedroom and Mindaugas the small one. At the back of the house stairs led to a root cellar.

“We read books at night until mamyte told us lights out. She was a strict mother. We would always turn the light off right away. She knew when we did because she had a blinking light in her room which told her when the lights had been turned off. We pretended being quiet until we knew she was asleep, and then turned the light back on so we could read some more. After we got tired of reading, we turned the light off and talked until we finally fell asleep.”

In March 1943 the German authorities closed the Academy of Education and all Lithuanian schools of higher education. Ona taught grade school and wasn’t affected. She continued going to work. Everybody was uneasy. The war on the Eastern Front wasn’t going well for the Germans. The Wehrmachct was losing the ability to mount offensive operations.

“I couldn’t go to school because I had to work so much. I finished six grades, and I wanted to learn, so mamyte found a tutor for me. I went to her house for two years, studying high school.”

She wanted to be somebody other than a maid or farmhand.

Two months later in May the Gestapo outdated Lithuania’s local electorates. In September the last Jews in the ghetto of Vilnius were dragged out to the streets. Those who could work were sent to labor camps. The rest were shot.

When the New Year 1944 came, news was broadcast that Antanas Smetona, the first and last president of independent Lithuania, who fled his home and country in 1940, had died in a house fire in Cleveland, Ohio. His death closed the chapter on the interwar years, when Lithuania had been free and clear.

“We had a radio and listened to the news every day. We knew it was bad for the Germans. We knew the Russians were coming back.” Everybody was worried and scared about the return of the USSR. “We all knew something bad was going to happen.”

In early August 1944, the German army was driven out of most of Lithuania by Soviet forces and Russian hegemony was re-established. They were the same days of the war that marked the Battle of Normandy in the west, which soon led to French liberation and independence.

“When the Russians came, it all happened in one day. We got our wagon, the horses, the four children, and a cow. We needed the cow and left as fast as we could.”

They and hundreds of other families camped at a large farm only a few miles from the East Prussian border, biding their time. When the Red Army again pushed west in September, and what was left of the German army fled before them, the refugees crossed the frontier.

“We got across the border into East Prussia at night. It was a wet cold night. There wasn’t a single border guard. Nobody else in my family, none of my brothers and my sister, nobody, made it out before the border was closed by the Russians.”

She was free for the moment in German land, but her family kinsmen friends and the rest of the country were under the callused thumb of Moscow, now and for the next nearly fifty years.

Photograph by Antanas Sutkus

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get the monthly update in your in-box.

 

In Hot Water

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By Ed Staskus

My uncle Justinas Jurgelaitis was a short man with a long face and a bald dome fringed with tufts of gray. He lived in Marijampole, in southern Lithuania, and after I met him for the first time, every time I went back to Lithuania, I stayed at his house, even though they didn’t have any indoor plumbing or running water.

He was always in hot water, though. Everybody loved Justinas. That was the problem. At least, that was the way his wife saw it.

“He’s constantly coming home with bobby pins in his hair,” Janina complained.

Plenty of women liked him. Even Rasa Jurgelaityte, his niece, dolled herself up when she visited, in a bluish-purple shag rug kind of sweater, drinking strong tea with him. There wasn’t anything sinister in it. He had an Andy Kaufman meets Roger Moore vibe about him, niece or no niece.

When Justinas moved to Marijampole fewer than 20,000 people lived there. It was a small town. More than forty years later about 40,000 people lived there. It was still a small town.

He routinely wore a sports coat or a suit jacket. Whenever the weather was bad, he wore a herringbone newsboy cap. He was good with his hands, deft and quick on the uptake. His face was wrinkled, he could look gnomish, but he was always smiling. On the inside and outside Justinas was a keeping the faith man.

Nobody ever told him how young he looked, so he never heard how old he was. He was born a year after World War One ended, on a family farm near the border with East Prussia, one of eleven children, six of whom survived infancy. He was a cavalryman in the Lithuanian army when World War Two broke out. The war only lasted a few days, though, after the Red Army sent nearly a half million men and mechanized regiments into the Baltic states.

He had trained as a tailor when he was a teenager. He went back to it, and after the war, and all during the Soviet occupation, the forty-five years of it, practiced his trade. He got married and fathered four children.

