Stag­ger­ing sto­ries of sur­vival

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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.

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