“No Time for Goodbyes”

The Paltarokas-Valaitis Family

The following DP story and photographs were submitted by artist/song-writer Laura Valaitis whose accompanying original composition, the song “No Time for Goodbyes”,  was inspired by her grandparents and parents’ escape from Lithuania during World War II. Click on the arrow (right) to hear the recording in the artist’s own voice.
These epic and often horrifying stories of occupying armies in tanks, of relatives being hauled off to forced labor camps in the farthest reaches of Siberia, of my refugee parents and grandparents fleeing their homeland, as the war raged all around them were a big part of the background story that I was born into.
Laura Valaitis
Mother's family in Kempten
Mother’s family in Kempten
“No Time For Goodbyes” is a song that was inspired by the stories I’d heard my parents tell me about their flight out of Lithuania as displaced persons (DPs) during the last months of World War Two. These epic and often horrifying stories of occupying armies in tanks, of relatives being hauled off to forced labor camps in the farthest reaches of Siberia, of my refugee parents and grandparents fleeing their homeland, as the war raged all around them were a big part of the background story that I was born into. Overflowing with traumatic information, certainly more than I could handle as a young child, these stories often frightened and overwhelmed me. I had neither the skills nor the emotional development to process and come to terms with them. It wasn’t until I began working on my MA in Psychology/Art Therapy in my late twenties and studying the effects of PTSD on survivors of various traumatic events, that I was able to sort through the narrative of my family legacy and separate that from the narrative of my personal reality. Once that boundary line was drawn I gleaned a clearer perspective between the two. What follows is, to the best of my knowledge, my family’s DP story.

My Family’s Exodus from Lithuania

Papa, Tubingen, Germany, 1948
Papa, Tubingen, Germany, 1948

My father, Jonas Valaitis, told me he’d never forget the day the Russian army first occupied Lithuania. It was June 15, 1940. He was 18 years old, and his high school graduation at the Kaunas “Aušros” Boys High School had been cancelled as result of the invasion. With the Soviet annexation that soon followed, in August of 1940 began the imprisonment, execution and deportation to Siberia of many thousands of Lithuanians, included among them extended family members on both the Valaitis (paternal) and Petraitis/Paltarokas (maternal) sides of our family. A year later, in June of 1941, the tides turned, as Germany invaded Lithuania and occupied it until the summer of 1944, when the Russians launched an offensive to recapture Lithuania once again. With the threat of deportation to the gulags looming over them, and the German and Russian armies fighting for control of their homeland, my maternal grandfather, Jonas Paltarokas, who was 49 years old in 1944, could not decide whether it was best to immediately flee the country or sit tight and wait out the war. He was a professor of agriculture, who had risen to the position of provost at the Agricultural Academy in Dotnuva, on the outskirts of Kaunas. He’d built a home for his retirement, complete with all the modern appliances that were so rare back in the 1940s, on a property with an orchard of his own hand-grafted specialty apple trees. Understandably, he was hesitant to give up all he’d worked for to make a life for himself and his family in Lithuania. According to my Aunt Alda (Paltarokaitė Kubilienė), he asked the entire family to pay attention to their dreams, and based on those he and my grandmother, Stasė (Petraitytė Paltarokienė), would make their decision. Knowing what a pragmatic realist my grandfather was, I, being a lifelong Jungian and student of dreams, was utterly surprised and somewhat fascinated to hear that in this moment of crisis he had actually turned to dreams to supply him with guidance about such a critical life decision. The following morning, my mother, Joana (Paltarokaitė Valaitiene), who was 18 years old at the time, reported that she’d dreamed about a field of crosses. Taking this as a bad omen, my grandparents decided it was best for their family to leave Lithuania. Without much delay, they packed their essential belongings into bags light enough to carry, and in the dead of the night, with the sky lit up by fires from the bombings in the distance, they headed west by horse and buggy in the direction of Berlin.

