Paul's family harvesting flax in Laborai
Gudjurgis family in Laborai (Paul is at left)
Russian tanks entering East Prussia
Mary Gudjurgis, outside the Spakenberg Displaced Persons' camp, 1947
Paul and Mary Gudjurgis travel document
CPR station - Winnipeg
Paul, Mary, children and guest in front of log house at Bruno Wiskel's farm, 1949
Paul Gudjurgis waiting for veterinary calls, 1950
Bridge over the Athabasca River
PAUL AND MARY GUDJURGIS
Life in farms in the village of Laborai, Lithuania
For 150 years the Gudjurgis family lived in the same village. It was called Laborai. To reach the closest church and town, Linkuva, one had to travel eleven kilometers. It took about 2 hours walking and an hour and a half by horse and buggy. Some village brides married away from the village, but it was never further than 10-20 miles away. Many a tear was shed sending the bride away from the village. The men always stayed in the village.
Many other areas of Lithuania sent young men and women to Brazil, Argentina and America, in search of a better life, but people in Laborai were “settlers”. Most were born, lived, married and died in the same village. There were a few who were sent to Moscow, St. Petersburg or Warsaw to study to become priests or druggists.
The Landless Villagers – the Serfs
The village was large. There were 24 families who owned land and there were a number of “landless” who owned only a small house and garden. At one end of the village was a blacksmith shop and at the other end – a small cemetery and chapel. There were inscriptions carved on the trees indicating that the cemetery had been used to bury the victims of the 1710 “Black Death” epidemic.
Most of the villagers were serfs. They were chattel and property of the huge landowners. Titled, very wealthy landowners were mostly absent, living on their main estates hundreds of miles away. The serfs had to work for their owner the prescribed number of days of the year. They had to bring their own equipment to work, e.g. scythe, pitchfork, shovel, etc. They also had to bring their own food – usually bread and salt. At midday children brought soup or milk from home.
The Free Villagers
The other kind of villagers were the “free”. They were not property of the landowners and did not have to work for them. Instead, they paid taxes to the crown through representatives of the crown. The Gudjurgis family were serfs. The Jasiukaiciai family, from which my mother originated, were free. The system disappeared sometime after 1861 – after the freeing of the serfs. At that time, both the serfs and the free bought lands for cash. The Gudjurgis family owned 30 hectares or 74 acres.
Farming was carried out in the old-fashioned way. There were only three crop fields: summer fallow, a rye-and-wheat field and a coarse-grain field (“vasarojus”: oats, barley and flax). The land of the farmers was not in one block, but rather scattered throughout the area of the village in strips of land called “rėžiai”. These strips varied in size from 10 to 40 feet in width and 100 to 500 feet in length. The quality and fertility of the soil varied through the land owned by the entire village, so this way, the soil quality was averaged for everyone. There were definite boundaries between adjoining neighbouring strips.
A young man could express his feelings for a girl by presenting her with a rake especially made for her. The best wood and workmanship went into this. The teeth were of strong wood, stained and the handle smoothed to prevent blisters. If she accepted the rake it meant that she reciprocated his feelings.
Rye and wheat were harvested through a “bee” (talka). Always the same families helped each other. The men cut the stalks. Behind each man went a girl who gathered enough cut stalks to make a rope which was then tied around an armful of wheat called a “pėda”. The sheaves were collected and eight or so were stood on end to form a stook (“guba”). The stooks were left for 7-8 days to dry and were brought home and stacked in bigger stooks under the roof for threshing. The stooks had to be in a straight line, their number indicating how well-off the farmer was – his standing in the community.
Singing was a way of life. Different farm tasks had their own songs. The farmer’s wife knew what time of day it was and when harvesting would be completed by these songs. She spent all day preparing the special end-of-harvest meal: a baked “pyragas” (white bread for special occasions only as the daily fare was black rye bread), meat and sausage, dumplings with cottage cheese or bacon inside, soup (“barščiai” or “kopūstų sriuba”) and desert of cranberry jelly (“kisielius”) or dried fruit compote. Of course, there was always home made beer and moonshine.
Surplus grain was sold in several ways. There were grain buyers (often Jewish) who travelled all the time from farm to farm buying grain. There was much haggling about the price. The deal was sealed by having a drink or two of beer. Another method was to take a sackful or two of grain to market in the closest town. Sometimes there were fights on market days: fights between individuals, fights between entire villages. The village Laborai was famous for this. Fights were with fists, wagon poles or fence pickets. Knives were frowned upon. They were broken up by police or the loser left town.
