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Janina Radvila-UdrysJanina Radvila-Udrys

The Long Journey from Lithuania

Many of the details for this narrative were provided by my older sister, Danute Radvila-Gierstikas.

Preface

In August 1939, Germany’s Hitler and Russia’s Stalin signed a non-aggression pact. For the fall, Hitler had his own plans for Poland, so to keep Stalin off guard, he permitted him to take over the small independent Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. That is exactly what Stalin did in June 1940 and within a few months proceeded to execute on a grand scale people who were patriotic to their countries such as teachers, professionals, military men, politicians, church leaders, and anti-Russians or anti-communists. The culmination of these repressions occurred in mid-June 1941, when Stalin deported about 100,000 men, women and children (many babes in arms) to hard labor camps in Siberia. Stalin’s objective was to cleanse the lands he occupied of people who might object to his communist ideology. On June 22, 1941, the Germans attacked and drove the Russians out of Lithuania and the other two Baltic countries (Operation Barbarossa). After a year of Russian atrocities, the local populations greeted the Germans as saviors. Under German rule, the Jews were persecuted and exterminated; but the Lithuanian population, although not pleased with the oppression of the occupiers, was able to work and continue some semblance of normal life.

Fast Forward to July 4, 1944

The Germans are losing the war and the Russian front is steadily moving westward. Those who had escaped earlier Russian persecutions knew it was time to leave house, home and homeland and head west with the German army. My mother was not willing to flee but my father had come across a list the Russians left behind with our name on the next freight-car deportation to Siberia. That settled the departure argument.

Our family consisted of my father Leonas (39 years old), my mother Janina (38 years old), my aunt Aleksandra (40 years old), my older sister Danute (15 years old), brother Leonas (5 years old) and me, Janina (3 years old). Since my father worked in a dairy cooperative as an accountant, he was able to borrow a truck with a driver to take us to the Igaunis farm on the border of Lithuania and East Prussia (part of Germany at the time). The Igaunis family were old friends, my brother’s godparents, and fairly affluent. Mr. Igaunis had been a small-town chief of police, obviously considered an enemy of the people by the Russians and was deported to Siberia in 1941. Mrs. Igaunis continued manning the farm and was gracious in accepting us. There were many retreating German soldiers at the farm, but there was still room for our family. A week later, Mrs. Igaunis hitched horses to two wagons (one for us) and we headed toward Tilsit (now Sovietsk) in a long line of refugees and retreating German troops. Russian planes were indiscriminately strafing the refugees and we heard the constant thunder of artillery in the east.

In Tilsit (at that time in East Prussia) the Germans took all able-bodied men to dig defensive trenches, and the women and children were left to fend for themselves. This became a true valley of tears—women crying, children howling because the family protectors—husbands, fathers, brothers—were taken away to an unknown future. We kept heading northwest to Poland and crossed the Vistula River on a pontoon bridge because permanent bridges had been destroyed. The wobbly bridge frightened the horses as well as the passengers. The river’s murky, churning water was terrifying. On the other side of the bridge the entire group of refugees—amounting to several hundred women and children—stopped to rest, let the horses graze, and even risked bathing in the river. We continued on through a number of towns and villages until we reached Danzig, now Gdansk, which was bombed regularly by the British.

The Germans would not permit us to travel farther, so Mrs. Igaunis bribed the guard with bacon (worth its weight in gold in those days), and he allowed us to pass. After some traveling, we ran across a township forest rangers’ office building. The officials had fled; as a result, we could occupy it. My mother and her sister, my aunt, both had tuberculosis. My mother’s tuberculosis flared up and she had to be hospitalized. At one point she thought she was going to die and, while my sister was visiting her, proceeded to hand over her wedding bands (one hers the other her mother’s). Miraculously my father, on a short leave, found us, retrieved my mother from the hospital, so we could be with her again. However, due to his orders, he could not stay with us. He had to return to Prague to dig more trenches or be shot by the Germans for desertion.

