Irena and I met in our usual spot in the Rūdninkų parking lot not far from my apartment. This time we were driving to Šilo Street in Antakalnis to interview another woman from the Birute’s organization, Gražina Pucevičiute-Paloniene. Along the way, Irena gave me some background on Gražina.
“Gražina is a neuropathologist,” Irena said, “now she’s retired. She was born in 1933, so that makes her 76. When I called her she was out of breath. I asked her why she sounded so winded and she told me that every morning she gets up at six and hurries out to clean up the grounds around the hospital where the women who used to work for her as nurses are convalescing. She wants them to be able to see a beautiful view through their windows. Then, when she’s finished manicuring the hospital garden, she visits with the women and takes care of them. She gets home around noon and cooks lunch for her son and grandchildren. That’s the kind of person Gražina is, always off taking care of someone, always helping someone. She never asks for anything for herself. She is a very energetic woman. When you meet her, you won’t believe what a difficult and traumatic life she’s had. She’s bursting with such positive energy, you’d never guess at her past.”
We arrived on Šilo Street and I parked the Honda. We wandered up and down the street for about ten minutes, confused by the numeration. Irena finally pressed the buzzer on a random gate and an old man came out of one of the brick condos, surrounded on both sides by glorious mature pine forests. He explained to us how to find the number we were looking for. We backtracked half a kilometer up the street and found the house and rang the buzzer.
A plump cheerful woman with gray hair cut in a short stylish haircut opened the door. She beamed at us and energetically told us to take off our coats and shoes while she finished serving lunch to her grandson, who lived with her. Gražina did not look her age. I would have put her in her mid-60s. The plump little woman rushed off into the kitchen as we took off our coats in the coat room. We were surprised by the size of the condo because so far all of the former exiles and wives of exiles we had visited lived in rather dire circumstances. This condo had three floors, with spacious rooms on every floor. Large pictures windows faced the pine forests. Irena and I both live in the heart of the old city, which is in a valley and is heavily polluted from the constant traffic. We greedily breathed in the fresh air wafting in through the open window from the pine forest.
What was most surprising to me was that this condo was built in 1969, deep in the Soviet era. I was not aware that a Soviet citizen was allowed to live in a space larger than a one or two-room, or in the best-case scenario, three-room apartment. Gražina later explained to us. The condo was part of a “cooperative.” In 1969 she was making a house call for a patient who lived on Šilo Street. She confused the house number, like we had, and wandered too far along the dirt road that was then Šilo Street. She stopped at a house and rang the doorbell to ask for directions. A woman opened the door. Gražina asked if she could come inside and pour the sand out of her shoes and get proper directions. As Gražina was removing the sand from her shoes, the woman told her that next door a group of artists were building a cooperative. At the time, Soviet-sanctioned artists were given special privileges by the state to build larger dwelling places that served as a combination of home and studio. The state approved artists had these privileges in order to be better able to fulfill the glory of cranking out socialist realist paintings and casting bronze Lenin sculptures. In a word, by the late 1960s the Soviets had figured out that giving writers and artists special privileges beyond what the ordinary Soviet man received was a far more effective means of muzzling free speech than the gulags of the Stalin era. Earlier that summer, with some relatives visiting from New York, we had stayed at the Lithuanian Writers’ Union facility in Nida. Despite the rock-bottom prices in this beach resort, my New York visitors were horrified by the crumbling dark concrete and plywood contraption that had once been coveted by writers as the epitome of privilege. As I hung my damp towels on the crumbling balcony, all I could think was, “And this is what people sold their souls for?”
“Anyway,” Gražina continued her story, “the woman told me that these artists were short on cash to finish the paperwork for their project. They needed outsider investment and were willing to negotiate. By the end of the evening I had the name and number of the head of the project,” Gražina said triumphantly.
Gražina and her husband quickly got their money together and bought their way in, although technically they were not allowed under Soviet law to live in such privileged circumstances. They were both mere medical doctors, not artists, and not part of the great Soviet propaganda machine. Their patients were not Communist Party apparatchiks, but regular working people. Still, they bought their way in and forty years later Gražina was still proud of her real estate deal and pleased to tell us all the details.
It was only after soup and a full meal had been served to the grandchildren and refreshment set out for us that Gražina felt she could take the time to indulge in telling us her story:
“My father’s name was Izidorius Pucevičius. His partisan code name was Radvila. He was born in 1901 and he died in 1945 at the age of 43. He was a tall, handsome man. He was well-liked. My father was a captain in independent Lithuania’s army.
