Tag Archives: Siauliai Lithuania

Torn Curtain

By Ed Staskus

   The documentary film “Night and Fog” is 32 minutes long, unless it’s watched thirty times in a row, which makes it almost sixteen hours long. I was a film student at Cleveland State University in 1977 when I saw it for the first time and the thirtieth time. It was made by Jean Cayrol and Alain Resnais twenty years earlier. It is about the creation, existence, liberation, and legacy of the WW2 death camps, specifically Majdanek and Auschwitz.

   Nazi Germany and its Axis allies built more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration and extermination sites between 1933 and 1945. They stayed busy as bees. Majdanek was outside Lublin, Poland and run by the SS. There were gallows and seven gas chambers. Auschwitz was also in Poland, a complex of forty camps. It was run by the SS, too. It had more gallows and more gas chambers. The camps were what the Germans called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” They were also the final solution for what to do with many Soviet prisoners and anybody else who got in the way of the Third Reich.

   Between 1942 and 1944 freight trains delivered millions of people to the camps. They were abused, beaten, and tortured. Some of them died of exhaustion, starvation, and disease. Others were subjected to deadly medical experiments. A quarter million people were exterminated at Majdanek. Auschwitz operated on a more industrial scale. More than a million people were exterminated there.

   The reason I watched “Night and Fog” thirty times by myself in a small dark room wasn’t because I was especially interested in World War Two or the Holocaust. Dennis Giles, the one and only professor of movies in the Communications Department at CSU, suggested I write a paper about the film. He made me a teacher’s assistant so I could have a closet-sized office on the 16th floor of Rhodes Tower down the hall from his office. I screened movies for his classes, which was hardly a chore. The rest of the time, which was most of the time, was my own.

    I was given access to a 16mm projector and a clean copy of the documentary. It was the only thing clean about it. If the Germans thought they were cleaning up the world, they had a hell of a dirty way of doing it.

   Dennis Giles graduated from the University of Texas with a master’s degree. His thesis was “The End of Cinema.” He got a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1976 and showed up at CSU the next year. He was tall thin lanky, dressed like a beatnik, and smoked incessantly. He lived in Ohio City near the West Side Market. The neighborhood was a mess, but in the past ten years the Ohio City Redevelopment Assn. had gotten more than a hundred structures restored or redeveloped. Houses were being refurbished by young upper middle-class folks, leading to complaints of gentrification. If he was part of the gentrification, he didn’t look the part.

   He looked like he had spent too much time in dark rooms. He was a member of the National Film Society. He liked to say film was art and television was furniture. He didn’t mean the furniture was any good, either.

   It took me a few days to figure out how to tackle the project. I finally decided to do a shot-by-shot analysis, zeroing in on how the shots were the brick and mortar of the scenes and sequences. If I tried writing about the gruesome nature of the subject, I would never get out of the weeds.

   The film goes back and forth between past and present, between black-and-white and color, and between some of it shot by the filmmakers and some stock footage. The first shot is of a deadpan sky. The camera tracks downwards to a dreary landscape. It then tracks to the right and stops on strands of barbed wire. The second shot is of a field with a line of trees on the horizon. “An ordinary field with crows flying over it,” the narrator says. But it’s not an ordinary field. The camera again tracks to the right revealing posts with electrified barbed wire strung from post to post. The third shot tracks from an open road once more to the right to another tangle of barbed wire.

   After a while the tracking shots to the right and the barbed wire all over the place start to become part of a normal landscape. “An ordinary village, a steeple, and a fairground. This is the way to a concentration camp,” the narrator says. When he says “steeple” the shot on screen is of an observation tower, machine guns at the ready.

   My father was born in the mid-1920s and grew up in Siailiai, Lithuania. His father was a police chief who was swept up by the Russians in 1941 and deported to a Siberian labor camp. My grandfather died of starvation there the next year. My father was in his mid-teens. He had to take over the 100-acre family farm. When the Germans invaded, capturing, and imprisoning a great number of Red Army troops, he applied for and was granted labor rights to a dozen of them. They worked 14-hour days and slept locked up in the barn. When they complained, he passed out bottles of vodka. When they escaped the Germans shot the escapees and gave him more men.

   Siaulai is in the north of the country. It is home to the Hill of Crosses. It is place of pilgrimage, established in the 19th century as a symbol of resistance to Russian rule. There are more than 100,000 big and small crosses on the hill. During World War Two almost every single Jew who lived in Siaulaii bore his own cross, either shot or railroaded.

   The first part of “Night and Fog” is about the rise of fascist ideology in Germany. The next part contrasts the good life of loyal Germans to the travails of the concentration camp prisoners.  The third part details the sadism of the captors. The fourth part, all in black-and-white, is about gas chambers and piles of bodies. It is nothing if not horrendous. Even the living are bags of bones in their dingy overcrowded barracks. The Germans shaved everybody’s heads before they gassed them. They said it was for lice prevention and that the gas chambers were showers. They collected and saved the hair. It was used to make textiles at factories in Nazi-occupied Poland. The last part is about the liberation of the camps and the hunt for who was responsible.

