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Vilnius - horse carts WWI

Horse carts in Vilnius during WWI

German soldiers occupying Lithuaniania WWI

Germans occupying Lithuania, WWI

Šiauliai WW1 destruction

Šiauliai WWI destruction

LVG C6in LT colours WWI

LVG C6 flown by the Lithuanian Aviation Corps

JONAS STANKUS

I was 12yrs. old when the First World War started.

It was 1914:  I remember the First World War.  I was 12 years of age when it started.  I had no idea of the horrors of war, but I remember the adults talking and saying that the Germans were going to invade our country and that they will kill many people.  After a year and a half, that’s exactly what happened – the Germans invaded and occupied our country.  That’s when we experienced German cruelty.

At that time I was in Grade two attending a Russian school.  I remember that the students had to read declarations out loud.  War to us was an unknown and we had no understanding of its impact.  I remember hearing news that the Russians were losing the war.  I remember that they conscripted our men for military service and that the women shed many tears over this.

At that time, our Father was a civil servant.  He would issue lists of rationed items and paid out widows’ pensions.   He used to tell us not to be afraid of war, that it’s not as bad as people say it is.  He used to say – just hide behind a wall when the shooting starts and you’ll be OK.  We believed him.   However, when in April of 1915 the Germans invaded and started shooting, we realized the horror that gunshots bring.  From that time on, we lived in fear.  Because of war I was not able to finish my education, because of war I was not able to seek higher education and because of war I eventually had to leave my birthplace – Lithuania.  To this day I remember what a good life we had there.

Living through the War

I remember when the Germans forced the Russians to retreat from Lithuania.  This was a sure sign that the Russians were losing the War.  The Germans were better prepared, were highly motivated to fight because they were more patriotic and they had better military equipment.  It was clear to us that higher education and training brings victory in war.

In the Spring of 1915, the Russians retreated to Riga, Latvia.  Lithuania had been occupied first by the Russians and then by the Germans.  In the beginning, the Germans seemed more polite, not as cruel, and stole less from the people.  They took mostly food, horses and animal feed.   But then they became more cruel than the Russians.  If you  resisted – they killed you,  burnt your house and confiscated all you owned.  The Front stretched all across Lithuania.  There were very few places that had not been ransacked by either the Russian or the German armies.

Occupation

By the end of May, the Germans were fully in control of Lithuania.  By the end of June, the German troops forced the Russians from Lithuania.  The Russians were pushed back as far as Riga and stayed there until the end of the War.

The Russians were in the trenches around our town Viekshna.  The Germans started firing their cannons.  On the feast day of St. Anthony, they burned down the main church of our town.   My brother Anthony and I had been visiting our Aunt and we were unable to return home to Viekshna as it was now on the Front.

The Germans were the new masters in Lithuania – we were now an occupied country.  That’s when we got to know the Germans well.  We became their slaves.  They requisitioned everything from the local population – our animals, food, etc.  They inventoried everything: people, animals, all our belongings, etc.  They requisitioned grain, horses, animals, etc.  They took everything they could from us.  People started hiding what they owned as best they could.  They then took people into forced labour.  We began to understand the importance of one’s personal freedom and the freedom of the country.  We began to understand that one must fight for freedom and protect it or lose it.

We resist

Then the Germans began losing the War, but life did not become easier for us.  They confiscated even more goods from us than before.  Anything that was more valuable was sent to Germany.  The retreating German army stole what it could from our people.  Towards the end they didn’t care what they took.  Many things were dumped in the roadsides and left in the fields as they realized they couldn’t carry them back to Germany.

Resistance against the Germans grew.  The Lithuanian Partisans became active.  The Lithuanian Army was formed.  Many young men joined the Army enthusiastically as volunteers from across all of Lithuania.  On February 16th, 1918  in our capital city of Vilnius, Lithuania declared itself „de jure“ as an Independent state.  Our brother Casimir joined the Lithuanian Army as a volunteer and was a part of the 4th graduating class of the Kaunas Military Academy.  In those days I did not fully understand the joy the establishment of Lithuania’s independence brought to our people, but I know that had I been older, I too would have joined the Army as a volunteer.

We are independent

Lithuania was free!!!  Huge groups of volunteers went in to defend the cities.  Although the bolsheviks made some forays into Lithuania, our army successfully defeated them.  They also succeeded in quelling several forays into Lithuania from Poland in their attempts to occupy us.

In the Fall, our family moved to Kegsius beyond Užvenčis.  Our life there was difficult because we had to rebuild everything that had been destroyed or burned out during the war.  We had to start our life over from scratch.  Generally, at that time, there was huge enthusiasm to work and rebuild and there was a craving for higher education.

