Tough as Nails
By Ed Staskus
My grandmother hit the deck pretty as a prayer book the day she was born. She didn’t come into the world tough as nails. She wasn’t that way as a girl, a young woman, a schoolteacher, a newlywed, or a wife and mother. But that was the way she was when World War Two ended and she was waking up to her second year in a Siberian prison camp. She survived by being that way for nearly twenty years, in the middle of nowhere, slaving away, stuck in the dark ages.
She was born near the tail end of the Gilded Age, although it wasn’t anywhere near Wall Street. She missed out on the mischief of the robber barons. She was born in Russia during the fin de siècle. She missed the debates convulsing Europe concerning the moral responsibility of art. Even if she had heard the arguments, it’s doubtful she would have cared. She missed the Boxer Rebellion, the Second Boer War, and the Philippine-American War. But when the pea shooters of those conflicts were put away, she got to live through the blitzkrieg of World War Two.
Growing up she had an inkling most Lithuanians hated Muscovites, for taking over the homeland, forbidding the native language, and exploiting everything they touched. By the time she was grown up and gone to Lithuania she knew for sure Russia was feared and distrusted on all its borders.
My grandmother Antonina met my grandfather Antanas when he was stationed in Saransk. It is in the Volga basin where the Saranka and Insar Rivers meet. The garrison was four hundred miles east of Moscow. Antanas Staskevicius was a Lithuanian officer in the Russian Imperial Army. He was more than a thousand miles from home. My grandmother came from a nearby small town. She earned her teacher’s certificate in Saransk. She was teaching kids their Cyrillic ABC’s.
The whistle-stop was founded as a fort, on the left bank of the Isar River, at the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before World War One its commercial life revolved around honey, meat, and leather. After the war its factories stayed closed for more than ten years when there weren’t any available fuels or raw materials.
“My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there with an infantry regiment,” my father said. “It was a hard post for him, because back then they used to say drinkers go to the navy and dimwits go to the infantry.” The Imperial Army had more than a million men in uniform, most of them conscripted, most of them peasants. There were a quarter million Cossacks, too. Only the Cossacks knew what they were doing.
Antanas courted Antonina and they got married sooner than later. They had a daughter, Eugenia, in 1917. They called her Genute. Another daughter, Gaile, was born the next year. My father was born six years later, in 1924, in Siauliai in the north of Lithuania. He was named after King Vytautas the Great. His mother called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the little prince, the pickle prince, and the rotten prince.
Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, which is a hill less than ten miles from the town. It is covered with tens of thousands of wooden crosses, crucifixes, and statues. It was after Tsarist forces crushed the November Uprising of 1831 when the first of them appeared.
By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than a hundred years, having been disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time, it had been under the thumb of the Russian Empire. Late that year, when the war finally ended, and Russia was being convulsed by its Bolshevik revolution, Antanas and his new family went home to a newly independent country.
“Lithuania didn’t have many officers when they formed their own army,” my father said. “Most of them were men who had been conscripted into the Imperial Army before the war.” Most of them burned their Russian uniforms as soon as they could. “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 had declared independence in February 1918 and for almost three years fought Soviet Russians, West Russians, and Poles for their homeland. Finally, in 1920 they formed their own government, although they later lost Vilnius to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war with little bloodshed. In September 1939 the Poles found out they were in the frying pan and Vilnius was off the menu.
After the fighting my grandfather was awarded land for serving his country. The family had a house in town but lived on a farm most of the time. They spoke Russian at home. Except for what he picked up among his friends, so that he had a sprinkle of street cred, my father spoke little Lithuanian until he started school.
During World War One most of Siauliai’s buildings were destroyed and the city center was obliterated. Since its founding in the 13th century, it had burned down seven times, been struck by pandemics seven times, and World War Two was the seventh war that wrecked it. It was a winsome town between disasters.