   Everybody, even the next-door neighbors, said they didn’t know anything about the camps, or if they did, were just following orders.

   “We SS men were not supposed to think about these things,” said Rudolf Hoss, the commandant at Auschwitz. “We were all trained to obey orders without even thinking, so that the thought of disobeying an order would simply never have occurred to anybody, and somebody else would have done it just as well if I hadn’t. I never gave much thought to whether it was wrong. It just seemed a necessity.”

   The 23rd through 32nd shots of the film are of camps and their gates. “All those caught, wrongly arrested, or simply unlucky make their way towards the camps,” the narrator says. “They are gates which no one will enter more than once.”

   After World War Two started and the Germans incorporated the Baltics into the Reich Commissariat Ostland, there were about 240,000 Jews in Lithuania, slightly less than 10% of the population. The first thing the Germans did was start gunning down Jews in the rural countryside, aided by Lithuanian auxiliaries. By August 1941 most of them were dead and gone. Then they started in the cities. There wasn’t a lot of search-and-destroy involved, so the business didn’t take long. 

   “Gangs of Lithuanians roamed the streets of Vilnius looking for Jews with beards to arrest,” said Efraim Zuroff. His great-uncle, wife, and two sons were taken to Likiskis Prison and shot the next week. Karl Jaeger, the SS commander of a killing unit that did its spadework in Vilnius kept an account book of their project. On September 1, 1941, he recorded those killed for the day as “1,404 Jewish children, 1,763 Jews, 1,812 Jewesses, 109 mentally sick people, and one German woman who was married to a Jew.”

   When the war ended there were about 10,000 Jews left in Lithuania, slightly more than 0% of the population. It was the largest-ever loss of life in that short a period in the history of the country.

   The 41st through 69th shots of the film are without narration. They show crowds of disheveled people being strong-armed into boxcars. The last shot is of a father leading his three children along a railroad platform. The father looks resigned, and the children look bewildered. They are shoved into a boxcar. “Anonymous trains, their doors well-locked, a hundred deportees to every wagon,” the narrator says, returning. “Neither night nor day, only hunger, thirst, asphyxia, and madness.”

   The Nazis occupied Siauliai in 1941. All the Jews were made to wear a big yellow Star of David on their chests. Their children were forbidden to go to school. Their businesses were taken away from them. At the end of summer, the Einsatzgruppen and Lithuanian police rounded up more than a thousand Jews, took them to a forest, ordered them to strip, and shot them down like dogs. They shoved their naked bodies into open sand pits. When the shooters left, they took all the watches jewelry wallets purses and clothes with them.

   “Today the sun shines,” the narrator says in the 70th shot of the film, tracking through the quiet trees. “Go slowly along, looking for what? Traces of the bodies that fell to the ground?”

   The rest of the town’s Jews were made to move into the ghetto. A couple of years later two thousand adults and a thousand children were transported to Auschwitz and gassed. The next year the few of them left were sent to the Stutthof camp. That finished off the Jews in Siauliai, once and for all.

   Nearing the end of the film the narrator asks, “How discover what remains of the reality of those camps, shrill with cries, alive with fleas, nights of chattering teeth, when they were despised by those who made them and eluded those who suffered there?” The 119th shot is of a macerated man lying on his side on the ground and drinking something from a bowl. “The deportee returns to the obsession of his life and dreams, food.” The 124th shot is of a dead man, legs akimbo on the ground, ignored by those around him. “Many are too weak to defend their ration against thieves and blows. They wait for the mud or snow. To lie down somewhere, anywhere, and die one’s own death.”

   My father fled Siauliai for East Prussia when the Red Army swarmed the country in 1944. His two sisters and mother were already on the run. One of his sisters made it to Germany, the other sister went into hiding, while his mother was arrested and sent to Siberia, where she remained for the next ten years. Even though he fled with almost nothing except some cash, photographs, and a change of clothes, he had nothing to lose. The Communists would have shot him on the spot for employing Russians as slave labor.

   Like most Lithuanians my father had no use for Jews. He never had a good word to say about them. He never let on to me, and never talked about went on in Siauliai, except as it related to his family, but I caught enough snatches of talk at picnics, parties, weddings, community events, and coffee klatches to know what the score was. He wasn’t a bad man, just like most Lithuanians weren’t bad. He worked hard to support his family community country. He was a Boy Scout leader and helped get the local church and parochial school built. He wasn’t any different than most people.