Justinas played the piano accordion like it was time for a good time. He couldn’t read music. The playing was passed on generation to generation, one-on-one. He belted out songs, too, even though his voice was scratchy.  He was the life of the party. He wasn’t planning on going to the grave with any music left inside him.

He was in a good mood most of the time, which was surprising. Until 1990, ten years after I first went there, when the Soviets finally got the boot, Lithuania was a gray concrete country, unhappy Commies and unhappy Lithuanians in the grip of the Commies.

There were busts and statues of Lenin everywhere. Vladimir didn’t look cheery or even remotely happy in a single one of them. Justinas was glad to be alive, happy even in the dark behind the sourIron Curtain.

He was one of the nicest men I ever knew, although if you messed with his pigeons or his private Idaho museum, you would probably get yours. When a neighbor’s cat mauled one of his favorite pigeons, Justinas got his shotgun, and hunted the cat down. He killed it in the street where he found it. The neighbor never said anything about it, either to him or the police.

Their house was small, two-story, and green. It backed up to railroad tracks. They had an electric stove, but no basement or furnace or propane. They heated the house with a fireplace and a Franklin-style stove. They burned coal, although Justinas said the stove could burn anything with hardly any smell or even much smoke. The driveway and road in front of the house were made of packed dirt. The road was slightly higher than the terrain but there were no side ditches for rainwater to flow to. Whenever it stormed the pathway turned into a quagmire. When it was sunny and dry, except for an occasional gigantic pothole, it was like driving on asphalt.

Justinas owned a black four-door late-70s Lada, manufactured by Fiat in collaboration with the Soviets. It was built like a tank. It had heavy steel body panels and man of steel components to make it more reliable on the bumpy roads and hard winters. It was a manual four-speed with slightly elevated ground clearance. The Lada was made to be worked on by its owners, which is what Justinas did. He changed the oil and the muffler and replaced the drum brakes when he had to. He had installed a rack on the top and kept the car body reasonably clean, although the inside was usually a dump. It wasn’t filthy dirty, just trashed.

They got gasoline from half-size pumps set on cinder blocks with ten-foot long snaky hoses because the concrete island at their neighborhood gas station was so wide.

Lithuanians celebrate wolves, bears, and moose. According to legend, Grand Duke Gediminas dreamt an iron wolf told him to create Vilnius and make the city his capital. The bear is a symbol of Samogitia, one of the country’s regions, and is part of the coat of arms of Siauliai, another region. The Lazdijai region features a moose.

Birds don’t take a back seat, though. Everybody likes the cuckoo because its call is said to sweep away the last bits and parts of winter. The pigeon – balandis – gets its own month, which is April – balanzio menuo.

There was a barn-like garage behind the house. Justinas kept his old sewing machines and tailoring goods on the ground floor. Upstairs, up a ladder, he kept a coop of rock pigeons. Even though they can find their way back home, even when released blindfolded far away, navigating by the earth’s magnetic fields, and even though they had carried messages across battlefields for the United States Army Signal Corps during both world wars, Justinas never let his pigeons go anywhere without him. They weren’t prisoners, exactly, but they were there to stay.

He loved his pigeons and they loved him. He fed them as well as he fed himself. He and his friends traded and bred them. There had been thefts of prized birds, so he kept a padlock fixed to the garage door. He kept a dog chained up to a doghouse in front of the garage, just in case.

He barked at me every time I went to the outhouse, like it was the very first time he had ever seen me. I tried to be nice to the dog, but that was a mistake. “Shut up already!” I finally shouted one day, and that took care of it. Our relationship after that was one of sullen civility.

Behind the garage was a chicken wire enclosure full of white rabbits. They raised them for the dinner table. When the time came Justinas would catch and pin one of the rabbits to the ground, put a stick across its neck, step on one side of the stick, quickly step on the other side of it, and then pull the rabbit upward by its hind legs, breaking its neck. After cutting off the rabbit’s head he would hang it upside down to clean it.

His wife seasoned and cooked the bunnies, frying and braising them and making stews.

There was a one-room museum on the second floor of their house. Nobody had ever stolen anything from it, but God pity the fool who tried. Justinas would probably have been compelled to commit murder. It was never locked, but you had to be invited. He never gave anything in his museum away, either, not even to his own children, although he traded with his friends, just like he traded his birds.