The Tragic Fate of Those Left Behind

My great grandmother (Uršulė Jankauskaitė-Petraitienė), known to everyone in the family as Baba, was already in her eighties and chose to stay behind. She didn’t imagine that the Communists would bother an old woman like her. But unfortunately, she couldn’t have been more wrong. Red Army soldiers showed up at her home in the country and threw her out of her house, boarding it up and forcing her out into the street. Having been declared an “enemy of the people,” no one dared to take her in, and she ended up freezing to death as a beggar. Baba wasn’t the only member of my mother’s family terrorized by the Soviet Communists. My grandmother’s youngest brother, Jonas Petraitis, was deported to one of the worst gulags in the region of the dreadful uranium mines, where he was imprisoned and worked to death as a slave of the Soviet state. My mother told me he was her favorite uncle, a jovial and loving guy. In the only letter received by his family he would write that prior to “this” he hadn’t known what hell was, but now he did. His body was returned to Lithuania for burial not long after that. My grandmother’s sister, Jadzė Petraitytė-Sutkienė, her niece, Aldutė, and her nephew, Jonas, were also branded “enemies of the people” and deported to Siberia, where they spent twenty-six years imprisoned as slave laborers on various collective farms. Jadzė’s husband, Jonas Sutkus, who had been a general in the Lithuanian military, was arrested, imprisoned in the Sverdlosk gulag, and shot. I remember one day, in the late 1960s, I saw my grandmother clutching in her hands a letter that she’d managed to receive from Aldutė Sutkūte. It was the first time I saw my grandmother engulfed in dread. She and my grandfather never spoke to me about any of the traumatic events in their past. Everything I learned about these atrocities came to me through other family members, mostly from my mother, who kept in touch with her cousin Aldutė as best as she could, often sent care packages to her in Lithuania, and visited with her in the 1990s in Kaunas, after Lithuania had regained its independence. The Valaitis side of the family had its share of Siberian deportees as well. The most iconic of these was my father’s aunt, Dėdienė Irena, who was deported to a Siberian lumber camp along with her somewhat sickly husband, Justinas, her son, daughter and mother-in-law, my father’s grandmother, (Marija Kaukaitė-Valaitienė), who was blind and in her eighties. Determined to survive and to return home, Dėdienė did the lion’s share of the work for her family, chopping down trees in her attempt to save them from starvation and death. Though my great grandmother and great uncle Justinas did not survive the Siberian ordeal, other family members did. Prior to the deportation, Dėdienė had buried her favorite china under the biggest oak tree in her yard at the family farm at Margiai to prevent it from being looted by the Communist soldiers. Once her farm was returned to her, she dug up her long-buried china, and when my father returned to Lithuania to visit her in 1992 the entire family ate their dinner from these historically significant plates.

Navigating the Dangerous Road to Kempten

Aunt Alda on the boat to America
Aunt Alda on the boat to America

Like many WW2 refugees, my mother’s family encountered many hardships and dangers on their journey out of Lithuania. My mother once told me a story of how in the midst of running to an air raid shelter during a bombing, an inner voice had commanded her to “Stop!” Just as she did, a spray of bullets from a low flying fighter plane exploded onto the ground in front of her. If she hadn’t heeded her inner knowing she could have been shot and killed. My Aunt Alda’s recollections of the DP journey always included much praise for her mother, my maternal grandmother, Stasė, whose sensible fearlessness and highly polished diplomatic skills throughout the ordeal of the war and displacement were practically legendary. My aunt, who was only 16 years old when they fled Lithuania in 1944, told me an amazing story of how my grandmother had succeeded in procuring her and my mother’s release from Nazi headquarters in Berlin after they’d been detained on suspicion of spying. According to my aunt, the only thing that she and my mother were guilty of was chatting with a Lithuanian Nazi soldier, whom they thought they’d recognized. They weren’t expecting that this would land them in such hot water. Fortunately, though, they had my grandmother to tend to their rescue. How exactly my petite “Muche,” all 4’9,” persuaded the Nazi authorities to let my mother and aunt go free, I will never know. Upon their release, my mother’s family caught one of the last trains out of Berlin before it was heavily bombed by the Allies. Eventually, they ended up at a displaced person’s camp in Kempten, in southern Germany, where they, along with over a thousand other Lithuanian refugees, would reside for the next five years as “dipukai” (DPs).

Mother, Kempten, Germany, 1948
Mother, Kempten, Germany, 1948

It was here that my father met and fell in love with my mother. “It was just like Sleeping Beauty,” my father told me, reducing the entire event to a fairy tale chapter heading. Apparently my mother, who was attending classes at the University of Tubingen, had ingested a strong dose of some kind of sedative and was not able to wake up for her final exams. Her roommate, concerned about my mother’s excessively somnolent state, had called my father for help. He’d finished his medical degree training at the Eberhard Karls University in Tubingen in 1946 after fleeing Lithuania in 1944, and was now one of the doctors in charge of caring for the refugees. Intrigued by the call, he came straight over to wake my sedated mother. The details of how he did this remain a mystery, but one thing was for sure that from the moment my father laid eyes on his “sleeping beauty” he was completely smitten and determined to marry her. She, on the other hand, did not initially show much interest in what she described as “that strange guy with the briefcase,” and would need close to six more years of convincing.

Papa's first job at Columbia
Papa’s first job at Columbia

Starting Life Over in America

In 1949, several years after the war had ended my mother’s family, under the sponsorship of someone that my grandmother knew in Connecticut, arrived in the US, followed in 1950 by my father’s family. Within a few years they’d settled in the Lithuanian community in Brighton Park on the south side of Chicago. My father passed his medical licensing exams in 1951 and was soon on the way to establishing a career for himself as a pathologist. He’d been a founding member of the Santara-Šviesa Federation in post-war Tubingen. He would continue his involvement in this and other Lithuanian cultural, social and political organizations: the American Lithuanian Council (ALTAS), The Lithuanian Foundation (LIETUVIŲ FONDAS), the Lithuanian Social Democrat Party, and the Lithuanian American Medical Association. My mother had been very disappointed to have had to abandon her studies at the University of Tubingen in order to emigrate with her family to the US in 1949. She eventually earned her MS degree in Microbiology at the University of Chicago, but did not pursue a career in microbiology. She was engaged to my father in 1952 and married him in June of 1953. Together she and my father had two children, Laura (me) and Sandra Rasa. In 1961, my father bought our family a house in Western Springs, in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and with that began our new American life.

Submitted by Laura Valaitis

J & J dressed up
J & J dressed up