Published by Manyland Books, Inc. 1975.
THE STORY OF THE RED ARMY SOLDIER, VASILI
One day, during the summer of 1943, my brother Juozas happened to be ploughing a field not very far from the outskirts of the forest. They day passed without incident. However, just as dusk was beginning to fall, a figure darted out of the woods and made for the spot where my brother was still hard at work.
“Thank God!” the figure exclaimed in Russian and collapsed with relief right in the middle of a furrow. Closer inspection revealed it to be that of a man – obviously a P.O.W. He had, in fact, only recently escaped from a German stalag in East Prussia. He looked perfectly awful. He had no shoes, and his clothing consisted of rags which were close to falling off altogether. Although he seemed to be no more than nineteen years old, his face was already deeply marked with the lines of fatigue. He begged Juozas to bring him something to eat; he even offered to take over the ploughing while Juozas went back to the house to get it. Juozas agreed. Turning the plow over to Vasili, he hurried home and explained the situation to mother. But as he was returning to the field with a generous bundle of food which she had prepared, he simply had to stop and laugh. Vasili was obviously no farmer: the plough kept slipping out of his hands and spoiling the furrow, while Vasili himself was already dripping with perspiration.
They sat down to eat. Between mouthfuls, Vasili began to relate how he had managed to obtain food after his escape from the East Prussian prison camp. He would hover near farms which lay close to the outskirts of the forest, waiting until the women came into the fields to milk the cows. Then he would go up to them and beg them for a little milk. (He even carried a small pail for the purpose.) The women seldom turned down his request, and in this manner he had managed to subsist for nearly five weeks. But it was a dog’s life at best. Could Juozas get him some sort of work as a day laborer with people who could be trusted?
Vasili didn’t think it advisable to travel any farther just now. He would certainly never be able to reach his home town, which was somewhere in the vicinity of Moscow. Nor did he expect to find such generous people in other parts of his country as he had found in Lithuania. So what about it? Would Juozas be willing to help him? Juozas promised to do what he could. And it was only because of his help and protection that Vasili survived to see his own kind again.
Now, he was leaving to rejoin his old Army unit, and had come over to say good-bye. In order to express his gratitude, he had brought along parting gifts of honey and home-distilled vodka. He had also prepared an affidavit in his own handwriting to the effect that Juozas had concealed and protected him, a Russian, at the risk of his own life and liberty all during the German occupation. Juozas did not want to accept this affidavit at first, but Vasili insisted. A time would come when Juozas would be thankful for it, he said – adding that he knew how many people in our village had already been arrested simply because they had been unable to show concrete proof of their loyalty to the Soviets. Under the Communist regime, the mere inability of a suspect to prove his innocence afforded sufficient grounds for a jail sentence. And Vasili, having been born and bred in the “Soviet Paradise,” knew its modus operandi only too well. As a result, he kept pestering Juozas to take it until the latter had no choice except to give in. Then, after hearty handshakes all around, we parted. We promised not to forget each other. Neither time nor the misfortunes of war, we felt, could weaken the bonds of our mutual friendship.
Soon after Vasili’s departure for regions unknown, Juozas and I embarked on our own journey to Kaunas. We reached Kaunas without incident and headed straight for the university to pick up the draft exemption cards which the administration had promised us. Then we wandered about a bit, looking for any colleagues who might have arrived before us. We found quite a few of them already hard at work on various repair projects around the campus, even thought the new semester was still a long way off. Not to be outdone, Juozas and I decided to join a group which was cleaning up after a detachment of Red Army men had been using the university as their headquarters until a little while ago. These individuals must have gone far out of their way to turn the place into a shambles, for they had managed to leave it looking just a trifle worse than a pigsty. Weeks of back-breaking labour were needed to put everything back to rights – only Juozas and I had to beg off after a couple of days because we found ourselves running short of food. Neither of us had thought it necessary to bring very much from home, figuring that by this time we would be able to buy at least some of the essentials in the Kaunas markets. Unfortunately, we had figured wrong. There was not a morsel of food for sale in the entire city – leaving us with the options of starving to death on campus or making the long trek back to the farm. Needless to say, the latter alternative seemed far more enticing to us.
But trying to leave Kaunas turned out to be something of a feat in itself. Civilian train service had been suspended at the beginning of the occupation, and no one was really sure whether the trains were running again or not. As for motor cars or busses, they might just as well have never existed for anyone who wasn’t in the Red Army. In short, if we hoped to get anywhere at all, we would have to start walking. And walk we did, right out of the city: Juozas and I and our colleague, Jurgis, who lived in a neighboring village.