“When my father became the governor of the district, we moved to the city there,” Vytas said. It is a royal town founded in the early 16th century on the plain of the Nevezis River, about fifty miles east of Siauliai. During the interwar years Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor. Antanas was the governor of Panevezys until 1938.
Vytas went to grade school and high school there, but then his father was made governor of Zerasai, which was more-or-less a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai had burned down and been rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Tsar Alexander’s son, but after the war to end all wars was over and done with the name was thrown out the window.
“When my father became the governor, my mother didn’t want to move there, since it was far from where we lived, so I stayed with her,” Vytas said. “But I didn’t get along with the other students in town. It was a strict school, and everybody had to dress nice. On my first day of high school, I was dressed too nice, like I was going to a wedding, with a tie and everything, and everybody laughed at me. ‘Where are you from, the sticks?’ they all said. I didn’t make any friends there.”
He told them, “I’m going to Zerasai.” He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father. “We always studied a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying that was easy for me. But when I got there, I found out they only had English as a second language. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.” He soon spoke Lithuanian, Russian, and English.
All during the 1930s the world had been changing fast. It changed a lot faster the last year of the decade. Father and son moved back to Siauliai. “The Russians came in 1940. All the high officials were let go and they selected new people who they wanted in the driver’s seat. They said they didn’t run the country themselves, we Lithuanians did, but it was the Lithuanian Communists who were in charge, so it was the Russians.”
The family spent more and more time on their farm, renting out their house in Siauliai. “It was only a few miles from our farm to town. I used to walk or bicycle there. But the mood was bad. Everybody was on edge. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”
The Russian invasion of Lithuania was completed by the late summer. Businesses were nationalized and collectivization of land began. As the Soviet presence expanded the family discussed leaving the Baltics. “Why don’t we go to Germany?” Antonina asked. She wasn’t a fan of her Muscovite kith and kin. She had an insider’s track making judgment calls about them.
“We had a chance to leave the country and go somewhere else. My mother wanted to go. We talked about it often.” But my grandfather didn’t want to leave his native land. “I have never done anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I have always been good to people. They aren’t going to put me in jail.”
In the fall of 1940, a company of Red Army infantry commandeered their house and farm for several days. “They didn’t do anything crazy, or mistreat us, but they hadn’t washed in months. They stunk and they rolled their cheap tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took us a week to air out the house.”
The family stayed on the farm through the winter. Then, as the mass arrests and deportations of more than17,000 Lithuanians began in June 1941, my grandfather was picked up by NKVD plainclothesmen. “He was gardening in our yard, wearing a shirt, old pants, and slippers when they drove up, a carload of Russians, and stopped, saying there was something wrong with their engine,” Vytas said. “I’ll help you out, my father said. He walked over to the car with them. They pushed him into it and drove away.”
Vytas was in school taking his final exams that morning. “My mother called the school and told me my father had been taken. I ran out of class and went home right away on my bike.” His mother packed up clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. They 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 times have changed.” The old order was out. There was a new order. Asking for help meant getting nowhere.
“He was a Communist and had been in and out of jail because of it. He was always in trouble. My father always let him go after a few days, 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 different now, he said.”
My grandfather, who had once commanded the local police, stayed stuck in his jail cell. “They didn’t let my mother talk to my father,” Vytas said. “We went there several times, but they didn’t let us see him. We never saw him again.”
Antanas Snieckus, the top dog of the Lithuanian Commies, supervised the mass deportations. He decided who was an “Enemy of the People.” Teachers, priests, policemen, civil servants, politicians, anybody who was a member of the Nationalist Union or the Rifleman’s Union, and landowners were on the list. More than 17,000 of them were deported. When they checked their tickets, they discovered the deportations had no expiration date.
My grandfather was taken to Naujoji Vilnia and shoved into a boxcar. The train left Lithuania on June 19, 1941. Four days later, at the Battle of Raseiniai, the 4th Panzer Group, part of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, wrapped up the complete destruction of the Red Army armor and air forces in Lithuania. Within a week the Nazi’s controlled the stomping grounds.
