Surviving Siberia

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Everybody knows about the horrible things the Jews were exposed to during World War II by the Nazis. But not many are aware that out there, other dictators committed atrocious actions towards other populations. Some of those actions ended just 15 – 20 years ago. I’m half Lithuanian, and my grandparents were deported to Siberia by the communist troops when their nation was under the Russian control. My mom and her sister were born there. My cousins know Russian perfectly, because 15 years ago, when they went to school that was the main language learned. But let’s start at the beginning.
Perhaps because of her great ability in telling stories, my grandma’s Elena experience has always been the most fascinating for me, so I think it’s the one I’m going to tell. She lived in Ziobiskis, a little village in north Lithuania, with her parents and four siblings. Her father had a respectable piece of land, which he used to cultivate. All the family took part in the farming: my grandma always tells me about her adventures with the cattle. My grandma loved her childhood, and all the little things concerning it: family, school, land, the little games, the festivities, even the hard work in the fields.
But everything was going to end soon: a foggy day of November 1946, when she was only 17, a group of Russian soldiers came to her home, destroying everything they were able to put a hand on. Her dad, trying to protect his land, his Lithuanian land, was killed. My grandma was there. She saw the soldier shooting, her dad falling on the ground, the blood slowly painting the fresh snow red… But that wasn’t all. The Russians decided that destroying the lives of a woman and her children wasn’t enough. They sued her mother for conspiracy and for possession of too much land. My grandma always tells me of that court day with watery eyes. “She (her mom) looked so little between those two big soldiers… I wanted to go there, to hug her, but I couldn’t. When, after the charging, it came time for her to talk, she just collapsed on the ground, saying… Have mercy… Have mercy…”.
But they didn’t have pity on her, or on her kids. She was sent to a gulag in the Urals. She was carried out of the court by the same two soldiers that made her look so little and powerless to my grandma. She didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to her kids. She didn’t know what was going to happen to them. They didn’t know, either. But they soon discovered: two of them were sent to a gulag in southern Siberia, while my grandma and her older brother were going to Kitza, another gulag in an inhabited part of southern Siberia, thousands of miles from home. Being not more than kids, they didn’t know what to pack. Still shocked by destruction of their home, the death of the father and the separation from their mother and siblings, they took just few clothes.
They left a cold morning in December from the train station of Rokiskis, the nearest major town. With them, hundreds of other people. “I felt their support. I knew then I wasn’t alone, it wasn’t just like me.”, says my grandma. A great number of soldiers put them into the train. A cattle car, not even a train. There wasn’t enough space to sit for everybody, so people took turns. Of course, the elderly and the children were given more importance. The journey to Siberia lasted 42 days. And remember that it’s north Europe in December, where it often the temperature gets to -30 F. “It was so cold… Many people, including my brother and me, didn’t have enough clothing, but other good souls helped. We were given food every 2 or 3 days. But I even don’t know if I could call it food: the soup was almost like water. Again, I think I survived just thanks other people who got to pack some bread or potatoes. But other poor souls weren’t as lucky as me: many got sick during the journey, others were already sick. Others were old, other forever hurt in the heart… Many died. But of course they couldn’t stop the train, so the corpses could have stayed in the car for days… And when some soldiers would appear, they would just throw them out of the car, often swearing against ‘these stupid and weak Lithuanians’…”. My grandma often refers to this as her “42 days of hell”.
Finally the train stopped. Around my grandma was a great amount of snow, and trees. And of course, a big number of armed soldiers to meet us. “I then realized that maybe I would have to spend all my existence here. I thought about Lithuania, about my land, before the Russians came. I thought of the fields, of the garden, of my dad reading the newspaper after a hard day of work, of my mom preparing supper singing a traditional Lithuanian song. And I felt so weak. I wanted to cry, I wanted to throw myself on the ground and cry all my tears. But I couldn’t. When the last person came out the car, the soldiers mounted on their horses and said: “Let’s go. Your camp is 100 miles from here. We don’t have much time to get there”. Of course, the soldiers went with their horses, while the Lithuanians were left on their feet.
“It was really cold, and it was so hard to walk. I remember that some soldiers had a sled. Among us there were some very old people, and some little kids, too. After few hours of walking, some of them tried to hold themselves on the sled, but at the same moment a Russian soldier would whip him/her. If someone would remain behind more than once, I Russian soldier would kill him/her. After 7 days, they arrived to the camp, that was nothing else than a big wooden building, with big holes from where the wind constantly would come.