In February 1945, we reached a village in northern Poland and spent two weeks in a basement so we would be sheltered from the bombs. Some horrible Russian soldiers began showing up. One started to drag my mother away while my brother and I were crying in fear. The soldier told her if she does not come with him, he will grab her daughter, my 15-year-old sister. Fortunately, a more civilized Russian soldier, one that had some empathy for a woman taking care of a sick sister and three children, showed up and got rid of the nasty one—not without a fight that ensued. Soon we changed our quarters to a horse stable where other refugees also sought shelter. There, another Russian decided he wanted another young girl. She fell on her knees and was loudly reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Lithuanian. (I remember that incident vividly thinking God must hear her prayer.) Unfortunately, the Russian dragged her off kicking and screaming. At the same village, there were a number of young men who had been conscripted by the Germans to dig defensive trenches. The Russians rounded them up and shot them all. My sister said their corpses were all over the place, needless to say, a horrific sight.

Because my mother was fluent in Russian and Polish languages* she was able to communicate easily with the Russians and the local population in Poland. One decent Russian soldier (an exception) told my mother there was a loose cow in the pasture and suggested she take it to provide milk for the children—a great idea—because other than dried bread and wild mushrooms, there was hardly any food.

We left that village to continue heading west to get away from the advancing Russian front. The roadside was littered with corpses. We eventually reached another village and stopped at a gristmill to give the horses a rest. Word came that a Russian division was coming that way. Dreadfully fearing the Russians, mother got a piece of coal and wrote on the building wall in large Russian letters: THYPHUS FEVER RAGING IN THE VILLAGE. A typhus epidemic was an ominous message. Thus, the Russian army passed us by. We were extremely lucky.

Still heading west, in March 1945, we arrived in Roslesin, another Polish village, still in our horse-drawn wagon. In the outskirts of the village we were able to find an abandoned farmhouse providing some shelter. Mother’s sister, who had been very sick, died there. So mother had to nail a coffin, summon a local priest and bury her. There were no funeral directors.

While in that deserted farmhouse, late one evening a car stopped and Russian soldiers burst into our quarters. They stole almost everything we still had with us from Lithuania. One spotted mother’s two wedding bands—one her own, the other her deceased mother’s. He jammed his rifle into her chest and in Russian demanded the rings. She bent her fingers and refused to give them up, thinking there may come a time when she would have to trade them for food. We children were frightened to death and were screaming uncontrollably. The soldier yelled in Russian for mother to shut us up. Mother turned to us and in Lithuanian said, “Scream louder. Finally, Mother shamed the soldier saying to him in his language, “You might have little children of your own. How would you like if someone was scaring them like you are.” Amazingly, the Russian kicked the lantern and left abruptly. After this hair-raising episode, we were in shock for quite some time.

While in Roslesin, we found out the war had ended. My mother and sister went to the village office to obtain proper documents so we could go to Germany. There was a piano in the building, and my sister, having attended a music conservatory in Lithuania, started playing the popular music of the time. Suddenly, the village mayor rode into the building on horseback (!) and invited her to his home to play for his guests. With some trepidation, mother allowed it. My sister had a great time because all the Polish guests were ladies and actual gentlemen—a true break from our meager existence at that time.

