20 November 2017
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Memories of a prewar childhood in Lithuania – and an escape to the U.S.

This is the story of Vanda and her family. A story similar to what happened to many families that were affected by World War II's terrible events on Lithuanian soil, a story about innocent children who wanted a normal childhood in their beloved homeland, but instead were hit hard by the horrors of war and the terrible atrocities committed by the Hitler and Stalin regimes. Vanda and her parents managed to escape before Stalin's Red Army laid its iron grip over Lithuania in 1944. They came to Germany and later to the United States. Vanda's aunt had no such luck; she was deported to Siberia and starved to death because she shared her food rations with other deportees.

Vanda with her husband, Vytautas Sliupas, in June 2010.
They live in California.

Photo: Aage Myhre

By Vanda Fabijonaviciute Sliupas

My family lived in northern Lithuania but not close to Kaunas where my uncle Ipolitas’ residence was, nor Siaulenai where my aunt Benyte lived with Vytukas and Reniukas and uncle Adolfas Petrauskas.

Adolfas Petrauskas was the principal of a primary school and aunt Benyte was a teacher. The Fabijonas family did not approve of my mother because she did not have any education. According to them my father Juozas married below his social level. Even though my mother took in sewing and knitting to supplement a policeman’s salary to cover the cost of our living and to pay for a part of the costs to educate uncle Ipolitas and aunt Liuda. Our paternal grandmother, two aunts and uncle Ipolitas ignored us completely.

Then in 1938 Ipolitas’ wife committed suicide. We were invited to come to the funeral in Kaunas and this was the first time we met Vytukas, age 8 and Reniukas age 5. The adults were busy with the funeral arrangements and discussions of the tragedy, the four cousins played games and talked. My brother Romas, Vytukas and Reniukas formed a group. I was mostly by myself or talked to the housekeeper or anyone who was willing to spend some time with me. Until I got used to it, Vytukas looked sickly because of his small frame, red hair and very white complexion. The fifth cousin, orphaned Algiukas was not quite two years old and spent the time with grandmother. I remember being at the photographer’s and once walking in Kaunas on “Laisves Aleja” and eating the first sausage and a bun (something like a hotdog) on the street – which to me was a big treat.

1938: I remember being at the photographer’s and once walking in Kaunas on “Laisves Aleja” and eating
the first sausage and a bun (something like a hotdog) on the street – which to me was a big treat.

The next summer we were invited to join the families by a lake (can’t remember the name, but it was between Siaulenai and Siauliai). The four women stayed close to the house doing the chores and looking after Algiukas, but the four cousins (now even I was included) explored the lake, which formed a chain of seven lakes, and the forests around them. Those two weeks welded us together into a close unit and we loved being together and keeping our secrets to ourselves. From morning till night we played all kinds of games, ate our little lunches, slept on the moss under the ancient trees, fished when we felt like, swam and nobody told us to come home or even looked for us. But the time flew and we all went back to our homes after two weeks.

In June of 1940, Russia decided to occupy Lithuania –
our leaders fled to Western Europe or America

On the 3rd of September, 1939, the World War II started when Russia and Germany agreed to divide Poland between themselves. Then in June of 1940, Russia decided to occupy Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to “protect us from ourselves”. Our leaders fled to Western Europe or America. Military and Police officers who stayed were imprisoned; some were shot immediately, others were deported to Siberia. Since my father worked in the Lithuanian police force, as soon as Russians came, he went into hiding. Mother took us to live with our maternal grandmother (baba) and her son uncle Vladas. The children were permitted to go to schools, but now had to learn Russian. At the beginning there was enough food and the common people who worked as manual laborers were exalted, but the educated or those who had some wealth were ridiculed and had to do heavy physical labor to prove they were just like any other person. To survive one had to have a food ration card. Very soon the stores emptied, especially in dry goods. Food still could be traded with farmers and everybody cultivated home gardens just to have something to put in the family’s dinner pot.

Since father was in hiding, the Communists tried to provoke us so they could put mother, Romas and me in prison, hoping that father would then give himself up. Several nights during that year, somebody tried to raise the Lithuanian flag on our roof to intimidate mother and uncle Vladas. But as soon as we heard them climbing the ladder, uncle Vladas would run outside and take the flag down.

