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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.
We Thought We'd Be Back Soon

It's Hard to Leave Lithuania, Especially for a Farmer

Juozas Taoras

Juozas Taoras was born into a farming family in 1914. After primary school, he attended a secondary school but left after three years in order to help his mother on the farm. He later married and successfully managed his own 30-hectare farm. Because of events during the first Soviet occupation of Lithuania, he realized it would be dangerous to remain during the second occupation and fled to the West. In a displaced persons (DP) camp in Germany, he opened a small store. Arriving in the United States, he worked for many years as a technician at a facility that was eventually acquired by the University of Pittsburgh. His wife and he raised four children, all of whom completed higher education. He died in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Dec. 27, 2000. /Elvyra Vodopalas conducted the interview on July 18, 1997./

(...)

Tell us about your departure from Lithuania: from where, with whom, and how?

We harnessed up the horses and threw everything into the wagon. More neighbors showed up: the Mažeikas with the father, Lukauskas the milkman, Gilys, Vargaila, my wife's brother Podziukas. There were about five wagonloads of us. And we're heading toward Kelmė to reach Žemaitija, go deep into it, through Laukuva and Rietavas, through those cities. But something interesting happened: We'd just left home, maybe gone 10 kilometers, and we're going downhill to the Dubysa River when on the hillside a German is holding up a Browning and already shouting, "Halt!" We stopped, and along the side there's a truck turned over. And now he says, "Throw everything out of the wagon, load up the stuff from this truck, and transport it to the highway." There's still some activity on the highway; the Germans are still heading toward Tauragė in a few cars. None of us speak German. I do a little from my high school days, and when the Germans took over I'd still try a little, stumbling—I can say one or two words. I go up to the German and I'm explaining to him that we're fleeing. We want to get away and take away these little children and old people here, but we ourselves will join the army of the Reich, we'll defend the Reich, let us go. "Look how many horses are grazing on the hillside. They're from the Padubysis estate. Maybe they're waiting for the Russians. Why don't you take their horses? You throw us out now, and the Russians will get us. You can already hear the artillery and machine guns." The German looks at me and seems to like it that we'll defend the Reich. He grabbed me by the neck, unhooked his water canteen, and tipped up some home-brew—it almost choked me. And he says, "Drive on." We drive, we go on along the road. Russian airplanes showed up, they sometimes flew in daytime, so we jumped into ditches so that they wouldn't start shooting us up. And those friends of mine, one had a sarcastic mouth. He's shouting: "Juozas, we're going to defend the Reich. Juozas, we're going to defend the Reich."

Had you decided where to go, did you have some sort of plan?

We didn't have any plan, just to withdraw deeper into Žemaitija, closer to the German border, because we thought the Germans really wouldn't let the Russians into Germany.

What did you take with you when you left your native village?

Some clothing and food. I remember a whole centner [a hundredweight] of rye flour, in other words, whatever we could. You see, four or five men were going and so we couldn't take that much. But we took some things—we even had enough food to reach Berlin, and later, when we got into Germany, we each still had a bit of flour and some bacon to slice.

What experiences from this time have remained most vivid in your memory?

Well now, the most dramatic events happened when we arrived to flee across the Rusnė bridge. At nighttime they had already hung up those so-called lamps.[1] Some are fleeing, while the Germans—like they're crazed or something—are mostly heading back to defend the bridge, with gunfire.

When you had gotten across, did that bridge still remain intact or was it blown up?

At that time it was still intact. But when we were leaving in a convoy in the morning, some people ran up having left their horses and everything on the other side of the bridge because it'd been blown up, they said. During our journey there were other adventures. For example, we were herded into the Labiau [now Polessk, Russia] and Tapiau [now Gvardeysk, Russia] pastures and our wagons were lined up like in a marketplace in Lithuania, horses with horses, and the Germans are selecting men. I'm yelling to my wife that she should throw whatever straw and clover there is over me (we'd taken some from the farm) so that they wouldn't take me. My wife's yelling that the Germans might kill me and covered me in straw. A German got the men from the wagon in front and forced them into trucks, and that time I was saved. In the morning we have to pass through the gates. They're selecting civilians again and putting them into trucks, again to dig trenches. I'm walking around now—what should I do? I meet a former teacher from our school, Stirbys; we used to circulate those underground publications. He asks, "Taoras, what're you doing here?" I say: "Well, it's bad. Yesterday I got away but I'll get caught today; I won't get through the gates." He says: "There are some policemen here who have fled and they have official seals. Let's go, they'll write out a document that you're a policeman." So he takes me to them and introduces me; they write out a note and at the bottom sign Heil Hitler. The Germans tell our convoy to go to Danzig [now Gdańsk, Poland], pointing us in that direction. But a few of our wagons split off and stop in the woods. Look, German foresters are riding up. They quickly move us out: "Drive on, because we'll turn you over to the police and they'll lock you up." So we continue driving and get close to Danzig. Then some are sent to army barracks to be put to work while those who are farmers or old are directed to go farther on to these bunkhouses. We're left to go, and they settle us in the bunkhouses. After a few days, they want to send us to Czechoslovakia, to the coal mines or to dig trenches there. This Major Urbonas shows up, an older man, and he has two documents. One says his regiment has been bombed out, in other words, destroyed, so he has an order to go to Berlin and form a new regiment; the second one says because of his old age he's now completely discharged. Somehow he got one permit from one German official and the other one from another official. He's looking for his wife and the wives of other officers. They don't let us out from the camp we were in, so he goes to another camp, gets a document saying he lived in that camp, and they let out a group of about thirty to go to a place near Stettin, to Pasewalk.

And where did you leave your horses?

We left them in Danzig. My horses were good so they took them for the army; they even gave me marks and paid not so bad. A farmer bought the wagon. The next day we go to see how our horses are doing—are they still standing there. They'd tied them to railings, and from far away, maybe about a quarter of a kilometer, the horses saw us and already recognized us, and they're neighing and pawing with their hooves. You see, they want to eat—they're hungry and they're neighing. We came up and stroked them, and felt so sorry to leave them. When we fled we weren't sorry about anything—just to get away faster, just to leave everything. It was a separation, and as we traveled tears flowed because now everything was left behind. But then we stroked the horses, and both my wife and I began to cry because they had pulled so faithfully, they had pulled so much, and now they were skin and bones. Now they're neighing seeing us from so far away, hungry, and they're even tied up during the whole day and during the night. Then we felt most sorry about the horses. It was an abandonment. Our last asset was the horses.

Translated by Ausra Kubilius


[1] Flares attached to parachutes were dropped from bombers to illuminate the area to be bombed.