Around July 1945, after the war, mother found a job in a town office of a small city, Lauenburg, still in Poland, which at the time was occupied by the Russian forces. There she found living quarters for her three children. She got a job due to her fluency in Polish and Russian. In that city my mother registered my sister to attend the Polish high school, my brother the first grade, and I was allowed to accompany him because childcare services were nonexistent. We did not speak Polish so we tried to follow what the other children were doing. I remember drawing a lot of circles on a piece of paper. While at work, mother clandestinely prepared documentation permitting us to leave the town. (We had to have documentation for virtually every move.) After packing what little we had, one evening we walked to a train depot, somehow obtained information which train was heading where, got into a boxcar and waited for the freight train to begin the journey. Our goal was to reach Berlin because we heard the U.S. sector of Berlin had refugee camps. Before reaching Berlin, the train stopped in the Russian occupation zone, where Russian soldiers jumped in and stole an accordion my sister enjoyed playing (the small accordion was the last possession not previously stolen from us.) We finally reached Berlin, got on a subway in the American controlled sector of Berlin where the United Nations Relief Agency (UNRA) was assisting war refugees. While on the subway we met our first black soldier, who gave me and my brother a Hershey bar—a great treat for deprived, hungry children. In the refugee camp, we also had the first gulp of Coca Cola because my sister won a bottle of Coke as a prize during an evening dance contest. (Can you imagine what a treat that was!) During social gatherings, former Italian POW’s used to ask my sister to play popular Italian songs on the piano, particularly, “O Sole Mio.” When the Italians joined in the song, they sounded like a great opera chorus. When I think back, it is amazing that at these refugee camps, people who had endured tremendous hardships, some being separated from other family members, still were able to participate in a few “normal” activities to lift their spirits.

Before continuing, here is an historical reminder: After WWII, Germany was divided among the Allies. There was the British zone, French zone, American zone and Russian zone. Berlin was in the Russian zone, but the city was also divided into four sectors. To get out of Berlin into West Germany, one had to pass various barriers and again be confronted by Russian soldiers. Note, after negotiations and various agreements, the British, Americans and French returned the occupation zones to the newly formed German government. Stalin, however, never did. The Communist Russian government held on to their occupied territories until the people tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union began to crumble.

While in Berlin, we found out by means of friends writing letters to other friends, that my father was in Biberach, in southern Germany, the French occupation zone. As part of the family reunification program, we were permitted to leave Berlin. However, there were many anxious moments before we left, because Russians tried to capture people from the Baltic countries and return them to their homelands claiming that the war is over and we could return to our country. But we knew better—almost all returning refugees were subsequently sent to Siberia because the eastern European countries were under Communist Russian control, and all refugees were enemies, deserving punishment. Finally, at the end of January 1946, we left Berlin seated in a US Army truck with only its tarp to protect us from the freezing weather, but happy since we were on the way to the “Real West”. While on the truck, at the last checkpoint, a Russian soldier began questioning the passengers. The American soldier who was driving the truck told the Russian that if he removed one passenger, he would turn around with the entire truckload of passengers and go back to the American refugee camp. Finally, we got through. There was great jubilation on that truck! Eventually we were brought to a station where we boarded a train. Late in the evening, we arrived in Biberach where we were reunited with my father.

After World War II, some 70,000 Lithuanian refugees lived in West Germany in refugee camps, which often were established in army barracks in various cities. Because the majority of the Lithuanian refugees were educated people, schools, choirs, theatrical groups, and other cultural endeavors were pursued. About 200 Lithuanian refugees lived in Biberach mostly in private German homes and later in a small hotel (guest house as the Germans called it) which was converted to a refugee center. In Biberach my sister Danute finished a Lithuanian high school. At age 19, she married a student of architecture and later had a son. They emigrated to Chicago in 1949. My brother and I attended a Lithuanian grade school organized by Lithuanian teachers. As the Lithuanian population diminished due to emigration, the school was closed and we then attended a German grade school. Since this town was in the French occupation zone, we started each school day singing the French national anthem, most of which I know to this day. As kids we picked up the German language and knew enough to get by in school.

We moved several times, finally to Rottweil, where my father, an accountant, worked as food supply manager in a hospital where my mother was hospitalized to treat her flared up tuberculosis. This prolonged separation from my mother was a very traumatic experience for me. Fortunately, my sister Danute was able to send from the U.S. the latest medication to help with my mother’s illness and eventual cure.