Antanas Staskevicius was transported to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He was put to work sawing down trees in the middle of winter. He starved to death the next 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 ran out with his family and said, please take us to the railroad station. I said OK and they all got into my wagon. It was him and his wife and their two children. I took them to the station. After that I never saw them again. The next day one of our neighbors told me the secret police had come to the teacher’s house that same afternoon looking for him. Anybody from an educated family, the Russians were worried about all of them. They were afraid all the high-class people were against them.”
When the NKVD began mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting, especially by the body politic. It was every man for himself and God against all, unless you were a dyed in the wool comrade. “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 and write, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a Communist.”
My father’s mother Antonina, sister Genute, and he stayed on the farm after the Nazi takeover. His sister Gaile was living in Vilnius. There was an uneasy peace. “The day the Russians left and before the Germans came, I was in Vilnius,” Vytas said. “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 pork, 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 to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to somebody who had known my father and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any for the time being and to come back, but after we talked about my father a little, he said all right, and wrote one out for me.”
He took a train north and walked home, but when he got there, he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the farm. “They were there 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 good men. They didn’t do our farm any harm. They had their own tents and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank beer together at night.”
His father’s 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 draft horses to do the heavy work, it was mostly a dairy farm with more than twenty cows.
“When I came back, my sister 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. 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 did everything as though I knew what I was doing.”
That fall he sent farmhands out to till the ground in a nearby field. When his nearest neighbor saw them working, he ran across the road towards them.
“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted waving his arms.
“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 on the blades of the mower. The horses stopped. My hand was almost cut off. The boy who was helping me ran over. When he saw what happened, and saw my injured hand, he passed out.”
While the war dragged on across Europe, he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his impaired hand and farmhands everywhere were deserting the land. “I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew the Germans gave Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and sang at night while they got drunk. One morning I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were all gone. I had to go back to the Germans and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer exploded, shouting that I hadn’t looked after them, shouting that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouting 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 still there when the Russians came back.”
In 1944 the Red Army stormed back into Lithuania. My father escaped with a mechanized company of Wehrmacht, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. They told him he had five minutes to decide whether he was coming with them as they retreated.
“An officer said the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses.” The hill was on fire. “They were in a big hurry. I only had time to fill a bag with a few clothes, a little money, and photographs of my parents.” It was time to go, come hell or high water.
His sister Genute, not on the farm that day, fled separately. She got across the border into East Prussia, and later into Germany. His sister Gaile didn’t make it out. “She had a problem at the border. The Russians had taken that area, so she was forced to stop in a town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her. After the war she finished trade school, became a nurse, and never told anybody where she was from. The Communists 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 counterattacking German 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 Lithuania in 1944,” my father said.
He found out his mother my grandmother had been deported. “Somebody 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. She was sent to a prison camp.”
Between the tail end of World War Two and 1950 more than 87,000 Lithuanians were deported, forced to work in logging and gold mines, forced to live in barracks with leaky roofs and drafty windows, if there were any windows. More than a third of them died. Some of them resigned themselves. A few escaped.
My grandmother was released from the Gulag in the early 1960s, one of the last deportees to be let go. She was not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai. She was forced to relocate to Silute, to an aboveground bomb shelter-style apartment. She was still on somebody’s shit list.
Silute is to the west of Marijampole, in the south of the country. The Nemunas River floods there almost every year, soaking the lowland pastures. Migrating birds call it home away from home because of the delta and all the water. A large part is forested and home to more than three hundred villages.
My mother’s family, none of whom escaped the country during the war, lived near there. When she and my sister visited Lithuania in the early 1980s, they made plans to visit Antonina. They kept their plans close to the vest. The scheme was for there to be three of our uncles, three wives, my mother and sister, and some of our cousins in three cars. “My mother would be in one of the cars, I would be in another, and the third car would be a decoy, if it came to that,” my sister Rita said.