June 1940: Russia invades Lithuania.

On June 14th, 1941, the deportation of 36,000 people began –
my aunt Benyte was deported to Siberia and starved to death

On June 14th, 1941, the deportation of 36,000 people began. The Soviets were not very selective during the first round of deportations; they came to the door, knocked, told the people they had 15 min. to pack and drove the families to the railroad station, loaded 60 or more of them into each cattle car with one bucket to serve as toilet. The NKVD (Soviet secret police) did not tell them why they were being deported, where they were taking them, for how long or how far. NKVD came to baba’s (my maternal grandmother) flat, searched for our family and for uncle Vladas, but could not find anybody and did not take baba either.

In Siaulenai it was the same procedure. They came to the school where the Petrauskas’ family lived. They found only aunt Benyte and cousin Renius/Renualdas (age about 8 yrs). Told her to pack and took them to the railroad station. Short time later uncle Adolfas Petrauskas came home and his neighbors told him that his wife and the younger son were arrested and taken to the railroad station to be deported. He ran to the station, but the soldiers would not let him search for his wife. He begged, he cried, he bribed them to be let on the platform in order to search for his wife and son. The soldiers thought he was out of his mind wanting to be deported, but he would not stop. Finally the soldiers let him go on the platform to search the cattle cars for his wife and son. As soon as he found them, he was pushed to another cattle car full of men, destined to Siberian forests, as a logger and he never saw his wife again.

After weeks of traveling Benyte reached her destination (I do not know the name of the location) deep in the Siberian wilderness and was assigned to work in food distribution. After couple years, around 1944, she was thrown into prison because she gave larger portions of bread to men who worked in the forest. In her cell she was deprived of food and starved to death; she was buried in the local cemetery.

In the 1950’s or ‘60’s the Russian government allowed families to bring the remains back to Lithuania and her mother-in-law made a trip to Siberia and brought her remains to Siauliai and reburied them in a cemetery lot. (Regina Petrauskas or the sons of Renualdas would know about the details of location or the year when each of the family members died.) After Renius’ mother died, Renius wrote to his paternal grandmother and eventually she traveled to Siberia and brought him back to Lithuania. After Stalin died in 1953, grandfather, Adolfas Petrauskas also was allowed to go to Lithuania and he is buried next to his beloved wife Benyte.

Lithuanians deported to Trofimovsk in the region of the Laptev Sea, Siberia, an area with permafrost
north of the Polar Circle. The photo is from 1949. These deportations started in 1941.
In 1942-43, a third of the deported people died, mainly children and elderly people.
Photo: The Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius, Lithuania.

Childhood in Russian and German occupied Lithuania 1940-1944
Now we come to my cousin Vytas/Vytautas Petrauskas. As I mentioned before, ever since childhood he always looked sickly. I do not think that he had TB, but his parents always were on the alert. At the time of their deportations Vytas was in Kaunas Sanatorium for lung diseases. As soon as uncle Ipolitas heard about what happened at the railroad station, he rushed to the hospital and brought Vytas from the sanatorium to his house.

After almost a year in hiding, mother received a message from my father that we immediately should take a train to Kaunas where uncle Ipolitas lived. I do not know who brought the message to mother, but mother packed small bundles of clothing and we three went to the railroad station. Luckily the night train was empty and no one checked our identities. We all knew that Germans were concentrating their forces on our borders to overrun us on their way to Russia and this was the only hope for us to survive.

When we reached Kaunas, mother, Vytas, Romas, and I were sent to a small village, about 30 km from Kaunas, where aunt Liuda was teaching primary school. This being summer holidays, the schoolrooms were empty. A helper brought in a lot of fresh cut grasses, some sheets, pillows and we had a nest to sleep in for the next four or five weeks. All of us slept in this one room, except aunt Liuda, grandmother Ona and orphaned Algiukas who already was 5 years old.

Now there were only the three of us to roam the surrounding fields. The soil was soft, white sand and the men dug out a shelter for us in case the war moved to this area. The floors we the children lined with ferns, the men put crossbars of saplings to form a roof and we had to pluck more ferns to cover our shelter. Luckily we did not have to use it as a shelter, but it made an excellent place for us to play in. I remember there still were wild strawberries hidden among the ferns and we managed to eat them to the last. The memory that stays with me is the suffocating aroma of the crushed fern fronds, but after a day or two we got used to it.