The Herders were essential to the village
The farmer usually kept horses, cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. Cattle were pastured on a common village pasture. Every household had to provide a boy herder (“piemuo”). The village hired a chief herder (“kerdžius”). He carried a brass trumpet or home made horn made from the bark of a birch tree. Early morning he would start from the first farm of the village blowing his horn and collect the animals to take to pasture. His efficiency was judged by the increase or decrease in the amount of milk produced. Cows were intelligent enough to remember their homes. As the herd was driven back through the village at the end of the day in the opposite direction from that morning, the cows would stand at their own gates until they were opened. The herders (“piemenys”) were given the meal for the day in the morning. This was stored in a little cloth sack carried on a string slung over the shoulders. The meal was usually bread, some bacon fat or salt pork and cottage cheese and sometimes butter (if the herder was a family member, not a hired hand).
War-time escape from Lithuania and journey across Germany
Paul and Mary met at Vytautas Didysis University in Kaunas, Lithuania where Paul was studying veterinary medicine and Mary – dentistry. Mary writes: When the Russian army arrived on our doorstep, Paul and I made the decision to quickly get married and to flee our homeland Lithuania. My parents did not dare risk leaving their farm during this time, nor could Paul’s mother attend (his father had already passed away). We got married in a church by a Lithuanian priest in the border town of Slavikai in a simple, humble, impromptu wedding with only five people attending. We were given official German marriage documents.
After the wedding we went back to visit my parents, but they were no longer at their farm. They were staying with relatives. The Germans had occupied their farm (and neighbouring farms) and were slaughtering the animals for cooking and feasting, were cutting down trees and were preparing to torch the buildings. The Russian army was very close and the soon-to-be-retreating Germans did not want to leave behind, intact, any farms to the Russians. That night, looking back, we could see fires lighting the sky above my parents’ farm. We said goodbye to my parents and left on foot on October 9, 1944. We thought we were leaving temporarily – that the Americans would fight the Russians and that we would return perhaps in half a year or a year.
We crossed into Germany on a bridge across the Šešupė River at Slavikai. The river defined the border with East Prussia. We caught a train to the city of Konigsberg (ceded to Russia after the war and renamed Kaliningrad by the Russians). Paul was able to find a job as a meat inspector and we got accommodations with a German widow. We paid our rent in the form of minor amounts of meat Paul “lifted” from the meatpacking plant.
Eventually the Russians reached the outskirts of the city and we decided to depart. Our landlady suggested we travel to Dresden but we declined. A good decision, since Dresden was soon fire-bombed by the Allies and over 100,000 people lost their lives.
We walk out with the prisoners
Where should we go? Paul thought the safest place would be to go to the coast where we might get a place on some ship. We left in the dead of night on foot at the end of January 1945 and went towards Pillau on the Baltic Sea. It was very cold. We walked towards the shore and encountered chain barriers preventing access to the water. We had come to a naval base at Pillau. We came across a long line of Russian prisoners being led by German guards. They were gaunt and starving. They could hardly walk, they were like ghosts. The German guards were few in number as there was no need for more guards since the prisoners did not have the life force to escape. We walked alongside these prisoners. At the barrier gates there was some chaos and confusion and we got mixed in with them and were carried along with the crowd to the other side of the fence.
Once inside the restricted area, we separated ourselves from the prisoners and walked along the docks until we came to a small boat with a Lithuanian name on it. The boat had two young couples on it and they invited us to join them. We stayed with them for two days sorting out what to do next. We decided to carry on on our own.
We came across a huge ship in the dock. It was full of women, children, old people and wounded soldiers – refugees from East Prussia. Paul decided to find someone in authority on the ship and make the case that, because of his medical background, he might be an asset for the care of the wounded. He was given permission to board the ship and successfully negotiated to get me on board as well.
After a short voyage we arrived at the Hel peninsula and disembarked. We were directed to temporary barracks. We stayed a few days and moved on as we heard that the Russians were advancing. We managed to get onto a train to Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) and then to Rugen and eventually to Winsen. Here Paul got a job as a meat inspector and we got accommodations on a farm. We were in the British zone. Our first child Paul was born here. In mid-September 1945 we left for a small temporary refugee camp Falkenberg. The International Refugee Organization (IRO) organized DP camps. We shared a small room with a family of five. In the early spring of 1946 everyone was moved by truck to a big new DP camp at Spakenberg near Hamburg. This would be our home until the spring of 1949.
Trans-Atlantic voyage and arrival in Canada
The ship “SS Samaria” left Bremerhaven, Germany on March 17, 1949. It was chartered by IRO from the Cunard line. The 40-year old ship was packed with 1,200 refugees from DP camps in West Germany which was still governed by USA, British and French armies.
Midway across the Atlantic, our son Paul (aged 4) and Lydia (aged 2) came down with measles. Other children were discovered to be suffering from measles during the health inspection in Halifax, Canada. The children had contracted measles at the transit camp in Bremerhaven and were in the incubation period when boarding the ship. On the SS Samaria, families of the sick children were placed into isolation – steel cabins formerly used as a jail for the ship’s sailors, on the very top deck. We got seasick, but recovered by the third or fourth day; others were sick for the entire voyage.
