The Lithuanian translation of Underground, called Pogrindis, appeared in Lithuania in 2013. Here’s a link to an article about the novel’s background (in Lithuanian) as well as an interview with Tomas Donela, who has optioned the film rights. As for the novel itself, it’s available from the publisher at the link here.
For details of the book fair, see my blog post. Also her are a few more links to Lithuanian reviews and profiles: 1, 2, and a third one here. (If the last link doesn’t work, as mine is having trouble, you can find the review at Literatura ir Menas).
Here’s a Lithuanian television interview I did for an operation called “Alchemija.”
While I am deep in source material from the 1920’s for my current novel, I couldn’t help picking up Keith Lowe’s fascinating new history that sheds more light on the postwar era in Europe. It joins the late Tony Judt, Norman Davies, and Timothy Snyder’s deep and fresh analyses of the postwar period, continuing to dispel the myth that the war ended on May 8, 1945.
Lowe is particularly interested in the scale of the wreckage cause by the second world war, including the complete destruction of cites such as Warsaw, the subsequent vengeance dealt out to various parties, the wholesale movement of millions of people (causing millions more deaths), the wholesale rape of women, local insurgencies and ongoing local wars that lasted right into the fifties in places such as Greece and Lithuania.
Deaths numbered over 35 million, the same number as the entire population of Poland and close to that of France.
Jew suffered the greatest percentage losses of anyone, and those who survived and returned often found themselves the objects of new local pogroms that caused them to flee. But even before they did, they noted the complete absence of their brethren on their return. It was not unusual for a member of an extended family of dozens to find himself or herself the sole survivor and thus alive in a social vacuum.
Many millions of people were driven out of ancestral homes, most numerously the Germans, who were forced out of Prussia and the Eastern parts of Germany, many, many dying along the way. Much has recently been written about the massive rapes soldiers of the Red Army in occupied territory, so this is not exactly fresh news, but it is put in the context of many other outrages and forced population movements, among them of Poles and Ukrainians. At the end of the war in n much of Europe, women outnumbered men and were doomed to spinsterhood and whole gangs of orphans wandered the continent.
Moral destruction was great in brutalized societies, and famine added edge so that large numbers of women prostituted themselves for something to eat for themselves or their children.
Perceived collaborators were killed or humiliated, women stripped of clothing and beaten. One of them defended herself by declaring that her heart belonged to France, but her vagina belonged to her alone.
The devastation and postwar horror was worse the farther East one went. There, the Germans had considered most of the populations subhuman, and thus there were policies, as Timothy Snyder pointed out, of intentional starvation, which would have been far worse had the Germans won
Interestingly, there is a detailed vignette of the underground postwar resistance in Lithuania, where my last novel, Underground, was set. Lowe describes a pitched battle in Kalniskis between partisans and Reds, where the historical inspiration for Elena in my novel was killed while firing a machine gun. She had previously taken part in the assassination of five communist collaborators in her apartment in Marijampole.
The partisan resistance remains controversial; some polemicists see them as stranded fascists and the 135,000 deported to Siberia in the postwar period as their supporters (an outrageous comment made on a book review page of Ellen Cassady’s book, We Are Here). More seriously, some argued that a war against the Reds and their local collaborators was a hopeless waste of human life, but Lowe says that the memory of that resistance helped spur the drive for independence in the eighties.
To hate one’s neighbours became entirely rational in the postwar era, and our understanding of the war and that time, according to Lowe, is woefully incomplete. Conflicts over race, nationality, and politics went on for months and years after the war. The communists, and to a certain extent the former allies, saw this chaos as an opportunity to push forward their agendas, leading to the cold war.
As Timothy Snyder pointed out, national myths tend to obfuscate rather than illuminate the big picture. National myths create martyrs, but they do so in the absence of the story of other martyrs in the big picture. These myths often conflict with others’ myths.
To quote Lowe, “The immediate postwar period has been routinely neglected, misremembered and misused by all of us.”
But that is changing, and Lowe’s book is one of the spate of new histories that is helping to open up our understanding of what happened during the European war and in its aftermath.
Heingartner was a diplomat sorely disappointed to be in Lithuania, and his early observations are unfailingly negative. City hall was dirty and filled with people waiting for something. This description is applied to the opera theatre, and the banks as well. His impressions are not that different from those of people who wander into the poorer parts of Indian cities today.
