Tag Archives: Vytas Staskevicius

Kitchen Party

HOMESPUN

By Ed Staskus

Some years later living in a Polish double in Cleveland, Ohio, the last winter they lived in the old neighborhood before moving to the new neighborhood where a school and convent adjoining the Lithuanian church had just been built, Eddie Staskevicius watched his 9-year-old sister Rita walk up the stairs in her new American winter coat and remembered the blimp-style snow suit his mother made for her earlier in Sudbury, Ontario.

“She looked like one of the astronauts in ‘Destination Moon,’” the 12-year-old boy said. He had seen the Technicolor sci-fi movie on a 15” black and white “Atomic Age” Zenith. It had a sharp picture, at least until it warmed up, when it would sooner or later start arcing and hissing.

it was space, the new frontier, brought to life by space the old frontier, at least until the TV fritzed off. Rockets were hot. Project Mercury was gone and done, launching the first American astronaut on a suborbital flight in 1961. John Glenn lifted off on an Atlas rocket in 1962 to become the first American to orbit the Earth.

Rita wore her space suit winters in Sudbury. It was where Angele Jurgelaityte married Vytas Staskevicius in 1949 and gave birth to Edvardas in 1951, Ricardas in 1952, and Rita in 1954. It was the trifecta. When she did, she gave up her job as a nanny for the Lapalme’s, known as “The Largest Family in Sudbury,” and went to work raising her own family in her own house.

“I spent all my time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and watching my kids,” she said.

The day she got married she knew how to boil pork and make soup. “I didn’t know how to make any other food.” The first time she bought ground meat for a meatloaf, she bought too many pounds of it. “We didn’t have a refrigerator at first and I had to ask one of our neighbors to keep it for me.” She stuck to the basics, fruit in season, fresh meat from a butcher shop, eggs, cheese, bread, milk, and coffee.

“No matter how much I ate I couldn’t put on weight,” Angele said. “I was thin as a pencil.” She saw a doctor who told her not to overthink nor overeat her slender figure. “You’ll want it back some day.” he said.

They rented an upstairs room to a German couple recently arrived, Bruno and Ingrid Hauck, in order to bring in a little income. Vytas charged $11.00 a week and soon converted a second upstairs bedroom to accommodate boarders. There was a half bath.

“I don’t know where they went for a real bath,” said Angele. The Staskevicius family lived on the ground floor. They had a full bath.

“I loved having kids, but we still had to go out sometimes,” Angele said. Vytas bought her a fur coat after Rita’s birth. Fur was more a necessity in Sudbury than some kind of big city luxury, and didn’t cost an arm and a leg, especially since it wasn’t mink and came from the nearby outdoors.

They couldn’t afford a babysitter but made friends with the Hauck’s. “Ingrid loved the kids, especially Rick. She watched them so we could go out.” They walked to the movie theater on Elm Street on Saturday nights. After the movie they took a stroll.

Angele worked for the Laplame’s as a mother’s helper one winter, spring, and summer. J. A. Lapalme, a local businessman, had promised Angele he would help get Vytas Staskevicius out of Germany and into Canada. He went to his office every day and she waited for word about the sponsorship.

“One week he was in Montreal,” she said. “When he got home, he didn’t say anything about it. I was in the kitchen washing dishes. I asked him if he had done it, sponsored Vytas, but he said he forgot. I got so mad I threw the washcloth on the floor.”

She ran upstairs, down the hallway to the back, into her room, slammed the door, and threw herself on the bed.

He knocked on the door, came in, and said, “I’ll fix it tomorrow.”

“He did it the next day,” she said.

Vytas went to work in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a mining town, where work meant not seeing the light. Either you worked in the mines or you worked in an ancillary business. He wasn’t low man on the totem pole, like pick-axe men, but he had to watch his step in the 3,000-foot-deep hot dim damp mineshafts. A wrong step could be a last step. His first job was packing black powder. He worked as a blaster, the man responsible for loading, priming, and detonating blastholes, breaking rock for excavation, creating rock cuts.

