“How did it happen that you come from Sudbury,” Kayleigh Jurgelaitis asked.
“World War Two,” JT Markunas said.
“My dad is from Siauliai up in the north of Lithuania,” JT said, giving the pint in front of him a break. “My grandmother was Russian, a schoolteacher in Saransk, when my grandfather met her before the start of World War One” The town and an army garrison were in the Penza, four hundred miles southeast of Moscow. “My grandfather Kestutis was an officer in the Russian Imperial Army.”
“You’re part Russian?”
“A small part but there it is, so watch your step.”
Saransk was founded as a fortress, on the left bank of the Isar River, at the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before First World War its commercial life revolved around leather, meat, and honey. After the war its factories were closed for more than ten years when there weren’t any available fuels or raw materials.
“He was conscripted and trained as an officer and sent to serve there with an infantry regiment. He was from a good family, so it was a hard post for him, because back then they said drinkers go to the navy and dimwits to the infantry.”
The Imperial Russian Army counted more than a million men in uniform, most of them conscripted, most of them peasants. There were a quarter million Cossacks, too. Only the Cossacks knew what they were doing.
“He swept my grandmother, Antonina, off her feet and they got married. They had my older aunt, Genute, in 1917. My other aunt Gaile was born the next year.”
JT’s father Vytautas was born six years later, in 1924. He was named after King Vytautas the Great. His mother called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the Little Prince. They didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, a hill where there had once been a fort less than ten miles from the town. It is covered with tens of thousands of crosses, crucifixes, and statues. It was after Czarist forces crushed the November Uprising of 1831 when the first crosses appeared.
By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than one hundred years, having disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time, it had been under the thumb of the Russian Empire. In late 1919, while Russia was being torn apart by the Bolshevik revolution, Kestutis Markunas went home to a newly independent Lithuania.
“The country didn’t have many officers when they formed their own army,” JT said. “Most of them were men who had been conscripted into the Imperial Army before the war. My grandfather fought in the post-war battles around Klaipeda and after that he served in the secret service in Kaunas, which was the capital.”
Lithuania declared independence and for almost three years fought Soviets, West Russians, and Poles for their land. Finally, in 1920 they formed their own government, although they later lost their largest city Vilnius to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war with little official warfare.
“After the fighting my grandfather got some land for serving his country, near Siauliai. They had a house in town but lived on a farm most of the time.”
During World War One most of Siauliai’s buildings were destroyed and the city center was obliterated. Since its founding in the 13th century Siauliai had been struck by plague seven times, went up in flames seven times, and World War Two was the seventh conflict that wrecked the town.
“My grandfather was the governor of Panevezys for more than fifteen years.”
Panevezys, a royal town founded in the early 16th century, is on the plain of the Nevezis River, about fifty miles east of Siauliai. During the interwar years Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor.
Vytas went to grade school and high school in Panevezys, but then his father was transferred to Zerasai, a place that sported a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai burned down and was rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Czar Alexander’s son, but after the Great War the name was expunged. By then most Lithuanians hated most Russians.
“When my grandfather became the governor of the Zerasai district, my grandmother didn’t want to move, since it was more than seventy-five miles away from where they lived, so my father stayed with her. But he didn’t get along with the students at the high school there.” It was a strict religious school, and everybody had to dress appropriately, like they were tending to saints.
“On my first day of classes I was dressed up too nice, like I was going to a party, with a bright tie and everything, and everybody laughed at me,” Vytas said. “Where are you from, they all asked, mocking me. I didn’t make any friends there.” He finally told them, “I’m leaving and going to Zerasai.” He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father. “We always studied a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying it was easy for me. But when I got to Zerasai I found out they only had English as a second language, no Russian. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.”
During the 1930s the world was changing fast. In 1940 the Lithuanian world changed even faster. The Markunas world didn’t change so much as fall apart.
“The Soviets showed up in 1940,” JT said. “All of the country’s officials were let go and the Russians put in new people they wanted to run the show. They always said they didn’t order anything themselves, but it was the Lithuanian Communists who were in charge, so it was really the Russians.”
The father and son moved back to Siauliai. By then Vytas spoke Lithuanian, Russian, and English. The Markunas family spent more and more time at their farm. “It was only a few miles from our farmhouse to town,” Vytas said. “I used to walk or bicycle to town. But the mood was bad. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”
The Russian annexation of Lithuania was completed by the late summer of 1940. Businesses were nationalized and collectivization of land began. As the Russian presence expanded the family talked about leaving the Baltics.
