“We used to have trains here,” JR said as he re-filled their pints. “They ran from Tignish to Summerside, through here and on to Georgetown. We had the first diesels, to save on coal, ten years before anybody else in Canada. But when truckers started hauling potatoes, it was the beginning of the end. Now all we’ve got is a train museum in Elmira.”
Neither JT nor Kayleigh had ever seen a train on the island.
“By the way JR, have you seen a guy in here who rides a red motorcycle?”
“What kind of bike?”
“I don’t know, but it looks and sounds new.”
“No, not new,” JR said. “There’s a guy who rides an old red Indian, but it’s a 1970s, before they went bankrupt.”
“No, this one is new. I think it’s a Jap bike. If you do see it and get a chance to get his plate, let me know, will you?”
“Will do,” JR said.
He pushed a bowl of old pretzels their way and went to the other end of the bar where a group of locals looked thirsty.
“How is it you come from Sudbury like me?” JT asked, pushing the old pretzels away.
“World War Two, like you,” Kayleigh said. “My father was born in 1916, in the Ukraine. My grandfather Juozas and grandmother Stanislava were living in Poltava, insanely far from Marijampole, their home in Lithuania.” She meant the 700 miles was insanely far given the state of Russian roads and railroads. The Eastern Front, where millions of men were slaughtering each other at the time, was closer.
“He was a professor, teaching there during the war.”
The school was the Poltava National Technical University. It was founded in 1818 by the wife of the governor-general of the province, the granddaughter of the last Ukrainian strongman before the Russian Empire absorbed the country in the 18th century. For hundreds of years Polish and Lithuanian freebooters controlled vast tracts of the Ukraine and were a law unto themselves. They were no match for the Cossacks, however, who later were no match for the Russians.
The main building on campus was built in the early 1830s as the home of the Institute of Noble Maidens. It had an Empire-style look. When the institute became the technical university, women were forbidden to attend, no matter how noble they were.
After the war the family, including three-year-old Gediminas’s older brother and sister, who were twins, went back to Lithuania. They settled near Iglauka, not far from Lake Yglos, His father taught school in Marijampole, 12 miles to the west, and they lived on a farm. His mother’s family were well-off owners of farmland and property.
In 1924 the state-sponsored revolt in Klaipeda was signed sealed delivered, the country competed in the Summer Olympics for the first time, and Gediminas’s older brother suddenly unexpectedly died. The next year his mother was shot dead at a wedding.
It had been Russian imperial policy to leave the country in a non-industrial state. The inheritance system that was exercised after the land reform of 1863 forbade the partition of land plots. There were many landowners at the reception. They stuck together socially, friends neighbors families bound by the old time way.
“A group of Communist agitators, people who wanted land, came to the wedding, started a fight, started shooting guns, and my grandmother was accidentally shot and killed,” Kayleigh said. The Communist party of Lithuania was formed in 1918 and remained illegal until 1940. They were out for blood, though. There is only so much land to go around in small Baltic-like countries.
“My father grew up, got married, had a daughter, and was planning on going to school to study medicine, but then the war happened. My grandfather was shot and killed by fifth column Reds in his own living room. My father joined the Lithuanian Army, and then the Soviet Union invaded. “
It was never a fair fight. In mid-June 1940 a half-million Red Army troops poured across the borders of Estonia and Latvia. Within a week the Baltics were overrun, one week before France fell to Nazi Germany.Josef Stalin blew his nose into his walrus mustache. Adolf Hitler did an awkward little jig grinning behind his toothbrush mustache.
“My father took to the forest, joining a group of partisans, staying in the fight for the next year. It wasn’t any more dangerous than anything else in those dangerous times. He had been working in the fields when his father was killed, which is why he wasn’t shot. They were killing landowners. They would have killed him all the next year if they had been able to track him down.”
A year later Lithuania was invaded by two German army groups. Most Russian aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The Wehrmacht advanced rapidly, assisted by Lithuanians, who saw them as liberators. They helped by guarding railroads, bridges, and warehouses. The Lithuanian Activist Front and Lithuanian Territorial Corps formed the native backbone of the anti-Soviet fighting.