Sudbury is the regional capital of northeastern Ontario, 230 miles north of Toronto and 140 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie. It lays in a 200-million-year-old crater, surrounded by the Canadian Shield, and has hundreds of lakes within its boundaries. Lake Wanapitei is the largest city-contained lake in the world.

Sudbury’s mining economy went boom and bust through the years as demand for nickel fluctuated. It was high during World War One, bottomed out when the war ended, and rose again in the 1920s and 30s. It was one of the richest and fastest-growing cities in Canada through the 1930s. During World War Two one mine alone accounted for all the nickel used in Allied artillery. With the advent of the Cold War Sudbury supplied the United States with most of its military grade nickel.

Angele and Vytas lived in an old two-story clapboard house on Pine Street after their wedding and five-hour afternoon honeymoon at a nearby lakeshore park. They saved everything they could and couldn’t afford, and with the help of a loan from J. A. Lapalme, were able to buy a new house on a new dead-end length of Stanley Street.

Stanley Street stretched four blocks from Elm Street, the commercial thoroughfare, past Pine Street to Poplar Street. When it was extended to the nearly sheer rock face on top of which railroad tracks ran, it became five blocks. Several new homes were built.

“There were three on our side of the street and three on the other side when we moved in,” said Angele. There were no sidewalks. “One of the houses on the other side was bigger. It was the builder’s home.”

He neglected to install storm windows on their new house, regardless of the long winters.  “We hadn’t signed for the house, yet, and Vytas insisted he put in second windows. He put them in.” They might have been recent settlers, DPs from Eastern Europe, but they didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the winter storm systems blew.

The builder had four children, two of them boys. Angele’s sons played with them in the summer, climbing the sloping rock hills behind their house, and planning on how to someday climb the steep rock cliff at the end of the street. Their parents forbade them the fantasy.

Angele spoke Lithuanian fluently, Russian and German competently, English just barely, and French not at all. Everybody in Sudbury spoke English and French. It was grapevine with the neighbors and listen some more for her to be able to go shopping.

“I listened to people. I learned English by talking to them.”

The first Lithuanians came to Canada in the early 1900s to work in Nova Scotia’s mines. They established a parish and built a church in 1913. A wave of immigration, tens of thousands, took place after World War Two. Most of them went to Ontario. They spread out to London, Hamilton, and Toronto. Some of them went to Sudbury. There was ready employment there.

For all its work and prosperity, the mining town was known as one of the ugliest cities in Canada. Logging for the purpose of roasting ore on open fires and the smoke that resulted despoiled the landscape, leaving behind scattered poplars and birches, the only trees able to endure the harm. The small city and its vast environs were often compared to the landscape of the faraway moon.

What birds there were carried their nut and seed lunch boxes from tree to tree because the trees were so far and few between. They never said goodbye, though. The nest is where the heart is.

“The summers were short and hot,” Angele said. “There were no trees anywhere. The rock would get hot and make everything hotter. The winters started in October and they were cold.”

When spring came, there wasn’t much to it. Decades of indiscriminate logging, massive mining operations, and smelter emissions wiped out almost all of the vegetation. The pollution poisoned lakes and streams. The dearth of trees meant a dearth of mulch, leading to widespread soil erosion. As a result, frost was severe in the winter and it was too hot in the summer.

It was colder than cold in winter. The average temperature was below zero. “Our best friends, Henry and Maryte Zizys, had to go home on the bus one weekend after visiting us and it was 45 degrees below zero.” The average snowfall was above average for northern land. The last frost in spring was in late May. It came back the second week of autumn.

In the winter, once she got the hang of it, Angele sewed clothes. When she started, she had sewn little except a button back on a shirt or skirt. “But when you have to do something, I did it,” she said.

She learned to sew the same way she learned to speak English. She rummaged cheap clothes from second-hand stores and took them apart to see how they had been put together. She cut up adult pants, reusing the zippers, and made children’s pants. “The zipper in pants was hard to figure out.” She learned by doing what she was doing.

“I found out it was just common sense,” she said.