He complained that there is too much drinking in the town, but there hardly seemed to be anything else to do. Among the more picturesque of his observations:
-chained prisoners are forced to walk through the streets, but not on the sidewalks. They must walk on the road itself.
– single horse-drawn streetcar runs on rails on the cobblestones main thoroughfare.
– when the local diplomats and Lithuanian government officials partied, they partied all night, drive to the local spa of Birstonas in the morning and then return to Kaunas to drop in on friends in the early afternoon, where their fatigue finally began to take over. They sound like characters out of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies.
– streetlights were turned off during nights of the full moon in order to save money.
– in the winter, it became dark by three-thirty in the afternoon, and people shuttered up their windows, so the only sound from outside was that of sleigh bells passing in the night.
– Mrs. Smetona, the wife of the president, smoked imported cigarettes and drank Benedictine, complaining that her husband was too impractical, too much an intellectual to rule efficiently, yet we know he ruled as an authoritarian right until the end.
– meat in Kaunas was as cheap as apples. Vegetables were expensive.
– Prime Minister Voldemaras appeared unshaven and drunk with chest hairs sticking out between the buttons on his shirt, yet he was an intellectual who spoke twenty-three languages. Together they drank cognac from 1830.
– one September, there were 17 Jewish Holidays in the month. This circumstance was inconvenient because most of the tradesmen were Jews.
– for Christians, the most important holiday was Easter. There were turkey and ham on all tables. On the first day, the men went out visiting. On the second day, the women took their turn.
– unlike military officers in other countries, those in Lithuania wore spurs when they went to dances – a hazard to all the others.
If Jonas Budrys’s memoir of his directorship of counterintelligence in the 1920s forms the foreground of my next novel, the background is richly fleshed out by this quirky and insightful diary from the American consul to Kaunas from 1926-1928.
Heingartner was a scrupulous diarist with an eye for detail in the new country, which he called a “provisional” country because he doubted whether it could succeed. A cultured American who had been consul in Vienna for many years, he was disappointed by the “hardship” posting in a town with no coffee houses, hideous streets, and a single awful hotel where all the government receptions were held.
He said the houses were desolate, the people poor, and the roads disgraceful, although it hardly mattered because there were only 570 cars in the country of three million. However, there were many cows and many children.
Clearly disappointed not to be in Vienna any longer, he nevertheless comes around to reconciling himself to the place. He describes a lunch buffet with a Lithuanian minister that includes vodka, soup, boiled salmon, partridges, vegetables, and ices. At least he ate well.
He provides exquisite detail for a novelist searching for sources – for example, all houses were required by law to keep rain barrels to help fight fires. A Jewish painter would not work on the Sabbath but he would oversee and assistant who did. There is some casual anti-Semitism in his diary, but also interesting observations. Jews keep to their own restaurants and a Jewish girl will not walk on a street with a Christian for fear of reprimand from her people. Christians and Jews seem to belong to two solitudes, or rather, two of many solitudes, because Polish speakers and Orthodox Russians form separate coteries as well.
Heingartner comes to measure the quality of receptions by the amount of caviar, and French wines, champagne, and cognacs (krupnikas and vodka are always available). Of course, at the time, the USA was under prohibition, so the alcohol availability was welcome, although he came to moderate his intake because he found the locals drank far too much.
I’ll post a few more of his observations later, but I want to mention that Heingartner is practically a Dickensian character. He suffers from acute sinusitis, and so his nose is one of his primary concerns. His search for an appropriate nose doctor consumes him, and eventually leads him to go out of the country for a suitable one.
And he occasionally writes sentences worthy of a novelist. The city of Kaunas lies at the confluence of two rivers, so her refers to the place in winter as “A bottle of champagne on ice.”
A lovely memoir of her grandfather was told by Nancy Heingartnerat the recent AABS conference in Chicago.
Lenin once said that power was lying in the streets, just waiting form someone to pick it up.
I have been taken to task for quoting Lenin before, but the comparison I am trying to make is just too apt. The same is true of narratives, of stories which lie around us unnoticed until someone chooses to write about them.
The recent mania for the television series, Downton Abbey, led to a series of articles about its sources. Its primary one seems to have been a memoir by a kitchen maid named Margaret Powell.