There was a glass case filled with gold and silver coins, military medals, and men’s pocket watches. There were framed pictures of Catholic saints, Lithuanian kings and politicians, and luxury steamships on all the walls. He had carved figures, including a big eagle, talons flexed, wings outstretched, its head thrust forward. He had a mint Victrola with a new needle, new springs, new crank and motor, and a burnt orange sound horn.

There were a dozen clocks, his prized possessions. They were grandfather wood wall clocks with pendulums and chimes. Every one of them was set to a different random time. They all worked whenever he wanted them to work.

Two smaller rooms adjoined the museum on the second floor. They were bedrooms where his four children had grown up. Both of the rooms had pint-sized windows.

Justinas and his wife Janina were always accusing each other of having extra-marital affairs. She made great-tasting pancakes every morning. One morning while we were eating in the living room, since there wasn’t a dining room, she told her husband to go outside for a minute.

“Oh, my God, he’s such a womanizer, always chasing women,” she said out of the blue. I didn’t know what to say. She was in her late 60s and he was in his early 70s. He never talked about her, but she talked about him constantly. Somebody said she was the one having all the affairs. I never knew what to believe.

When he walked back in, he was smiling. He wasn’t planning on living a century and giving up all the things that make you want to live that long. “What were you talking about?” he asked innocently. He was the kind of man who believed it was best to die in the prime of life at a ripe old age.

I could have stayed at my other uncle’s house, Juozukas, who was younger by twenty years and lived nearby. They had running water and an indoor toilet. But I didn’t. Not that it wasn’t a pain in the butt. Justinas still used an old-school well wheel pulley. They had a beat-up red plastic bucket to get water and bring it into the house. Whenever I wanted to brush my teeth or wash my face, somebody brought me water in a glass bowl. The outhouse was beside the garage.  Everybody called it the little house. They kept cut-up scraps of Russian newspapers on a ledge inside the side door of the house. The first night I was there Janina gave me a bucket, in case I needed to go in the middle of the night and didn’t want to go outside.

I made sure to not drink anything too late into the evening.

They didn’t have a tub, either. The family went to a nearby public bath to take showers once a week. When I balked at that, telling him the outhouse was enough, Justinas told me he had a lady friend who had a bathtub. When we got there, it was full of potatoes. She took them all out, but when I ran the water it never warmed up above tepid. I took a bath anyway, since it was better than nothing.

Justinas was retired, but he was always out doing something, up to something.

”I have responsibilities,” he would say.

My uncle Sigitas and his wife had a big pig farm near Gizai, near where our entire mother’s side of the family had originally come from. Nobody knew what my uncle Juozukas did. He had a truck and could fix anything, including furnaces. He never got up in the morning at the same time and never went to work to the same place. Somebody said he worked for the government, but somebody else said that was crazy.

He had patched together a kiosk attached to the side of his house. The hand-painted sign said “Odds and Ends.” He and his wife sold soft drinks, chocolate bars, gum, and cigarettes. Every month he had to pay off the local Lithuanian Mafia. They got a cut of everything, including gum.

It was like Spanky and Our Gang.

Everybody complained about everything and they especially complained about money. I learned to never ask anybody what they did. “This and that,” is what almost everybody said. They were always going to Poland and across the Baltic Sea, bringing back clothes, food products, prescription drugs, as well as cigarettes and more cigarettes. They took contraband goods across borders without declaring anything or traversed woods and crossed rivers on the sly.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the empowerment of Lithuania, we collected donations from our family members and delivered enough cash on the barrel to Justinas so he and his family could get a proper bathroom built and running water installed. The lady of the house absolutely wanted a toilet and sinks with faucets.

When he came into the house from the garage, he said thanks, but no thanks. He said he had grown up and lived his whole life without it. He told me he wasn’t going to change anything more than he had to after all his years in this world. “I was coming down the ladder from the coop just now carrying a drink and a pigeon in the other hand,” he said. “Don’t try that when you get to be my age.”

I didn’t argue with him about the indoor plumbing. He asked if he could have the money, anyway. Since he was swimming upstream with Janina about the plumbing, I gave it to him, and we kept it between ourselves.

