The following questionnaire was submitted by Audronė Marija Stakytė Užgirienė of Highland Park, Illinois who describes the threat of repatriation–being forcibly returned to their Soviet-occupied homelands–that dogged Baltic refugees while in the DP Camps:
At DP Camps in the English and American occupation zones, Soviet officials, often with the support of English and American military personnel, aggressively agitated for the repatriation of refugees from Soviet-occupied countries. Refugees were required to attend gatherings, which turned into Soviet propaganda ploys to reassure refugees that everything was wonderful back in their homelands and that they would be treated well upon their return. Eastern and Central Europeans refugees had experienced the harsh realities of life under Soviet rule at the outbreak of World War II, when the Soviets forcibly occupied or annexed countries along the Eastern front and arrested, killed or deported thousands of civilians to Siberian labor camps. Particularly vulnerable were those who were considered ‘bourgeois’ by Soviet standards, meaning anyone who was educated, and/or owned property, farms, and businesses—a description which characterized many of the refugees who fled westward. Consequently, they were reluctant to return. In Sweden, refugees from Baltic countries were forcibly repatriated, many refugees committed suicide instead of suffering maltreatment in Soviet hands. Active lobbying of the English and American government by the displaced persons themselves and their countrymen and supporters in North America ensured that repatriation to the Soviet Union remained voluntary; nevertheless, refugees feared and dreaded visits from Soviet officials and other repatriation advocates. One such visit was documented in photographs here (link to FB photos*)
*The Facebook album referenced was posted on the Baltic Displaced Persons Facebook Page, which is maintained as a companion to this website
Names and occupations/professions and ages of you and/or your family members who fled from Lithuania
Father Petras Stakė, judge prosecutor and notary, 38 years old. Mother Marija Šimonytė, court secretary, 34 years old. Sister Dalia Teresė Stakytė Anysienė, 4 years old. Myself, I was 7 years old and had completed first grade.
Where in Lithuania did you and/or your family live before leaving the country?
In Lithuania we lived in Panevežys 48 sodų gatvė tel 428. The house was rented from a woman who had worked in the USA. She had lost her hearing when hit by her boss. The compensation bought two houses.
When and under what circumstance did you and/or your family members leave Lithuania?
When Molotov-Ribbentrop peace pact was executed and the Russian army marched into Lithuania. With a gun to his chest, my father was given to understand by Archipov and Peleckis that there was no safe place for him. He was heading from Zarasai to visit his ailing parents and was lucky to be able to change his job to a less visible position in Panevežys with the help of Danilevičius. However, he was put on a deportation list by Lebedev and my mother was aware of surveillance. She would lie in bed clutching us with suitcase packed for Siberia not knowing whether father will come back from this assignments which involved traveling to document those killed in the woods. When Germany broke the peace treaty with Russia, we were safe for a while, but knew that Russians would come back and deport us anyway.
If known, list the towns on your route from your home to the DP camp(s)
So when the front shifted we moved west. Father left on a bicycle to avoid being drafted to dig ditches for German army. We stayed on a farm till fall and then father came back. We waited some more, but there was no hope and we got on a train for Kustrin in Germany.
Could you describe what the escape was like?
We stayed in a school gymnasium and with a family who let refugees live in their attic and basement. When the Russian front was getting close, we managed to get on the last train out because my sister was a good crier. The train was full, because German officers were trying to make themselves comfortable. When Dalia felt squashed by the mob trying to get on the train, she let them know, and they grabbed her into the train. We followed and travelled to Lubeck.
Name of the DP camp(s) in which you lived and approximately how much time you spent in each one.
Mostly we were in Lubeck: 1945 a drivers’ barracks by Arminsruhe Hotel; 1946 an apartment house on Moltke Strasse; and 1947, Messen Kaserne concrete army buildings. Later we moved to wooden barracks at Oldenburg Untenberg. Finally in 1949, we moved to a transitional camp in Wentworf. Here we stayed a good while because there were questions about my lungs, whether I had had tuberculosis or was cured. While waiting we were put on a list to be shipped to New Orleans rather than to New York were our sponsors were expecting us. My father’s relatives in Binghamton NY would joke that we were en route to be kidnapped to work on plantations in the south. But all went well when we learned to listen for the name ‘Stake’ as in ‘steak’, not ‘STAKĖ’, with the voiced ‘ė’ sound at the end. In school I was to write many times ‘Audrey’ Stake and at Maria High School, I was ‘Maria’ Stake–rather disconcerning for a 13-year-old identity.