In 1968, she penned a memoir called Below Stairs, about what it was like to work in a great house in England before and after the First World War. Amazingly, almost no other source material for this world exists, but this nugget went on to become the inspiration not only for Downton Abbey but an earlier series, called Upstairs Downstairs.
The Lithuanian equivalents are lying around as well, and they are valuable because they give a picture of a little-know part of Europe in the last century.
As my parents’ generation has died out, its books have been tossed or found their way to church bazaars where I pick them up for a quarter. The same is somewhat true in Lithuania, where the table of the used bookseller on Laisves Aleja in Kaunas is one of my favourite haunts.
The books which interest me most are memoirs, often self-published. These are unvarnished and raw and all the better for it because the authors reveal themselves in ways that more practiced writers would not.
One of my most recent finds is a self-published memoir by the late Jonas Demereckis, called Savanorio ir Kontrazvalgybininko Atsiminimai (Memoirs of an Army Volunteer and Counterintelligence Agent).
Born in 1897 Demerckis was a barely lettered village youth who volunteered for the independence army in Jurbarkas. He paints a funny picture of young men in the winter of 1919, travelling out to Kaunas on horse-drawn wagons, accompanied by an accordionist whose bellows came apart due to the wet snow. They were periodically harassed by Bolshevik agitators who encouraged them to join the Red Army.
In Kaunas, during basic training, an officer called out for men who had completed elementary school (grade four) or even had some high school education. Demerckis was one of them. They were taken to a hall and made to write a dictation, and those who could write reasonably well were drifted into office work.
The book is full of colourful anecdotes, mostly having to do with the primitive conditions under which they lived and worked – a barracks without a kitchen – a mission with a wagon to Kybartas to pick up banknotes for a bank – the catching of a Czech spy (?) who had maps of the country rolled into the metal tubes of his bicycle.
Eventually Demereckis was assigned to counterintelligence and worked out of Musninkai, north-west of Vilnius, guarding the frontier with Poland’s closed border (the countries were in a state of war until 1938). There he dealt with Communists, Poles, and smugglers and had various adventures, including fighting off a pack of marauding wolves on winter’s night.
This view of everyday life is particularly valuable to me because it complements the memoirs of Jonas Budrys, who was head of Lithuanian counterintelligence in the early twenties.
But there is so much more good material like this out there, lying around, waiting for someone to pick it up.
The English/Welsh historian, Norman Davies, first became widely known with his God’s Playground, a history of Poland, and then shot to wide acclaim with Europe, in 1998, perhaps the first popular history book to consider Central and Eastern Europe as very important parts of the narrative of that place. Up until then, Europe was loosely thought of as the western part, at least by westerners.
What was ground-breaking in Davies was further enlarged upon by the late Tony Judt in Postwar in 2005, and more recently by the brilliant Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder in 2010. In other words, the idea of Europe became bigger through these books and the story of the east became important, or in the case of Snyder’s book, central to the story being told.
Norman Davies’s latest book, Vanished Kingdoms, is dedicated to “those whom historians tend to forget”, namely the peoples of kingdoms that have vanished from the earth. He says we should study them as well, for not to do so betrays a bias toward victors, while the stories of victors tell only one part of history.
Among the kingdoms he writes about, two stand out for me with my interest in Eastern Europe.
The first is a place he calls “Litva”, which at various times included Lithuania, Belorussia, Ukraine and even Poland. While the story of the rise and fall and reappearance of Lithuania has been told widely, Davies brings many new elements into the story. He writes vividly, for example, of the melancholy of the last Jagiellonian king, Zygmunt August (ruled 1548-72) who believed that after him would come the deluge (and it did, eventually). Davies writes interestingly about the scattering of the Metryka Litevska, the archive of the empire that was dispersed across Poland, Sweden, and Russia and made reconstruction of the history of that region so difficult.
The chapter on Prussia struck me as particularly fresh, because Davies, never one to accept western clichés, sets out to demolish the story of a militaristic, jackboot iron kingdom that got what it deserved. He points out that the Prussians were no more aggressive than the Russians in the first world war, and he goes into some detail about the annihilation of Prussia during and after WW2. Then, 2.2 million East Prussians were killed or deported, and more were forced out of West Prussia. Their melancholy fate, he says, was like that of Carthage – “They create a desert and call it peace.”
