The Bertulis Family
Names and occupations/professions and ages of you and/or your family members who fled from Lithuania:
Ina Bertulyte Bray (b.1934); Juozas Bertulis (b. 1893); Eugenija Paskeviciute Bertuliene (b. 1907); Aleksandras Bertulis (b. 1939)
Where in Lithuania did you and/or your family live before leaving the country?
Giruliai in the suburb of Klaipeda
When and under what circumstance did you and/or your family members leave Lithuania?
Since Hitler had annexed the Klaipeda region in 1939, and we had remained there, my family was considered foreigners (Auslaender) and therefore enemies. By August 1944 my father had already been forced to the Eastern Front to dig trenches, and at gunpoint my mother was ordered to take us and and leave. We were a security risk to the major German military installation in the woods near the beach. A truck took us and a number of Lithuanians who had fled to us, and other local Germans to the harbor, to a fishing boat which took us to Cranz, near Koenigsberg.
If known, list the towns on your route from your home to the DP camp(s)
We traveled hrough Poland but don’t remember which cities; then through Vienna, ending Gratkorn, outside of Graz. From there in Nov. 1944 we fled to Ismaning, outside of Munich, and after the War ended, to Munich itself.
Could you describe what the escape was like? How did you travel (on foot, by boat, train, other?)
On August 4, 1944, some kilometers by foot, then by truck, by fishing boat, by trains.
Where did you stay en route?
In schools or on the train, in train stations. After we left Cranz, I remember that journey only in a fog so don’t know those specifics.
What problems or dangers did you encounter?
When we were on the Kuršių Marios [the Curonian Spit], Soviet planes bombed us. The fishing boat that had followed us was hit and sank. Constantly on our way to Austria we experienced bombardments and strafing. Since we were the “Verfluchte Auslaender” (damn foreigners), the possibility of being taken to slave labor camps permanently hung over our heads. My mother had extraordinary abilities of survival (as a child, the Russian Revolution, in Klaipeda arrested by the German military and accused of spying for the Soviets, and incessant other harassments), so she managed to keep us and the other Lithuanian refugees that were fleeing with us (she got papers for them as our “relatives”) out of camps. Once three of our families reached Gratkorn (a town outside of Graz, Austria) my mother and one other woman were assigned to work in a lumber mill, maneuvering logs into monstrous saws.
As the Eastern front was collapsing, my father was released and through friends who lived in the Western part of Germany was able to contact us, and we reunited in Austria.
The danger of bombings was ever-present wherever we were. Starvation was always one meal away. Always the threat of Concentration Camps. One misstep on our part, or overzealousness on the part of a German or Austrian, and we would have been deported. Nobody let us forget that we were “Untermenschen” (subhuman).
What did you eat? What did you bring with you/carry?
All three of us had back packs made out of linen towels, packed with bare necessities: warm clothes, documents, photographs and food – dried bread, dried cheese and slabs of bacon. (I had hidden a few small pieces of amber that I had collected on the Baltic shore.) In our hands, my mother had a suitcase, I had a bag, my brother was to hold on to one of us.
Describe some memorable experiences from you journey.
The bombing on Kursiu Marios. The three of us were squished together on the bow of the boat, so we could not move and only heard the explosions and did not see the other boat sinking. Once we landed, many who had been waiting on the dock were crying and wailing. Some families had been separated onto different boats so these must have been the separated ones.
Name of the DP camp(s) in which you lived and approximately how much time you spent in each one.
Only my father for a while lived in a camp in Munich (can’t remember the name).
Number of years you and your family members spent in each camp.
From 1945-1950 my mother, my brother and I (only occasionally my father) lived not in camps but in a room in a private apartment house in Munich. For some two or so years, my father was in charge of several DP orphanages in Prien am Chiemsee (Bavaria), so he lived there, coming home only from time to time. At other times he lived in camps where he worked.
Description of the living conditions (Did you live in a barrack, a building, an apartment) Were there other occupants in your living quarters? How did you eat, prepare food?
The city administration of bombed-out Munich had ordered that homes and apartments be subdivided, and allotted a specific square footage to refugees of all nationalities and bombing survivors. In the 4-room apartment where we lived, 11 refugees were housed. When my father would come home, there literally was not enough room for the four of us to sleep even including on the floor. Ponia Neverauskiene, who lived downstairs, would then share her room with me and I would sleep on her couch.
