Interview was conducted by Dr. Rasa Mažeikaitė and filmed by Algirdas Pukas.
Lithuanian Museum-Archives of Canada, Mississauga, ON. 1990.
JOE AND DANA PETRONIS
Summary of the interview:
When they came to Canada, Joe worked in the gold mines. Dana worked as a domestic servant.
DANA: I left Lithuania not by choice but because my parents had to leave. My father found out he was on a list to be taken to Siberia and when the Russians came the second time, he had to get away.
JOE: In 1940 during the first occupation of Lithuania by the Russians, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lost their freedom. People would be taken away and just disappear, never to be heard from again.
Stalin’s portrait fell and I was arrested:
JOE: I was a student. I got a job in a store as a manager. Stalin’s picture was up on the wall and one day it fell down – I don’t know how. The police came and asked what happened to the picture. I said I didn’t know. They told me to close the store and come with them to the police station where they locked me up without telling me why. After a month they said they would let me go if I signed an agreement to spy for them on my friends and neighbours. I was to report any anti-communist sentiments or conversations. I signed but had no intention of reporting on my friends and never did.
Little chance of survival at the front:
JOE: I went to college in Vilnius, our capital city. A year later, in 1941 the Germans came. Then, in 1944, the Russians came again and I knew that as a young man I would be forced to serve in the Soviet army. They grabbed Lithuanian young men off the streets and put them to fight in the front lines. That meant little chance of survival. They also sent 60,000 Lithuanians to Siberia.
We had to flee:
JOE: One day our neighbours came and said the Russians are close and we have to flee. As we were already surrounded by the Russians, the only way out for us was to go across the lake. We made it across and went into Germany. We feared that the Germans would not accept us, but they did and gave us food and jobs. We worked in Germany until the end of the War. Work in Germany was tough – the hours were 7 days per week 6 hours per day. In spite of the hardship, we felt lucky, because we survived.
I swam across an icy river to the American side:
JOE: In April of 1945, just before the end of the War, we were again surrounded by the Russians. We were on the banks of the Elbe River and could see the Americans on the other side. We wanted to get across but there was no boat on our side. Since it was April and there was still ice on the river, and I was used to swimming in ice water on the lake on our farm, I undressed and was ready to swim across the Elbe. Everyone yelled at me that I’m crazy to try it. The Elbe is the second largest river in Germany and to cross it you’d have to swim a good half mile in frigid water. I jumped in and swam and made it to the other side. There I found a boat and came back to get more people and brought them to the American side. I made the crossing three times and managed to help about 15 more people get across. We were so relieved when we reached the American side, because to get caught by the Russians meant either a bullet through your head or deportation to Siberia. We put our hands up in the air and shouted “Don’t shoot!” as we marched towards the Americans.
Our first “Yankees”:
JOE: We had never seen Yankees - Americans before. They were very different – different from the Russians and different from the Germans. They had chewing gum and neat hair and hats. They kept looking at me since I was the only one in our group without clothes. They put us into a truck and drove us to a prisoner of war camp with barbed wire all around. They let the German soldiers, teachers, farmers go, but they told the Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians that they have to go back home. We tried to explain about communism to the Americans and what will happen to us if we go back. We said we will go back but only when the Russians are no longer in our countries. For us to go back now was the same as getting shot or being sent to Siberia.
The first groups of Lithuanians were sent back by force. People started cutting their wrists rather than go back. Investigations followed and finally the Americans started believing us. They did not make it easy for us in the camps – they fed us only once a day. I lost 50 pounds and was just skin and bones. In 1946 they released us from the prisoner of war camps and moved us to a Displaced Person (DP) camp.
Life in German labour camps:
DANA: I came to Germany earlier, well before the war ended. We were taken to German labour camps. Conditions were terrible. We were in large barracks with one pot belly stove as the single source of heat for the whole place. There were 25 bunk beds for women, men and children all housed together. The bugs would eat you alive. You had to keep the lights on all night to help control the bugs, but with little effect. Food was scarce - we got turnip soup and one slice of bread once a day. I was a growing girl and I got so weak that I was not able to walk. At 6 o’clock every morning I had to go to a munitions factory and work 12 hour days. I would come home exhausted because there was no food. Munitions factories were the first to be bombed, so when we heard the bombers overhead and everyone ran for shelter, I had no strength to run. I would just fall on my face, so finally they put me in the hospital.
Risking life for a cabbage:
DANA: Three of us women were so starved we didn’t know what to do. We had eaten the ham we had brought from home and there was only the bone left. We decided we need to cook some soup the keep our strength for at least a little while. Our “Lagerfuhrer” was a strict Nazi brown-shirt and everyone feared him. He had a garden full of cabbages. So one night at midnight we headed out to his garden. Two of were on the lookout, while I took a knife and went to cut a cabbage, all the while, shaking like a leaf. The Lagerfuhrer usually had a German Sheppard dog on guard duty, but he must have been indoors that night. We succeeded and made our cabbage soup. It was like a feast. We were lucky they didn’t catch us, because three days later, they caught a Russian stealing some potatoes and he was shot on the spot. Yes, I risked my life for a cabbage.
Hiding in a cabbage patch:
JOE: Cabbage saved my life. I remember one night the lights came on and the bombings began. I ran into a field of cabbage and secured my head between two heads of cabbage. I felt so safe. Bombs fell all around us, but I survived. Sounds funny now, but then it was life or death... So now we were in DP camps, waiting and waiting and waiting to get out and start a new life. Life in DP camps was tough because food was scarce and you didn’t know what the future held for you.