Timothy Snyder, in a review of this book in the Guardian, called it “romantic”. The story of vanished kingdoms does indeed smack of romantic melancholy, but sometimes that is just the right reaction to have.
The fraught subject of the Holocaust in Lithuania is addressed and broadened by two new books from The University of Nebraska Press, a house that specializes in nonfiction and whose books are available in Canada.
The first is Epistolophilia, the second biography by Montreal writer Julija Sukys. The book traces the life of an uneasy heroine, Ona Simaite (1894-1970), a Vilnius librarian who gained access to the Jewish ghetto while claiming she was going in to retrieve overdue books. On at least one occasion, she smuggled a girl out of the ghetto in a book bag. On other occasions, she brought in food and medications.
Simaite was caught by the Germans, tortured, and imprisoned in a concentration camp, but managed to survive and lived the rest of her life in France as a stateless person, corresponding with a wide range of intellectuals. She never seemed bien dans sa peau, but her uneasiness led to a wealth of musings on books and life.
If the life of Simaite is incredible in itself, the writing in this book is exceptional as well. I first found chapters of it published in the Baltic journal, Lituanus, and was so taken by the quality and intelligence of the prose that I looked up the author to find out when the biography was coming out, and have been waiting expectantly ever since.
While looking through the catalogue of the press, I stumbled across another exceptional new book called We Are Here, Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, by Ellen Cassedy.
She is an American writer of mixed Jewish and gentile origins who went to Lithuania to study Yiddish and recover the history of her mother’s life, as well as that of an uncle who had been a Jewish policeman in the ghetto in Siauliai.
What’s so remarkable about Cassedy is that she is something of a detective, interviewing everyone she can about what happened to the Jews and to the Lithuanians as well. She meets an old man in Rokiskis, who feels a need to unburden himself by describing the murder of Jews, which he witnessed decades before, and she speaks to surviving Jews as well.
But she doesn’t stop there. She digs through archives herself and hires others to do so too. She explores the idea of the bystander, the Lithuanians’ grief of their losses under the Soviet period and above all the great tragedy of the Holocaust with a fine sifting of history, circumstance, ambiguous morals and selective forgetting.
What’s so satisfying about this book is that it declines to argue from a fixed position. If I can polarize the extremes of the discussions on the Holocaust in Lithuania (discussions, often heated, that I have had in Vilnius streets, bars, and restaurants), on the one hand I hear accusation against Lithuania as a criminal nation which refuses to acknowledge fully the crimes of its people in the Holocaust and to compensate justly, insofar as possible, those who suffered at the hands of Lithuanian murderers. On the other hand, the argument goes that nobody knows about Lithuania and what it went through in the Soviet period and Stalin’s crimes were as great as those of Hitler (the double genocide debate, which remains a fiery topic).
Ellen Cassedy keeps on asking questions of the past and of those who choose to remember it in a certain way. To summarize her point of view would do an injustice to a book that probes the uneasy subject of moral action in impossible situations.
As an aside, I should add that neither of these books bears directly on my next novel, set in Lithuania in the twenties, but that project is moving slowly while I prepare for a creative writing conference in Toronto in May, and so in snippets of time, I read about the place, and when I am lucky, I come upon books such as these.
This transcript of ruminations on the twentieth century by a pair of first-rate minds is not only a fascinating read but also a poignant document because Tony Judt was dying of ALS during the book’s composition and he was looking back on his life and ideas – it’s a kind of summing up by one brilliant and thorny historian as spurred into existence by another, younger one.
While there is much to say about each historian, my particular interest lies in their focus on central and Eastern Europe. I became interested in Judt because he wrote that Paris 1968 seemed to him to be the most important event of its time, and he only later came to realize it happened at the same time as the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which flew under the radar for most pubic intellectuals. The multilingual Timothy Snyder, of course, has focused on Central and Eastern Europe for a long time.
The book is courageous in many ways because it takes on topics that I never considered before, such as the ideas of fascist intellectuals. Fascism is so discredited (and rightly so), it barely occurred to me that were “intellectuals” in the camp. Who would dare to discuss Fascist intellectuals in Canada?
For that matter, who in Canada would come out swinging as much as Judt does, taking swipes at others such as Norman Davies, himself a great specialist on Central and Eastern Europe, for undue insistence on the importance of Poland in European history, and Michael Ignatieff, among others, for his support of the Iraq war?
