Rescuers of Jews

Kazlauskienė (Sondeckytė) Eugenija

Samogitia, my love

This is when we began an odyssey of changing hideouts. It lasted until autumn 1944, when the Nazis were pushed out of Samogitia.
It would be impossible to tell about all the exciting, memorable situations and details, which describe those wonderful people, the bright-minded Samogitian peasants, who spit death in the face and risked their lives and the lives of their families to save us – people they had never known before. A book would not be enough.
A totally different life began on the Virketis farm. The Virketis themselves and two of their pre-teen children lived very poorly: crammed on one side of a small hut, whilst the other housed a small derelict animal-shed. There used to be a cow and some pigs in this shed. This tiny shed, which had not even been mucked out, had no windows and little ventilation, became our permanent place of residence, which we would only leave when after dark. The farm had no well and the people who lived there used the same ditch, which was not very clean, for drinking water and washing themselves. We had to share the food, which Kazlauskas brought us from time to time, with our hosts, who barely managed to stay alive themselves.
After a while we felt that we had been infested with lice. First on our heads. Later, when strange wounds appeared on our legs, they started multiplying beneath the crust covering those wounds.
It was a catastrophe. Even when we were almost dying from hunger in the ghetto, we managed to avoid such things. Chocking in that dirty barn half-starved, without being able to wash ourselves properly, our heads, arms and feet overrun with wounds and lice, we felt as if we were rotting alive.
One time after dusk Kazlauskas came to visit us and was appalled at the sight of us. He understood that we could not stay there any longer. The Virketis family were very honest and courageous people, but they could barely take care of themselves. I have always been thankful to them and to their son in my heart. Unfortunately, I could not find them or anything about their fate after the war.
Kazlauskas tried to settle us in at his neighbour, a wealthier peasant by the name of Dokšas. After hiding us for around a week, the good-hearted Dokšas had a nervous breakdown.
“Do what you want, I can’t take it anymore,” he said to Kazlauskas.
Finally Kazlauskas managed to arrange for us to live with the Šimkus family, who lived rather far away from Šašaičiai. They had no children, lived in a farmstead in the middle of the forest with no neighbours. The farmstead could only be reached from one side where the road was and surrounded by forest and swamps on all other sides.
I can almost see them today. I became a “secret” shepherd of the only cow the Šimkus family had. The latter proved to be a wild one and the same was even more true for the swamp. Even though she had a bell on her neck, the rufous animal could disappear from my eyes almost instantly. She knew every hard spot in the swamp and would quickly vanish among the livery parts of the swamp. I found myself in an unfamiliar place with endless water of the swamp all around me, shuddering with fear and breathless I hopped from one hump to another with tears in my eyes, occasionally submerging myself in water. I would search for my new friend all day, wet from head to toe.
It ached my heart to think: this is it, I am not going to find the Šimkus family’s source of food, and, God forbid, our hosts might throw me and my mother out… But when I brought the cow back in the evening all wet and cold, I felt happy, as if I had beaten the greatest obstacle in my life.
Šimkuvienė was a good knitter. The family’s livelihood depended on her knitting. Luckily, my mother was also good at knitting and she worked from morning until evening, hidden on the other side of the hut, knitting Šimkuvienė’s orders. This way we could repay our do-gooders to some extent. (Frankly, this was the only way we had: we had no property. Everything now belonged to the people, who started living in our flat on Algirdo street in Vilnius).
Compared to hiding at the Virketis farm, this could almost be called a sanatorium. The Šimkus family were hard-working, friendly people. We spent one of the most peaceful periods in hiding here.
But soon the fat was in the fire: the people around us started talking about some mysterious people living on the Šimkus farm and we had to run again.
Autumn of 1944 came. The frontline near Šiauliai electrified Samogitia, which was overrun with Nazis ravaging and tormenting the region. The Nazis, their henchmen, former policemen, Jew-killers, anyone who had any amount of power in Lithuanian Security and other collaborating structures suddenly gathered in Samogitia, settled in its villages, warmed up the Nazi hysteria, bred suspicions and fear among peasants. It was getting harder and harder to find anyone who would risk hiding a Jewish woman and her child under those circumstances.
This time Kazlauskas used the help of his relative, uncle Laurynas, and somehow managed to find a place for us. Again, it was a homestead in a forest, where a woman lived alone with her son Stasys of around 26 years of age. Everything happened so quickly that we did not even find out what their last names were. We were brought secretly and left there.
It became clear right away, that our new hostess was no conspirator. She was sincere and honest and thought that everyone around her was just as honest so she believed there was no reason to hide. In a few days there were probably no neighbours left, who did not know that we were hiding there. The hostess’ son Stasys realised how bad of a situation we had gotten into, but it was too late. We had to disappear quickly and as far as possible from the homestead of these naïve and gullible people.
Stasys kept running about somewhere all agitated, until he came back in the evening and said he had found a perfect hiding place. There was a hut in the forest where an old gentleman lived by himself. Even the mistress of the house had left him. The bachelor agreed to take us in. We would travel after dark.
