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24 September 2017
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The longest and bloodiest
partisan war in modern Europe

LITHUANIA, LATVIA & ESTONIA 1944 – 1953

Text: Aage Myhre, VilNews Editor-in-Chief


Lithuanian 'forest brothers' from the so-called "Vytis" military district.

Pictures: Mostly from the KGB Museum in Vilnius

Tell a Lithuanian that his country was liberated and that peace after WWII was restored on the 9th of May 1945, as the Russians claim. Tell him that this May 2011 it is 66 years since the Soviet Union and the Western world defeated Hitler's Nazi regime, and that Lithuania since then has been a free, happy country in line with what other European countries experienced after they were occupied in 1939 – 1940 and liberated in 1945. Do not be surprised if you get an angry and annoyed look back. For while we in the Western world, in Russia and in other parts of the world joyfully could celebrate the liberation and the recovered freedom after the World War, Lithuania, the other two Baltic states, and Ukraine were forced to realize that one war had been replaced by a new, much bloodier and more protracted war, lasting from 1944 to at least 1953. What we in the west celebrated in May 1945 was by Lithuanians and the other occupied countries experienced only in 1990 –1991.

 
The end of World War II saw a Germany dramatically reduced in size. Before long it was also divided into East and West. Germany's defeat meant that Poland and Czechoslovakia returned to the map of Europe after a six-year absence. But not so for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and northern East Prussia (Kaliningrad) that all remained occupied by the USSR. 

Western radio stations told us, who were lucky enough to grow up on the western side of the iron curtain, thoroughly about the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet intervention in 1956, an uprising that resulted in 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet soldiers losing their lives.

Western television stations showed us in detail what happened when Czechoslovakia was invaded in 1968 by more than 200,000 troops from the Warsaw Pact countries Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria - with the outcome that 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed when they tried to resist. 

However, we got almost nothing to know about the many, many times bloodier uprising against the Soviet that was happening right outside our own front door, in the Baltic States, through nine long years from 1944 to 1953. 

It is estimated that approximately 30,000 Balts and 100,000 Soviet soldiers died in this bloody guerrilla war when Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians withdrew into the woods to organize its powerful armed partisan resistance after the Soviet Union at the end of the second World War, in 1944, pushed the German forces out, and Stalin decided to incorporate the Baltic States into his powerful autocracy instead of giving these countries their freedom and independence back. Today we know that this tragic, involuntary occupation and oppression was to last the whole 47 years, from 1944 to 1991. 

Entering Gulag (a leaf from Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya's notebook)
Entering a Siberian Gulag (leaf from Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya's notebook). During the period 1940 – 1953 Stalin’s Soviet deported approximately 600,000 individuals from the Baltic States to Siberia. Around 100,000 of them never returned to their homelands.  

In addition to the 30,000 Balts who died in direct combats with the Red Army during this nine-year guerrilla war, comes all those who died in or on their way to Siberia, all because of their resistance to the Soviet raids home in the Baltics. It is considered that Josef Stalin was responsible for the deportation of not less than 600,000 Baltic people to the permafrost concentration camps and the gulag prisons during these years, and that probably as many as 100,000 of them died during the stay or during the three-month journey where they were stuffed into icy cold, miserable cattle wagons with thin straw mats as mattresses, and very limited food rations to survive on during the long way to the cold hell, thousands of kilometres north and east.

We speak, in other words, about an almost unimaginable and too little known purges of totally 130,000 people from the Baltic States during the very first years after the Second World War. But let us not forget that also the approximately 100,000 Soviet soldiers who died were victims of the same madness that almost a quarter million people were exposed to by an inhuman despot, still by many is regarded as a hero in Russia, Georgia and other former Soviet republics. The despot Adolf Hitler almost pales in comparison. 

In comparison, 58,000 Americans died during the Vietnam War in the years 1960-75, and we were all fed with regular updates on how the war evolved, almost minute by minute.

The distance between the free, western country of Sweden and Lithuania is less than 300 kilometres, shorter than the distance between Vilnius and Klaipeda. But despite the short distance, there was remarkable little information that reached the West about the tragic carnage that took place so close to our own front doors after the war.

We probably had enough to lick our wounds after five years of occupation and the World War II. Even today there are very few people who know much about the bloody Baltic guerrilla war. This is, for example all my Norwegian Encyclopaedia gives of information: 

 

"The armed resistance against the Soviet regime took the form of guerrilla groups in the forests (forest brothers) and had a large scope. Only in 1953 the armed resistance ebbed out. " 

 

 
Lithuania’s WWII: Torn apart by two super powers.