Kitchen, toilet and bathroom were all communal. Taking turns for all needs, all common tasks, and keeping track of how much natural gas we each used for cooking, were endless undertakings. Since there was no central heating, our room was heated with a wood/coal stove. We also used it for food preparation not just warmth. The chimney protruded out the window that had been covered with some kind of cardboard. No light. After months of waiting, glass panes were installed (they had shattered during bombing raids), but a part of the window still was left covered with this cardboard to accommodate the chimney.
Throughout the apartment house no warm water existed. Laundry and bathing was done in the basement laundry room where one could make a coal fire in a huge oven that had a built-in cauldron. Again we had to sign up for its use.
Most memorable events from life in the DP camp(s).
When my mother, my brother and I would go to visit my father in Prien finally there would be enough food! We also tasted such exotic delicacies as peanut butter for the first time in our lives. I overate and did not touch it for the next 30 years or so. In Munich we lived on ration coupons which minimally covered our nutrition needs, consequently what my father would bring back from the camps was invaluable. We were allowed to live outside the camps because my mother and at times my father had jobs not necessarily related to camps.
How did you and your family members occupy your/their time in the camp(s)? Did you or any of your family members work? Attend school?
Yes, my parents worked. My father at times directed choirs in various camps; he had organized a faculty of music at the UNRRA University for DPs in Munich (the University disbanded when both faculty and students emigrated). He taught music in camp schools. For some two years he was in charge of several orphanages in Prien. They were closed after all the orphans had been placed in families in various countries. My mother worked in a Lithuanian refugee assistance organization that was housed in a multi-use home in Munich and funded by UNRRA then IRO – as I remember. And my father, I never remember him not writing music. Any unused moment, and he scribbled musical notes.
My brother and I went to German schools. Since we had grown up in Klaipeda/Memel where no Lithuanian schools had been allowed, we spoke German fluently and so were able attended excellent German schools.
What kind of organizations did your family belong to (fraternal, charitable, scouting, religious, etc.)?
I have no idea, but if there was an organization that promoted Lithuanianism or helped others in need, my parents were sure to join it.
When and under what circumstance did you and/or your family members leave the DP camp for the United States? Did you have any sponsors in the US? If so, who were they?
As soon as emigration became available anywhere, my parents applied: Venezuela, Argentina, (not Brazil, my mother was afraid of constrictor snakes), Canada, Australia, Madagascar and of course U.S. Since I had had TB, that was a deterrent for any emigration, and it was not until the disease was contained that the US accepted us. Through IRO we found a sponsor, a farmer, in Indiana. But he rescinded once we had reached the Harbor of N.Y. as we were the third family that was about to land on his door step. The US Immigration Dept. and IRO had screwed up. My mother’s cousin Nikodemas Jasinevicius, who had arrived the year before, had offered to help us, so with the help of the National Catholic Welfare Conference we took a train to Los Angeles and landed on our relative’s door step.
How did you travel to the United States? If you remember the ship name or any other details form the crossing, please describe the journey. What was your port of entry into the US?
We traveled by an about-to-be-mothballed, rickety Liberty ship: the HHS Horace Greely. The crossing took three weeks, as we first went to New Orleans and then to New York; several hundred of us stuffed in an open area below deck, poorly ventilated, on three-tiered – or more – bunk beds. The first few stormy days were nightmarish, – most of us quickly became seasick. But if we could eat, fabulous food was offered. We were not allowed to have any contact with the crew, and at times we felt like monkeys in a zoo, we were observed but not interacted with. Our family landed in N.Y., went through a terrifying examination on Ellis Island (what if my TB had resurfaced, or they had found the 12 dollars that my parents were smuggling in??), and then traveled to Los Angeles.
List the places you lived when you first arrived and where you eventually settled.
We went directly to Los Angeles and settled there.
Where did you and/or your family members work in the US? Which schools did you and your family members attend?
My parents primarily worked in the flight kitchen of United Airlines. My mother died while still employed. After retirement, my father worked for a year or two cleaning a store, and then moved to Chicago where he became involved in every Lithuanian organization and activity that had anything to do with music. His paid (minimally) final job was as organist at the Ausros Vartu Lithuanian Church. My brother, after middle school and high school in L.A. studied in Washington State and became an architect. I finished two years of high school, then graduated from UCLA and U.C. Berkeley.
How difficult was it to learn English?
For my brother and me, that came quickly. The grounding that we had received in German schools, served us well. But my parents struggled. Yet particularly my mother in time succeeded well, eventually being promoted to a supervisory position.
When you first arrived, how were you received by other Americans? By other Lithuanians?