After ten days at sea the SS Samaria docked at Pier 21 in Halifax. It was Sunday, March 27, 1949. Through fog and sleet one could barely see the bare, desolate hills of the bay. Not a touch of green to brighten the depressing view. However, we were not yet in Canada. The Immigration Building was the extraterritorial area from which anybody could be deported back. High iron bar fencing around the area, iron bars on the windows and the absence of door handles on the inside of the doors – these were not signs of welcome and trust. We still were DPs.
We are quarantined in Halifax
Our quarantine lasted 4 days. About 10 families were detained. The guards, medical doctors and nurses talked with British accents and behaved as though they were British masters in British colonies. Mothers were not permitted to see their sick children. Rumours started that one of the children was very sick with pneumonia and the doctor still refused to allow the mothers into the children’s section. Someone with knowledge of English told the officials that they had relatives working for a newspaper and that should the child die, they would inform the press. The bureaucrats decided to play it safe and the mothers were permitted to see their children.
After being released from quarantine, we proceeded to the Immigration Building. There were three long tables. At the first table the Immigration Officers searched through a long list, found our names and put two stamps on our IRO passport. It read: “Landed immigrant, Immigration Canada; Halifax, Nova Scotia, April 1, 1949.” At the second table they gave us train tickets to Boyle, Alberta and $40 cash for meals on the train. At the third table I was handed a package of Ogend cigarette tobacco, a box of Eddy matches and a book of Vogue cigarette paper and was told that I was on my own. The arrogant attitude, wooden-face expressions and the imperious tone of the instructions barked at us by the immigration officials, mostly in British accents, were anything but friendly.
Train trip to Alberta
Paul recounts: Our trip took some 4 days and nights. I remember seeing through the window, the Citadel of Quebec City and then only rocks and stunted trees of Northern Ontario for some two days and then flat prairies of Saskatchewan until we reached Edmonton. Compared to our travels during the war and in post-war Germany (sitting on the roof of railway cars or tying myself to the door outside the car), we travelled in luxury: soft, wide seats, white towels draped over the head rests, pillows and dimmed lights during the night. Only wealthy people, we thought, could afford to travel like this. It was only on the third day that we learned there were people on the train who had sleeping berths or their own private compartments.
A Catholic nun with several Eskimo or Indian children was travelling in the same car as us. A girl from this group gave our daughter a cookie and an old Ukrainian sent us two bottles of Coke. By the time the train reached Winnipeg we were out of bread. The stopover here was three hours. Repeating to myself the English phrases needed to find my way to the bakery, I left the station. I found a small grocery store not far from the station and asked for four loaves of bread. I was told I could have only one because the bread was rationed. The German proprietor did not tell me it was rationed because of a strike in the bakeries. Switching our conversation to German, I explained that my family was on the train and we had no bread left. I got my four loaves.
Edmonton was cold and depressing on that cold and windy day of April 4, 1949. Clouds of dust were in the air, old papers hanging on fences. A man came and introduced himself as a representative of the Archdiocese of Edmonton. Immigration Canada had informed them that a Catholic family was arriving in Edmonton. Across the railroad tracks was a two-story hostel. The train to Boyle was not to leave until next day. We had our first hot baths since we left Lithuania in 1944. Only showers were available in the DP camp barracks.
Arrival in Boyle and Working as Farmhands at Wiskel’s Farm
We arrived in Boyle around noon. Bruno Wiskel (Bronius Vieškelis) and his Lithuanian friends were waiting at the station. Since word was out that Bruno had “ordered” a family from Germany to work on his farm, many other local farmers came to see what this family looked like. They remembered their own arrival in Canada in 1920-1930 when no sponsor was needed to immigrate to Canada. At that time, the CPR company was organizing immigration to Canada in order to sell to the immigrants the huge tracts of land deeded to the company by the Government. However, immigration following World War II was restricted primarily to those with labour contracts. Displaced Persons (DP’s) were admitted to work in the mines, on the railroad, in the bush as lumberjacks, on sugar beet plantations, as domestics (single women) and as farm hands. Any of these groups had to be sponsored – the individual or company sponsor would be responsible for the immigrant for one year and will provide that immigrant with work.
Our sponsor Bruno was a widower with two children and required a family to work on the farm. The husband worked the land; the wife was cook and housekeeper. Our friend Aloyzas Puida lived in the same DP camp as us in Spakenberg and had gone to Canada before us as a lumberjack. Bruno had placed an ad in one of the Lithuanian newspapers published in Toronto stating that a Lithuanian widower farmer was looking for a Lithuanian widow or mature spinster who would consider possible marriage. Aloyzas located Bruno and told him about the Gudjurgis family in Germany and he agreed to sponsor us.