She bought an old foot-powered Treadle Singer sewing machine in good condition. A rubber belt operated it. The belt stretched from the balance wheel to a flat metal bigfoot pedal at the bottom. The power came from the rhythm of the sewer’s feet. The stitch length couldn’t be adjusted. Only a single straight stitch is possible with treadle machines. But once you get into the swing of things, both delicate and durable stiches are more than workable.

Within a few years she was making curtains and tablecloths for herself and their neighbors. She sewed dresses for her friends. She made a dress for Irma Hauck. “I sewed a coat for Maryte Zizys.” She learned to make pants for the men, cuffs and all.

She sewed winter suits for her kids. Eddie got a German army winter field coat and matching wool pants. Rick got a Space Cadet zip up one-piece suit. Both boys wore snug form-fitting hats based on “Atomic Rulers of the World.”  Rita’s snow suit was puffed up like a dirigible, cinched at the waist, and paired with a white rabbit furry hat. She was “The Thing from Stanley Street.”

Eddie and Rick chased her with ray guns.

When Vytas learned how to ice skate at a local rink, he bought his kids skates. He flooded the front yard with hose water, and when it froze solid in seconds taught them how to skate. Whenever Rita fell down, she never felt a thing, her puffy suit protecting her. But sometimes she couldn’t get back up, lacking leverage, the stiff winter wind rolling her over and over.

She never got hurt, reassuring her mother that the puffiness was serving its purpose.

“When I lived in Nuremberg, at the Army Hospital, one of my roommates, Monica, read my palm, and said I would have three children, but one of them would die young. When it was time to take the taxi to the hospital for Rita, my third child, I was so scared I fell down on the living room floor and couldn’t go.”

Vytas got her to her feet and inside the car. In the event, Rita survived, fortune teller or no fortune teller, ray guns or no ray guns, rock solid ice or not.

In the spring, between pregnancies and births, Angele performed in plays resurrected from Lithuania. She danced with a folk-dance group. They practiced in the church hall and did turns on local stages, once going to Sault Ste. Marie for an outdoor dance jamboree.

“Rimas Bagdonas was always my partner,” she said. “He was tall and a good dancer.”

Vytas and Angele met Rimas and Regina Bagdonas in Sudbury. They met everyone they knew in Sudbury, since everyone else they had known in Lithuania was either stuck fast in the homeland behind the Iron Curtain or had emigrated to one corner of the wide world-or-other or had died in the war.

Rimas worked for Murray Mines and hosted a Lithuanian radio program Sundays in his spare time. He sang and danced and played the piano, violin, harmonica, accordion, and organ. He was one of the church organists and one of the accordionists for folk dancing performances.

He worked underground for eight years. In 1957 he was told in order to be promoted he would have to change his last name. A manager suggested Rimas Bags or Rimas Bagas. He didn’t like the idea. He worked in the dark but was starting to see the light.

“My dad told them he was born a Bagdonas and would die a Bagdonas,” said his daughter Lele. “So, a family decision was made that he would leave to find a job. We stayed in Sudbury. That November after he found work, we moved to Hamilton. My dad’s first job was at the Ford plant in nearby Oakville.”

By 1957 most of the Lithuanians in Sudbury were thinking about talking about planning on leaving or had already left for greener pastures. They were moving to Toronto Montreal and the northern United States. Vytas had already made a foray south of the border, exploring where they might go to live and work.

Mining has been and is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Some of the worst workplace disasters ever have been collapses and explosions. Hard rock mining is hazardous work. The most common accidents are the result of poisonous or volatile gases and the misuse of explosives for blasting operations. Especially dangerous below ground is mine-induced instability. It is a major threat for all diggers. None of the DP diggers wanted to be tunneling the rest of their lives.

At the start of the 1950s Sudbury had a population of about 40,000 and of the 14,000 men in the labor force more than 8,000 of them worked in mining and smelting. Ten years later, due to the high demand for labor, the population of the city doubled. But at the outset of the new millennium Sudbury had the smallest proportion of immigrants of any city in Ontario, the Italians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians almost all gone.

In the meantime, Sudbury modernized its mining and reclaimed its landscape. Nearly 9 million trees were planted over a 30-year period. It was one of the largest re-greening projects in the world.

