Wolf at the Door
June 14, 1941 -- Misiunai, Lithuania -- The Family Estate
It was very early in the morning. My mother was milking the cows. Now that the Russians occupied Misiunai, the family was confined to half of the house, and everyone was ordered to work. She heard the distant sound of a truck on the road from the Nemunas River. Where was it going? Stepping outside to look, she saw it turn onto the road to their estate.
She hurried to the house. The truck was parked in front of the house. A Russian soldier sat at the wheel, another soldier stood in the driveway armed with a rifle, and an armed Russian Army Officer was entering the house accompanied by two local Communist officials. He presented papers instructing that her father, Stasys Silingas, her mother, Emilija Silingas, and her younger sisters Daiva, Saule, and Raminta were to be taken into protective custody. They had a half hour to get ready.
The soldier reassured the alarmed
family that because the war was coming, they were at risk here, and for their own
protection, they were to
be taken to a safe location. When my mother asked where, she was
told politely, "Don't worry. It will be somewhere in Lithuania."
Silingas had been ill in bed for several
days with severe kidney pain. Because he was unable to take care of his
business, he had sent Daiva and Saule to Kaunas to do so.
As the family
rushed trying to find food and
clothing for those being taken, the Russian Officer set up a table in
the bedroom where Silingas had been convalescent.
The Officer sat down
and began writing; he instructed Silingas to sit at the table opposite
him. Silingas said that he
was concerned about the legality of these “proceedings.” He was, after
all, a jurist. The Russian Officer said that he understood, but that it
did not make a difference: the orders he had and what he was writing now
were all that mattered.
At the last moment, Emilija asked if she could take her little daughters Galinda and Vingra, 7 and 10. The Officer said she could do as she liked. She decided to leave them after Silingas sternly whispered something to her.
The soldiers departed with Stasys, Emilija, and Raminta. My mother never saw them again.
August 25, 1999 -- Kaunas, Lithuania
"Silingas ir Lietuva -- Lietuva ir Silingas...." began one of many speeches on this bright, sunny Sunday morning commemorating the re-burial of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my aunt, Raminta. Raminta died at the age of 23 on June 7, 1944, in a Soviet gulag near Krasnoyarskaya, in the heartland of Siberia. She died of encephalitis in agony so unbearable that in her final days of suffering, she tore her blanket to shreds. In 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, her remains were returned to Lietuva in a small metal box the size of a footlocker.
My grandmother, Emilija, had died a few months earlier in February, 1943, of starvation and mistreatment, also in Krasnoyarskaya, a "gulag boom town," part of the Gulag Archipelago exposed by Solzhenitsyn. Unlike Raminta, her final days were lucid: knowing that she was dying, she told a fellow prisoner that she wanted to speak of her family, of her many daughters, to ask her, if she survived, to let her daughters know of her fate. Her remains were also returned 50 years later in a metal box so small one would think it held an infant.
My grandfather, Stasys Silingas, was luckier -- or maybe less so. He survived until 1962. He was 55 when he, his wife, and daughter were arrested in 1941. He never saw his wife or daughter again; they were immediately separated and shipped to different prisons. He died in his native Lietuva, released just a year and a half earlier having endured over 20 years of institutionalized physical and psychological torture.
What was their crime? Why were they arrested and imprisoned? Their crime was that they were Lithuanians, and particularly good Lithuanians.
My grandfather was then Minister of Justice, a leader in the intelligentsia of Lithuania, and a tireless champion of Lithuanian autonomy and independence. He was a patron of the arts, a poet and writer, and his home, Misiunai, was a gathering place for artists, writers, poets, philosophers. He was an orator described as "the Cicero of the North," renowned for his "fiery, patriotic speeches" according to Encyclopedia Lituanica. Others called him "The Soul of Lietuva" and "The Father of Lithuanian Independence." With a full beard and intense, passionate eyes, to me, he always looked like Leonardo da Vinci, or God.
My grandmother, mother of their nine daughters, was guilty by association; she was also sister of Ramunas Bitkauskas, a noted philosopher. She too has an intense, soulful look, though softer than Silingas'.
Raminta was young, beautiful, and full of promise.
Now, in 1999, all three were to be reburied at the cemetery in Ilguva near their beloved home, Misiunai. My grandfather wrote of this wistfully while still imprisoned and dying:
"And so, dear children. It was not to be that Tulyte (Emilija) and Raminta return alive. How good it would be if you or the grandchildren would return our remains and bury them on the banks of the Nemunas next to Audrone's and . . .mine, if fate would let us lie side by side. I dare to think it, I dare to write it. An unattainable wish ("svajone"). It's strange to be thinking of such a painful longing ("svajone"). . . . Unbelievable events would have to take place. The theory of probability would say --no."
Yet, it did happen: the Soviet Union collapsed. The impossible became possible.
We were now acting on this "svajone." I am here to witness the event. It is my first visit to Lithuania since I left it as an infant in my mother’s arms in the night as we fled Misiunai from the advancing Russian front over 50 years ago.