Then on the night of June 22nd, 1941, the war came to our area. We were close to the main highway to Kaunas and we were awakened by the sound of rolling military stock. There was no resistance by the Russians whatsoever, as if they never were there at all. The invasion came too late for the people who were being deported, the loaded cattle cars had enough time to be on their way to Siberia and the eastern coast of the Pacific Ocean. The women deportees were sent to the frozen fishing industry of the far Northeast, and the men were directed to the logging fields. The deportations continued from 1945 until 1953 and during that time 600,000 Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians were uprooted and moved to work in the frozen East.

The German army came, young men in clean uniforms were marching
to save us and we were willing to give them the best of what we had

Wehrmacht soldiers in the territory of present-day Lithuania (June 1941 photo)....
June 1941: German Wehrmacht soldiers arrive in Lithuania, throwing the Russians out.

The morning of the 23rd June the German army came marching down the highway. And what a sight it was: young men in clean uniforms were marching to save us and we were willing to give them the best of what we had. Farmers gave them hams and rounds of cheese, housewives brought their cherry wine bottles, girls decorated them with flowers and kisses and the children marched alongside of them through the villages. You might say the Germans were occupying us just as the Russians did! That is true, but for the time being they saved thousands of people from being deported to Siberia. The Germans considered us Aryans and of the same blood as themselves. We hoped that we would be at least semi- independent. Also, as history proved, Stalin killed over 30,000,000 of his own people not counting the millions during the battles of war, whereas Hitler killed 10,000,000, mostly Jews, Gypsies, Poles and other Slavs. We were very small nations and could not fight either Russians or Germans; the only hope to survive was with the lesser evil. The euphoria lasted only three months until Lithuanians refused to execute the Lithuanian Jews and to join the German Army units or the SS battalions. Many young men had to go into hiding again or had to leave Lithuania for Sweden across the perilous Baltic Sea. Lithuania is the only country in the German occupied territories that never formed any SS units.

Otherwise life continued under a new occupation, except that food became very scarce and it was very dangerous to engage in any anti-German activities. German Gestapo terrorized the people whom they suspected. Political prisoners were usually sent to Dachau or Buchenwald concentration camps where about 300 Lithuanians were killed in one of them. Young men, who refused to serve in their armies, when caught, were sent to work in German military facilities which were regularly bombed by English and American planes, or to man the anti-aircraft batteries.

Vytas spent the winters with his paternal grandparents Petrauskas in Siauliai where he attended high school. As soon as summer vacations began, he would come to stay with us in Mazeikiai. The next three summers we spent roaming the surrounding areas, fishing in the river Venta and generally sticking our noses where they were not wanted. Nobody told us to stay home. Father had his office in one part of the house and he did not want to have us underfoot. Mother was busy with her usual money making extra work even though we did have a 20-something year local Russian girl helping in the house. The three of us slept in a very small room where two iron beds barely fit in it – boys slept in one bed and I in the other. Half the yard was fenced off and we all had pets there. I think Romas had a goose that followed him, Vytas had a rooster who ate from his mouth and I had a cat. If during our adventures we found an injured bird or a small animal, we always brought them home and tried to cure them, but did not have much success. We did not do anything spectacular, but Vytas came to us gladly and we all enjoyed each others’ company. I always considered to have had two brothers and when I had to explain myself, I used to get confused.

Circle by Railway station.jpg (1159338 bytes)
Emerging from an agricultural village, old Mazeikiai was mostly characterized by small wooden houses and shacks, surrounded by gardens where vegetables were grown, and livestock was held, mostly for private consumption. Water supply was from local wells, operated by hand pumps. Most streets were unpaved, and wooden sidewalks were used during winter periods in order to avoid walking in the mud and slush.