When the War ended, people became joyous.  On weekends and holidays you would hear the sounds of singing coming from all directions – the young people sang Lithuanian songs.  Everyone celebrated.  I, however, was not as celebratory, since my dream of a higher education was put on hold – the immediate priority was to stay on our land and help to rebuild our farm.  Around then I met Monica R. and I fell in love with her.  I remained in love until I enlisted in the Lithuanian Army.

During the winters we worked in the forest.  We provided lumber to Germany and kept some of the better wood for ourselves to build our homes.  Our life was difficult.  We worked very hard and in spite of all this work,  food and clothing was meager.  As a result of hard labour, worry and fear instilled in us during the German occupation, our health was compromised.   Many of us were sickly.  As children growing up in wartime, we lacked nutrition and faced the consequences of developmental delays.  During the German occupation, each person received a ration of food – the ration was just enough to ward off hunger, but inadequate to support proper development.   People who lived in the country fared better than those who lived in the cities.  In the country people were able to hide food from the authorities, but in the cities, many died from hunger as food was scarce.  Bread was more valuable than gold.  People would barter their gold, silver and jewelry for a chunk of bread.

Who will join the government?

Once we established our independence, we faced another challenge.  Lithuania rose from slavery and rule by foreign masters.  Our joy was equal to that experienced with the coming of a beautiful spring.  Everyone who was able, joined in efforts to rebuild the country. In spite of this, it was a difficult time for the newly emerging country.  It did not have adequate numbers of people experienced in governing and running a country.  Inevitably, mistakes were made.  Many practices remained as left-overs from the days of Russian occupation.  Former Russian civil servants, department heads and directors were the first to join the new government of the country.  Unfortunately, many harboured ill will towards the Lithuanian population and came from a tradition of causing them harm.  They were not interested in rebuilding our country. People’s discontent grew.

We persevered

The people sought relief through Lithuanian songs and stage plays featuring themes of rebirth of our country that were performed in local villages and towns throughout Lithuania.  Our seniors watched these performances and listened to the songs with tears in their eyes and gratitude that the next generation understood and treasured our culture.  We had successfully persevered in spite of decades of suppression of our language, culture and prohibition of Lithuanian literature, particulalry under centuries of Russian domination.  This was achieved through the dedication of our Lithuanian women – mothers and grandmothers.  They refused to be intimidated by the Russian masters and did not give in to persecution and torture when caught.  They persevered and secretly taught their children to read Lithuanian books and to speak the Lithuanian language. Lithuanian culture had been preserved!  We persevered!

Pride in our own Army

Although the Lithuanian Army was not large, it was strong in spirit and was able to quickly and effectively respond to forays into Lithuania by our enemies.  People were proud of our soldiers and treated each and every one of them as heroes.  They were proof that a country that had been “doomed to die” had resurrected and had its own army for defence.

Rebuilding

The rebuilding effort in Lithuania was huge – so much had been destroyed during the War that mostly everything had to be rebuilt.  There was a huge shortage of carpenters.  The country needed to rebuild immediately – there was no time to take courses – you learned on the job.  I was a carpenter.  We wanted to build buildings that were modern in keeping with the times and in keeping with the styles in other countries.  We worked hard and long – often foregoing sleep, but we worked with great enthusiasm.

Sometimes as I was working, my mind would wander and I would wonder if I would ever get a chance to travel – to visit other countries?   We longed for letters from our brother Jonas who was in Canada.  People who had family in America were lucky  because they received help from their relatives overseas.

We were always discontent – always waiting for something better to happen.  I often wonder if this is a left-over from the many years of occupation and war that we experienced.  We were used to waiting – waiting for a loved one to return, waiting for peace, waiting for a better time.

We were hopeful that Lithuania would receive compensation for the destruction Lithuania suffered as a result of the war.  Our country desperately needed the funds to help us rebuild. Anywhere you travelled throughout our country you saw the consequences of war and you saw what meager means people had at their disposal to be able to rebuild.  We worked, but did not always get paid for our work.  We then resented having to work under these conditions.  We craved a better life, but it was difficult to achieve it given we lacked so many resources.

Given that Lithuania is primarily an agricultural country, the government started establishing Agricultural colleges as a priority.  After that, the next priority was construction.  Once able, they began providing subsidies to people to help them rebuild.

We mature

In 1922 Lithuania began experiencing a multi-party political system.  There were 23 political parties and they were all vying for a majority in the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament) with the aim of forming the government.  As it turned out, the Christian Democrat party received a majority of seats in the Seimas and formed the government.  This emboldened the Christian leadership in the country and our spiritual leaders started influencing policy in government departments and agencies.

In 1924 I joined the Aviation Corps of the Lithuanian military in the city Telšiai. I finally started living my life more independently.  I would come home on leave and revelled in the attention I received from my home town.  There was great pride in being a soldier – everyone loved you – you were an honoured guest in your home town.

I never did realize my dream of achieving a higher education.  I learned to be content in my job and in bettering the rebirth of our country.

Image sources: publicly available sources.

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