“The first night was so hard for me. We were all in that building tired, cold, and hungry. Some tried to fire a fire but it warmed just the middle of the room. There was so many of us and so little space… During night, people crying, sobbing, asking for help, talking to somebody who wasn’t there, praying. I remember I prayed. I was always a very strong catholic, just like my dad, and I remember looking at a little picture of the Virgin Mary I had once cut off a paper. I took that little image with me, because I knew it would have helped. And you know? It really did. Keeping that wrinkled piece of paper in my hands really helped me through the night.”
The day after, all of the Lithuanians were assigned to a job. My grandma and another young girls’ work was that of carrying trunks of cut trees. Each trunk weighted at least 200 pounds, and they had to be carried for several miles. They had a certain amount of trunks to carry every day. If they didn’t, no supper. This continued for few years. But with time, the conditions became slightly better. “More Lithuanians came, and many soldiers left the camp for more important things (or for “escort” more Lithuanians, since 120,000 to 300,000 is the estimated number of people deported in Siberia between 1944 – 1952). We had more freedom. Putting together the money from the wood cutting, we were able to buy some potato seeds, so we had more food.”.
In 1950, when she was 20, my grandma met Petras Zindzius, a young and attractive Lithuanian. “He used to bring potatoes to me, and help me with my job. Then, one day, he proposed. And I said yes” Of course, there wasn’t a real ceremony, there weren’t real rings, but still, my grandparents got married a nice day of January 1951. My grandpa, with the help of some friends, built a little house for him and his new wife, and they started a new life. “I always thought about my mom. I wondered if I would have ever seen her again. But something told me that yes, I would. Maybe it was the picture of Mary that never left me during all those years. I always thought about Lithuania, too. During work, or during festivities, we always sang Lithuanian songs. I wanted to go home. I wanted to see again the sweet hills of my land, the nice little church of my hometown.
“Then, when my daughters Elena and Birute (my mom), were born, the desire I had to return grew even more. I didn’t care if they were born in Kitza, they were little Lithuanians, they knew all the traditional songs and dances, the stories, the legends of our land.” But other 10 years passed until a possibility to break from Siberia came. Of course it was illegal, and if the Russians would have known they escaped, my grandparents, my mom, and my aunt would have been killed, but they took the risk: in 1964 my family returned to Lithuania. They took refuge in the home of some distant relatives, who without any doubt took them in their home. My grandparents started to work, my mom and aunt went to school. “Lithuania was under Russian occupation, but at least we were home. At least I was walking on my land.”
After some years, my grandma returned to her land, finding high grass everywhere. The house was burned down, the fields, without being cultivated, were grown with bushes and little trees. “In that moment, I realized that it was better if my dad was already in paradise. Even if the Russians hadn’t have killed him, he would have died seeing all the efforts of his work, of the best years of his life, ruined forever, seeing his family being separated.” After some years, my grandma’s mom came back. Smaller and thinner than she was, weak, sick with some illness (my grandma says she got sick the day the Russians took everything from her), but alive. She lived with her daughter for some years, until she reached her beloved husband in 1970.
In Lithuania, the fight for independence continued to grow. In the 1990’s, it was clear that the Lithuanian people wanted their land back. And they were definitely ready for fight for it.
1989: Baltijos Kelias (Baltic Lane), when approximately two million people joined their hands to form a 373 miles human chain across the three Baltic States to draw the world's attention to the common fate which these three countries suffered. My brother, then only 3 years old, was there too.
March 11, 1990: Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to proclaim its independence. Soviet forces tried unsuccessfully to suppress this secession: the Red Army attacked the Vilnius TV Tower on the night of January 12, 1990, an act that resulted in the death of 13 Lithuanian civilians who were protecting the strategic point. That night my grandma was standing by the Parliament, one of the points the Red Army was supposed to attack. “I knew I could have easily died. But at that point I didn’t care. I wanted the independence of my land, and I was willing to give mine life for it. At some moments in your life, you don’t think about what can happen to you personally, you just forget about that.
August 31, 1993: the Red Army troops left Lithuania.
Russia currently refuses to recognize the independence of Lithuania, claiming that Lithuanians decided to join the Soviet Union voluntarily.
And maybe someone would believe them. Not knowing the historic facts, not knowing what really happened, not knowing what Lithuanians really felt. But maybe from now on you’ll remember that there’s a little state in North Europe called Lithuania, where many people like my grandma Elena live, who were taken from everything in few days, for no reason, and who continued to live on faith and patriotism. These people didn’t fear approaching tanks at the television tower (that’s the way the 13 civilians died the night of the 13 of January), and spilled every drop of blood for help their Lithuania to become independent.





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