Through President Truman’s efforts, Congress permitted several hundred thousand displaced persons to immigrate to the United States. Consequently, in the summer of 1950, we were able to begin our journey to the “new land.” First, however, we had to have a sponsor who would guarantee that we would be self-sufficient in our new country. My mother’s cousin, who was living in the States at the time, was able to find us such a sponsor. Finally, we traveled to Bremenhafen for a screening and soon thereafter boarded an army troop ship heading for New York. Ten days later, early August 1950, we arrived at Ellis Island. From New York we boarded a train to go to Chicago. On route, my father had $5, so he used it to buy a sandwich for us kids to split. Of course, we wanted more but did not dare ask knowing that he had no money to spare.

The first six months in Chicago we lived in an unfinished basement, slept on army cots and shared a first-floor bathroom with the landlady. In the fall, at age 9, I started attending third grade at Gage Park Elementary School. My English vocabulary consisted of “yes,” “no” and “thank you”! Not knowing how to respond to various questions, I used to pick and choose a lot. One day, during a composition assignment, the teacher told me to write my composition in Lithuanian. I thought for a while and wrote sincerely how much I liked my teacher and that my classmates were much friendlier than those in Germany. There they used to call us “foreigners” as a derogatory expression. While writing I was sure no one would read my composition. When the teacher collected my paper along with other students’, I wondered what she would do with it. It turned out that one of the teachers there was of Lithuanian heritage and translated my composition. The next day, when the teacher read my composition in English I was absolutely amazed and grateful that I did not write anything negative.

After six months, my parents found a second story flat for us, so I had to change schools to Henderson Elementary. The old-biddy of a teache, had no mercy for a poor girl who spoke very little English. She often made me read in front of the class, which was torture because I could barely read the words and mispronounced most of them—English, after all, is not a phonetic language. I felt foolish. But I did get my licks in because I was the best in math and I knew the multiplication tables by heart. I used to complain about the situation to my mother who eventually transferred me and my brother to a Catholic school. I was placed in fifth grade instead of fourth because I had lost a year due to some placement misunderstanding. In the new school there were 55 children in my class. The teacher, a nun, was strict and mean. She used to whack the boys regularly and I never understood why.

I always tried to study hard—though it was not all that easy. But in time, things got better. I finished high school with good grades and got a partial scholarship to Loyola University in Chicago where I earned a BS in Mathematics. Later, after marriage and a move to the Detroit area, I earned a Masters at Wayne State University.

My childhood and youth were difficult. We were very poor and had to mind every nickel. But, the experience taught me to work hard so I could achieve a better life. When I had mean teachers, I always thought, when I’m a teacher, I will never treat my students like that. My circumstances in life were such that I could teach my favorite subject—mathematics—not to children, but to college students. I do believe I was a better teacher than some of those I experienced in my youth.

In 1965 I married a young Lithuanian Wayne State University graduate, Narimantas Udrys, who had the same background as I had. We had successful careers and together we raised two son: Linas, a tax attorney, living with his family in California and Gytis, a dentist, living with his family in Saline. We are delighted that both of our sons know the history of Lithuania and are fluent in its language. We are retired now and enjoying our five grandchildren. In our “spare time” we do travel. Since 1990 when Lithuania declared its restoration of independence (the first country to leave the Soviet Union taking advantage of Gorbachev’s perestroika [reorganization] policy), we have visited Lithuania six times. In 2015 we had our two oldest granddaughters, ages 15 and almost 14, with us. It was a unique experience for them to see their grandparents’ birthplace and meet some of their distant cousins. For us it was delightful to see the country flourish since it has cast off the yoke of bondage from the Soviet Union.

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* My mother knew Polish and Russian languages because of the geographical location and history of Lithuania. In general, many European people know the language of their closest neighbors. By the way, the Lithuanian language is an Indo-European language and is totally different from the Slavic Polish and Russian languages.

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Ken MunroKen Munro

When it became common knowledge that I was retiring from Schoolcraft College, many asked where was I going to live; stay where I was, move up north or perhaps Florida or Arizona?