Part of the reader’s pleasure of reading this text is the pleasure Judt himself takes in attacking not only individuals but trends as well. He is particularly sharp on the practice of teaching history through focusing on discrete moments because the method creates students who have lost their grasp of basic content. There’s nothing like watching a good scrap.
Anyone who is not a historian will find the range of references hard to follow at times. But reading the book is like having two of the smartest people you know over to dinner, and listening with delight as their minds range across the century. You might want to take notes for names to look up later or you might just want to sit back and let the whole thing wash over you. One thing is certain – you will yourself be more intelligent after you finish the book than you were before you read it. And even if that’s not really possible, at least you will be better informed.
My newest novel makes slow progress as other matters overwhelm my schedule, but each of them shares its own delights, so I’ll content myself with slow progress for the moment.
The new novel’s working title is Fear no Fall, a quote from a passage in Bunyan – He that is down need fear no fall / He that is low, no pride. It’s a slightly awkward title but it helps me to keep my theme in mind. I am interested in characters who create themselves after the old order dies and the new one arises. In this case, I mean particularly the collapse of the old order after WWI that followed the destruction of ancient empires and the subsequent growth of many, problematic small states.
In our own time, we saw leaders such as Vaclav Havel, Vytautas Landsbergis, and Lech Walesa step put of the theatre, out of the academy, and out of the factory to become, even for relatively short times, leaders of their people. This type of process happens again and again in history, and not just to the leaders of nations.
I have set this new novel in Kaunas, from 1921 – 1923 and based it loosely on the life of Jonas Budrys, who ran Lithuanian counter intelligence at a time when the new country had no money, no resources, and no friends. I am particularly interested in his spirited defense of the small nation, and his subsequent seizure of Klaipeda (Memel) in 1923. Does a patriot become an imperialist in the blink of an eye? Do political imperatives ever really change? How does one create new morality when the old order has fallen? Is it even possible to be moral, and what does morality mean in both the personal and political arena? Budrys is a rich source, and I’ve blogged about him before.
This time, I am returning to the humour of my earlier writings, because although I want to engage in big themes, I also want to have some lightness for a change. After years writing of the brutal partisan resistance, (and returning to it soon for another project I’ll post about in the future) I need something of a break form the horror of that episode in history.
Eksteins is a brilliant and popular historian who writes about the spasm of modernity that typifies the era after WW1. In this particular book, he traces the story of Vincent Van Gogh and his rise to adulation in the Weimar period in Germany after the war. Eksteins’s thesis is that after the war, the age of enlightenment gave way further to the age of romanticism, leading to zeitgeist that values eccentricity, madness, emotion, novelty and emancipation over reason and moderation. He also believes that we are living in Weimar-type zeitgeist at present, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Having lost the last utopian project, we are left with nothing but the market, which has made us rich, but left us hungry for transcendence and subject to novelty and emotionalism.
Eksteins helps to set the tone for the decade I am writing about in the new novel, but he is well worth reading in and of himself. He earlier book, The Rites of Spring, deals with similar themes and was important to me for background when I wrote Woman in Bronze, about artists in Paris in the twenties.
I am also devouring Tony Judt’s posthumous book, a conversation with historian Timothy Snyder called Thinking the Twentieth Century. I can barely put that book down, and will report on it more fully once I am done.
What looms over me this spring is preparing for the big Creative Writing conference in Toronto, being held at my institution, Humber College, and co-hosted with York University and most other writing schools in Toronto. This conference unites the creative writing teachers and students from across the country and will have, I believe, close to two hundred participants. The logistics concerns alone are enormous, so this event is eating up much of my workday and the vast majority my spare time.
Writers complain that they never have enough time to write, and this is certainly true of me too, but the mix of conferences, reading, and writing and a few other developments I’ll talk about later make for a rich life. I’m not complaining.
My writing on Lithuanian postwar anti-Soviet partisans has been intended for a western audience, so I have not gone into great detail on the subject matter, which has become increasingly controversial over the last years.
Just as I thought I was moving on to a new page in literary subject matter, the postwar partisan story has taken another turn with the launch of a fresh polemic against these underground resisters of Soviet occupation in Lithuania.
