I have discovered that I like to shoot guns.
I’d always been a little stuck-up about guns and a bit of a snob, too. But after firing the World War II Nagan rifle in the woods out by the old partisan, Jonas Kadzionis’s, bunker, I felt a sense of empowerment I didn’t know I could experience. I felt strong. In control. Women don’t usually get to feel this way. At least not in Eastern Europe.
Ingrida discovered she liked shooting guns too, in particular, the German Sturmgewehr machine gun. It was the same machine gun the partisans of the Tauras District proudly lugged on their shoulders to the town of Šilavotas where they attacked the NKVD garrison from the main church. The scene is described in Juozas Lukša’s eye-witness account of the postwar partisan resistance, “Forest Brothers”
The gun party was the aftermath of a presentation put on by the historical reenactment club, the Grenadiers.
“We are a bunch of friends really,” Darius, a member of the group explained, “we were talking once among ourselves about how we could teach people about history by demonstrating partisan battles and other scenes from Lithuanian history. That was when we created this club. We buy all the costumes, guns, and vehicles out of our own money. We do this as volunteers.”
“Are you patriots?” I asked.
“Oh no, we’re not patriots,” Darius rushed to say, his youthful face growing flush. Darius was dressed as a postwar partisan in a flannel shirt, rough woolen pants, and thick-soled black boots. He was wearing a cap with the Lithuanian coat of arms on its peak and had the Nagan tossed over his shoulder. “We are history buffs. I can’t stand to turn on the Lithuanian news anymore. The politics make me sick. I haven’t kept track of politics for a year now.”
“That’s right,” an older man said, joining our conversation. He too was dressed as a partisan and was carrying a World War II submachine gun. “Lithuanian politics make my blood pressure rise.”
We were a motley crew gathered out in the forest beside Jonas Kadzionis bunker. There was myself and Ingrida, the education director for the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania and Jonas Ohman, a documentary filmmaker and organizer of the event. There were about ten elderly partisans and liaison women dressed either in partisan uniforms or in their Sunday best, the mayor of the regional center of Anykščiai, George Kerdikosvili, ambassador of Georgia and Senior Counselor Akaki Dvali. and his wife and one-year-old daughter. Then there were Kadzionis’s grandchildren and their spouses and children. And about 20 men from the grenadiers.
We’d just watched as a line of 10 men dressed as NKVD soldiers made their way through the forest, poking at the ground with long metal poles, searching for bunkers, shouting at each other in Russian, their language thick with Russian profanities. But even this is historically accurate. Every prison camp or partisan account I’ve ever read or recorded mentions that Russian soldiers, guards, interrogators could not stop pathologically cursing at their inmates, creating the most extreme linguistic vulgarities.
The NKVD soldiers do find the bunker. They back up behind trees and shout at the “bandits” to come out. They promise they won’t hurt them. One partisan flips open the trap door and pops out. He begins shooting at the NKVD soldiers with a submachine gun. The NKVD quickly take him down. As he lies on the ground groaning, with the last of his strength he pulls a grenade out from under his shirt and tosses it in the direction of the NKVD. This starts another round of gunfire. Once the NKVD are sure the partisan is dead, they approach the bunker. They shoot inside it, wounding another partisan. They drag that partisan out of the bunker and toss his limp body against a pine tree. Taking him for dead, they stand around, smoking, discussing what to do next, kicking the corpse every once in a while with their hob nail boots.
All of us were standing in a line, about ten meters away from the scene of the action, watching the show. That was when I heard a sob. Then a choke. It sounded as though someone were trying very hard not to cry out. I looked over at the line of spectators. An elderly woman with white hair tied back in a bun, dressed in a crisp white blouse and black skirt, was crying. Tears were streaming down her face. The woman standing beside her stroked her back, comforting her. For her, this scene was not an reenactment, but the real thing. For us it was a play or a movie, like hundreds of movies we’d seen before. The scene must have triggered deep and painful memories.
When it was time to set out the food, I approached the woman and together we sliced the watermelon I’d brought and laid out hunks of cheese and sausage on platters. I asked her if she had been a liaison woman.