“I hated my husband having to work in the mines,” said Angele. “Whenever a miner died, you never heard it on the news or read about it in the newspaper. We only ever found out by word- of-mouth, one to the other.”

Rita’s godfather moved to Chicago. Rick’s godfather moved to San Diego. Ed’s godfather moved to Los Angeles. Henry and Maryte Zizys moved to Montreal. The Hauck’s moved to Detroit. Almost everyone who had come to Sudbury for the chance to get out of Europe and for the available work went somewhere else.

“Vytas worked nine hours a day for two weeks and then nine hours a night for two weeks,” said Angele. His days of getting up, shoveling coal into the furnace cold mornings, having breakfast, walking or hitching a ride to the mine, working his shift, getting home, having dinner, seeing his kids for few minutes, took most up most of his day. “When he worked nights, we hardly saw him. He would come home in the morning, have a bite to eat, and go to bed.”

Refugees displaced people immigrants believe in hard work as the way to get ahead. It’s often the only thing to believe in. Everything else has been left behind.

“When the men were working day shifts, we had parties on weekends at our house,” Angele said. “We had a big living room and the Simkiai, Povilaiciai, and Dzenkaiciai would come over.” The kids got shoved into a bedroom to fend for themselves.

The men played bridge in the kitchen long into the night, drinking beer and homemade krupnickas, which is a kind of Lithuanian moonshine, smoking Export “A” and Pall Mall cigarettes until the card table was under a cloud of smoke. The women put food out, mixed cocktails, and kibitzed the card players. They danced to records. They kicked back and talked.

“We didn’t have TV’s, so we talked.”

They talked about their kids, their neighbors and friends, their baznycia and bendruomene, other women, who was getting married and who was getting dumped, the movies, shopping cooking the butcher baker and candlestick maker. They talked about local doings. The men talked about their jobs, who knew and didn’t know what they were doing. They put the kids to sleep. They talked long into the night in the living room.

Outside when it got dark, and started snowing, the black rock face of Sudbury got muffled in white. When the wind picked up drifts built up against the side of the house. After that there wasn’t much to see. They didn’t talk about what had been, so much, but about what was going to be.

“One day a door will open and let the future in,” Angele said. In the meantime, she made sure the front door was securely latched. There was no sense in letting Old Man Winter crash the party.

Photograph by Vytas Staskevicius.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Breaking the Waves

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By Ed Staskus

Even if it is a 500-foot long 12-thousand-ton carrier like the S.S. Marine Flasher, sailing the North Sea in late November is sailing that sea at the wrong time of the year. Daytime temperatures average less than 50 degrees and it is water-logged gloomy foggy. If it’s not raining, it will start raining soon. Sometimes it is so foggy that ships have to slow to less than 5 knots with horns blaring.

It is hurricane season through November. There are about seven hours of daylight. Windy skies and strong sea swells make plowing through the cold water like trying to break through waves of lumpy mashed potatoes.

“I was on the boat for nine days and I was sick for nine days,” said Angele Jurgelaityte about her crossing from Hamburg, Germany, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the Marine Flasher, converted from a troop ship to hauling DP’s. Not only were big waves breaking over the sides of the ship, in the aftermath of the war, hundreds of thousands of tons of chemical weapons had been disposed of by being dumped in the North Sea.

“The ocean didn’t leave a good impression on me. Whenever we threw up, we called it Going to Riga.”

What they meant was that the water flows north, so when they threw up over the side, the vomit was swept north up the Baltic Sea past Poland and Lithuania to the mouth of the Daugava River, where Riga, Latvia is.

The Marine Flasher was built at the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, Washington. She was launched for the United States Maritime Commission in May 1945. The ship sailed to San Francisco, Okinawa, Korea and returned to Seattle. The next year the Marine Flasher sailed to New York City and from there to Bremen. For the next three years she ferried refugees from Europe to North America, by way of Canada and New York City, and then went back to Germany.