A contentious new book has appeared in Lithuania, called A Memorial Book of the Victims of Partisan Terror (Partizanu Teroro Auku Atminimo Knyga).
The book has a trilingual introduction by Povilas Masilionis in which he attacks the partisans as murderers and terrorists. Most of the book consists of a list of civilians killed by partisans.
This book comes on the heels of an article by Jurgis Jurgelis comparing civilian killings carried out by pro-Soviet collaborators and anti-Soviet partisans (even my choice of words is fraught here – unavoidably so). Jurgelis suggests a sort of moral equivalency between the two.
On the other hand, Arvydas Anusauskas, member of the Seimas and former head of the Genocide Museum, says that the book is old propaganda reheated by Masiulionis, who, in the Soviet period, worked for the Central Committee of the Communist Party as a propaganda instructor and assistant director of the journal “The Comunist”.
Does pedigree matter? I think it must.
The introduction does reek of a polemic of the lowest sort, but even so, I have to sympathize with the numerous dead listed in the pages. For example, Donatas Glodenis is a thoughtful blogger in Lithuania, a man whose grandfather was killed by partisans (perhaps for agreeing to work in a position of responsibility in a state farm.) To see one’s grandfather memorialized must be moving and important (see his comments on the book launch).
Twenty years after Lithuania’s independence, the battle over history is not going away – it is heating up.
Partisan Leader Posthumously Named Lithuania’s Fourth President
If the generation of Americans who fought in WW2 is considered the “The Greatest Generation” for its sense of sacrifice and courage, the same can be said out east, on the far side of Europe, where the suffering was far broader than it ever was in the west. In the west some died and others returned to the developing suburban dream, but in the east, some died, some kept on fighting, and the rest were hammered into dust for the mortar used to build the house of Communism.
One of Lithuania’s most famous members of this generation is Jonas Zemaitis, an anti-Soviet partisan fighter from 1944 to his execution in Moscow in ten years later. Zemaitis and many of his generation stayed behind when the Soviets returned for a new round of terror. Some were simply unlucky, a few may have been collaborators, but most were like Zemaitis – patriots who refused to leave their homes. Astonishingly, Moscow seemed on the verge of naming this underground opponent the new leader of Soviet Lithuania in 1953.
Son of a happy-go-lucky father in independent Lithuania, Jonas Zemaitis sought structure and stability by entering the Kaunas officers’ academy in 1926. He was a solid student who trained in the artillery, working his way up to the rank of captain and eventually being talented enough to be sent to France in the late thirties.
Zemaitis remained behind in Lithuania when the Soviets returned in 1944. The anti-Soviet partisan movement was glad to have him because many officers had been taken in the first wave of Soviet deportations and most of those who remained fled before the second Soviet occupation. The resistance needed men who knew military tactics, and they found their champion in Zemaitis.
Early partisan resistance was military in a traditional sense – the partisans took land and defended it. Zemaitis fought in pitched battles from fortified positions with dozens of partisans in the early stages of the fight in 1944 and 1945. But this was a losing proposition against vastly larger forces, and it became worse when the Soviets defeated Germany and could turn back to concentrate on pacifying their captured territories.
Zemaitis was lucky for a time, escaping in close calls again and again – even his wife managed to escape from captivity by the NKVD.
But luck was not enough against superior forces. By1948, the country had tired of resistance and partisan numbers were down dramatically, from 30,000 at the beginning to perhaps 2,000. Increasingly, locals were betraying the partisans and occasionally feeding them sleeping mixtures or poisons. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the partisans united themselves under a single command with Zemaitis as their leader.
In 1950 they were still managing to produce an underground press and even received modest funding of a few hundred dollars from the Americans through Juozas Luksa, a partisan who had made it out to the west and returned.
The end of the game was clearly in sight when in 1951, Zemaitis suffered a stroke which partially paralyzed him. Allies were few and resources stretched thin. He could not shelter in a hospital or even a house, so he spent over a year in a bunker being served and nursed by women sympathetic to the partisan cause. But by then the whole movement had been compromised. Too many captured partisans gave in either to torture or pressure against their families or arguments about the inevitable socialist future, and these men infiltrated their former bands. Such was the case with Zemaitis, whose bunker location was revealed in 1953 by his right-hand man soon after his capture.
Zemaitis and the others were taken alive when the bunker was filled with sleeping gas.