The summer of 1944 Vytas came as usual. The Russians, who were provided with arms and food by the Land Lease program of the USA, the Western front being opened and fought by the Americans and the Brits, were winning the war in the East and were on the move towards the Baltics. I remember Romas’ birthday (6-11) when father gave him a little gun. Vytas and Romas were so excited and were playing with it, fully loaded, when it went off and shot Romas through his left palm. For two days we said nothing either to mother or baba. The hand was swollen, but he still chopped the wood for the cooking stove and refused to face mama. But I became afraid and went to baba to tell her what happened. Baba came and scolded her daughter for not looking after us. Mama rushed Romas to the doctor who extracted the bullet and she told father not to scold him too much. The doctor gave some yellow powder (sulfur) and told Romas to put some on the wound every day to keep the infection in check.

Then the front moved closer and the adults panicked. Father and his assistant Mr. T. received a truck from the police department and with help of my uncle Vladas and both boys, packed most of our things in it, then drove to pick the assistant’s things.

In June of 1944 we left Mazeikiai towards the border with Germany
The morning of the 18th of June we left Mazeikiai towards the border with Germany – under no condition would one stay to face the Russians and a certain death. There were seven of us and I can’t remember how we all managed to fit in. The two men sat up front and the five of us lolled in the back of the truck holding onto the side belts. The German border was not that far from us and by the afternoon we stopped at a relative’s farm about 30 miles from the border, around Kretinga, but farther from the Baltic Sea. They were an elderly couple and very pleasant to us. After supper, the adults stayed inside the house discussing serious matters and the three of us were sent to the barn to sleep in the hay. Father and his assistant returned the next day to work in Mazeikiai, but we stayed at the farm for about six weeks.

The Eastern front was standing still and no new rumors circulated among the farmers. Since we might have to leave at any moment, we were restricted to stay at the farm. We played card games, often Vytas was sketching in his notebook, I read books found at the farm and Romas helped the farmer to fix some farm equipment. For us it was boring. The farmer had two horses, but we were permitted to ride them only in the yard. The first time Vytas rode, he almost killed himself. The yard was full of obstacles and lines stretched between trees and buildings for laundry and electrical connections. As he slowly rode, he hit one of the stretched wires under his chin and just hung there. The farmer came running, backed the horse and helped Vytas to climb down – for some time there was a mark where the wire hit his throat. Then a rumor came that our high school was moved to Ylakiai and was going to start the first week of September. Father came and took us to Ylakiai to another relative farmer. Father returned to Mazeikiai with the truck to his duties and to bring baba with him on his return. Since his assistant was wounded during an air raid by a fragment of a bomb in his hand, he did not have to go back to work. They stayed at a nearby farm. We had no clothes, because everything was in the truck and the truck went with father. The boys ran around in short pants but I had a light coat. Mother managed to get some fabric from the farmer and made long pants for Vytas and Romas. She bought a pig and salted for the winter and smoked some geese that the farmer sold. Everyone knew that when the Russian come, nothing will belong to farmers any longer and will be taken away from them. We waited for more than a month, but the high school never opened.

German troops land in Lithuania 1939
1944: German troops disembark in Lithuania.

Bombardments and shootings came from all sides, mother was panicking
On October 6th all hell broke loose: the front was not only moving, but running towards us. Bombardments and shootings came from all sides, mother was panicking, we could not get in touch with our father or grandmother – baba. It started getting dark and we did not know what to do. Mother told us each to pack our briefcases with items we wanted to take with us: Vytas took his sketches, Romas – stamps and I some knitting samples. After 23:00 hrs at night, father rushed in on a motorcycle without the truck and without our beloved baba – the German military police would not let him take the truck and baba was too old to ride on the motorcycle. He had stopped at his assistant’s place, they already had a wagon and a horse, so now father negotiated with the farmer and managed to get us a wagon with a horse. He just jumped, threw the one suitcase he had left with us into the wagon, then some preserved meats that mother had prepared, some flour, bread and we were off. The roads were full of refugees and Germans fleeing in cars and trucks, so we started straight across the fields and ditches. The bombardment went all around us. Fires were raging everywhere. Mother and the boys were running along the wagon, only father and I sat in it. The poor horse could not pull the wagon fast enough and out went the flour sack, then one barrel with the pork, then the other with smoked geese We were left just with one suitcase and a loaf of bread. After several hours we came to a major road that was not too badly congested.

Now all five of us climbed into the wagon. It was still dark, but all around the horizon fires were burning as villages and cities were disappearing from the face of the earth.