Angele shoved off German European Old World land for good on November 17, 1948. The next day ration scales for IRO refugees became uniform in the British, French, and American zones. It didn’t matter to her anymore. She ate better on the boat, no matter the seasickness, than she had in a long time.

“There was a canteen on board, and we all got two dollars a day,” she said. “The food was very good. We ate well.”

There were widespread food shortages in Germany immediately following the end of the war. The supply of food was impacted by the prolonged warfare, including the destruction of farmland, silos and barns, livestock, and machinery. Many Germans were forced to live on less than 1,500 calories a day. The average adult calorie intake in the United States at the time was more than 3,000 and in the overseas U.S. Army more than 4,000.

The civilian population suffered hard times during the severe winter of 1946 – 47, exacerbated by shortages of fuel for heating. Displaced persons got more generous rations, supplied by the Army, the UN, and relief agencies, but even they averaged less than 2,000 calories a day.

There were 535 refugees bound for Canada on board the Marine Flasher. There were almost 3,000 more bound for the United States, men women children baby carriages. They steamed into Halifax the afternoon of November 26 and spent the night on the boat, tied up at Pier 21. Angele hadn’t been able to get into the United States, but she had been able to get to the next best place, Canada.

She wasn’t stuck behind the Iron Curtain, she wasn’t stuck in Nuremberg, and a two days later she boarded a train for Montreal. It took all day and all night and part of the next day to get there, but she wasn’t stuck on it going nowhere.

“It was almost 30 hours, but the train was comfortable, with beds,” she said.

When they arrived, everyone designated as a nanny or a domestic were segregated.

“Those who already had sponsors left. The rest of us, about a hundred of us, boarded busses and they took us to a camp.” They were housed two to a room and interviewed. “They wanted to know what we had been doing in Germany.”

They had to fill out one form after another.

One of her roommates at the Army Hospital in Nuremberg had emigrated to Canada a few months earlier. She was working and living in London, Ontario. It is in southwestern Ontario, just north of Lake Erie. The city is a hub for education and healthcare. There are parks and greenways where it lays along the Thames River.

It was a military center during the first and second wars, but the wars were finally over.

“Ele wrote me that I should ask to go to London, or second best, Toronto,” Angele said. “I started thinking I would join her in London. When I filled out the forms that they gave me I wrote down where she was and that I wanted to go there.”

Three days later she was presented with a Canadian visitor visa and found out where she was going. She knew she was on the list for the Lapalme family. She hoped she wasn’t going there. An official gave her their address in Sudbury, Ontario. They were Florence and J. A. Lapalme, a prominent family in the mining town. They were known as “The Largest Family in Sudbury.” Their children numbered fourteen, although Angele would only be responsible for five of them. Since she had worked in the Children’s Ward at the Army Hospital in Nuremberg, she was seen as the kind of nanny capable of caring for multiple boys and girls.

“They were so young,” she said. “The youngest was nine months and the oldest was only 7 years old.” Francois was the youngest, Aline the oldest, Gilles Muriel and Marcel in the middle.

The domestic who cleaned and helped in the kitchen was Lucille Pharand. She worked in several big houses. Lucille was well known as a hard worker, built like a fireplug, and for her blueberry pies.

In the spring 1949 she and her husband Leo built a home in in the new town of Minnow Lake, three miles from Sudbury. The first few years there was no indoor water and there were no sewer lines to the house. Leo drove to the nearby lake every day with a neighbor, carrying a tub and pails, where they collected water for dishes, laundry, and bathing. They got their drinking water from a well a couple of houses away.

In time Leo and Lucille gave the Lapalme’s a run for their money, making a large family for themselves of ten children.

“I asked again to go to London, but again they said no,” Angele said. “They said nobody was going there.” She wasn’t sure if it was true or if they were just telling her that. In the end not a single refugee went to London or Toronto.

“But I couldn’t complain.”

There wasn’t anybody to explain and complain to, nobody who was going to change the destination that had been determined for her. If you were a European refugee, you were going somewhere where there was work. Men punched a clock digging out ore, cutting down trees, and laying roads. Women knuckled down cleaning cooking and caring.