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?
For our survival, my parents brought a suitcase of smoked bacon and rye bread. Germans gave us ration cards, and we got soup and cereal when in the refugee camps. When English forces occupied our area, we received Red Cross packages, which contained coffee, cigarettes, and sanitary items. Coffee and cigarettes were traded for fish in the north and apples from the south. Unfortunately the allied military police thought that this was contraband and displaced persons could live on coffee and cigarettes alone, not needing fish or apples. The military police in the American zone would chase and confiscate these exchanged items. The English were more understanding. Our mother was very good at this system of barter, and we survived.
Most memorable events from life in the DP camp(s)
The thing that surprised me when we arrived in Berlin by train, was that we did not have to step down from the train; it was level with the platform. Many years later we visited the same station. It was exactly as it was before, preserved as a museum.
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?
Wherever we lived seemed cozy. Our mom would do her best to make it comfortable. Mom would organize other women to knit the yarn which the English ladies donated. They would visit to see what wonderful clothing was created. We all had one or two dresses or hand-knitted suits with beautiful patterns for Sunday wear. Everyday clothes in the form of sports wear, such as warm-up pants and jackets, were made from blankets. Our lunch boxes where cans equipped with wire handles for receiving soup, cereal, or sometimes, hot chocolate.
What kind of organizations did your family belong to (fraternal, charitable, scouting, religious, etc.)?
My parents never signed up for any organization but participated in choirs, plays, and exhibits. We children attended school and were sent to summer camps organized by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), Scouts, etc. The reason my parents did not sign up for membership was because they had been forced to listen to communist propaganda.1 In fact, even Mrs. Roosevelt came to the camps and urged refugees to go back [to countries occupied by the Soviet Union]. That was scary. No one wanted to be accidentally signed up for repatriation.
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?
Our sponsors were an old couple from our father’s village Miežiškiai. In fact, almost all the names of the villagers were represented [by family members who had immigrated from Lithuania] in Binghamton, New York. NY. There was a Lithuanian parish and everyone knew everyone. The family of Marčiuškai had children of our age. Many years later Vladas Marčiuška, an engineer in Lithuania, collected information about the village of Miežiškiai, publishing a book which we donated to Balzekas Muzeum.
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 arrived in New York by the army transport ship General Muir in September, 1949. We were seasick the whole way.
List the places you lived when you first arrived and where you eventually settled.
1949-1952 we lived in Binghamton, New York, at 33 Hazel Street with our sponsors Jieva and Jurgis Strakaliai. From 1953 onward, we lived in Marquette Park, Chicago.
Where did you and/or your family members work in the US? Which schools did you and your family members attend?
In the beginning, father worked by carrying coal into people’s houses. Then, he got a job at Johnson Shoe Factory doing piecework. In Chicago, he had a better-paying job at a screw factory, until he lost two fingers of his right hand. Mother worked at a nursing home and then at the same Johnson Shoe Factory. In Chicago, she worked for Campbell Soup cleaning buckets of carrots or dismembering chickens. She did up to 300% of the required piecework.
I attended Maria High School starting when it was just opened. My sister was at the Nativity Blessed Virgin Mary School and then, Maria HS.
How difficult was it to learn English?
Mastering the English language was not a problem once we learned to respond in a way that the teacher knew that we understood. I had English in school at the DP camps. I kept saying yes and learned the ten weekly spelling words. So the teachers kept moving me up to higher grades.
When you first arrived, how were you received by other Americans? By other Lithuanians?
The Lithuanians [here in the United States] were just too kind. They kept us supplied with shelter and clothing and found us jobs. We found friends and relatives everywhere. We had very little interaction with other Americans.
Please share experiences from your first years of immigration:
a. Where did you work? b. Where did you go to school? When did your family members feel established in the United States?
We did not feel that it was a permanent emigration at all. We expected to go back when Lithuania was free. This did not seem very likely and in the beginning, I liked the idea of staying [in the US] a little longer.
Did you correspond with relatives in Lithuania?
Father corresponded with more distant relatives who would not get in trouble because of us.3 He would write pretending it was from a relative who had come to USA long time ago. Some of the letters from occupied Lithuania did not reach us till much later. One was presented with an apology from he US postal service.
Did you participate in Lithuanian activities here in the US?