Just before dawn we passed Kretinga and the only thing we saw were flames leaping, jumping and rolling in huge rolling balls as the falling bombs ignited the wooden houses and the railroad yards. We continued towards Silute and by now there were three or four rows of wagons squeezing on the road. Suddenly couple platoons of Ukrainian Cossacks, serving in the German Army, in their bright uniforms on magnificent horses tried to cross our crowded road but could not breach it. They turned back to the fields and disappeared among the trees.

Suddenly, mother was gone. We started screaming and calling her name, but nobody answered.

Father gave the rains to Vytas and told him just to follow the other wagons in front of us. In front loomed the narrow Silute bridge that could accommodate only a single line of wagons. Father was gone for a minute or so, but could not find mother. Then, about 10 min. later, mother was back with us – she was separated from the wagon by people pushing and shoving each other to be across the Silute bridge soonest. We were a fifth or sixth wagon away from the bridge when suddenly the bridge with wagons and people on it exploded, bodies and concrete danced in the air for a minute or two, then slowly sank to the bottom of the ravine. The Russians were right on our heels and the Germans themselves blew up the bridge to prevent Russian tanks from crossing. Panic; people did not know what to do. Father and his assistant turned the horses and wagons around and we took a small road leading towards Kintai, Ventes Ragas and Kursiu Mares (Curonian Lagoon). Small groves of pines grew all around us. There were very many German soldiers who were encircled and trapped by their enemy with no escape.

1944: Soviet soldiers in carts, on their way westward, passing corpses of dead German soldiers.

Father’s assistant grew up in these environs and he spoke perfect German and knew the surroundings. We stopped at the staff tent and he started talking to the officer in charge. The officer said if there was any way to leave, he would evacuate his men, but there was not a chance. But he saw the exhausted children; I guess he must have had children himself. He said there was a small launch coming in the morning for the wounded soldiers and would sail as soon as the wounded were loaded, but he could not help us. Then father and the assistant said they both had revolvers, couple hundred rounds of bullets and would be willing to give them to him. He looked at the bullets, looked at us and asked for the horses also. Father gave him the revolvers and the bullets on his word that tomorrow morning he would give us a slip of paper to be admitted on the launch. They shook hands and we started looking for a farm where we could spend the night. The Germans were running short on ammunition for their last stand.

The first farm we came to was a well-run farm with apparently a good mistress, because everything was arranged as if they just left for church. Not even a cup was out of place and the beds were made. But the owners had fled. Vytas and Romas caught a goose, we all plucked its feathers, cooked it and ate it. We were starving. Father went to talk to his assistant while we dragged bedding from the house to a bomb crater. Soon father returned and we slept on the inside of the crater. Our parents and I woke up in the middle of the night when we heard footsteps on the gravel. Two Russian soldiers stood there looking at the five of us. The one sighed and said “let’s shoot them”, then the other replied “it’s just a family; let them sleep”. I did not speak Russian, but when they were gone, mother translated their conversation to us.

Early the next morning we drove back to the staff camp, the officer gave us a slip of paper and told where to leave the horses. We drove to the Ventes Ragas, the evacuation launch was already loaded, the boys carried our large suitcases and the seven of us sat on the floor among the wounded and dying solders wishing to escape the Russian entrapment and to make a new life in a strange country. The launch took us to Labiau (Labguva), East Prussia, and delivered us to a waiting Red Cross and some food. One has to admire how well organized the Germans were even at time of defeat. The first thing they made us do was take a communal bath, soak our hair in kerosene and scrape all the seams of our clothing with the same liquid to get rid of lice. But since we did not have another change of clothing we had to wear the same stinking garments. Then they put us on a train to Koenigsberg (Karaliaucius), (a city belonging to Lithuanian ancestors and given to Stalin during Yalta conference for 50 years, but even now it remains as a part in the Russian control). Then on another train to Dresden.