Gediminas Jurgelaitis was one of many who joined the German Army, being assigned to a Baltic Unit. Three years later he was having second thoughts. The Russian summer offensive of 1944 was in full swing, the Red Army on the march saying they meant to “liberate the Soviet Baltic peoples.” An NCO by then, Gediminas and his men were ordered to man the front line and hold it at all costs. It was costing them every day.
“The rich Lithuanians were our officers,” Gediminas said. They weren’t in the tranches getting their heads shot off. “The enlisted men were the men getting killed.” Gediminas and his men were trying to stay alive. They didn’t care who was right or wrong.
A small airstrip for reconnaissance and resupply was nearby. Junker 52s were flying in and out with ammunition first aid food and hope in the grim hopelessness. Gediminas and three men from his unit were unloading one of the planes at a side door by means of a ramp, the front prop and wing-mounted engines roaring, when without a word spoken between them, they made up their minds to steal it and fly to safety.
Two of the men rushed up the ramp and threw the German pilots out the door, while the other man and Gediminas kept watch, guns at the ready. Gediminas was the last one to scramble into the plane and was shot in the back of the foot just before he slammed the door shut.
“I was playing on the floor one day,” Kayleigh said. It was the late 1960s. “My dad was relaxing, shoes and socks off, sitting on the sofa in the living room reading a newspaper. I saw a scar on his heel and asked him what it was. He said it was a bullet wound. He rolled up his pants and showed me three more on both legs.”
One of the Lithuanians returned the incoming fire with a MG15 machine gun from the dustbin turret, while the other two men dragged Gediminas to the cockpit. None of them had ever flown an airplane. He was the only one of them who had ever even driven a car.
How hard can it be? he thought. With bullets slamming into the corrugated aluminum fuselage, he found out it wasn’t hard at all. He pushed on the throttle, got the Junker going as fast as he thought it would go, raised the nose, and Iron Annie lifted up into the air.
They quickly came up with a plan, planning to fly to Switzerland. They got as far as the neighborhood of the Poland Germany border when they ran out of gas. The plane wasn’t the fastest, 165 MPH its top speed, and it could go about 600 miles on a tankful. When they went down, they were headed in the right direction. All they needed was another full tank.
It solved their landing problem, since Gediminas had already told his countrymen he had no idea how to land the plane. The Junker hit the ground hard and every part of it broke into a thousand pieces. When Gediminas came back to life he was in a field hospital. He never found out what happened to his comrades.
The doctors and military men asked him who he was and what happened. He answered them in German, in High German, not Low. “My father spoke Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and German.” He was wearing the right uniform when found, was speaking like a householder, and they assumed he was one of them. Gediminas bit his tongue about who he really was, thanking God for his good fortune.
After he got out of the hospital he was deemed not fit enough for combat and assigned to the motor pool. Soon after he drew a lucky number and was assigned to be the driver for a general. It was lucky enough until several months later, early one morning, in the middle of winter, when he got a wake-up call from one of his motor pool sidekicks.
“Don’t come to work today,” the man said.
“What does that mean?”
“Your general died late last night. One of the first people the Gestapo will want to talk to is you.”
He knew it was true. He knew what had happened to anybody and everybody involved in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler that mid-July. Nearly 5,000 people were executed. He would never be able to stand up to scrutiny.
His general was probably out carousing in their Tatra 87, slid on ice and smashed into a tree. The Tatra was the car of the year the last five years. Sleek futuristic BMW-engine fast and high-tech as could be, it was the vehicle of choice for German officers. Unfortunately for them, it was sloppy, handling like pudding, killing its drivers right and left. Gediminas always kept it under 40 MPH. It was the vehicle of choice of the Americans, too, but for their mortal enemy. They thought of it as a secret weapon, killing more highly placed German officers than died fighting the Red Army.
But none of it mattered. It didn’t matter whether the general died in the arms of his mother or was assassinated. His goose was cooked if the Staatspolizei got him. The SS literally cooked people to death.