At the train station stood a huge car – a Fraser. Wiskel’s was one of the very few cars in the district at that time because of post-war shortages. Our first impressions: one unpaved and muddy street – a highway. On one side were rail tracks and 4-5 elevators. Across the street was a small hotel with a beer parlour, three stores and two garages. One or two short, muddy streets leading up to the muddy hill with a few houses. Wiskel took me to the beer parlous. It was full of men in overalls and lumberjack caps. Rubber boots were covered in mud. Conversation was mostly in Ukrainian.
It was 6 miles from Boyle to Wiskel’s farm. The car stopped at an old two-story house. There was a huge kitchen, a sitting room, one bedroom and three rooms upstairs. Altogether there were eleven people and we were to live in this house.
Mary cooked and served the meals, baked bread, cleaned the house, did the laundry and ironing and collected the eggs. My job was to groom the horses and milk the cows in the morning and separate the milk before breakfast and then work on whatever had to be done on the land.
Adventures of the Veterinarian in Athabasca, Alberta
The word that a veterinarian had arrived and was working as a labourer on Wiskel’s farm reached the District Town of Athabasca, about 15 miles away. The District Agriculturist George Godel came to visit us. Veterinarians were scarce in Alberta. He advised me re the steps I had to take to establish my professional status in Alberta. I was interviewed in Edmonton by the President of the Alberta Veterinary Association and chief veterinarian for the Alberta Department of Agriculture, Dr. Talbot. I was eventually issued a temporary permit to practice only in Athabasca that I had to renew every year until I passed my Association Exams. This, however, was not going to be possible until I became a Canadian citizen – after 5 years. I moved to Athabasca with Wiskel’s blessing and the family joined me once I found accommodation. Our friend Aloyzas Puida lent me the money to buy instruments, drugs and a car. It was not until 1960 that I was able to finish repaying him for the loans.
Living in minus 40-60F
The winter of 1949-1950 was extreme. It started freezing soon after Christmas. For five weeks the temperature was below minus 40 degrees Farenheit and minus 60 by the Athabasca River. I travelled by car for three days making calls. I wore European ski boots with one pair of woolen socks. (The boots were too small to put on two pairs of socks.) I did not feel cold. It was well past midnight when I reached home in Athabasca. It was near 60F below. I took off my boots. One sock was frozen to the big toe. It was almost black. Aside from a bad blister and a sore that healed in a short time, I was sound.
By spring of 1950, I saw that living out of town was not helping my practice. A retired carpenter was completing a small house in Athabasca. We moved back to town. The old bachelor retained one bedroom for himself and we took over the rest of the house. The house stood on the bank of the creek that flooded in the spring. The ice was still on the creek when we moved in.
One day our daughter Lee (nearly 3 years old) and her friend Diane were playing on the ice. After a while Diane came into the house and told Mary that Lee had fallen into the water. Mary ran out – Lee was nowhere to be seen. Mary saw that there was open water in the middle of the creek. She reached in the water under the ice swished her hand around and by a miracle felt Lee’s coat and pulled her from under the ice. Lee was still and not breathing. Mary shook her and lifted her by her legs. Suddenly Lee started breathing and became conscious. She asked her mother: “Why did you wake me up?”
I become a small animal veterinarian
Small animal practice was unknown in Lithuania. I don’t remember seeing a single spaying operation during my years at the college. Soon after the war, Lithuanian veterinarians had their convention at the Hanover (Germany) Veterinary school. One of the German professors demonstrated the spaying of a sow…as if this operation would ever be important or needed.
Mine was not a small animal practice. We did not have a separate room or cages to keep the animals. Since spayed dogs had to be kept until they recovered from narcosis, Mary and I decided that I would never spay just one dog at a time. I would wait until I had three or four to be done. We would do them in the evening when the kids were asleep. Mary was my assistant. As we spayed them one after another, we would take them to the kitchen and arrange them on the floor. Then I would sit in the kitchen, drink coffee, and wait until they started recovering. Sometimes it would be morning before they all were up. Then would come cleaning and the washing of the floor and airing of the room. If the owners did not come to pick them up early in the day, we had three or four dogs wandering in the kitchen. It’s amazing how well those females got along. I never lost one dog after spaying. I suppose that’s because I took time when operating on them.
Paul finished his career as the District Veterinarian for the Edmonton area. He passed away in his 63rd year as a result of a heart attack in March of 1980. Mary returned to visit Lithuania twice: in 1989 and in 1993.
(Synopsis is based on the self-published book PAUL AND MARY GUDJURGIS: LITHUANIAN REFUGEES donated to the Canadian-Lithuanian Museum/Archives in August 2007 by Paul Gudjurgis,jr.)
Image sources: from the original story in the Lithuanian Museum-Archives Canada archive and publicly available sources.
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