Father could not believe that the Germans would lose the war

Father and the assistant could not believe that the Germans would lose the war – they believed in secret weapons being developed (there were all kinds of rumors floating around giving hope to the refugees.) Therefore, father wanted to stay as close to Lithuanian border as possible. In Dresden we were advised by the Lithuanian Committee for Refugees to move to a small town to escape the nightly bombings. Mother and Mrs. Ona stayed in the railroad station to guard our belongings and the three of us were told to go and explore the city and come back in four hours. We were not enchanted with the environs around the railroad station. We visited a church with soaring towers and stared at the beautiful things displayed in the shop windows. Since we had no money to buy even a sweet bun, it became boring and we returned to mother. When the men came back, we had some bread and all slept on benches or on the floor, wherever we could find a free spot to lie down.

In the morning we climbed on the train for Grunwald, in Lower Silesia. There we ended up in a former restaurant that had one huge room and two toilets. When all the beds were assigned, there slept 60 people. Each had an iron bed with a thin mattress, sheet, pillow and a blanket. The adults were sent out to work in the city: mother became a nurse’s aide, Romas worked at a butcher shop (during the day one could go there and get a cup of very rich broth, but had to bring own bread), father and his assistant were assigned to the cemetery to grave digging, but Vytas and I stayed home and took care of our belongings. Mother received her meals at the hospital, Romas ate at work to his fill and he grew up very fast during those few months, but Vytas’s, father’s and my suppers depended on us. I think the landlady used to give us raw potatoes to fix for dinner. We could buy some bread, margarine and sometime marmalade on ration coupons and we still had some bacon in the large suitcase. The adults were paid small wages, but father saved most of it for tickets in case we had to move again; the Red Cross would not pay for our travel any more. The landlady had an old bicycle and gave it to Romas for his use.

Jeeps and Men of the U.S. Army First Infantry Division in Germany, 1945
1945: U.S Army arrives in Germany. Photo from 28 February 1945 near Frauwullesheim, Germany, after the First Infantry Division crossed the Roer River. It shows soldiers and vehicles on a rural road. The unit is identified as Company C, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, 1st U.S. Army.

Vytas and I practically lived on potatoes and pieces of bacon
As soon as we made beds and swept around them, we used to go to the surrounding forests and search for mushrooms so we could make them for father. Vytas and I practically lived on potatoes and pieces of bacon. Romas could not bring anything from the butcher shop because strict rules forbade him to take anything home. On weekends mother did the laundry and I had to darn everybody’s socks. There was a potbelly stove in our corner that helped to dry the heavy woolen socks father wore in his outside work. We spent two months in Grunwald, but the Russian front kept on moving closer to us day by day. As soon as father had saved enough money for tickets, he asked for permission to go to Dresden again to hear what the Lithuanian Committee for Refugees would advise us. This was right after Christmas 1944.

When we reached Dresden the city looked shabby in late December, cold with a strong wind from the Elbe River. This time we did not even want to go out of the station to look at the store windows and we stayed with mother and Mrs. Ona. Father and his assistant went to the Committee and were advised to go to Gotha, Thuringia, in central Germany. The trains were running full: going west with the wounded soldiers, and going east with the last of the German fighting men – boys from 17 yrs on, and men over 50 going east to fight the Russians. We could not get on any train with a suitcase and Romas' bicycle. We decided to leave them behind. The railroad supervisor issued a storage voucher to father. We covered our belongings with a tarpaulin in the corner of a platform and said goodbye to our bacon.

Arriving in the German town Gotha on New Year’s eve 1944-45
The trip westward took several days before we reached Gotha on the New Year’s eve 1944-45. The rails were being bombed almost every night and trains traveling east had priority, the westbound trains were continuously shunted to let them pass. We went to a small hotel and the men started looking for work. The city was already crowded with refugees and none of the adults could get a job of any kind. Without a job no one was willing to rent us a place to live and government would not issue ration coupons for food. And money was running out to pay for the hotel. Bombing alerts used to sound very often and we had to go to a shelter built in the side of a small hill in the middle of the city. It was very cold, and Vytas once fainted from hunger and I used to faint regularly. Finally, father and his assistant, who by now had become a good traveling companion and a friend, found jobs in a greenhouse outside the city and living facilities in two separate attics. We lived the month of January on ration cards and starved since we had no other source of food especially fat. Mother and we the three children became skeletons.