“Why don’t we go to Germany?” his mother Antonina asked.
“We had a chance to leave the country then and go somewhere else,” Vytas said. “My mother wanted to go. We talked about it often.”
But Kestutis Markunas didn’t want to leave his homeland. “I have never done anything wrong that they would arrest me,” he told his family. “I have always been good to the people. They aren’t going to put me in jail.”
In the fall a troop of Soviet infantry commandeered their farm for several days. “They didn’t do anything bad, or mistreat us, but they hadn’t washed in months,” Vytas said. “They smelled bad, and they rolled their cheap tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took a week to air out the stink.”
The family stayed on their farm through the winter. Then, as mass arrests and deportations of policemen and politicians, dissidents, and Catholics began, Kestutis Markunas was picked up by NKVD plainclothesmen. It was a sunny summer day.
“My father told me he was gardening in their yard, wearing a shirt, old pants, and slippers when they drove up, a carload of Russians, and stopped, saying there was something wrong with their engine,” JT said. “I’ll help you out, my grandfather said. He walked over to the car with them. They shoved him into the back seat and drove off.”
Vytas was in school taking his final exams that morning. “My mother called the school and told me my father had been taken. I ran out of class and went home right away on my bike.” Antonina packed clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. She went to see him the next day. “The man who was running the jail was a Jewish fellow. He had grown up with us and was a friend of our family, but when my mother asked him to help us, he said the times have changed.”
It was a new day and a new order.
“He was a Communist and had been in and out of jail because of his political activities. He was always in trouble. My father usually let him go after a few days, telling him to not get involved in politics anymore. Just be a nice boy, he would tell him, but then the next thing we knew he would be in jail again. He wouldn’t help my father when he was arrested. He said everything’s different now. Times have changed. Everybody was looking out for themselves, only themselves.”
The man who had once ruled the local police stayed under lock and key in the local lock-up.
“They didn’t let my mother talk to my father. We went there many times, but they never let us see him. We never saw him again.”
Kestutis Markunas was taken to New Vilnius and loaded onto a boxcar. Four days later, starting on June 23, 1941, at the Battle of Raseiniai, the 4th Panzer Group, part of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, finished the almost complete destruction of Russian armored forces in Lithuania. Within a week Nazi Germany seized the whole of the country.
JT’s grandfather was transported to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He logged with a work gang in the dense forests and starved to death in the winter of 1942. Anton Chekhov, the Russian short story writer, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.
“My father logged when he first came to Canada, north of Sudbury,” Kayleigh said. “He always said it was hard work, working in all kinds of weather, harder than the mines.”
“The morning after my father was arrested, I drove our horse and wagon to school to finish my exams,” Vytas said. “I had to deliver milk to my teacher’s family on my way. But when I stopped at his house, he ran out with his family and said, help take us to the railroad station. They all got into my wagon, his wife and their two children. I took them to the station. The next day one of our neighbors told me the Russians had come to the teacher’s house that same afternoon looking for him. Teachers, lawyers, anybody from an educated family. They were afraid professional people were against them. “
When the NKVD began mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting by Lithuanians among themselves. It was every man for himself, unless you were a Red.
“If you were a Communist then you were all right,” Vytas said. “The father of one of my friends was a metal worker. He didn’t even know how to read, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a one of them.”
His mother, sister Genute, and he stayed on the farm after his father’s arrest. His sister Gaile was living in Vilnius. When the mass arrests intensified, they became alarmed. “We had to leave the farm. It was too dangerous to stay. We went into the forest. But then my mother told me to go to Vilnius and tell Gaile our father had been arrested. She wanted Gaile to know to be very careful. I took a train to Vilnius, but as soon as I got there, I got a phone call saying my mother had been arrested.”
“How did they live in the forest?” Kayleigh asked.
“They built a lean-to and camouflaged it,” JT said. “My father was 16 years old but knew how to set traps. He and his sister stole food from nearby farms.”
“When I got back to Siauliai I found my mother was being deported,” Vytas said. “Somebody complained and informed on her. We had land, 160 acres, so we were considered capitalists. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. I went to the train station but didn’t see her anywhere. She was sent to a prison camp.”
His mother was transported to the Gulag. She was released in 1956, after Stalin’s death, but not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai. She was sent to a cinder block two-room apartment near the Baltic Sea.
“After his mother’s arrest my father moved to Vilnius, staying with my aunt Gaile and her husband,” JT said. “At the time almost everyone living there was either Russian, Polish, or Jewish.” Lithuanians in the former capital city were strangers in their own land.