   The film ends with aerial shots of Auschwitz. It is 1945. The war is almost over. “There is no coal for the incinerators The camp streets are strewn with corpses.” One of the last sequences shows German soldiers being led away from a camp by Allied forces. Many of the soldiers are sturdy sullen women. They carry rail thin corpses slung over their shoulders, throwing them into a pit, and going back for more. You never realize how thick the fog is until it lifts. Ghostly prisoners still alive and now suddenly free stand staring next to useless strands of rusting barbed wire. 

   In a Nuremberg courtroom one Nazi official after another says he was not responsible. “Who is responsible then?” the narrator asks. Nobody responsible says anything, although some at least were convicted of war crimes and hung. They should have been drawn and quartered.

   Short of cannibalism, what the Germans did to those they herded into the camps was the worst thing they could have done. After I finished my thirtieth viewing of every sequence in the film, I wrote my paper and turned it in. I got an A- and got to keep my cubbyhole. Afterwards I thought, I’m glad that’s over. 

   I thought I wouldn’t watch “Night and Fog” again. One Groundhog Day after the other gets to be nerve wracking. Enough is enough.

A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine.

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


Welcome to Sudbury

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “I was from Suvalkija, in the southwest, from the farm of Gizai, five kilometers from Marijampole. My family was all still there, but I couldn’t go back, so I went with my aunt. There wasn’t anything else I could do. On the way we had to sell the cow and jump into ditches when planes bombed us.” She never saw her parents again and only re-united with any of her family more than forty years later.

   Vytas lost his parents to political persecution as the Nazis and Communists traded ideological body 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. He was sent to Krasnojarsk and starved to death in a labor camp there in 1942. 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.” 

   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, looking for a new life, like almost 10 million other Eastern Europeans who had decamped to Germany in 1944 and 1945. Vytas had severely injured his right hand in a hay mower accident in 1942, when he was 18 years-old and had taken over the operation of the family farm. He was at the Nuremberg hospital for a series of what would be mostly successful operations to restore the use of the hand to him.

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

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

   One of Angele’s nursing roommates told her there was a new arrival, teasing her that he was a young and good-looking man from Lithuania, but it wasn’t until she was transferred to the bone section of the hospital that she met him. When she finally saw him, he was in an operating theater, having a small 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, 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 in the American Zone and found work as a bookkeeper for the International Refugee Organization. They stayed in touch, writing letters. In the middle of the year, he returned to Nuremberg for more surgery, staying two months while he recovered, as well as romancing Angele with long walks and talks. When he went back to Hanau, they continued to write one another, dating by mail.

   By 1948 Europe’s refugee camps were rapidly emptying as people left for Canada, Australia, the United States, or anywhere they could get a visa and a fresh start. “No one knew where they would end up,” Angele said. “You couldn’t go home and there was no future in Germany. We had nothing and there were no opportunities.” She chose to go to Canada, sponsored by a French-Canadian family in Sudbury, Ontario, to be an au pair for their brood of a dozen. She sailed in December 1948, and after landing wrote Vytas about where she was.

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

   Two months later he got her answer by 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 Vytas in Hanau, Angele was sure she had made the right decision. “He wasn’t a lady killer and I liked that,” she said. “He was a steady man. And he was interesting. I didn’t want a boring man. He was the right guy for me.”

   Once Vytas secured permission to go to Canada, he took a train to Bremen in northwestern Germany, but couldn’t get on 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 going south of Rome to Naples. He waited for three weeks, living on espressos and cheap Neapolitan pizzas, and finally managed to secure a berth on a tramp freighter going to Nova Scotia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Neither Vytas nor Angele spent a minute in the penalty box that night. They celebrated with a dinner of venison and a bottle of champagne. The rest of the time at the hotel they spent in private.

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

   “I worked in the nickel mines for seven years, 3500 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 wasn’t as hard but more dangerous. I started as a dynamite man, then laying track for the trains that carried the rocks, and later I got an easier job driving the tractors.”

   Angele became her own au pair within a few years, at the end of the day taking care of three children of her own. In 1957 the family left Sudbury behind and went to the United States, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where they lived together for the next fifty years before Vytas passed away.

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

   In Cleveland he went from being an elevator operator to earning a degree in accounting from Case Western Reserve University. They bought their first home. He got a good job with TRW and later in the early 1980s helped found the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union.

   In 1979, after almost four decades, he saw his mother again. “It was the first time I went back to Lithuania. She was living in Silute, and we tried to travel there secretly, but were caught in Ukmerge and told to return to Vilnius. The next day I got permission to go for one day and I was able to get a car. I visited my mother, who barely recognized me, and we spent three hours together.”

   Angele and Vytas went back to Sudbury several times to visit their sponsors the LaPalme family. They went to Lithuania to join in the celebration surrounding the country’s declaration of independence in 1990, 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 were going, our family, home, and community, was always more important to us. Everything else was in the past. We had our own place now.”

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

   A version of this story appeared in Bridges Magazine.

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.”