We Thought We'd Be Back Soon. A Flag and a Handful of Earth
This is an extract from the book “We Thought We'd Be Back Soon. 18 Stories of Refugees 1940-1944” (compiled and edited by Dalia Stakė Anysas, Dalia Cidzikaitė and Laima Petrauskas VanderStoep, published by Aukso žuvys, 2017). The book is an impressive collection of reminiscences about emigration by Lithuanians to the West during World War II. The conversations with émigrés that are central to the book bring new knowledge about wartime reality and provide insight into the meanings of home and place, and the social impact of the geopolitical upheaval when the state’s sovereignty is annihilated.
A Flag and a Handful of Earth
At the start of the war, Birutė Briedienė was completing studies at the Vilnius Advanced Acting Studio. In July 1944 she left Lithuania and suffered through the tragedies and traumas of war-refugee flight and family deaths in Germany. She arrived in the United States in February 1950. In Chicago for some years she taught at the Lithuanian Saturday school and headed the Daughters of Lithuania Society. She was also active in American-Lithuanian theater and other Lithuanian organizations. She died on Jan. 7, 2014. /Laima Petrauskas VanderStoep conducted the interview on Oct. 27, 1995./
When did you leave Lithuania?
It was in 1944, in July.
Why did you decide to leave Lithuania?
It was because my husband was the director of the radio station. Although he had a German station head, my husband himself was actually the head. Actually, he had constructed the radio station. We already knew after the first deportation that we were supposed to be deported, we were on the lists, but because the station was unfinished, they [the Soviets] had wanted him to finish it, and then we'd be deported. I was pregnant, and so I was afraid—how to travel, how to leave; I was seven months along. So we called an acquaintance who was the director of the Vilnius post office and asked, "What are you doing?" They were also considering what to do. He said, "You know what, it's safer to withdraw from Vilnius." We asked, "But how, by what means?" People who had been quicker had already left. Then we got a call from the post office about the last German mail train, "The military mail train is leaving from Vilnius, if you can make it in time . . ." Because the radio station belonged to the postal administration, we could try this.
The Germans said that?
The Germans said it. So my husband ran from one place to another and finally got a wheelbarrow, which workers used for transporting bricks. We threw in just a couple of suitcases, a few bed sheets for swaddling in case the birth happened on the road, and a photo album, which I wasn't able to save anyway. And we're going through Vilnius with that wheelbarrow [laughs]. I'm walking and laughing, and crying. But we just wanted to reach Kaunas, and from Kaunas we wanted to reach Šiauliai, where my family home is, to get to my mother's. We'll stay there until the front passes. We travel up to Kaunas, and the train whistle blows fiercely—bombers are already flying above our heads, and the train's going back from the Žaliasis Bridge; it didn't get into Kaunas. We ask where the train's going now. Toward Germany, to Vilkaviškis. The first Lithuanian station where it'll stop: Vilkaviškis. They asked, "Do you want to go to Germany?" We said, "No, we don't, we'll remain in Vilkaviškis." And we all got off at Vilkaviškis, three or four families. It was very early, probably about three in the morning; we sat down on the grass and wondered what we'd do next. When it got a bit lighter, when the sun came up, the children began to cry; my son was still little.
How many children did you have?
I had just one, and he was still young. Then the men went off to look for milk and bread. Can you believe that they walked around almost all day, until four in the afternoon, and got just two liters of milk and half a loaf of bread. The farmers just didn't want to sell anything—to sell, not give. Finally the men went into the town; it was Naumiestis there, beyond Vilkaviškis, closer to Naumiestis. They met the principal of the school, who suggested we spend the night at the school. We slept there, and then that teacher comes and says, "We have to do something with you; you can't remain here at the school." And I already couldn't reach my mother by phone at all; it seems the Russians were already breaching, as they say, Šiauliai—a battle was going on between the Russians and the Germans. Then we were housed with a farmer, and the others were distributed among farmers. For a while it was peaceful, about a week or so.
So you left Vilnius in July?
It was July. Then the child of those farmers gets sick with diphtheria. The boys sleep next to each other, because at night we sleep in the potato cellar; you couldn't sleep in the house because a lot of shooting was going on. The farmer's wife knew a doctor, of course, so she went there, got medicine for her child, and that's that. But I didn't know what would happen to mine; I prayed and everything that he just wouldn't get sick. We were lucky—he didn't get sick. And one night some sort of muffled noise could be heard, everyone says it's probably the Russians already. It turned out to be some army unit of ours that had escaped from a Russian tank; their wagons are loaded with the wounded, with bloody people. Then we sighed in relief that it wasn't the Russians yet, but they said that they're right nearby, a kilometer and a half away. "They're at Vilkaviškis already," they said. "They're bombing Vilkaviškis, and shooting." So we asked, "Maybe you'll take us along with you?" They didn't know how to respond until they found the leader of the convoy, who finally agreed to take us. I just had backless clogs—see, like these slippers now.
How would you have traveled, what did they have?