Angele had struck up a friendship on the Marine Flasher with two other young Lithuanian women, Inga and Laime.  Laime in Lithuanian means happy. They had their hearts set on going to Alberta. They told her there were many rich men there.

When the train reached Sudbury, Angele and six other women, all Russians, and a man, another Russian, got off the train. Everybody else, including Inga and Laime, went on to Alberta and British Columbia. Angele was the only Lithuanian on the train platform, more than four thousand miles and several languages from her home in Lithuania.

“There was no one to understand how unhappy I was.”

The end of World War Two saw the movement of people all over the world from one place to another. Between January 1946 and December 1953 over 750,000 immigrants came to Canada. In June 1947 the federal government had authorized the entry of 5,000 non-sponsored DP’s. Two years later the number had risen to 45,000. Ottawa established five mobile immigration teams composed of immigration, security, medical, and labor officials. They were sent to Austria and Germany to select refugees deemed acceptable for emigration to Canada.

Displaced people from the Baltic countries were ranked high on the list of the immigration teams. They had been in UN-run camps after their countries, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were caught in the middle of the Russian and German battle zones. Their small countries had become independent after World War One, then occupied by the Russians in 1940, then invaded by Germany in 1941, and in 1944 overwhelmed by the Russians.

In the space of 25 years they had gone from enslaved by tyrants to enslaved by new tyrants.

“When we got off the train there were two men waiting for us,” Angele said. They helped the eight refugees sort themselves out and get to where they were going. One of them told her she was lucky to be going where she was going.

The Lapalme’s introduced themselves and their children, arranged her living quarters, and quieted her fears about there being no other Lithuanians in Sudbury They explained there were, and the next day Dr. Valaitis, a Lithuanian doctor and friend of the family, drove to the Laplame home and sat down with her, telling her there were many other Lithuanians in Sudbury.

“Some of them have been here more than two years,” he said. “They make a good living working in the mines.” He gave her the names and phone numbers of several nearby, told her about the Polish church they shared for services, and the local hall where they staged dances and folk performances.

“The kids I had to care for were so small,” Angele said. She was just 20 years old. “They spoke French among themselves and English to me.” She spoke to them more in gestures and pantomime than not at first. Angele spoke Lithuanian, German, some Russian, but less English.

“When Vytas and I were together in Nuremberg he encouraged me to learn English, but I didn’t want to. Whenever I saw him coming with his grammar book I ran away.”

Vytas Staskevicius was a young Lithuanian from Siauliai she had left behind in Nuremberg, but who she was waiting for, waiting for him to come to Canada and join her. He had fled the Baltics in 1944, like her, and been displaced in Germany, like her, for more than four years.

She started taking English classes in Sudbury right away. She wrote Vytas often, at night, pages and pages in cursive, in their native language.

“The Lapalme’s have been good to me They are Catholics and go to church every day, seven days a week. They have a food warehouse, which is their business. We eat very well, so it’s not bad in that respect.”

Florence was J. A. Laplame’s second wife. He placed ads in newspapers and hired her, a young out-of-town woman, to watch and care for his children after his first wife died. He had seven children, some of them teenagers, some not. It wasn’t long before one thing led to another and he proposed to her. He was nearly thirty years her elder, but she accepted, and over the next decade-and-some gave birth to seven children, bringing the family up to record-breaking speed in Sudbury.

“Florence does the cooking,” Angele wrote. “She has a part-time woman come and help with the cleaning and cooking, but Florence does the main cooking. There are usually eleven or twelve of us at the dinner table. She is in the basement every night doing laundry, too. I don’t clean or cook. My job is to watch the children.”

Whenever Florence was ready to deliver another baby, since her husband had several business interests and was often out of town, Florence drove herself to St. Joseph’s Hospital. “If it was close, she called a taxi,” said Angele.

Roger Lapalme, grown-up and the only one of the family who had gone farther than high school, sat next to Angele at the dinner table whenever he was at home. “Roger liked me, but Vytas was the one for me.” He was barking up the wrong tree. “He was handsome and a lawyer, but I told him I already had a boyfriend,” Angele said.