Juozukas Jurgelaitis, Justinas Jurgelaitis, and Rasa Jurgelaityte, 1994. Photograph by Rita Staskus.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Farm Girl

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By Ed Staskus

When 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 that 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.

”When 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, we killed another pig.”

Whenever 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.

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 Alvitas, 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 mamyte 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 was an Indian summer.

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Out of Time

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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 a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

Bringing a Boy Scout

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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 city, the capital of northern Lithuania, is home to the Hill of Crosses, a a spiritual and folk art site of one hundred thousand Christian crosses.

His father was Lithuanian and a former officer in the Czarist Army. His mother was a Russian schoolteacher his father met while stationed southeast of Moscow.

He 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, my grandfather involved my father in scouting as soon as he grew to be of school age.

As soon as i was old enough I found myself a Boy Scout in Troop 311, the Cleveland, Ohio, troop my father became Scoutmaster of in the 1960s. We wore official Boy Scouts of America neckerchiefs and carried unofficial small knives in scabbards on our belts. We often hiked on trails and through woods, although most of us were hapless with a compass, instead relying on pluck and stamina 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 one 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 the young at that time. In 1939, just before the start of WW2, 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 Scoutmaster at later on, after World War Two. and first fleeing to germany,  immigrating to Canada, and finally relocationg in the Unted States.

They weren’t all sun-kissed and starlit summer camps, either.

Winter Blasts were camps in non-insulated cabins in the highlands of the Chagrin Valley at which we earned cold weather Merit Badges and were told exploring outdoors in December was able-bodied and wholesome. But, we always built a fire first thing in the cabin’s Franklin stove, kept it well-stoked, and hoped we wouldn’t freeze to death in the long, long night.

In summer many Merit Badges were 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 tie a tie, even later in life.

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

He led us finding adventure in duck puddles.

I know he convinced some of us, myself included. To this day my wife, who went to her own summer camps at Dainava in Michigan, and I vacation mostly in the woods or at the seashore.

It wasn’t just the Boy Scouts. A maxim of camping is that a week of camp is worth six months of theory. That might be why I’ve never been good at theory.

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

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

When he was nine-years-old my father 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.

My father 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,” said my father.

Mr. Baden-Powell’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.

In 1938, five years older and a teenager, my father 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.

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 Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, both of his parents were arrested and transported to concentration camps. His father died of starvation in a Siberian forced labor camp. His mother spent 20 years in the Gulag.

In 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 Europeans. He met my mother in a hospital in Nuremberg, where she was a nurse’s aide, and where he was operated on several times for a wound that almost cost him his right hand.

He found passage to Canada in 1949, married my mother, 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 hauler and then as a dynamite man, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. My mother, brother, sister, and I followed a half-year later. He worked as an elevator operator stocked warehouses did whatever he could for a paycheck and took classes in accounting at Case Western Reserve University at night.

While in Canada he wasn’t involved in scouting. When I asked my mother why not, she said, “There weren’t any children, or they were babies. All of us from Lithuania, and there was a large community of us then in Sudbury in the early 1950s, were all so young. We were just starting to rebuild our lives, and getting married and having children, but it was taking time for them to grow up and become scouts.”

Robert Baden-Powell counseled that scouts should be prepared for the unexpected and not be taken by surprise. “A scout knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens.” 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, while still in his teens, When he fled their farm in 1944 with twenty minutes notice that the Red Army was on the horizon, he 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 five dollars in his wallet. In the event, he still had his five dollars when he knocked on my not-yet-mother’s door in Sudbury, almost six hundred miles away.

The more the unexpected happened the more he knew what he had to do to anticipate it. “The unexpected always happens,” he said. “The minute you put money away for a rainy day, it rains.”

In Cleveland, Ohio, he finally went to work full-time at the Weatherhead Corporation, kept going to school at night at night, and after earning a degree in accounting went to work for TRW. He made his way up the ladder to managing his division’s overseas sales in both South America and the Middle East.

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 well into his 80s.

My father thought the workingman was the happy man. “Nothing works unless we do,” he said. He believed there was value in work.

Because of WW2 and its dislocations, living rough and emigration overseas, and the demands of rebuilding a life as well as building a family, my father didn’t participate in scouting for some time.

