ROMANIA (LITHUANIA) – “They came to pick us up at night. Our whole family had gathered to celebrate the last day of school. It was the last meeting. On June 14, Soviet soldiers invaded our farm and took us to the station to load us on a wagon livestock. Like animals destined for slaughter “. Irena Saulute Valaityte-Spakauskiene caress the painful memories with gnarled fingers deformed by arthritis.
That night eighty years ago, just a week before the Nazi invasion, the first pogrom was perpetrated, the prologue to a series of deportations, executions and forced immigrations which, until Stalin’s death, would have led to Lithuania losing an million inhabitants, one third of the population.
A fate common to the other Baltic countries which today commemorate their “day of remembrance”. A page of history that came to light only after the fall of the iron curtain, a curtain of oppression and silence. It is still largely ignored, although the Baltics are part of the EU and NATO. “But it is important to remember – says the” Lithuanian iron lady “, the former president Dalia Grybauskaite – because today on our borders we have dictators who once again target, torture and kill their citizens just because they think differently “.
Irena was born in Kaunas in 1928 when the country’s second city was the provisional capital of independent Lithuania before it was crushed by two opposing totalitarianisms: annexed in 1940 by the USSR following the cynical pact with which Hitler and Stalin had divided the ‘Central Europe, then invaded by Nazi Germany in ’41 to return to Soviet occupation in ’44.
“The so-called” June deportation “of ’41 lasted four days. It had been planned for months with the aim of purging the Baltic space of members of the cultural and economic elite. By annihilating them, not just executing them with a gunshot. NKVD, the ancestor of the KGB, had compiled the lists of “anti-Soviet” elements: politicians, soldiers, professors, religious, but also farmers, workers and artisans. They deported entire families. The men, about 4 thousand, were separated and taken in the concentration camps in the Krasnoyarsk Territory, while 13,500 women, children and the elderly were taken to Kazakhstan, Altai, Komi and finally to the Arctic. It was a shock. There were no signs. People did not know what to expect. “he explains Kristina Burinskaite, historian of the Vilnius Genocide and Resistance Research Center housed in the former headquarters of the KGB.
Irena remembers well the disorientation of a month’s journey on the rails to Altai, western Siberia. About 40 percent of the 1941 deportees were children under 16 like her, she explained Ramuné Driauciunaité guiding us through the rooms of the Museum of Occupations and the battles for freedom.
There was no food in the cattle carts except a little water and an undrinkable soup. There was no air to breathe, only slits closed by bars and a hole for a bathroom. “Come in here and try to imagine”, says Irena, leading us into a wagon stranded among the birches of the Rumsiskes Open Air Ethnographic Museum, about 25 kilometers from Kaunas which, at 92, Irena travels every day by bus and on foot to guide the patrons between the exhibitions and his memory. Over half of them, she tells restlessly, hopping from corner to corner, died immediately. The bodies of those who couldn’t make it were thrown along the tracks. First the pregnant women and children succumbed. Then the old ones.
There was hardly time to get used to the hardships of forced labor and the harsh climate in Altai, hunger and scurvy, which a year later the few survivors were herded back into cattle carts. This time the destination was Trofimovsk, one of the many permafrost islands whipped by the winds and eroded by the storms scattered in the delta of the Lena River which flows into the Laptev Sea, Arctic Ocean, far North Siberian, one of the most terrifying places in the Gulag Archipelago.
For many years the only land known for Jonas Markauskas, the “first son of Trofimovsk”. He was born among the eternal ice beyond the polar circle in 1946. Today he is the president of Laptevieciai, the brotherhood of ex-deportees in the Laptev Sea which, although it thins from year to year, keeps alive the memory of what they call a “genocide” . “Was the Holocaust of the Jews more painful than the slaughter of entire peoples subjugated by the Soviets? If they cut off my finger and your finger, would either of us suffer more? Crimes against humanity have no nationality.”
“In the Laptev Sea we had to drag heavy logs sinking in the snow or fish with nets in the frozen waters. In return we got a few grams of bread that we had to ration. And after 12 hours of work we had to build our houses with the debris and branches we found. on the beach. The floor was permafrost, the windows were ice blocks. We had bunk beds of 35cm each. It took two weeks to build a yurt like this, “explains Irena, huddled on the plank of a recreated replica at Rumsiskes , weaving together the threads of a story that inspired the bestseller They had also turned off the moon of Sepetys Route.
“But the book does not tell the horror of going out to look for something to burn or eat or to collect ice to turn into water to drink without knowing if you would return or freeze to death. Or of seeing your mother starve, without it. it was nothing I could do. We kept stumbling upon our dead, but we didn’t have the strength to dig graves in the frozen earth to bury them. And we were buried alive, but we dreamed of returning to our homeland and this dream kept us alive. Me I managed to escape after a few years. Others had to wait for Stalin’s death. “
But the repatriation was another painful chapter. “We had no documents, no rights. I had to hide for eight years. Without clothes, without shoes, without food, without money. With the fear of being captured at every step by the KGB. I did not know where to go because our houses were occupied and ours loved ones were gone “.
It is only with perestroika and independence that the ex deportees have come out into the open. “Now I can finally talk”, exults Irena. “I don’t do it to build a monument to ourselves. I tell my story even if it’s like scratching a wound, to keep alive the memory of those who didn’t make it, of those who couldn’t grow up, fall in love, raise children . I can still see their faces, even though I can’t remember their names. The bodies thrown out of the wagons. My brigade from the first winter. The first child who died of cold in the Arctic. “
Today the ex deportees receive a pension. And their sufferings are commemorated every year. But justice denied burns. “There was no Nuremberg for us,” insists Jonas. “No one has been called to account for what has been done. No one has ever asked for forgiveness.”