Most of our food had to go to father so he could do heavy manual work in the greenhouse. The German people had their gardens and were allowed to have rabbits. After a month of starvation, father decided to go back to Dresden and bring to us the suitcase with the bacon. He decided to take Romas with him and they left on the 12th of February. On the 14th of February we heard that Dresden was heavily bombed with incendiary bombs, was burning and completely destroyed. We did not know where father and Romas were, nor if they were still alive. Tears and despair filled our little rooms in the attics. There was nothing we could do, but pray and wait.

Gotha-Sundhausen aus der Luft
Gotha, Germany, where Vanda arrived with her family on New Year’s Eve 1944-45, became the first headquarters of the American Army in Germany, set up by General Dwight D. Eisenhower in April 1945, also as a Prisoner of War camp for captured German soldiers.

Only then they discovered that there was no more Dresden
When Father and Romas took the train east, it took them four days to reach the vicinity of Dresden. Only then they discovered that there was no more Dresden. The train stopped short of Dresden and everybody had to get off the train in a small suburban station. After traveling so long, father decided not to give up, but hike to Dresden and see if the railroad station was still standing.

Many people with bundled possessions were leaving the city to become refugees themselves. Father and Romas continued to walk for several hours through the destroyed, smoldering city, where the asphalt was still burning in places, corpses laying everywhere and the smell of burning flesh still filling the air. Finally they reached the railroad station. Its main building was completely destroyed: no roof, nor walls, but there were people around clearing the carnage and the debris of broken masonry and dead bodies. Father approached a station watchman and showed him the receipt for our luggage. The astonished man looked at our father and asked him if he could not see the destruction everywhere? But he looked at the receipt again and told father that his things were stored on platform #6. Father and Romas found the right platform and saw it held several tarpaulin covered mounds which were surrounded by debris and broken bricks. When they cleared the debris and lifted the tarpaulin they saw that their suitcase (which is still with us in USA as a souvenir) with the bacon was completely untouched and Romas’ bicycle was still there!

They loaded the heavy suitcase on the bicycle and started back to the suburban station: one pulling, the other pushing. Within three miles (5 km.) the bicycle collapsed and they started dragging the suitcase by the handle. But a good-hearted German with a wheelbarrow came along and offered help. Together they pushed the wheelbarrow with the suitcase to the suburban station the last 6 miles (10 km.). There were few passengers and no wounded soldiers going west, so father and Romas were able to take the suitcase with them on the train. Three days later they showed up at our rooms with the bacon and both of them uninjured and healthy. We really celebrated! The 45-day starvation in our family had ended and we managed to survive.

There was not much for us to do in Gotha. There were many more Lithuanians in the city; we used to have Sunday school and group meetings quite often, but made no friends – we lived too far from Gotha’s center. Like before, we played among the three of us.

Free Photo: General Eisenhower With Generals Patton, Bradley, and Hodges
U.S. General Eisenhower meeting with generals Patton, Bradley, and Hodges on an airfield somewhere in Germany during impromptu conference with supreme commander, March 1945.

Sad since our hopes of Americans turning against the Russians and beating them evaporated
On May 8th the World War II ended with German unconditional surrender and the American Army came to Thuringia. We rejoiced, but also were sad since our hopes of Americans turning against the Russians and beating them evaporated. What happened to all the promises made by President Roosevelt? Not only that, the USA and Britain agreed to Stalin’s demands and gave the three Baltic countries to the Russians!

We had no place to go, no place to call our own. But life went on under US Army control. There was a huge German depot close to us and the Americans opened the gates for everybody to take what they liked. On my way to the depot I saw my one and only execution – an American soldier shooting a civilian. At the depot there were not many things worth taking except a huge hill of green beans, which to the knowledgeable were un-roasted coffee beans, but no one knew that or took them. There were some plastic boxes. Father looked in the drawers of an office desk and found hundreds of food coupon books. Now we ate well, but had to stand in lines daily to purchase meat, sausages, sugar, flour or jams in every store. In each place we could use only five coupon books because we had to show our living permits also. But still it helped to fill our bellies.

One time we three found an unexploded canon shell about 16” long. Vytas and Romas decided to open it so they could have the cylinder. They started slowly knocking it on a stone and turning. I was scared since I had heard other boys being blown up doing such thing. But they would not desist and luckily succeeded to remove the explosive point. They took the cylinder home and father almost skinned them for being stupid. They collected a lot of shells of different guns, but never touched a big one again.