They had wagons. They say, "We'll go through Germany." That's because certain death awaits them here. Earlier, another farmer had provided us with a horse and wagon, and we'd left at that time. But bombing began, people started screaming, there were wounded, and I began to be wracked with terrible convulsions, so my husband got scared and turned back. We returned to the farmer, gave him back the horse and wagon, and said we're not going farther. But when that wagon convoy arrived and they told us the Russians are advancing and behaving savagely, we got scared again and thought we probably have to flee, what can you do. And you know, it was such a terrible sight when we got up in the morning. They hadn't got close yet, but everywhere you looked farmsteads were burning—burning here and burning there, burning there, burning there. Then I ran to that farmer and said: "Sell us a horse and wagon. I'll leave whatever I have. (I had a silver service — spoons and everything.) If you want it in cash, I'll pay cash. Give us a horse and wagon." They had many horses and wagons; the farmer won't sell any at all. I pleaded on my knees, "This is our fate, look, all the farmsteads around are in flames. Maybe yours will be next." His son runs up—the Germans had already led off all their horses. While I was pleading, the horses had already been led off. So then we talked our way onto that wagon convoy and left.
The traveling was terrible. I got permission to take a pillow and the suitcase with the sheets because they saw I might need them. They spread a blanket so that I could sit on something softer. We drove up to where you have to cross a stream, and stopped. My husband jumped out, and I said, "Pick up a handful of earth [cries]." So he picked up a handful of earth, and I took it. I carried two things out of Lithuania. A flag that had waved above the Vilnius radio station and that we'd saved from the Russians and the Germans, who demanded all the time that we burn it; we told them we'd burned it. People used to laugh at me: "Why are you bringing that flag?" Instead of something practical, I'm bringing a flag—and the handful of earth I took then. And it was such a painful time. We thought, well, we'll stay with those farmers for a couple of weeks, everything will quiet down here, we'll be able to return to my mother's at the farm, stay there a while, and then we'll see what's next. But again when we remember that we were on those lists, we think that maybe we have to go on farther.
The journey was especially, I'd say, unique when we crossed Lithuania's border with Germany. It seems we had traveled into a no man's land. You can't imagine how eerie it felt. You're traveling, and you see no one, no one, not one person—just maybe a chimney is still smoking somewhere, animals are moving around, cows are mooing, milk is flowing, pigs are running through all the fields. The doors of the farmhouses are open; there are absolutely no inhabitants. And all of us are craning our necks, looking and looking, to see if we'll catch sight of a person, any person. And what do we see? A dead body lying on the road, swollen—one here, one there—or dead animals.
Local people or soldiers?
Impossible to know. These weren't soldiers somehow. Probably they'd been shot by the gendarmerie, because later when we got to . . . We were already thinking we have to stop somewhere to spend the night—we can't go on, and the horses won't be able to keep going. Then we got to a farmstead, and everywhere there are huge notices: "Streng Verboten": strictly forbidden to go into the house. Whoever enters the house will be shot on the spot. So there'd be no plundering, because those inhabitants had left only temporarily. Most of us went into the barn so we could lie down on some hay and spend the night. But a few turned out to be brazen—well, what's this, they can go into the house —and they began making themselves at home there. Getting up in the morning, they began chasing geese and ducks and slaughtering them. And my husband says then, "What're you doing, don't you see the sign? You aren't putting only yourselves at risk, but all of us too." And we just hear ta-ta-ta-ta-ta—a motorcycle drives up, the gendarmes. They all quickly pulled out their guns and cocked them. "Did you see the sign?" We said, "We saw it." It was lucky my husband spoke German fluently, and I could get by too. "Did you also sleep there?" We said, "No, we slept in the barn. We arrived later; we don't know anything. We found the barn and slept there. But those people don't know any German at all; they didn't realize what was written here." They had seen and understood everything, but we saved them that way. It seems the gendarmes were still humane. They said, "If it happens again, there'll be no pardon. They'll all be shot."
When did you cross the border?
That had to be probably about the fourth or fifth of August; now I don't remember exactly. It was still quite warm.
You hadn't decided to leave Lithuania?
No, everything just came together, as they say. We kept remembering that list, and then we'd think—what will be, will be. We didn't want to go to Siberia very much. While you were going to Germany, did you think you'd come back soon? Yes, we did think that while we were going to Germany, and also at that farmer's, when we were staying near Vilkaviškis. But it didn't turn out that way. Now we're traveling through Germany, and it was just evening when we stopped right near Karaliaučius [now
Kaliningrad, Russia]. So some of the men say, "Let's go through Karaliaučius, maybe we'll check out Karaliaučius." Others say, "Maybe we'll get some beer." But my husband says, "Don't be stupid, guys. This is a big city, it's night, they could bomb, and then it'd be a real disaster." That's what happened—it was a horrible sight when they bombed Karaliaučius. It went on all night; it was as bright as day everywhere. And the next day when we had to pass through Karaliaučius, it was something horrible: The whole city was destroyed—corpses, the smell of burning corpses. I couldn't take it and said, "Just go faster, faster, faster so as not to see all that horror." Women are moaning and crying. It was a horrible sight. Karaliaučius was utterly, utterly destroyed.
The Russians hadn't arrived yet?
They hadn't yet. They're bombing. We go on...
Translated by Aušra Kubilius