The secrecy was necessary because they weren’t allowed to go anywhere except within the city limits of Vilnius, where they were staying. When they asked about Silute and Siauliai, they were told they were out of bounds. Every place outside of Vilnius was out of bounds. The Intourist official at the front desk of the Gintaras Hotel leaned forward and told my mother it was because of missile installations.
“Are there missile installations in every town in the whole country?” she asked.
“I know sarcasm from naïve American when I listen to it,” the official sneered.
Their convoy didn’t get far the first day of the familial excursion. They were stopped by a roadblock on the outskirts of Vilnius. The police were waiting for them. “They knew,” said Rita. “Somebody had overheard something. Somebody talked. They waved us off the road.”
The police glanced at my Uncle Justinas’s papers and told him to go back. They went to the second car. Everybody had to show their papers. My mother was the best dressed of anybody in all three cars. She was all decked out. They asked her where she lived.
“The Gintaras Hotel.”
“Turn around, fancy lady, go back to the hotel.”
They went to the third car.
My Uncle Sigitas and his wife Terese showed their papers. Rita was sitting in the back with our cousins. They showed their papers. When it was Rita’s turn, she said, “You’ve seen their papers. I live in the same place.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jurgelaitis, just like them,” she lied.
He asked her something in Russian. She didn’t understand a word of it and glared at him. The stare-down between Soviet cop and American gal took a few minutes. It was a stalemate.
“The next time I see this one she is going to have to answer,” the policeman warned my uncle. “Turn back.”
They turned around and the convoy went back to Vilnius.
Undaunted, a few days later, a day before leaving the USSR, Rita was picked up by Uncle Sigitas before dawn before breakfast at the back of the hotel for an end run to Silute. She skittered into the car, and they sped off. The streets were empty in the autumn gloom.
“He was a crazy driver, always yelling, ‘Somebody’s following us!’ He stayed off the highway, and the main roads, instead going up and down different ways. I thought the drive was going to take two hours, but it took much longer.” It took five hours on empty stomachs. It was worse than the Aeroflot flight from Moscow, which had been bad enough. Rita had tossed the bad food tray under her seat in mid-flight.
They were stopped several times, but every time Uncle Sigitas was allowed to stay the course. The roadblock police didn’t explain why. They just waved him onward. When they got to Silute they asked around and found the house where Antonina was living.
“She lived in a two-room apartment, in a rectangular four-unit building, almost like a concrete log cabin, that looked like it was built hundreds of years before there even was concrete,” said Rita. She had a low-tech security system, a rusty nail she used to lock the front door. There wasn’t a back door. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. The windows needed caulking. The roof was long overdue.
She was in her late 80s. She had gone through tough times, but she still had a lot of life in her. She had seven grandchildren in the United States. Rita was the first one she ever saw. She gave my sister a big smile and a big hug, even though she was a small woman and had to reach up. She was barely five feet tall.
She wasn’t the Man of Steel, like the ringleader who squashed her and the Baltics under his thumb, but he was dead and gone, a downspout memory, and she still had plenty of what it takes. How you start is how you finish. They had lunch, cold beet soup, potato dumplings, and mushroom cookies with strong hot tea. It was a roots buffet on a beat-up wood table. Rita didn’t throw anything under her chair.
“How did you like it?” Uncle Sigitas asked on their way back to Vilnius.
“It’s the best food I’ve had in Lithuania so far,” Rita answered.
Antonina passed away in 1985. She didn’t die of anything special, dying in her sleep. She was in her early 90s. She had fought tooth and nail to survive in a no mercy Siberia and was worn out. Even the toughest nails one day become the last nail in the coffin. Her time was up.
When she died my father bought a mass for her at our local Lithuanian American church in Cleveland, Ohio. He had been raised a Catholic and was still a true believer. I wasn’t on the same page, but I wasn’t going to slam the good book shut that day. When my turn came to say a prayer, I said a prayer for the dead, asking God to grant my grandmother eternal peace.