It was announced on the radio that in two weeks Thuringia would be given to the Russians. We had to prepare to run again. The landlady sold father a wheelbarrow and gave an old bicycle for the children to ride. In the end of May we started on foot south toward Bamberg, then west to Hanau near Frankfurt-am-Main in the Hessen province – a distance of over 150 miles (240 km). It was almost summer; the weather was nice and warm. The suitcase and blankets went into the wheelbarrow but water for drinking we carried along. Father and the boys pushed the wheelbarrow, taking turns every hour. The road through the mountains zigzagged all the time, but did not climb up, it was not hard, but a long and tiresome trip. Mostly I rode the bicycle, but often Vytas or Romas took over. The views were panoramic, majestic with small villages, churches dotting distant landscapes. A river ran along the road, but the water was very cold. When we passed a village, we bought bread, sausages and milk for each meal – were very grateful in having those coupon books. At the end of the day we usually washed in the river; nights we slept in the open each rolled in a blanket.

The first big city we passed was Wurzburg – from a distance it looked like a castle. It stood on top of a mountain surrounded by an ancient wall. We did not stop there since the Refugee Committee had told father that the Lithuanian high school will be opening in Hanau. We continued on our way. We descended from the Thuringia Mountains and now passed many towns, but almost all were partially destroyed by the war. It took us about 10 days to reach Hanau. The Displaced Persons camp, located outside the city, was in a former army barracks. After registering there we were assigned living quarters, ours happened to be on the fourth floor of a half destroyed building – the corridor was blocked and we could not go exploring in the ruins. There already were seven people living in the room and we added seven more. We received blankets, pillows and sheets, but beds the men had to build from scrap boards. First, the room was divided into half, each family isolated a place for themselves. Father and mother had one bed, Vytas and Romas another bed and a short bed for me. Then we were given straw mattresses. On our side was a belly stove for warmth and cooking. The toilets were on the other side of the corridor facing our door and it served as a laundry, bathroom and toilet. One learned not to be bashful because we had no privacy.

Vytas and Romas were assigned to the 4th Class, and I to the 2nd, of a Lithuanian Gymnasium (High school). Father worked as a truck mechanic, mother went to a sewing school. Food was provided 3 times daily. Now we had other interests and friends and the only time we spent together was in the evening, when the lights were out. Then all kinds of jokes, laughter and anecdotes floated in the room. We all joined the Lithuanian Scouts. Actually, I felt senior over the boys, because I was enrolled in Girl Guides in Lithuania at the age of six.

Then we received immigration papers and came to Chicago in April 1949
Vytas lived for two years with us in that room, then in 1947 he was permitted to immigrate to Chicago as an orphan and lived with uncle Purtokas’ family. There he reestablished the Lithuanian Eagle Scouts (Skautai Vyciai), was very active in meetings and camps.

Then we received immigration papers and came to Chicago in April 1949. In a week father and mother found work and rented a two-bedroom apartment in Town of Lake and Vytas came to live with us again. We had missed each other very much, so we could not stop talking, joking and laughing and fighting for the next two months. After College classes he worked at the Campbell Soup Co. Cannot remember where Romas worked. I worked at Goldenrod Ice Cream Co. and after work made dinners for the family, since mother used to come home very late. The money we made was for our education; the parents did not charge us for room, board and clothing. Vytas attended Wilson City College for 2 years, then moved to the University of Illinois in Urbana IL where he received his Architects Degree and started his own life.

Chicago became Vanda’s new home in 1949. Here a photo from the Grand and Harlem
intersection, appears to be Christmas Season.
From NW Chicago history site.

Category : Featured black / Lithuania in the world
  • Violet

    Hello, I was born in the Lithuanian part of Hanau DPC. I came across your story and found it to be similar to my family's escape migration. I am in the process of gathering information for my life story to leave for my grandchildren and their children. I want to instill in them the importance of freedom, and not to take it for granted. We all cannot forget the sacrifices made of our ancesters. Our freedom can be so easily taken away. We Americans cannot let that happen, cosidering the condition of our world's turmoils. Now in 2016, we all should recognize that we are at war against an enemy that has no uniform. We can't afford to be complacent about our security.

    July 19 2016

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