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.”