Staggering stories of survival
CHILDREN OF SIBERIA: MEMOIRS OF LITHUANIAN EXILES Compiled by Irena Kurtinaityte Aras and Vidmantas Zavadskis. Translated by Zivile Gimbutas ( Naujasis lankas, Lithuania: Kaunas, 2013. $ 24.95).
ON a warm summer’s night in June 1941, the mass deportation of tens of thousands of Lithuanian citizens started when, across the country, soldiers dragged men, women and children from their beds and herded them on to cattle trucks.
Their final destination was not a Nazi death camp; rather the Russian soldiers were transporting these families to exile in labour camps, the notorious gulags, concentration camps and prisons of the Siberian region of Soviet Russia.
Between 1940 and 1957, almost 200,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia and 20,000 died in prisons and labour camps from ill treatment, starvation and illness brought on by hard labour and torture.
More than 55,000 were children, with another 18,306 born into slave labour.
Such was the success of Soviet propaganda that many deportees believed they were being sent to America.
One mother on board a steamship on the Angara River bound for a gulag in the Arctic Circle was approached by a Russian actress who offered to take her child.
The book reads: “Why would she give her child away to a stranger when she was bound for America, the Lithuanian mother wondered.
“The actresses knew, but how could the exiled have known they were taking her and her child far north, beyond the Arctic Circle, to fish in the Arctic Ocean by the Laptev Sea?”
Many of these women and children, separated from their husbands and fathers – who were executed or sent to concentration camps – were to become slaves working in minus- 40C in the Arctic Circle, catching fish to feed the Soviet army.
Others were sent to logging and sawmill camps where they undertook heavy, dangerous, back- breaking work on starvation diets.
Sixteen child survivors of this Soviet inhumanity tell their harrowing but inspiring stories of endurance and survival in Children of Siberia: Memoirs of Lithuanian Exiles, compiled by Irena Kurtinaityte Aras and Vidmantas Zavadskis, and published in 2013 in English with the support of the Lithuanian Studies Society at the University of Tasmania.
Undernourished and dressed in summer clothing with few belongings, they started their exile in Siberia in freezing temperatures.
Algirdas Laskevicius, who was exiled as a nine- year- old to the Novosibirsk region, recalls supplementing the family diet with perch caught beneath 1.5m of polar ice in minus- 40C temperatures.
For others, there were no fish and children survived on a starvation diet of bread and broth.
To increase their nutrition they added sorrel, nettle and other wild herbs while those living in wooded areas shaved thawed pine saplings into the watery broth.
Ausra Juskaite- Wilkiene, who arrived in the logging camp Komi as a five- year- old in June 1941, recalls always being hungry. She also tells of how death became the pattern of daily life, with people dropping dead on their way to and from work – and while at work.
Dainora Tamosiunaite- Urboniene, who was exiled to the Altai region of Siberia in 1941 when she was nine, recalls the “wretched journey” to exile.
The near- starvation diet, the exhaustion, the freezing conditions and the filthy buginfested barracks on the way led to the death of her infant brother Arutis.
A local Russian woman, when seeing Arutis lying in the roughly hewn coffin, offered little sympathy.
“Why is she crying?” the woman said to the gathered mourners.
“I have six children but no food for them, so I would be glad if at least one of them died. And why bury such beautiful clothes? She might have sold them or given them to my halfnaked children.”
Dainute’s mother later said it was at that moment she realised the “utter poverty of the regions to which all of us were exiled”.
Dainora was returned to Lithuania as an orphan- exile in 1946. Her mother returned illegally in the same year. In 1990, Dainora’s daughter Rasa was one of the signatories to the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence.
Tasmanian Lithuanian Studies Society president Vincas Taskunas and society founder Dr Algimantas Taskunas played a central role in bringing this translated version to Australians.
Through the moving testimonials of Lithuanian child exiles, complemented by evocative snapshots which provide a window into the world of the Siberian exile, this book is an important reminder of the oppression suffered by so many under the Soviet ideology of a “bright communist tomorrow”.
Children of Siberia: Memoirs of Lithuanian Exiles is available at selected bookshops including Dymocks and the Hobart Book Shop.