But, once a scout always a scout. “What you learn stays with you long after you’ve outgrown the uniform,” he said.

When he succeeded Vytautas Jokubaitis as Scoutmaster of Troop 311 they were big shoes to fill. Mr. 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 until his death in 2011 he never really stopped scouting.

While Scoutmaster he helped affiliate Troop 311 with the American Boy Scouts, opening many camping and jamboree venues for it, 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 Lithuanian-Jesuit 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 were ever to experience.

“Dad loved bonfires,” recalled my brother, who was also a scout. “It was a rule with him, that there be one every night. Some of his log cabin-style bonfires 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 flag.”

When asked what bonfires meant to him my father said, “Sometimes it takes looking through campfire smoke to see the world clearly.”

Although we never warmed to it, he introduced winter camping and hiking, even encouraging us to try snowshoes.

I don’t remember ever falling down as much as when I tried walking on top of snow drifts wearing snowshoes. 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 study and achievement by encouraging the pursuit of Merit Badges, especially those that involved self-reliance and adventure.

“One summer at a Canadian camp at Blue Mountain we were taken on a two-night canoe trip,” said my brother. “We were supervised, but given only a compass, a canteen, and a big bag of chocolate chip cookies. We had to make the round-trip way up the bay and back to the camp ourselves without their help. They told us it was both a challenge and a duty 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 near what girl they will land, which is a very old-school way of predicting the future.

Another annual event he 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.

Even after retiring from active scouting he never missed a Kazuke Muge.

Although he did much for scouting, as a Scoutmaster he didn’t try to do everything for his young 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.”

Mr. Taoras, who would become a Scoutmaster in his own right, when asked what person had made a difference in his scouting career, said it was my father.

“Brother Vytautas 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 WW2 the Lithuanian Boy Scouts Association began to re-organize. In 1948 a National Jamboree was held in Isar Horn of the German Alps. More than a thousand displaced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were there. In 1950 there was a small Lithuanian presence at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree in Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 2014 Mr. 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.

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

“Scouting is a powerful movement providing life-changing opportunities to today’s Lithuanian youth,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian ambassador.

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

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

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

It was a late summer afternoon, crisp and sunny, when I visited my brother. My wife and I had gotten back from three weeks at the Coastline Cottages in North Rustico on Prince Edward Island the Tuesday before. We unwound from the 24-hour drive. We were unpacked, the grass was mown, and the junk mail thrown away. It was the weekend now.

I asked my 14-year-old nephew, who was playing Wii basketball in the living room, one foot in front of the other knees bent control at the ready, about the camp at Kretinga on Wasaga Beach that summer.

“We weren’t last in the clean cabin contest, like last year, which was a good thing,” he said, his eyes fixed on the flat-screen TV on the wall.

“We ran around in the woods like maniacs, there were bonfires, and it was awesome to hang out with my friends.” He made an imaginary slam dunk. “I would trade any day in the real world for five minutes at summer camp.”

He had been going to Kretinga since he was a greenhorn of seven. It is a Lithuanian American Candian 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.

“I didn’t write any letters to my dad, either,” he added, laughing. “I might have sent a text, but we’re not allowed to bring any devices.”

My brother and I exchanged looks.

“Did you write letters home after our first year at Ausra?” I asked him.

“Nope, not me.”

“Me neither.”

We 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 my brother and I had grown older than the cut-off. There was never any love lost in our goodbyes, watching our sister leave for summer 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 your friends felt like summer was over, even though it was still only mid-July.

Founded in 1957, Ausra was a Franciscan, Lithuanian, sports and culture 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 and copse. The sand is bare-bones and fresh and gets into everything, your ears, shoes, pockets, sleeping bag, and toothbrush, on the first day of camp 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 passenger car my nephew has ever ridden in. 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 in 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. To this day, 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 carried a compass in the glove compartment and a plastic St. Christopher figurine stood fixed on the dashboard.

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 nephew said. “We 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 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 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, but it was a latrine.

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 in 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 a clean shirt, 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 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 mass. 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 and drank it with a girlfriend” said Dalia Daugvainyte. “The trees whirled around us 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 had to turn his head to the side to hide it.