Image
Many of the partisans were young men returning to Lithuania from the West after WWII to fight for their beloved home country. Here are three of them, with their official and nick names: K. Sirvys - "Sakalas", J. Luksa - "Skirmantas", B. Trumpys - "Rytis". Very few ‘Western partisans’ returned to the West. Almost all of them were killed by the Soviets.

Partisans, or "forest brothers" as they called themselves, were found in all three Baltic countries, but it was in Lithuania that the major groupings were found. It was also here that the really huge death tolls came. It is considered that 22,000 partisans and 70,000 soldiers from the Red Army and NKVD were killed in Lithuania alone, this in addition to the approximately 60,000 Lithuanians who died in Siberia during the early post war years.

The Lithuanian partisans usually appeared in uniforms, with national insignias and identification of rank as like other nations' armies. It is said that the Lithuanian soldiers always saved the last bullet for themselves; they knew all too well that torture, a symbolic trial and execution by hanging, head shot or group execution awaited them if they were captured.

The post war Guerrilla War in Lithuania is normally divided into three different phases:

- The first phase lasted from July 1944 to May 1946, with violent skirmishes and casualties on both sides. More than 10,000 forest brothers lost their lives in battles and skirmishes during these two years. Partisans captured during this period small towns from the Soviet forces, local quisling units were disarmed and the occupants’ offices were destroyed. But the big losses meant that tactics had to be changed.

- The second phase lasted from May 1946 until November 1948. The Lithuanian units were then divided into smaller groups that hid in well-camouflaged bunkers. During this period a joint command was established for all Lithuanian forces fighting against the occupying army. Contacts were also made contacts with the West in this period, but no help arrived.

- The final phase lasted until May 1953. And despite the brutal oppression and forced collectivization, around 2,000 partisans were still active with their armed resistance against the occupation. During this period, they also worked extensively with informing the Lithuanian people by publishing newspapers, books and leaflets. Circulation varied from a few hundred to 5,000. Such publications lasted until 1959.

There were also parallel battles against Soviet forces in Estonia and in Latvia, but in much smaller scale. Only in Western Ukraine, there was fighting in the same scale as in Lithuania. 


The Forest Brothers often used cellars, tunnels or more complex underground bunkers as their hideouts, such as the one depicted here.

The Baltic Partisan War came mostly to an end by May 1953, two months after Joseph Stalin died. But the last active resistance man in Lithuania shot himself, rather than surrender, as late as 1965, and the last partisan did not come out from his hiding place before 1986, 42 years after the guerrilla war in the Baltics started.

In 1955, the Soviet-controlled 'Radio Vilnius’ offered amnesty to all the partisans who were still hiding in Lithuania's deep forests, and in 1956 the KGB repeated a similar provision. Such amnesty-deals were of course meant only to lure the last forest brothers, so when the famous partisan leader 'Hawk' was taken that the same year, he was immediately given a symbolic trial and executed. Hawk was an American-born Lithuanian who had returned to his home country to fight the Soviet occupation.

Instead of giving themselves over to the Soviet occupiers, many chose to commit suicide, often by exploding a grenade right in their own faces in order to destroy them so much that they would not be identifiable and thereby create a risk to their relatives' lives. Such suicides occurred until around 1960. Many also managed to obtain false identity and get back into society without being detected.

Many of the Soviet Union's atrocities against the Baltic States have only come to light in earnest after 1991 when these countries regained their freedom and independence. A large part of the archives that mentioned the said matters were, however, brought to Moscow to prevent the World from having access to these highly revealing documents.

But, strangely, in 1994 a former KGB officer decided to go to the Lithuanian authorities with detailed information about how torture and executions had taken place at the KGB headquarters in the Vilnius city centre. He told that there had been secret burials for the victims, just on the outskirts of Vilnius. When the huge mass grave he had told about was found and opened, several hundred corpses of partisans were discovered, all in Lithuanian uniforms, and all obviously tortured to death.

One can ask whether it was a fatal mistake for a small country like Lithuania to so aggressively a predominance they had to understand they would not be able to defeat. Admittedly, there is a general perception that Lithuania thereby was avoiding most of the ‘russification’ that Stalin and later leaders implemented in all other Soviet republics. The Russians were simply too afraid of the Lithuanians as a result of the strong opposition during the post-war years, hence the proportion of Russians in Lithuania today represents only 6% of the population, compared to more than 30% in Latvia and around 25% in Estonia.