He jumped to his feet, threw himself into his uniform, threw on a winter coat, and fled his room. Making his way to the motor pool, he found a truck with keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. There were plenty to go around. Opel manufactured 95,000 of the 2-ton 4 x 4 Blitz Utility trucks during the war. He quickly signed it out, turned it over, and drove away unnoticed. He drove straight for the front. His plan was to break through the line and surrender to the Americans.
When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.
He didn’t get blasted by either side and when he got to the Allied lines, he surrendered. He was relieved and confident that the war was over for him. But by the time the war actually did end, the Wehrmacht raising the white flag, he was in his third army. At least he was finally on the winning side.
“My grandfather Juozas was a gigantic guy,” Kayleigh said. “He was six foot four. My father was five nine and maybe one hundred forty pounds.” Being on the small side doesn’t matter. In the end, what matters is what you do. Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of what he called “the whole shebang” in Europe. He knew there was more to winning the war than armor. “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” he said.
At the beginning of 1945 the Allied Expeditionary Force on the Western Front had 73 divisions ready to go. The Germans had 26 divisions. The Battle of the Bulge ended in an Allied victory. Adolf Hitler held a meeting with his top men, instructing them to hold the Americans and British off as long as possible. By that time, however, his top men were flat tires. He boarded a train and never went back to the Western Front. At the end of January, he gave the last speech he was ever to give. He tried to rally the troops. It didn’t do any good.
After surrendering, Gediminas spent time in a DP camp, until being recruited by the Americans. They were looking for men who spoke multiple languages and he fit the bill. He had been picking up bits and pieces of English. He was fluent in Russian and Polish, which are among the top 10 hardest languages to learn. English is no slouch, either. He served as a Sergeant in a Baltic Unit. In 1946 and 1947 he was in Nuremberg, where war crime trials were being conducted. The top dogs who propagated the National Socialist German Party either committed suicide, were executed, or locked up in a kennel for a long time.
As the hard-fought decade of the 1940s wound itself down, Gediminas Jurgelaitis snuck aboard a tramp freighter and sailed to North America, finding work as a lumberjack near North Bay, Ontario. “It was an indentured servant kind of job,” he said. More than two-thirds of the Canadian province is forest, in land area the equivalent of Fascist Germany and Fascist Italy combined. “He was never quite sure where he was,” Kayleigh said. “He wasn’t, at least, a mile down in Sudbury’s nickel mines.”
“Hey, my dad worked in the mines his whole life,” JT said.
“Going miles down into the ground takes its own kind of courage,” Kayleigh said.
Making it work in a company lumbering town is unlikely. Since there is no competition, housing costs and groceries bills are exorbitant, and workers build up large debts they are required to pay off before leaving. It can be slavery by another name. Gediminas determined to find another way, his own way.
“He and some other Lithuanians pooled their resources, found a broken-down car, scavenged parts from other wrecks, filled the tires with enough cotton to get them to roll, and hit the road. They didn’t tell anybody where they were going. He ended up in St. Catherine’s, near Niagara Falls, and later, finding a chance to go to the United States in 1950, took the chance and settled down outside Buffalo, New York, where he stayed the rest of his life.”
“What did he do there?” JT asked.
“He got married to an Irish girl. He never found out what happened to his Lithuanian wife and daughter.” The Iron Curtain had slammed shut. “My mother Sadie taught school. They raised a family. He went to work as a butcher in the meat department of a grocery store. He never missed a day until the day he died.”
Kayleigh’s father built a house on three acres of land. One acre of it was devoted to a garden. “My brother pushed thousands of wheelbarrows of manure as a child. Whenever our car parts factory friends went on strike, he and I delivered food to them in the morning before school. Sometimes my father would hang from his heels in the garage to prove he could still do it. He smoked and drank with his friends at the local Italian and Polish social clubs. He was an affable man, but he was a strong man, too.”
“He must have been, being in three armies, one of them twice, and fighting with a guerilla group,” JT said. “He had more lives than a cat.”
“Yeah, but once he was done, he never enlisted in any other man’s army again.”