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 sneaking 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 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 to 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 and went 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 talk of the camp for days. The green goggle girl was quiet. Somebody said one of the pilots was 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 to Kretinga. “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 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, tossing the Nintendo Wii on the sofa.

“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,” he said. “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 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 a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

Sudbury 1949

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By Ed Staskus

When Angele Jurgelaityte first saw Vytautas Staskevicius at the Nuremberg Army Hospital in Germany, he was 23 years old and flat on his back on a surgical table underneath a white sheet. She was 19 and wearing a white cotton nurse’s dress with a button-on apron. It was 1947.

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 by strategic bombing. More than 500 British Lancaster bombers had carpet bombed the city and the six-story central section of the hospital was severely damaged. By the time Angele and Vytas met it had been re-built and taken over by the United States Army.

Vytas 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 whisked up by a truck-full of young 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 or not 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 in charge of the police, and 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 Lithuania.”

Angele woke up the same morning while babysitting her aunt’s children to see the family hurriedly hitching their horse to a cart, tossing in rucksacks, clothes, and a small trunk of valuables, and tying the family cow to the back of it.

“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 large 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 the concentration 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 more than 7 million other Eastern Europeans who had decamped to Germany in 1944 and 1945.

Vytautas Staskevicius severely injured his right hand in a hay mower accident in 1942, when he was 18-years-old and compelled 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 fell down right on the blades.”

The horses stopped. It started raining.

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

One of Angele Jurgelaityte’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 unconscious 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 bought from troops in the American Zone, and found work as a bookkeeper for the International Refugee Organization. They stayed in touch by writing letters to each other once a week. In the middle of the year he returned to Nuremberg for more surgery, staying two months as he recovered, as well as romancing her again 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 finally chose to go to Canada, sponsored by a French-Canadian family in Sudbury, Ontario, to be an au pair for their 14 children. She sailed in December 1948, and after landing wrote Vytas about where she had gone.

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. In January 1949 he wrote her a letter 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 break their necks for dinner, since that had been one of her chores on the family farm

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’s man 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 3 weeks, living on espressos and cheap Neapolitan pizzas, and finally managed to secure a berth on a boat going to Nova Scotia. It was time to make a getaway.

“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 Jurgelaityte’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 said when she opened 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 returning to Germany. She gave him a long 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 for their honeymoon. Monday morning both of them went back to work. Within a year they bought a house at 147 Stanley Street and started a family, but set aside their plans for a chicken farm, since Sudbury’s landscape was more suited to mining than farming.

Vytas went to work in Sudbury’s vast 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 work 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-three years.

“Most of the Lithuanians we knew in Sudbury started looking for better work. Many left for Montreal and Toronto. We all started to go our separate ways. As soon as our turn came up to go to America, Angele and I started getting ready.”

He earned a degree in accounting from Case Western Reserve University and went to work for Weatherhead. They bought their first home. He got a better job with TRW and helped found Cleveland’s Taupa Credit Union in the early 1980s.

In 1979, after almost forty years, he saw his mother again.

“It was the first time I returned to Lithuania. She was living in Silute, and we tried to travel secretly there, 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 traveled to Lithuania many times 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.”

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

 

The End of Taupa

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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 three months, 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, 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 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 the closed down 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 in them to manage and control their own money. They are widespread in many shapes and sizes. Credit unions range from corporate entities to community institutions serving local schools and churches.

When Augis Dicevicius emigrated from Lithuania to Cleveland in the early 2000s, he opened an account at Taupa. “It was like loyalty,” he said, describing why he kept an account there. 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.

“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 homeland. 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 union.

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 Lithuanians and their children, Taupa was founded. It served the community for almost thirty years.

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.

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 prospect for restoring viable 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.

“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 from the consequences.

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, Vytautas Staskus took his brainchild to an ad hoc committee made up of Vytautas Maurutis, Vacys Steponis, Gintaras Tauras, and Vincas Urbaitis.

Taupa was coined as a 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 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 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.

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 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 ever against a credit union in 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 plot was on the order of the TV show “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 Spirikaitis in the form of Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union official checks,” court documents said. “While working at the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union, 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.

“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 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 a several mnonth-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 had lost one of the pillars of its community.

Within days of his arrest U.S. Magistrate Keneth 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 version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.