“Oh yes,” she answered, “my code name was Smilga (reed).”
We talked a long while, but she never told me her real name. Even half a century later, a code name was all that I needed to know. Smilga told me that her father and her brother had been killed in a partisan battle, just like the one we’d watched today. She’d seen it happen. After that she and the rest of her family went into hiding. They wandered the forests, sleeping out in the open or in hay lofts and barns, from 1944 until 1951.
“We never went home again,” Smilga said. “After 1951 I registered in Kedainiai under an assumed name and worked there, just scraping by.”
Later, a few of the grenadiers told me that when they were designing the scenario for today’s presentation, their first idea was to end the show with the partisan being dragged out of the bunker. But then the others protested. For the sake of the old partisans present, they argued, the partisans must be victorious in the end. And so, a new ending was constructed. As the Russian NKVD are laughing, smoking, and kicking corpses, a third partisan emerges from the forest with his own machine gun slung over his shoulder. He crouches down on the ground, sets up his machine gun and begins to fire, finishing off all the NKVD soldiers. He takes the wounded partisan onto his back and carries him away into the forest.
The Georgians are pleased with this ending. They have their own problems with Russia. Today marks two years since the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 when Russia deployed combat troops in South Ossetia and launched bombing raids deep into Georgia. In typical Russian style, the attack coincided with opening night of the summer Olympics in Beijing. Most of the world was absorbed watching the grandiose opening ceremonies of the Olympics as Georgian civilians were being gunned down and bombed out of their homes.
There is a strong connection between Lithuania and Georgia. Lithuania had stepped forward with open public political support for Georgia after the invasion. Most Lithuanians were sympathetic to the Georgian cause. And here we were, together in the forest. The Lithuanians were reenacting their history, but the Georgians were seeing their contemporary situation before their eyes. As we were drinking Georgian Embassy red Georgian wine and eating cucumber sandwiches, Georgia was still struggling politically and still had thousands of displaced refugees to cope with.
Later that evening I was back in my apartment in Vilnius. Ohman stopped by. He was exhausted from the day’s events. We shared a beer.
“Kadzionis and the others invited me to their house afterwards,” Ohman said. “I showed them the clip we put together from the shoot we did last week with the battle scenes and the partisan corpses. They gathered around the lap top like it was the holy grail. There was so much emotion after they watched the clip.”
“Just imagine it for yourself,” I said, “Someone comes along and plays out before your eyes the most powerful moments of your youth.”
What makes me sad is to think about how the partisans and their families suffered under torture, in prison; how many of their comrades and families sacrificed their lives and how they expected when independence came that they would be honored and acknowledged. But that is not the case at all. In today’s Lithuania, they are forgotten, marginalized, a subculture. If anyone in the government remembers them at all, it is only symbolic and only for their own political gain.
The Lithuanians who collaborated and were traitors against their own country were never brought to justice. It was an odd breed of amnesty Lithuania came up with after independence: Communist Party members, former KGB agents, interrogators, strategists, traitors of every stripe went quietly unpunished. There were no Nuremberg trials in Lithuania.
“The Soviet collaborators live quite well under the current system,” Jonas said. “Their wealth and stature was simply extended with independence.” Jonas said.
“I believe what we did today was therapy for the old partisans and liaison women,” I said. “They saw the most intense moments of their lives play out before them, but they were victorious. They could cry openly if they needed to. They could cheer. They could be solemn. They were in control of the situation.”
As we were getting ready to leave the site that day, Kadzionis and a few others brushed leaves over the top hatch, concealing it from the local youth who might take it into their heads to come and party in the bunker. Dragging a fallen tree over the bunker, Kadzionis had said out loud, to no one in particular, “So much blood was shed in this forest, so much blood.”
Laima Vincė, a New York native, is a Lithuanian-American non-fiction and children’s book author, Fulbright scholar in creative writing at Vilnius University, journalist, memoirist and translator. For more information about her work, visit her website at www.laimavince.com to order her acclaimed memoir “Lenin’s Head on a Platter.”
Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.