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.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.