Tag Archives: Vytautas Staskevicius

Siauliai 1944

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Vytas Staskevicius’s mother was a schoolteacher in Saransk when his father met her before the start of World War One. The town and garrison were in Russia’s Penza, 400 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, on the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before WWI 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 fuels or raw materials.

“My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there 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.

“He courted my mother, Antonina, who was Russian, and they got married. They had my older sister, Eugenia, in 1917. We always called Eugenia by the name 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 and sisters called him Vytas.

Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, a hill where there had been an old fort less than ten miles from the town. Even today 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 rule of the Russian Empire. In late 1919 , when Russia was being consumed by its own revolution, Antanas Staskevicius went home.

“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. Finally, in 1920 they formed their own government, although they later lost Vilnius to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war 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 WWI most of Siauliai’s buildings were destroyed and the city center was effectively obliterated. Since its founding in the 13th century Siauliai had burned down seven times, was struck by plague seven times, and WWII was the seventh war 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 50 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 Staskevicius 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 WWI 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 75 miles east of where we lived, so I stayed with her.

“But, I didn’t get along with the students at the high school in Panevezys. It was a very 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 said? So, I didn’t make any friends there. I said, I’m going to Zerasai.”

He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father.

“We had always needed to study a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying Russian 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.”

In 1940 the Lithuanian world completely changed. Father and son moved back to Siauliai.

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

The Staskevicius family returned to their farm, 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.

“There was 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 didn’t do anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I was 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, but they hadn’t washed in months, and they rolled their 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 more than 15,000 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, trousers, 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, he 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 Staskevicius 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 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.

“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, 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 new now, he said. Times have changed. Everybody is looking out for themselves, only themselves.

“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 on 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.

Antanas Staskevicius 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 came 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 found out what happened to them.

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

When Russian NKVD men began their mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized property, and there was widespread looting by Lithuanians among themselves.

“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 living in Vilnius. When the mass arrests intensified they became alarmed.

“We were determined to leave the farm. We all went into the forest. But, then my mother told me to go to Vilnius and tell Gaile that our father had been arrested. She wanted her 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 Staskevicius 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 Staskevicius, 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 Polish. 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 food, 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, but finally I talked to someone who had known my father, and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any permits and to come back, but after we talked about my father a little, he said OK, 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 very nice. 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 Staskevicius. “Every summer students from the agricultural academy would tour our farm. When I came back 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 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 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 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 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 there until the Russians came back.”

In 1944 the Red Army stormed into Lithuania. Vytas Staskevicius escaped with a company of Wehrmacht, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. He had ten minutes to decide whether or not he was going 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 elder sister Genute, not at the farm that day, escaped separately. His other sister, Gaile, was not able to flee Lithuania in time.

“She had a problem at the border and didn’t make it. The Russians 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 stayed 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 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, very glad,” said Vytas Staskevicius.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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

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Sudbury 1949

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When Angele Jurgelaityte first saw Vytautas Staskevicius at the Nuremberg Army Hospital in Germany in 1947, he was 23 years old and flat on his back on a surgical table beneath a sheet. She was 19 and wearing a cotton nurse’s dress with a button on apron. The military hospital had been built in 1937 and personally dedicated by Adolf Hitler. Just like 90 percent of Nuremberg, the city that had been the ideological capital of the National Socialists, allied aircraft bombed the hospital and the six-story central section was severely damaged. By the time Angele and Vytautas met it had been re-built and taken over by the United States Army.

Vytautas 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. 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.

Vytautas lost his parents to political persecution as the Nazis and Communists traded ideological blows, and Angele 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,” Vytautas said. “They took him in the summer just as he was with 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 the more than 7 million others 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. 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. 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 everyday 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 the United States, Canada, Australia, or anywhere they could get a visa and a fresh start.

“No one knew where they would end up,” Angele Jurgelaityte 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 Vytautas Staskevicius about where she had gone.

He already had papers allowing him to enter the United States, papers that had been difficult to get. He had an uncle and friends there and was tempted by the prospect. His best friend wanted to travel to Australia and suggested they go together. He debated with himself about what to do. Angele Jurgelaityte won the debate. In January 1949 he wrote her a letter and proposed he come to Canada, they get married, start a family, and build a chicken farm, since they had both grown up on farms and she knew how to break their necks. Two months later he got her return letter and started searching for a way to emigrate to Canada rather than the United States.

Almost 4000 miles away in Sudbury, but on almost the same latitude as Hanau, Angele Jurgelaityte was sure she had made the right decision.

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

Once Vytautas Staskevicius 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, and after several more dead ends finally 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 find a berth on a boat going to Nova Scotia.

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

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

Vytautas Staskevicius went to work in Sudbury’s vast nickel mines, judging the work easier than cement making, eventually rising to the level of driving underground loaders and ore trains.

“I worked in the nickel mines for seven years, 3300 hundred feet underground. 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 worked laying track for the trains that carried the rocks, but later I got an easier job of driving the tractors.”

Angele Jurgelaityte became her own au pair, raising three children. In 1957 they left Sudbury behind and immigrated to the United States, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where they lived together for the next fifty-three years.

“Most of the Lithuanians 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, went to work for 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 Vytautas traveled to Lithuania many times after Lithuania’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.

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

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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