He took her motor-boating on Lake Ramsey until the day he got too enthusiastic at the helm and she fell off the boat. She told him it was enough of that.

One of the LaPalme sisters had suffered a nervous breakdown. When her boyfriend, who she expected to marry, killed someone in a car crash, she broke down. She told her father her life was over and went to work in the nickel mines. She was rarely at the house.

Vytas Staskevicius had a sponsor in the United States, an uncle in Boston, but delayed sailing there. He also stalled going to Australia with a friend of his who thought they could make passage there. He became determined to get to Canada. J. A Lapalme had already promised Angele he would give Vytas a helping hand.

“The year is ending soon,” she wrote him. “I have been here more than three weeks. When can you come?” She knew the sailing season wasn’t going to be for several more months. Her man had to break the waves. She knew it wasn’t going to be soon enough.

“Be good and write me often,” she wrote at the start of the new year.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

One Step at a Time

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By Ed Staskus

His mother was a Russian, a schoolteacher in Saransk, when his father met her before the start of World War One. The town and garrison were in the Penza, four hundred 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.

The place was founded as a fortress, on the left bank of the river Isar, at the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before the First World War 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 available fuels or raw materials.

“My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there in the Czar’s army 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.”

The Imperial Russian Army had more than a million men, most of them conscripted, most of them peasants. There were a quarter million Cossacks, too. Only the Cossacks knew what they were doing.

“He courted my mother, Antonina, and they got married. They had my older sister, Eugenia, in 1917. We always called her by the name of 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 called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the little prince, and the rotten prince on other days.

Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, a hill where there had once been a fort less than ten miles from the town. 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 of them 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 thumb of the Russian Empire. In late 1919, when Russia was being consumed by its Bolshevik revolution, Antanas Staskevicius went home to a newly independent Lithuania.

“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 for their land. 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 warfare 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 World War One most of Siauliai’s buildings were destroyed and the city center was obliterated. Since its founding in the 13th century Siauliai had burned down seven times, had been struck by plague seven times, and World War Two was the seventh conflict 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 fifty 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 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 the Great War 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 seventy-five miles east of where we lived, so I stayed with her. But I didn’t get along with the students at the high school there. It was a 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 all said. I didn’t make any friends there.”

He told everyone, “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 it 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.”

All during the 1930s the world had been changing fast. In 1940 the Lithuanian world completely changed. Father and son moved back to Siauliai.

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

The Staskevicius family went to their farm, while 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.

“We had 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 have never done anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I have always been 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, or mistreat us, but they hadn’t washed in months. They stunk bad. and they rolled their cheap 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 almost 20,000 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, old pants, 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, my father 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 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 of class 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.”

There was a new order.

“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 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. Times have changed. Everybody is looking out for themselves, only themselves.”

The man who had once commanded the local police stayed in his jail cell.

“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 onto 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.

His father 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 ran 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 saw them again or ever found out what happened to them.

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

When Russian NKVD men began mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting by Lithuanians among themselves. It was every man for himself, unless you were a Red.

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

“We were determined on leaving the farm. It was dangerous. We went into the forest. But then my mother told me to go to Vilnius and tell Gaile our father had been arrested. She wanted Gaile to know 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 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, 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 either Polish or Jewish. 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 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 in to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to someone 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 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 good men. 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. “Every summer students from the agricultural academy would tour our farm. 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, 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 did everything 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 in 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 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 injured hand and farmhands everywhere 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 all 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 still there when the Russians came back.”

In 1944 the Red Army stormed into Lithuania. Vytas escaped with a mechanized company of Germans, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. They told him he had two or three minutes to decide whether or not he was coming with them as they retreated.

“They told me the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses. 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.”

His sister Genute, not at the farm that day, fled separately. She got across the border into East Prussia, and later into Germany. His other sister, Gaile, wasn’t able to escape Lithuania in time.

“She had a problem at the border and didn’t make it. The Soviets 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 were compelled to stay there.

“She finished a trade 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 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 Siauliai in 1944,” said Vytas  “I was very glad to get out in time.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”