“My mother, Stasė Gilytė-Pucevičienė, was a beautiful woman. She also had a beautiful soul. She and my father were very much in love. They were in love up to the day my father was killed. We children bathed in the happiness of their love for each other.
“In 1940 when the Soviets came the first time, we were living in a five-room apartment on Daukantas Street in Kaunas. The Lithuanian army was given the command by Smetona’s government not to resist the occupation. Many of the officers fled for the West. But my father said, ‘I cannot leave Lithuania during her time of hardship.’
“Some how, and I don’t quite know how, our family evaded being deported in the June 1941 deportations when most of the military officers and their families were deported to Siberia. We lived in Vilnius in 1940 after Vilnius was returned to Lithuania. We lived on Kudirkos Aikšte in the house for the families of the military. He was a lieutenant then. There was a General Vitkauskas, a Lithuanian who held leftist views. He took command of the remaining military. I remember just before the Soviet occupation my mother had ordered a dress from Paris for a military ball. That dress had a floral print and a violet sash. By the time the dress arrived, it was no longer necessary. All the wives of the military personnel had to dress in plain Russian tunics at public affairs.
“In 1945 when the Russians came back for a second time, we went to the provinces to hide in the home of my mother’s sister. She had four rooms. Her family of seven lived there and the four of us. My father dug a bunker under the floorboards of one of the rooms and that is where he lay in hiding while we lived in the room above him.
“In the evenings we would listen to the radio. Every evening we heard a radio transmission that came from America: ‘Don’t give up the fight. We are coming to assist you. We are coming on the fifteenth of the next month.’
“The fifteenth would come and go and the Americans would not come. After the fifteenth, the man on the radio would say, ‘We are coming to help you. Keep on fighting the Russians in the forests. Hold on and we will assist you. We are coming on the twenty-fifth.’
“The twenty-fifth would come and go and no Americans would come. We now know that the communists in America sent those deceitful radio transmissions, so that Lithuania’s young men and women would go out into the forests and be killed.
“One day my mother went out to the market and she found out that a man from the Plechavičius Unit was coming. That man knew where Father was hiding. He told mother that father must go into the forest to lead the Panevežys partisans. I remember it was Easter. We had one single Easter egg for twelve people. My father, who was so handsome, stood up at the head of the table, holding up that egg. He thanked my mother’s sister for taking us in and for hiding him. And then he said, ‘This evening I am going into the forest.’ And he left. We walked the seven kilometers to the forest with him. I can still remember so clearly his tall form disappearing among the pine trees, disappearing deeper and deeper into the forest.
“There were a few times when my mother, my sister, and I went into the forest to visit him. I still remember how much my mother and father were in love. How happy they always were to see each other those times.
“In 1945 my father, his adjutant, and Vytautas Vaiteikunas rode together on one horse for ten kilometers to Radviliškes. My father was having boots made. They were riding into town to pick up the boots. That night we heard the gunfire in the forests. My mother heard the gunfire and rushed out into the forest with some other partisans. We girls were left alone with people who were strangers to us.
“In the morning my sister and I were standing on the edge of the forest, waiting for our mother, when we saw the family’s maid coming through the pine trees. The maid came to us and said, ‘Girls, sooner or later you will find out for yourselves, so I might as well tell you. Your father has been shot. His corpse has been tossed out onto the square in front of the church in Rosalimas.’
“We both began to run to Rosalimas to see our father. Along the way some good people chased after us and stopped us. They begged us not to go to Rosalimas. They explained that the Russians were waiting for us there. They told us that the Russians would arrest us and send us to Siberia. They took us inside their house and they hid us. I owe my life to those good people.
“My father’s body was tossed out into the swamps. Some people later buried him near the swamps. Because he was well known in the Panevežys region, people tended his grave over the years. There are always flowers there.
“But I always thought, and I still think, because I never saw his body, that one day he will come back to us. Old as I am now, I still think that.
“Mother came back from the forest and said to us, ‘Girls, we must leave this place. We cannot put these good people in danger.’
“We walked first to my father’s sister’s farm. Her name was Valerija Jonaitienė. When she saw us she began to cry and said, ‘Please forgive me, but I am afraid to take you in.’
