By Ed Staskus
“The bishop fixed it up for us,” said Angele Jurgelaityte. Life wasn’t a cabaret during the ferocious last days of World War Two. It was a maelstrom. It helped to have a man of the cloth on your side when the devil was doing his damnedest on the other side.
When Angele, 16 years old, Ona Kreivenas, her aunt, and Ona’s four children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the new kid on the block, 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 Chief of Police, had been arrested by the Soviets in 1941 and deported to Siberia, where he was stuck in a slave labor camp. Bishop Brizgys was 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 on the skirt of retreating German forces.
In the fall a drove of other Lithuanians barreled out of the Baltics as the Red Army swarmed the Wehrmacht and overran the land. The fighting was thick tenacious terrible. Wartime losses of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were among the highest in Europe. They didn’t go down without a fight.
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. Berlin didn’t look like what it had once been.
“He gave one to each of us,” Angele said. “I was so happy.”
What the bishop 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 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.” Fourteen years later, she and my father and my sister, brother, and I slept on cots our first months in Cleveland, Ohio. I was the oldest and just short of seven years old.
“We worked for our keep, 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 1930s, but it didn’t matter to the Fuhrer. He had his own stern-faced security force. Their orders were to shoot first. After the war Nuremberg was chosen for the military tribunals trying Nazi war criminals because it had been the ceremonial birthplace of the party. Their annual propaganda rallies were held there.
Allied air forces bombed the hell out of it in 1944 and 1945. In January 1945 more than 500 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 aftermath.. The city was left with practically no heat no electricity no water supply in the middle of winter. The Palace of Justice and the prison that was part of the large 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 went 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 Russians 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 nearly 11 million refugees had flooded the country, 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 again 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. There were more than thousands of us. 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, somewhere anywhere else.
“There was no future for us in Germany,” said Angele. There were no going back plans, either. There was flat out no going back. The system of revolving displacement would have meant the end for many of them and suspicion and persecution for the rest. The Russians had no plans on letting repatriated Lithuanians off easy. They had no plans on letting any Lithuanians of any kind, unless they had converted to Communism, off easy. Even then it was dicey.
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 refugees prepared their own food. They sewed new clothes from cloth and old clothes they took apart. They printed their own daily newspaper. They printed their own money, too. 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 hand-me-downs that had been donated to us by the Red Cross, 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, but 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, which was no farming and no sewing.
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 up one morning in 1947. She said goodbye to Ona and her four kids. “By then my aunt 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 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 who might take her back to where she came from.
When she got to Nuremberg she asked where the hospital was and found her way there. It had been rebuilt after the 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 Lithuanian and she helped me. We 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. Most of them were young. They staged dances at the hospital. “Somebody would play the accordion.” Whenever they could they went to 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 movies or musical theater. It was in the movies and theater that people fell in love and everything was a happy ending. It is the circus that leaves in-the-flesh fantasy a vivid 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 clowns, acrobats, and animals. They were mostly family-run enterprises.
The last year of the Second World War, however, was 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 best 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 my roommate Koste called him that. He thought he was Koste’s boyfriend, even though that’s not what she thought.”
They got to the mountains 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 too icy and narrow, they said. “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 many times by lightning. It was leaning and scarred, holes gouged out by the lightning flashes. 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 going up 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, what looked like unending separation from her family, landing in DP camps in Bavaria, the American invasion of the Reich, 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 below, 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. Who thinks about God when they are about to meet their maker? 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 man in her life. There were two of them, Vladas the soldier and Vytas the civilian, working for a relief organization. They were both refugees from Lithuania, like her. Vladas brought her food and Vytas played cards with her. Vladas watched while she made dinner while Vytas let her win at the card table.
Getting married might 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. The only way up was up the ladder, rung by rung. No matter what, she was going to have to make the days that lay ahead up for herself. Nobody else was going to do it for her.
Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”