But the bloodshed in the Baltics, and the incredibly extensive deportations to Siberia, as a result of the partisan opposition, made that these three countries lost too many of their best men and women. The hero status they may have achieved around the world never became significantly large. We in the West did not know what really happened, and when we finally learned, far too many decades have passed to achieve a proper attention for the heroes, the very guerrilla war, the deportations and the unbelievable sufferings the Baltic people underwent on the Siberian permafrost during the 1940s and 1950s.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have paid an extremely high price for their rebellion behaviours, and are unlikely ever to receive the honour and the redress they deserve for their courage to fight the injustice they were subjected to during the ruthless Soviet period.

When World War II ended, the West chose to forget Lithuania

  
The historic meeting near the end of World War II, the Yalta Conference, became fatal for Lithuania. It involved three key allied leaders. Left to right: Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States; and Joseph Stalin, Premier of the Soviet Union. 

For several years after World War the Balts believed that the U.S. and other Allied powers would come to their rescue and help to free them from the Soviet occupation. This was fatal.

The partisan leaders were familiar with the Atlantic Charter, which was signed by Churchill and Roosevelt 12 August 1941 aboard the U.S. cruiser Augusta in Newfoundland, a charter later acceded to on 1 January 1942 by all countries involved in the war against Germany and Japan - including the Soviet Union. This declaration stated that all territorial changes resulting from the war would only take place after the population's own desires, and that any people should have the right freely to choose their form of government.

What the Baltic people did not know, was that their case head was not at all discussed when the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Soviet leader Josef Stalin in February 1945 met in the city of Yalta on the Black Sea to lay the conditions for peace and the post-war period. The Baltic States were totally forgotten; but they did not know about it, and therefore continued the impossible fight against the evil superior force until 1953.

It has been speculated that Roosevelt's failing health may have been the reason why Stalin so easily got the upper hand at the Yalta Conference. The outcome was, in any case, very tragic for the Baltic States, and only in 2005 the American president, George W. Bush came here to apologise on behalf of the United States. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, was also asked to apologise for the atrocities against the Baltic States in the years after Yalta. But Russia still considers that they 'liberated' the Baltics and sees no reason to excuse themselves. It went even so far that Putin declared Lithuania's President Valdas Adamkus 'persona non grata' after the latter refused to come to Moscow to participate in Russia’s anniversary celebration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany on 9 May 2005.

In the years after WWII a number of Lithuanian agents were amazingly capable of getting in and out of the country several times, and in December 1947 a full delegation travelled to Western Europe to present their case to the Pope and to Western governments. But no countries or leaders dared go into conflict with Stalin's Soviet Union, and Lithuanians call for help was largely met with deaf ears.

Though not quite. Both U.S. and UK intelligence agencies gave their orders to see what might be done to create secret anti-communist organizations and operations behind the Iron Curtain. They also helped to organise the radio stations 'Radio Liberty' and 'Radio Free Europe', which for many years thereafter conveyed useful information to the Baltics. In 1951 came the 'Voice of America' on air, and thus gave hundreds of thousands of Baltic war refugees in the United States a voice back to their home countries at the Baltic Sea.

Unfortunately, the success of the Western intelligence services and their 'relief efforts' very much failed, which in retrospect largely is attributed to the British intelligence officer Kim Philby, the man who in reality was a Soviet spy who unfortunately contributed so actively to the killing of tens of thousands of Baltic people.

The intelligence organizations' attempts to help the Baltic States irritated Stalin violently, and he therefore imposed increasingly tough measures against the uprisings. His NKVD (later renamed the KGB) had more or less free hands to exercise extensive torture against individuals and groups believed being in league with the partisans.  Vague suspicions were enough to allow use of cruel torture methods. Many were hanged or shot without any real form of litigation. A huge number of relatives and family members of the partisans were sent to slave labour camps in Siberia. All private farms were incorporated into collective farms to prevent them from continuing to provide food to the partisans, and many farmers were deported to Siberia. The West's attempts to help got quite the reverse effect. Tyranny had triumphed, and our close neighbours on the Baltic Sea's south coast were once again suffering in a most cruel way.

Juozas_Luksa-KIA1951.jpg 
One of the many killed Lithuanian partisans,
Juozas Luksa – "Skirmantas", "Daumantas",
after his death on the 4th of September 1951.
Photo: KGB

Few in the West know that Lithuania 500 years ago was considered Europe's largest country, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Few in our today's West know the proud and honourable cultural history of the Baltic countries, or that these countries were economically fully on par with Scandinavia until World War II, and few know about the heroic guerrilla war these three nations fought against the mighty Soviet Union after WWII.

