Can one go home again?

  • 2000-03-02
  • By Darius James Ross
KAUNAS - Historians estimate that between 1941 and 1953 over 150,000 Lithuanians were deported to remote villages and forced labor camps in Siberia. The deportations consisted of two waves. The earlier one, starting in 1941, saw members of the country's political elite and intelligentsia (including their families) rounded up and sent by freight train to unknown Siberian destinations. The second wave started toward the end of World War II and consisted of resistance fighters and families that were caught helping them.

When Josef Stalin died in 1953, most were gradually allowed to trickle back home. However, the stigma of having been a deportee prevented them from getting good jobs and attending post-secondary institutions. Their compatriots, fearful for their own safety, would often give these "political undesirables" the cold shoulder.

Four decades later, the wounds may have healed but the scars are still evident, as Lithuanians struggle to accept them back into society.

Jane's story

Jane Meskauskaite was part of the first wave of deportees. Her father was a government official and prominent leader of a nationalist Lithuanian party in her town. Her family was kidnapped one night, put on a train and dropped off at a remote village in the Tomsk region many days later. They were among the more fortunate deportees, as Russian farmers from Kazakhstan who were exiled in the early 1930s for being too wealthy inhabited the village.

They understood her family's plight and welcomed them into their society. Nevertheless, food was scarce as the Soviet Union was fighting the war against Nazi Germany. "My father once bought some meat from a local crook. He and a friend hid in the woods to cook and eat it so that thugs wouldn't steal it. They found out later that they were eating a friend of theirs who had just died. They couldn't eat meat for a long time after that," said Jane.

Bread was also strictly rationed. "People in our village were allotted 300 grams of flour a day. One time the flourmill broke down so we were simply given whole grains. People were so hungry that they would just eat them uncooked. Of course, most had bad teeth and couldn't chew them so they would end up undigested in the latrines. Many people would go and collect them, wash them, and make porridge," she said.

Jane returned to Lithuania in 1958, after Khruschev came to power. "We were placed in an impossible situation. The government required us to register with the local municipality or face renewed deportation. In order to register, we needed an employer, but no one would give us work. I lived and worked illegally for many years with the help of relatives. Our fellow Lithuanians were not happy to see us come back because we caused the food lineups to grow. I would often overhear them complaining about us, wishing that we had never returned," said Jane.

Life for the former exiles did improve in the years leading up to Lithuanian independence in 1990. "For a few years it seemed that we had been welcomed back into Lithuanian society. Under Gorbachev, we would go to meetings, hold hands and sing hymns. People were no longer afraid to associate with us. After independence, I even got my parent's house back," Jane said.

But the euphoria was short-lived. "Today, as a former deportee, I receive an additional 138 Litas ($34.50) a month as part of my pension as well as free transportation on buses. People have once again turned against us because of the difficult economic situation. Sometimes when I show my pass to the bus driver, other passengers loudly complain that they are subsidizing my transportation and that they suffered just as much under Soviet occupation. They want me to hear this and it causes me great pain. It hurts me deeply because these are my fellow Lithuanians speaking," she said.

Vytautas' story

Vytautas Stasaitis' father was an air force major in pre-World War II independent Lithuania. The family's spacious house was commandeered by Soviet troops in 1945. His family was exiled to Siberia but he managed to go underground as part of the resistance movement.

Shortly thereafter a supposed friend lured him into a trap. He was asked to supply ammunition for an assassination attempt on the head of the local NKVD (precursor of the KGB). His "friend" gave him up and he was mercilessly beaten during his interrogation. "I wanted to hang myself in my cell but they prevented me. They gave me 10 years forced labor for sedition and shipped me to Krasnoyarsk to cut trees. They marched us for six days with barely any food and water. Those who couldn't keep up were shot. When we got to the labor camp they clothed us in the uniforms of dead soldiers. They still had bullet holes and blood stains," said Vytautas.

Life in Stalin era labor camps was a dehumanizing experience. "As inmates we were chained in pairs. Once my partner and I thought a wolf was attacking us. It turned out to be a guard dog that had broken loose from its chain. We killed it with our axes and buried it in the snow. We returned many times to cook and eat it. Those were some of the best meals of my life," he said. "My life was threatened several times. I was a political prisoner but was thrown in with murderous criminals. My friends and I had to band together and kill some of them in order to survive. That's just how it was "kill or be killed," said Vytautas.

Vytautas believes that today's Lithuanians still bear many traces of Soviet brainwashing. "The whole communist system was based on fear, envy and mistrust. It's no surprise to me that many Lithuanians today still don't accept us,' he said.

The three-story family home was returned to him in 1993, albeit with certain conditions. "This home was divided into four apartments under the Soviets. Officially, I own the house but there are three Russian families still living here. They are allowed to stay until the government finds them suitable alternative housing. Given today's financial circumstances, that's going to take a long time. It makes no sense and I feel that my own government is discriminating against me. These are our former occupiers and I believe that, as a Lithuanian, I have more rights than they do," he said.

The Union of Lithuanian Deportees and Political Prisoners

Juozas Luksa heads the Kaunas-based Union of Lithuanian Deportees and Political Prisoners. He comes from one of the most famous families of the Lithuanian resistance fighters. He is the only surviving brother of four. His brother Antanas escaped to France for a brief time to write a book about the resistance movement and plead for help from western governments. He returned to Lithuania and was later killed in a skirmish. Like Vytautas, Juozas was also captured, interrogated, beaten and given 15 years forced labor in Siberia.

His voice rises to an angry pitch when discussing the resentment some Lithuanians feel regarding subsidies for the former deportees. "Those people are the refuse of Bolshevism. Are we not to be compensated for having had our property taken from us for 40 years? Don't we deserve some restitution for not being allowed to earn a decent living and receive an education for so many years?" he asked rhetorically.

The organization did have a presence in Lithuanian politics in the early 1990s and even had four representatives elected to the Seimas in 1992. Membership has dropped from 100,000 to 40,000 in recent years as its members have chosen to join other (usually nationalist) political parties. Today the organization focuses on educating young Lithuanians about the deportations and collecting historical documentation. It organizes history competitions in Lithuanian schools. In summer, teams of members visit the sites of skirmishes and partisan hideouts to record their precise locations with a theodolite. Luksa is aware that his membership is aging and is working to preserve the memory of the deportations for future generations.