“Hungry, tired, and cold we kept on walking. Along the way we were attacked by village dogs. Then we walked to the farm of another relative, Paluckienė. She said to us, ‘Please don’t feel hurt, but I cannot take you in. I am hiding eight people in my house already.’ She took us 20 kilometers down the road to the Petravičius family. They were two sisters and a brother, all unmarried. They took us in like family and we hid in their house for one year without even once going outdoors.
“I remember how when they sat us down at their table and shared their bread with us, for the first time I thought: ‘How horrible it is to eat the food of strangers and not be able to offer them anything in return.’ Even now, 40 years later, I travel regularly to their village to tend to their graves.
“One day I went outside the Petravičius house and in the distance I saw the caps of NKVD officers. They were turning onto our dirt road on motorcycles. All of us ran, as we were, not taking anything with us, into the forest. We left the bread baking in the oven. We ran into the forest and not a single one of us ever returned to that house again.
“I was 13 years old. My sister was 10. The year was 1946. We had all spent one entire year since our father was shot, underground, hiding. We had not gone out into the fresh air for one year. We had not spoken to any other human beings for one year.
“My mother had received a letter from Kaunas. It was from Jonas Laurinaitis, a fellow partisan, who was my father’s best friend. In that letter Laurinaitis asked us to come to Kaunas to stay with him. He was prepared to do anything to help his best friend’s family.
“It was early autumn. We walked the seven kilometers to the train station. Mama took each of us sisters by the hand and we walked quietly, all of us whispering prayers to ourselves. As we were walking along, I bent down and on the road I saw a razor blade. We stopped and looked at it. Mother said, ‘That is a bad omen. Something terrible is going to happen.’
“We arrived in Kaunas and walked to the house where Laurinaitis was hiding. When we arrived, we saw that the house was surrounded by the NKVD. Mother said, ‘Just keep walking and don’t look back.’ That is what we did. We walked away, but it was already cold and dark and we didn’t know anyone and we had no food and nowhere to go.
“Laurinaitis was arrested, tortured, interrogated, and deported to Siberia. His wife was pregnant when they took him away. His wife received a letter from him in Siberia before he died. In that letter he wrote: ‘If the baby is a girl, please name her Gražina, for my best friend’s eldest daughter.’ But the baby was born a boy and they named him Jonas. He lives in Panevežys now and is a medical doctor.
“We wandered through the dark night and mother said to me, ‘Daughter, recite a poem to give us strength.’
“And I remembered a poem by Salomėja Nėris. I recited the poem and as I was reciting mother remembered the address of her dentist, whom she had been friendly with. The address just came into her head. We took a chance and walked to the dentist’s house. The dentist recognized my mother and took us in. She lived in one single room. She immediately lay down mattresses for us to sleep on. And we lived like that, all of us crowded together on mattresses. The room was so small that when you came inside, you simply opened the door onto a sea of mattresses.
“I remember that night as I lay down on that mattress how with my entire being I felt the horror of having nothing, absolutely nothing at all. I knew then that I never wanted to feel that way again in my life.
“After that we lived in hiding for all those years until I finished medical school. We would live with a family somewhere for one year and then we’d leave. Every year I changed schools. Because my last name was difficult, it was often misspelled. So I just allowed the misspellings to stick and that made it difficult to trace our whereabouts. I was the girl who had no name. I answered to anything anybody called me and did my best to stay out of trouble. In school I was careful not to make friends, not to talk too much about myself.
“In 1951 I passed two entrance exams to study in the university: one for French, the other for medicine. I had been working as a village school teacher without having a formal education myself. I supported my mother and sister. My mother did very hard physical labor for farmers for a few rubles. She would go to Riga and bring back pretty scarves and walk around the countryside, selling them or trading them for a little bit of lard. When I began to study, I had a stipend of eight rubles. For that eight rubles I could buy a quarter of a kilogram of ground meat every other day to feed myself and my sister.
“And that is how I lived my life at that time.”
I left Gražina’s house on Šilo Street that day thinking about how many thousands of children had grown up like her after the war, children with no name, children whose past had to be wiped out in order for them to survive. How many little girls had watched the tall straight backs of their fathers disappear into the forest? In Lithuania, I’d venture to guess hundreds upon hundreds. I wondered if Gražina thought of him, when she gazed each evening at the dense pine forest outside her living room picture window? I wonder if ever time she looked out into that pine forest, she saw her father’s back disappear, once again.
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 and to order her acclaimed memoir “Lenin’s Head on a Platter” go here. Two translations she did of Lithuanian authors can be found here and here.
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.
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