Work as a domestic:
DANA: I came to Canada on a one-year contract as a domestic, because that’s what they needed in Canada. I had finished nurse’s training but they weren’t taking nurses. So I had to take what I could get. I had had one year’s training in English and two years in French, so they took me to Montreal. At that time the French were very nationalistic so I did not like it there very much. As a domestic you were the lowest of the low and I encountered a lot of prejudice. We had to take what opportunities we got and we didn’t complain. I worked 6.5 days per week with one afternoon off. I completed my one-year contract and then wrote to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Toronto asking for a nursing position. I was accepted as a Nursing Assistant and so I came to Toronto. Toronto was more of an international city than Montreal and we blended in more easily.
Work as a gold miner:
JOE: I came to Canada to work in the gold mines. One day we saw a notice in the DP camp that Canada needs 70 gold miners so I applied and was accepted. They checked our health, political views, mental health. I went by train from Kempten, to Munich, through Austria to Italy where we had to wait for our ship to arrive.
The girl crying was to be my future wife:
JOE: One day, before the ship was to arrive, I was on the wharf and I saw this girl crying. She was surrounded by her friends. She was the only one who got passage to leave Germany, the others had to stay behind and so she was crying.
DANA: We were 4 nurses who signed up to go to Canada together, but there was room left for only one of us on the ship. By alphabet I got that spot and the others had to stay behind to wait another month for the next ship. I was so brave before, but now that I was to go alone, I got so scared I started to cry. Joe came to console me and that’s how we met and travelled across the ocean together.
JOE: I always liked helping people. When I saw this girl crying, I thought, she’s going to Canada and I’m going to Canada, I will help her. I told her I would be her companion. She looked up at me and stopped crying. For 10 days we were on that ship and I would go every morning to her cabin to pick her up to have breakfast together. But after 3 days the seas got so rough that everyone got seasick. People were rolling on the floor wrapped in blankets, green as can be. Only 3 people of a total of 1,800 passengers were not seasick and ate in the ship’s cafeteria and she was one of them. Although seasick, I would force myself to go to the cafeteria because I had promised to meet her. We finally made the 10 day journey and landed in Halifax. From Halifax we both travelled on the same train to our destinations. After 3 days Dana got out in Montreal and I continued on to Kirkland Lake. We completed our contracts and came to Toronto and got married, so...something good came of all this.
First impressions of Canada – the wild country:
DANA: First impression of Canada from the train windows was that we were in a huge, wild country. Unending forests everywhere – hardly any people in sight. Just forests for days and days. The expanse of the country was impressive.
JOE: Same for me. As a forester, I like nature. I saw miles and miles of forests and lakes with no civilization in sight. Finally, in Kirkland Lake, huge rocks and boulders started to appear. I wondered how people lived here, but of course, there were many mines in this area. That provided them with a livelihood. There were no farms, only rocks and mines.
One mile underground:
JOE: They gave us clothes and we started working in the mines. The first level was one mile underground. Inside the mine it was hot - 80F degrees, although outside the mine in winter it was freezing cold. We worked in pairs. After 6 months I was promoted and became the operator and got a helper. Lots of DP worked in the mines. The work was hard – 6 days per week and 8 hours each day. We worked in two shifts – day and afternoon shifts. One person drills, the other waters down the drilled holes and installs fuses into the holes to blast the rock. As the fuse burns you run as fast and as far as you can and you hear the explosions. The work was dangerous. Next day you remove the loose pieces of rock and reinforce the area with new timber. I finished my one-year contract and came to Toronto. I wanted to go to the US. At Niagara Falls I tried to cross the border but was refused, so I went back to Toronto.
I find the girl who cried:
JOE: In Toronto I accidentally met Dana’s friend who told me she works as a nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. I went there to meet her. She came out of the hospital wearing a nice dress, and her face had rounded out now that she had food. She looked beautiful. I just hugged her. I decided to go back to the mines for another year to make more money so we could get married. I came to visit at Christmas and bought her a ring and we were engaged to be married. I bought a ring for $25. That’s all I had. I got a job at the O’Keefe Brewery on Dundas Street and we got married. Dana then convinced me to change jobs. For the next 35 years I worked in the Lever Brothers soap factory. That was strictly an English company. I was the first foreigner they hired and I worked well. Dana and I worked a lot, not just in our jobs, but we worked hard at second jobs too. We bought a house within one year because we saved every penny we earned. After I would finish my day job, I would paint homes for people as my second job.
We raised one daughter and four sons. All finished schools and are married. Dana stopped working after the third child and stayed home to raise the children. We could not afford babysitting. Dana would go off to work after I came home and I took over care of the children. We both pitched in and worked hard to make a life together.
Life in Canada:
JOE: We both feel good about Canada. We feel that here we made it on our own. I feel I succeeded because of these things: my luck in finding and marrying Dana, living in Canada, my good health and life in the Lithuanian community. Our children were active in the Lithuanian sports club AUŠRA and excelled in track and field. We bought a station wagon and I became driver for the team. I would drive them to all the track and field tournaments in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and across Canada. We made sure that our children were kept busy. Dana and I joined the Lithuanian parish choir where we sing to this day in our retirement and are also active in our parish community. Life in Canada has been good.
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