So far, this is a story that is broadly the same as hundreds of others in that place and time. Where it changes is at the end.
In 1953, the murderous and paranoid Joseph Stalin died and his right-hand man, Lavrenty Beria, took over the Soviet Union. Today, Beria has a reputation as the most heartless of Stalin’s henchmen, and some believe he would have continued Stalin’s style of terror had he survived. Yet his actions at this juncture hint at the opposite. Beria was looking for accommodation with nationalist forces in both Lithuania and Ukraine. There are some hints that he even intended to put the partisan leaders in positions of power and discard the old Central Committee leaders who had ruled under Stalin’s regime in Lithuania and Ukraine.
After his capture in1953, Zemaitis was interrogated in Vilnius, but not tortured. This fact was a novelty under Beria’s new rules. Then Zemaitis was flown to Moscow where he met in person with Beria for an hour.
What did they say to one another? What was supposed to happen next? We’ll never know. Beria was arrested the next day and executed before the end of the year.
Whatever good this meant for the Soviet Union (Beria was known as a hard liner and his elimination eventually led to a thaw), it meant the opposite, a return to the old ways in Soviet Lithuania. Antanas Snieckus, the head of the Communist Party in Lithuania, was now secure in his place as he had been under Stalin. Zemaitis was returned to Lithuania by train and interrogated, again, without torture. Under interrogation, he sketched out the entire system of partisan resistance in Lithuania, which had crumbled by then. At least one historian believes he did so to ensure a record of the resistance survived in KGB archives.
In is final statement, Zemaitis insisted that he believed his resistance to be lawful and the Lithuanian Soviet regime the product of an invading force. He said he regretted nothing. Sentenced to death, he was returned to Moscow where the verdict was carried out in 1954.
In 2009, the Lithuanian government declared that he represented the lawful extension of independent Lithuania, and posthumously declared him as the fourth president of the country.
The story of Kostas Kubilinskas is something like an East European joke, and by that I mean it is a particularly gruesome story with tragicomic overtones.
Kostas Kulbilinskas died in 1962 and at the time he was one of the best-loved children’s writers in Lithuania. (I mentioned him in an earlier post about Lionginas Baliukevicius – author of Diary of Partisan.) It turns out he is an excellent example of the type of writer described in Czeslaw Milosz’s Captive Mind, a writer who will do anything to get published. He was a man who became a murderer in order to earn the right to write children’s poetry.
Kubilinskas was born in 1923, one of four children in a poor family. Right from his youth he established himself as a poet of sorts by wining poetry prize at the age of fifteen. He was in high school during the first German occupation, and began to write satirical poems about Stalin and Jews (!). From the very first, it seems he tailored his writing to the current ruling regime. The problem would come when the regimes changed.
Kubilinskas had a knack for rhyme and wrote easily and quickly. Later in life, he was known as the kind of man who could compose rhymes at the printer’s if a magazine had an unexpected white space.
When the Soviets were approaching Lithuania for their second occupation, Kubilinskas decided to stay behind because he felt he was a poet above all and could not leave the land of his language. He imagined he might adapt to the regime by writing for its rulers.
At first this worked well. He joined the Communist Youth League and became one of the promising writers in the new writers’ union. But in 1946, he was identified as a German collaborator and removed from his post. He was unable to publish, and eventually ended up as a teacher in remote village in the south of Lithuania.
It must have felt like banishment to Kubilinskas, but it led to an interesting turn of events. Kubilinskas stood out as an intellectual in these surroundings, and intellectuals were rare and valuable in a land where one crop had been deported to Siberia, another died in the Holocaust, and a third fled before the invading Red Army in 1944. The local ant-Soviets could use a man like that because they lacked writers and intelligencia for their newspapers. Kubilinskas’s friend, Algirdas Skinkys, was in a similar position. Skinkys is almost a double of Kubilinskas, although a lesser double because less talented.
Kubilinskas had said to friends he would go to any lengths for the ability to publish poetry, and the contact with the partisans opened an opportunity for him to redeem himself. He wanted to leverage the partisan contact to gain bigger rewards than the resistance could offer him.
Not trusting the local MGB, Kubilinskas wrote to the chair of the Lithuanian Communist Party, Antanas Snieckus, and volunteered to infiltrate the anti-Soviet partisans. His file was handed over to a Vilnius MGB officer, and Kubilinskas was trained in firearms and deception.