Well, I picked Illinois, my home state before coming to Michigan.

Then came the responses; It's the same crappy weather as we have here in Michigan. And that is very true. But one of the things that Michigan didn't have was my children and grandchildren.

My choice was very simple after 20 years of going back and forth to see them; move back to Illinois. And as much as I miss my friends back in Michigan, it the best move I ever made.

Made me think of my brother, Jerry Munro, who, since you are all retired, will remember, was the first Director of Human Resources at Schoolcraft College. When he retired and moved to Arizona it was great for a few years; the kids and grandkids could come out once or so a year for a nice visit. But that didn't seem to be enough and they moved back to Michigan to be able to see them all of the time. I wasn't going to make the same mistake.

I made the move to Illinois eight years ago and I’ve never looked back. The grandkids are older now. The twins, Hannah and Kaila are now 17. My grandson Ryan, it's hard to believe, turned 24 on tax day, having a great job in quality control after getting his degree from Western Michigan University. My little Brit (4'11") has one semester to go at Eastern Illinois University as a special education major; working with kids is something she loves. It’s great being so close to family and actively involved in their lives.

As a foot note, I should add, at the time of this writing I am going through cancer of the liver treatment. I am grateful to have the support of my family and friends during this difficult time. I have a very positive attitude and I look forward to being around to see this update in print for all of you to read.

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Art LindenbergArt Lindenberg

Australia and New Zealand, two amazing travel destinations, 1,500 miles apart offer amazing variety for the experienced or inexperienced traveler. From late February and March, my wife, Karen, and I toured there for five weeks with fourteen other adventuresome seniors.

We started our trip in Melbourne, a city of four million on the southeast coast of Australia. This hip and cosmopolitan metropolis contains beautiful buildings, art, history, wonderful restaurants, arcades, and more.

Our next stop was Adalaide, a fifty-minute flight. This southern Australian city has beautiful beaches, is surrounded by a wildlife park, and has a great museum with exhibits of the Aborigine peoples. But it is perhaps best known as the wine center!

Our next stop, a two-hour flight was Alice Springs in the Outback. Two thirds of Australia is desert, but the artesian springs leave most less than barren. But the vastness here has to be experienced, over a million and a half square miles with a population of 750,000. In this vast lands, are Aboriginal preserves, and Ayers Rock, known as Uluru and sacred to the Aborigines. We then spent a few days in the tropics. We saw a section of the endangered Great Barrier Reef, hiked through python infested rainforest, and boated up an estuary with sea going crocodiles. But our guide kept us at a safe distance.

After a two and half hour flight to Sydney, we spent three days touring Australia’s metropolis of nearly 7,000,000 people. We saw an opera in the famous opera house and toured a city where we could have spent three days more. But we now bid Australia farewell.

A three-hour flight took us to Auckland, New Zealand, where we acclimatized to this very different, very friendly, and very beautiful country. Here, we met a Maori prince who talked to us about the culture and history of this Polynesian people. We also toured the major parts of this city of a million and a half people.

Rotorua, in the center of the North Island, about a two hours’ drive south of Auckland, has almost as many hot springs and geysers as Yellowstone National Park. This beautiful spot is a Maori center. We were invited to a Maori village for dinner and entertainment.

A flight to Queenstown in the south of the South Island, took us to some of the most beautiful scenery we have seen. The rugged, snow covered Southern Alps were where much of “Lord of the Rings” and other films were made. We visited lakes and the fjords on the coast, where we cruised beneath the jagged peaks and saw dozens of waterfalls, bringing down the glacial waters. We spent time along the ocean where the mountains almost reach the coast. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

Finally, we made our way back to the North Island and north of Auckland to the Bay of Islands, a subtropical paradise of azure seas populated by dolphins and dotted with sailboats. Alas, this concluded a marvelous adventure and vacation. It is one that I hope some of you will be able to take some day.

 

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