During five world war years, the Baltic area became the incredibly bloody and sad battlefield where Stalin and Hitler pushed each other back and forth, with fatal and almost incomprehensible destruction and murders of hundreds of thousands innocent people as result. It was here that the Holocaust saw its very worst outcome on Earth, when 95% of the large Jewish population of Lithuania was exterminated. It was here that Europe's longest and bloodiest guerrilla war and the ensuing mass deportations to Siberia took place through more than a decade during and after WWII. 

Hundreds of thousands of our closest neighbours died just outside our own front door (or were deported to the gulag camps in the permafrost of Siberia). These terrible things happened only 300 kilometres away from Lithuania’s closest Western coast, at the same time as we westerners celebrated our new freedom and the beginning of the new era we today know as the proud, free Western World.

Didn’t we in the West know, or did we prefer not to know?

Category : Featured black / Historical Lithuania
  • Jon Platakis

    Stephen, I and our organization, the National Lithuanian American Hall of Fame are heartened by your important research and efforts to bring this heroic, and at the same time, gut-wrenching piece of history to the American public. If, at any time, we can be of assistance, you will find us on Facebook, and at http://www.lithhof.org.

    Jon Platakis

    August 17 2012
    CommentsLike

    • […] Read more 1… Read more 2… Read more 3… Category : Front page / Lithuania today […]

      August 15 2012
      CommentsLike
      • Boris Bakunas

        I hope both of you have been able to hear the partisan songs from the CD "Už Laisvę, Tėvynę ir Tave“ (2007). You can listen to them by on YouTube or by using Google. Just enter the key words: "Songs of Freedom Lithuanian Partisans."

        Sincerely,

        Boris Vytautas Bakunas

        May 05 2012
        CommentsLike

          • […] See also: http://vilnews.com/?p=5391 http://vilnews.com/?page_id=131&paged=2 […]

            July 30 2011
            CommentsLike

            • […] 12. 22.000 Lithuanian 'forest brothers' and 70.000 Soviet soldiers were killed in modern Europe's longest and bloodiest guerrilla war, after the Balts withdrew into the woods to organize their powerful armed partisan resistance when the Soviet Union re-occupied the Baltic States in 1944. http://vilnews.com/?p=5391 […]

              July 02 2011
              CommentsLike

              • You reduced me to tears with your addition of one Song of Freedom by Lithuanian fighters. Those songs, sung by my family in secret when I was a kid, still ring in my ears today, e.g. about the Kalniske battle or about the Soviet murdered freedom fighters whose bloodied bodies were put by the NKVD for display and further humiliation in the Lithuanian town squares:

                “Pagulde Tave ant akmeneliu, o aplink Tave kraujo klanai
                Ir neatejo nei Motinele, nei Tavo Broliai narsus kariai”.

                Valdas

                May 07 2011
                CommentsLike
                • Valdas

                  Sorry, Steve, that missed your question/reply, you can contact me: val@samonis.com or Skype: val.samonis

                  December 21 2012
                  CommentsLike
                  • Stephen Garrison

                    Valdas, labas,
                    I'm a Lithuanian-American researching the Partisan War. One of my research interests is trying to determine the exact routes Luksa-Skirmantas used from Lithuania to Kaliningrad Oblast', to Poland in his trips to the West. Obviously, in his book, he disguises the real routes used. Your grandparents and other family seem to be very important primary resources for my research. Can we possibly establish a dialogue? I currently live in NC in the U.S. I have traveled to Lithuania many times.
                    Sincerely,

                    Stephen Garrison/Grusauskas

                    October 16 2011
                    CommentsLike

                    • You in the West preferred not to know, "the inconvenient truth" is.

                      I learned that the hard way, from my grandparents & other family who closely worked with Skirmantas and other top Lithuanian freedom war leaders in the Seinai-Punskas (Sejny-Punsk), Poland, during their secret border crossing missions to the West (via Gdansk and Warsaw) and back to Lithuania in 1946-50. My family was put in hard-regime prisons for that, all the hard earned property confiscated, and I was born a communist slave, so to speak. While in high school I rebelled against the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, was arrested and thrown out of school, persecuted for a long time by communist secret services, and finally made my way to the West: Glory Be to God!

                      Yours sincerely,

                      Valdas Samonis, Canada
                      P.S. My family was decorated with Lithuania's top freedom medals by President Adamkus. I was officially recognized by free Poland (IPN) as the freedom activist persecuted by the communist regime.

                      May 07 2011
                      CommentsLike



                      

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