Wonderfully by the Americans, and well by the Lithuanians. While in Germany, I remember vividly Lithuanians showing resentment toward my family, but particularly toward me because we had stayed in Klaipeda after the Annexation in 1939, spoke German well and did not experience the Soviet horrors. The derogatory phrase “Tu ne tikra lietuve, tu klaipediete” (You are not a real Lithuanian, you are from Klaipeda) still rings in my ears. Yet for the Germans in Klaipeda, we were the “verfluchte Auslaender” (damn foreigners) with all that that implied. All that changed once we arrived in L.A.
Please share experiences from your first years of immigration:
a. Where did you work? (described above) b. Where did you go to school? (described above)c. Who were your neighbors? Americans, at that time there were very few Lithuanian DPs in L.A. d. Did you attend church or religious services, if so where? Yes, we were members of Sv. Kazimiero Baznycia in L.A.
Did you correspond with relatives in Lithuania?
Yes, particularly my father wrote, and sent packages that took a considerable chunk out of his income.
When did your family members feel established in the United States?
My parents probably never, my brother and I once we finished our education and started our own families.
Did you participate in Lithuanian activities here in the US?
Yes, my entire family did. My own involvement is far too extensive to even summarize but I’m providing some salient points:
In the early 1970s I was part of a team that reinvigorated the then dormant JAV Lietuviu Bendruomene [American Lithuanian Community Chapter] in the Seattle area. I became its first president and held that position with a hiatus of two years, for 16 years until March 1991.
When in the mid 1980s, Madison, WI, attempted to be paired with Vilnius in a Sister City arrangement, I vigorously supported that even though almost all JAV[US] Lithuanian organizations opposed it. I had watched the impressive interactions between Seattle and Tashkent, and wished a similar benefit for Vilnius. The energetic committee of American organizers in Madison, with my help, won the City Council’s and the Mayor’s approval, and that extraordinary program exists to this day.
We intensified political activities: close ties with our Congressional Delegation (Sen. Skoop Jackson, particularly Congr. John Miller, Sen. Slate Gorton), gave TV interviews and wrote articles, organized demonstrations, staged exhibits, helped celebrate Lithuanian Catholic masses in St. James Cathedral.
Easing of Soviet restriction meant that we could make happen innumerable brief or extended visits of people from Lithuania, or just host individuals brought here by American organizations: A. Degutis, A. Juozaitis, V. Adamkus, ambassador S. Lozoraitis, ambassador A. Eidintas, cosmonaut Rimantas Stankevicius, the first US Ambassador Darryl Johnson, ornithologist Rimantas Budrys, professor Alfred Senn from U. of Wisconsin, teacher Danute Masiuliene from Panevezys, student exchanges, hundreds of school pen pals, the National Rowing team from Trakai competed here twice; and many more musicians, artists, academics, activists, sports people, and others.
With the help of the English Speaking Union, some two tons of books were sent to the Panevezys public library – first major donation of English books to them ever; the Seattle Public Library sent to the Mazvydas Library in Vilnius on permanent loan valuable Lithuanian books, published in the late 19th century, books that had been in their collection.
In the early 1990s, the University of Washington began to institute a Baltic Studies Program. First it was intended to be just as a rowing program in which a number of other major Universities obligated themselves for a summer, but after two years it became a permanent and very successful year-round academic department. I was one of the very first community activists involved in making the program come into existence.
Under my presidency, Seattle evolved into one of the most active communities in the US. For a number of years all our activities were conducted in English, thereby attracting numerous non-Lithuanian speaking members into our organization. As advocates for our cause, they proved to be invaluable.
Did you or your family members visit Lithuania during the Cold War?
Not my parents, but I took my family to the USSR and to Lithuanian in 1977 so that they could experience even if only a touch of Communism and understand why my parents left.
What was that experience of returning like for you and/or your family members?
Beyond description! For me, it was as if my soul finally found peace. For my American husband and our two teenage daughters at that time – horrified by what they saw in the Soviet Union, they became more American than ever. Over the years, I returned 11 times, always with a Lithuanian agenda, in later years with the project of publishing some of my father’s compositions. So far, three collections have appeared.
List any other thoughts, impressions, memories, that you would like to share with others.
America made it possible for us to regain our humanity, start a new life, yet stay connected to our roots. My gratitude for that and so much more will remain ingrained in me and I will take that with me to my grave. But, thanks to my parents, I am still Lithuanian to the deepest marrow of my bones, and that defines me.