“The day the Communists left and before the Germans came, everybody rushed to the food warehouses and broke into them,” Vytas said. “It wasn’t that we were robbing them, but everybody was doing it, since there was no food. Gaile and I went, too. We filled up our bags with bread and pork and took everything home. When the Germans arrived, they put a stop to it.”
Vytas stayed in Vilnius for a month but decided to go home before the end of summer. The family farm had to be cared for, but, first, he had to get a travel permit.
“I couldn’t get in to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to someone who had known my father and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any more permits, but after we talked about my father a little, he said all right, and wrote one out for me.”
He took a train back to Siauliai and walked home, but when he got there, he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the farm.
“They were there about three weeks, more than seventy of them. I couldn’t even get into our house since the officers had taken it over. But those Germans were good men. They didn’t do our farm any harm. They had their own quarters and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank beer together at night.”
His father’s practice had been to have a foreman run the farm. The foreman hired three men and three women every spring. Although the farm had chickens and pigs, and horses to do the heavy work, it was largely a dairy farm with more than twenty cows.
“It was a model farm,” said Vytas. “Every summer students from the agricultural school would tour it. When I came back, Genute was there, but she wasn’t interested, so she didn’t do any work. I started taking care of things, even though I didn’t know anything. I knew the cows had to be milked and the milk had to go to the dairy. But about growing crops, and the fields, I didn’t know anything. But I worked as though I knew what I was doing.”
That fall he sent his farmhands out to till the ground in a nearby field. When his nearest neighbor saw them working, he ran across the road shouting and waving.
“What in the hell are you doing?” he yelled.
“I told him we were preparing the ground for next year. He said, you’re ruining this year’s seed and you won’t have any grass next year. We stopped right away. I learned what to do.”
A year later he was on a horse-drawn mower cutting hay when he saw storm clouds gathering. He thought he would walk the horses, lightening the load so they could pull the mower faster, and jumped down from his seat.
“As I hopped down, I stumbled and fell on the blades of the mower. The horses stopped. My hand was almost cut off. The boy who was helping me ran over. When he saw what happened, and saw my hand, he passed out.”
As the war went on, he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his injured hand and farmhands everywhere were deserting the land.
“I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew they gave Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and we sang together at night. One morning I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were all gone. I had to go back to the Germans and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer shouted that I hadn’t looked after them, shouted that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouted that they weren’t going to give me anymore. In the end I said, I need five more, so they gave me five more. I kept them locked up after that and they were still there when the Red Army came back.”
In 1944 the Red Army stormed into Lithuania. Vytas escaped with a mechanized company of Germans, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. They told him he had five minutes to decide whether he was coming with them as they retreated.
“They were in a hurry. They said the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses. I only had time to fill a bag with a few clothes, a little money, and photographs of my parents.”
His sister Genute fled to East Prussia. His other sister couldn’t get away. “She had a problem at the border and didn’t make it. The Soviets had taken that area, so Gaile was forced to stop in a town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her. Her husband had been shot. In the end the three of them were forced to stay there. She finished school, became a nurse, and never told anyone where she was from. The Russians never found out anything about her.”
In July 1944 the Red Army captured Panevezys. Later that month they took Siauliai, inflicting heavy damage on the city. Two months later the counterattacking German 3rd Panzer Army was destroyed, and Lithuania became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
“My father ended up in Sudbury in the late 1940s with a duffel bag and enough loose change to buy a snack,” JT said. “He got a job with Inco and that’s where he stayed. At first, he worked as a blaster, one of the more dangerous jobs, but over the years his work got easier and paid better.”
“My dad worked in the mines for seven or eight years after he got there, but then went to Toronto and from there moved to Buffalo,” Kayleigh said. “No matter, I still think of myself as a Sudbury girl.”
“Where did you live?”
“We lived on Pine Street, where the Finns and Eastern Europeans lived.”
JT grew up on Stanley Street where it dead-ended, only a few blocks from Pine Street.
“When were you born?”
JT took a bite on his inner lower lip. He had been born the same year. Kayleigh was his age, from his hometown, and had grown up within shouting distance. He wasn’t sure if the coincidences piling up were a good thing or a bad thing.
“Do you remember the Canadian Pacific trains wailing where they curled around the back of Stanley Street?”
“I do,” Kayleigh said. “Whenever they wailed, I wailed right back.”
“Me too,” JT said.