Dusk was becoming more and more gratifying with each passing day and gave us hope: every night the sky was red from the glow of the battlefield, the cannonade roared closer and closer, there were more and more heavy bomber planes humming in the sky on their way to the West and all the country roads, even insignificant forest paths, were overrun with fleeing Nazis. They fled in massive numbers, day and night, on their tanks, horses and requisitioned carriages, any way possible.
God, what joy it was. Finally! Hidden in the depth of the forest I would prowl close to the road, abandoning whatever sense of caution I had. I could not catch my breath overcome by emotion, which was special somehow, mixed in the confused soul of a twelve-year-old together with hatred for the occupants and the waiting for impending retribution. The spark of hope, which had never died, started burning brighter and gave me and my mother strength.
After the long trip through the forest at night, through the brushes, avoiding all roads and paths, we finally found the hut of our host-to-be. He was an old man of about 60 years of age with a kind face. He took us to the other side of the hut, put us to bed, happy that it would be easier with a woman in the house, who was so necessary to him now that the former mistress of the house had left.
Juozas Kazlauskas constantly took care of us, brought food, found us new hideouts whenever we had to flee for one reason or another. This man deserves a separate book.
Having married a wealthy widow, Kazlauskas turned her farm into one of the most mechanised farms of the time. He was an uneducated farmer with a bright head as of a construction engineer and hands of gold. And a heart of gold. He had a fearless heart of a hero and a mind of a humanist philosopher. The fate of this kind of people is frequently tragic.
He did not go to church and therefore had the reputation of a godless atheist in Šašaičiai, in the beautiful land of Varduva, in Žemaičių Kalvarija – this and the information about him saving Jews could have predetermined his tragic fate. In accordance with the soviet order, a “kulak”, owner of 40 hectares of land, hiring farm-hands had to be eliminated as a representative of the class. But in the end he was killed by those who fought the Soviets.
After a long search, his body was found in a forest hanged on ribbons. His face was so deformed, that only his wife was able to recognise him. In his last letter in 1946, Juozas Kazlauskas wrote to us, that it was “getting hot” in Šašaičiai and he was going to move to Vilnius, where we would meet soon. But he could not make it. The irony of fate was that his both sons – Gediminas and Algis, who participated in underground movements – were repressed by soviets. It seems to me, that the horrible history of this family is a reflection of the tragedy that befell all of Lithuania at the time.
The tragedy touched everyone in different ways. For example, J. Sondeckis’ father – the old Laurynas. Was it easy for an old man to risk the lives of his daughter Eugenija, his son in law J. Kazlauskas, and finally, his three grandchildren – little Alina, Gediminas and Algis – for us, people he didn’t know before? But we heard no complaints, no doubts and no sign of resentment. Laurynas was respected by everyone. We all called him Papunis in our local dialect. He was a short-spoken man, it seemed he never interfered in farm matters, but his eyes were so deep and expressive, they seemed like a mirror of all the things happening in the farm. I will never forget how he took care of a starving ghetto child. And the skilfully carved clogs he made for me – I learned wearing them soon, those were great for cold winters too. And the fur coat he gave me. I could not part from these clogs and the fur coat for a long time. Even when I came to Vilnius in the autumn of 1944, I came over Ruzgiai to Žvėrynas wearing Papunis’ clogs and the coat already in holes...
Isn’t Laurynas the true righteous among the nations? I met many people like him while wandering in Samogitia, the place I fell in love with for the rest of my life.
Other Sondeckis family members did not avoid tragedy either. Jackus Sondeckis helped the Šiauliai Ghetto and its residents a lot during the occupation. A humanist who despised Nazism, and one of the creators of the Lithuanian Social-Democrat party, Sondeckis left Lithuania as the front got close, leaving his wife and two children behind.
And suddenly, after almost 5 decades since we had parted, I saw his unforgettable pleasant face next to the former ghetto theatre at a Sąjūdis meeting organised in remembrance of the victims of the ghetto. I squeezed through the crows and I asked him: “Are you Sondeckis?”
Jackus visited my mother as well. It seems not so long ago they both still were among us…
A read a lot of warm words about my father in Sondeckis’ book, Gyvenimas Lietuvai, that was released after he died.
Sondeckis’ words about me are the highest of any praise I ever got. When he lived in the USA he wrote: “The man is probably not only clever, but also a good person… My sister (Eug. Kazlauskienė – M. P.) told me, that the young Petuchauskas had come to thank her for saving him and his mother. This is an extraordinary deed. Those who get help from someone rarely say thanks the way they should. Mark’s action is a rare exception.” (Gyvenimas Lietuvai – “Delta”, 1993, Šiauliai, p. 198).
For me this was a testimony from my father’s friend and comrade, that I had not abandoned my father’s principles of honesty.
I was moved by the photos in the book: my father alongside J. Sondeckis and other reputable residents of Šiauliai at the time (Naujalis, the Venclauskis family, etc.) There are photos of Sondeckis, S. Petuchauskas and other town leaders welcoming president Smetona when he came to visit Šiauliai.
There was one picture where I saw Papunis for the first time in years, together with other members of the Sondeckis and Kazlauskas families (Juozas, Eugenija, the kids) saying farewell to the emigrating Jackus.

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