Just outside the city of Garliava, we spotted three Red Army officers coming up behind us in an American jeep. We waved, and the jeep screeched to a stop. The sergeant-major who was at the wheel offered to take us wherever we wanted to go in exchange for a bottle of vodka. Naturally, we accepted his proposition at once. As a matter of fact, we even tripled the going rate and promised to give each of the Russians as bottle – not to mention a hearty supper on top. At first, we asked to be taken no further than our aunt’s house, since it was easily accessible from the main road. However, when we happened to mention that we were university students, the other officers (a captain and a lieutenant, respectively) became very affable and insisted on driving us all the way home. Somewhat reluctantly, we agreed. Although we were happy not to have to trouble our aunt, we had great doubts about being able to reach our village without suffering some kind of mechanical breakdown. The road over which we would have to travel was long and in the worst possible condition, and the jeep was overloaded already. But the sergeant-major merely laughed at our fears. The road hadn’t been invented that could stop a jeep, he informed us. And he was right, too. This marvel of American ingenuity carried us straight to the door with no trouble whatsoever.
Mother was overjoyed to see us. She and One busted about the kitchen preparing the promised meal, while I busied myself with the task of opening up bottles. I couldn’t resist teasing Ona a little.
“Well now, Ona,” I said. “Isn’t this a fine lot of stout, hearty fellows? Why don’t you see if you can hit it off with one of them? You know how much they love chasing after Lithuanian girls”!
Ona threw me a dirty look and snorted. “If they’re your idea of men, then you can have them! Stinkpots! Nothing but stinkpots is what they are! Reeking of herring and God-only-knows what else! Why, a body can’t even walk past them without wanting to throw up. That’s for your so-called men!” she added, giving the most buxom of her anatomy a resounding smack.
Shortly afterwards, my brother came in from the fields and we sat down to eat. We didn’t beak up until some two hours later. The sergeant-major was the first to finish. He rose from the table and staggered to our storage room for a nap. (Luckily, we had already taken the precaution of securing our valuables under lock and key!) Then the captain also excused himself and went off to sleep God knows where. And with his departure the lieutenant suddenly found his tongue.
“How I envy you this Saturday evening, “ he sighed.
“How pleasant it must be for the whole family to get together! Do many families in your country get a chance to do the same thing?”
“You’ll find them almost everywhere, “ said brother Andrius.
“Then you are indeed fortunate people! But we… Many of us don’t even know who our mothers and fathers are. We have been torn from our parents as infants.” The lieutenant stopped speaking and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he went on.
“How I would like to be spending such an evening with my own family: chatting with my brothers, and sharing their troubles and cares. . . . We Russians are human beings, too!” His eyes filled with tears and he fell silent again.
Then he glanced around the room before continuing, “When we were fighting at Ilman . . . at Minsk, we were told over and over again that we were doing it to liberate the proletariat from the exploiters. But we have been in Lithuania nearly a month, and we have yet to meet anyone who has been exploited. We haven’t heard of anyone being denounced as an exploiter, either. The only ones the people seem to be denouncing are the Red Army men. Because we brought you slavery. But you think we wanted to? How I hate this damn uniform”!
With a sudden movement, the lieutenant tire the medals from his jacket and flung them away. They made such a clatter as they fell to the floor that our cats jumped up from where they had been sleeping under the table and scattered in every direction of the room.
“My father’s bones are rotting away in Siberian concentration camp while I . . . I’m helping his executioners to enslave millions of others! And why do you think I am doing it? Because I don’t want to end up like him! Oh, I know, the government promised us the world! Anything to make us lay down our lives for them! Look here! They even started spreading rumors that each kolkhoznik would get his own plot of land after war. But it won’t happen, believe me! What will happen is that kolkhozes will be introduced in your country, too. And then you’ll have nothing of your own, either. And they’ll keep telling you how good life in the Soviet Union is. But we who have lived there know better! Look here! Two armies have ravaged your land, and you still have plenty of everything left. That’s because you work for the love of it – for yourselves and for your families. Your tables are piled high with food. Why, you even have enough to feed me – a stranger and an enemy solder. But in my motherland – in the wealthy Russia – people are walking around in rags and starving!
The lieutenant might have gone on in this manner all night if we hadn’t decided to shut him up. We were still sober enough to realize that he could get himself into a lot of trouble with such talk if he was sincere. On the other hand, if he was just doing it to provoke us into saying something derogatory against the Soviet Union – well, we already had troubles enough. At any rate, Jurgis gathered up his medals and weighed them thoughtfully in the palm of his hand,
“Pin them again, Kolya, “ he urged. “Believe me, we appreciate what they stand for as well as you do. Pin them on then we’ll all pay my village a visit.
Although the lieutenant seemed very reluctant to do so, he finally pinned the medals back on and left the house with Jurgis and Juozas. Much to the captain’s annoyance, he did not return until mid-morning of the following day. The officers had orders to report to Command Headquarters at the front by twelve o’clock noon, and they would have to rush quite a bit because of his tardiness if they wanted to make it. After a hurried breakfast and a solemn promise to visit us again soon, they departed.
Only then did I become aware of how much this little hitchhiking episode had actually cost me: my wrist watch was missing! It must have been filched by the sergeant-major while I was asleep sometime during the night. Since I had also bedded down in the storage room, I must have provided him with an opportunity which he couldn’t resist. He had been so light-fingered, too, that I never even noticed the loss until the Russians were well out of sight. Needless to say, we never heard from any of them again.