Yes, we participated in all that was available: Saturday school, Folk dance festivals, summer camps and winter seminars.
Did you or your family members visit Lithuania during the Cold War?
My sister Dalia Anysas visited in the 1970s. I did not, partly because [in my work, for my job], I had security clearance, which required that I report my contacts in communist countries.
What was that experience of returning like for you and/or your family members?
Returning was like a dream come true. I wanted to kiss the ground, but my youngest son said that it was asphalted. We were met by a mass of relatives and one of our sons, who had come earlier. We went back each year and still do. It is a wonderful feeling to know that you have a land of your own where the ancestry can be traced from one village to another.
List any other thoughts, impressions, memories, that you would like to share with others.
I am particularly grateful to Balzekas Museum maps, which show the exact houses where my ancestors would have lived. I collect and cherish all the information I can and have posted it to ancestry.com.
Audronė Marija Stakytė Užgirienė
1At DP Camps in the English and American occupation zones, Soviet officials, often with the support of English and American military personnel, aggressively agitated for the repatriation of refugees from Soviet-occupied countries. Refugees were required to attend gatherings, which turned into Soviet propaganda ploys to reassure refugees that everything was wonderful back in their homelands and that they would be treated well upon their return. Eastern and Central Europeans refugees had experienced the harsh realities of life under Soviet rule at the outbreak of World War II, when the Soviets forcibly occupied or annexed countries along the Eastern front and arrested, killed or deported thousands of civilians to Siberian labor camps. Particularly vulnerable were those who were considered ‘bourgeois’ by Soviet standards, meaning anyone who was educated, and/or owned property, farms, and businesses—a description which characterized many of the refugees who fled westward. Consequently, they were reluctant to return. In Sweden, refugees from Baltic countries were forcibly repatriated, many refugees committed suicide instead of suffering maltreatment in Soviet hands. Active lobbying of the English and American government by the displaced persons themselves and their countrymen and supporters in North America ensured that repatriation to the Soviet Union remained voluntary; nevertheless, refugees feared and dreaded visits from Soviet officials and other repatriation advocates. One such visit was documented in photographs here (link to FB photos).
2Because the Soviet Union was an ally during World War II, most Americans, including government officials, were ignorant of the atrocities–including mass murder and deportations perpetrated by the Soviet Union before and during the war. English and American forces never reached the Eastern front to witness firsthand the brutality of the Soviet occupation. After the war, the Soviets actively disseminated propaganda about Communism and restricted who could travel to and from the Soviet Union. Not until after the war, was the pre-war collusion between Hitler and Stalin in the form of a secret non-aggression pact sanctioning the division of territories between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, revealed. Any equivocation about Soviet intentions was definitively erased by Winston Churchill’s sobering “iron curtain” speech, in which the reality of Soviet occupation and conquest of the countries, such as the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, which it had forcibly fallen under Soviet control or influence. The conditions of life behind the iron curtain, particularly for those deported to labor camps, would not be known until after Stalin’s death and much later, as defectors, limited émigrés and those expelled from the Soviet Union, or exchanged in spy-swaps, got word out to the west. “Leave Your Tears in Moscow” and Alexander Solzhenytsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “The Gulag Archipelago”.
3 Contact with relatives outside of the Soviet Union was restricted and could endanger Soviet citizens, who could be charged, by virtue of association with Westerners, of so-called ‘anti-Soviet’ activities or propaganda–broad-sweeping charges commonly used to arrest, persecute and imprison people. Letters were intercepted and heavily censored. Letter-writers were aware of censorship and would not write candidly about conditions in the Soviet Union, for fear of recrimination by Soviet authorities, who might accuse the letter-writer of anti-Soviet propaganda ‘slanderous fabrications which defame the Soviet state and social system’ (Lapenna 1968). Recipients outside of the Soviet Union would have to read between the lines to decipher pertinent information or the writer’s intended message. When writing to relatives back in the Soviet Union, some DPs used aliases to disguise their identity. but nevertheless, inform their relatives behind the Soviet Union that they had survived the war and of their whereabouts.
Audronė Stakytė Užgiris's sister's reminiscences
Bukutis was never a toy. He was a friend. My mother told us that when we were leaving our home in 1944, I told Bukutis to kiss my grandmother goodbye. And I know that Bukutis was a faithful companion in air raid shelters during bombings.Unfortunately I can no longer ask my parents when exactly he […]