His job was to find local partisan groups, infiltrate them, and assassinate the leaders or bring in troops to do the job if need be. Fearful for their safety, Kubilinskas and his friend Skinkys hesitated to commit murder until they were ordered to fulfill their tasks within the first weeks of 1949 or face the wrath of the MGB.
In a botch job that ended up turning out well for Kubilinskas, he and his friend shot a sleeping partisan in his bunker and then fled to Alytus, a provincial capital, where they summoned MGB soldiers to surround another bunker where several more partisans were killed in a firefight.
The botch occurred when Kubilinskas was identified while fleeing, and thus could no longer be used in other operations to infiltrate the partisans, who issued an execution order against him (which was never carried out).
The botch played to his advantage. Kubilinskas was free to publish as a poet, which he did, with great success. Although he never published much for adults, Kubilinskas became a roaring success as a children’s writer, producing many rhyming stories. He was the Doctor Seuss of Lithuania in the 1950’s.
But Kubilinskas was a drinker, whether because of a guilty conscience or natural tendency, and his alcoholism began to interfere with his work to such an extent that he was sent in 1962 to a sanitarium for alcoholics outside Moscow, where he died under mysterious circumstances, some say murdered by the KGB (the heir of the MGB) for being too talkative. He had lived only until the age of 39. His colleague in crime, Algirdas Skinkys, lived until 1970, reaching the age of 45. The latter, though, never achieved the fame of Kubilinskas.
It seems impossible to the modern western reader that a man so pliable to ruling regimes, and a murderer as well, should be capable of writing lasting poetry, all the less children’s poetry. Yet his choices reflect the reality of Eastern Europe where one had to select among bad choices. Kubilinskas made some of the worst of them.
This egotistical artist was the inspiration for the character called Rimantas in my novel, Underground, code-named Poe for his fondness for the American poet. I chose Poe as his code-name for the gruesome connotations we have for that writer.
What is the fate of the reputation of this murderer? For all his crimes, some readers in Lithuania continue to enjoy his children’s work. Public taste and public morality are two distinct realms, although there are few cases as extreme as that of Kostas Kubilinskas.
Eastern European jokes can be cruel indeed, and the life of Kostas Kubilinskas shows us a man who loved to write for children so very much that he helped murder to get the opportunity to do it.
Lithuanian partisans captured by the MGB in the postwar period were sometimes turned into provocateurs or double agents – few could resist the intimidation and torture used against them in interrogations. Some collaborators were more thorough and enthusiastic in their work than others. Among them were Juozas Deksnys, described in earlier posts, and Algimantas Zaskevicius (reported to have contributed to the capture of 300 partisans).
But the most famous of them all was Dr. Juozas Markulis, who taught medicine at the university of Vilnius.
Markulis was born in the USA but returned to Lithuania to complete studies for the priesthood. He never took religious orders. He was handsome and attractive to women, and he shifted instead to officer training in the military and finally into medicine in 1940. He joined the LLA, an underground Lithuanian resistance organization in 1941.
The organization was smashed by the Soviets at the end of 1944, and its archives fell into their hands. Markulis may have been identified at this time – he certainly was turned at this time.
The partisan underground lacked intellectuals – many of the fighters were the children of farmers, and Markulis insinuated himself into a local regional partisan unit where he was much beloved and looked upon as a father figure.
Markulis had two strategies – to unify the partisans in the country and to convince them to move toward passive resistance, tactics that were beginning to work. He was convincing to the partisans and impressive to his MGB superiors, writing long and detailed reports that showed he had an excellent memory for detail.
Working under intense pressure, Markulis could not avoid making mistakes, and one of them was permitting the MGB to arrest Jonas Deksnys, who had been instructed by his brother to maintain ties with no one but Markulis.
Thus it became clear that Markulis was a collaborator and spy and Juozas Luksa himself went to Vilnius in 1947 to execute him, but Markulis escaped.
He lived in Leningrad until 1953, when the partisan movement had been destroyed, and then returned to teach at the University of Vilnius.
His motivations remain opaque. He died in 1988, just before Lithuania regained its independence. His legacy is a name synonymous with treachery – he is the Benedict Arnold of Lithuanian to those who know the story of the resistance to the Soviets.