Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Alfred Vitkunas remembers

Alfredas Vitkunas was an active member of the South Australian Lithuanian community.  These are his memories about his leaving Lithuania and arrival in Australia. 

Thankyou to Jura Reilly, who gave permission for her father's memory to appear here.

“Faster! Faster! Can we go any faster?”. Our two horses froth at the mouth, their breathing is as laboured as mine, as I sit petrified with fear, alongside my family who are huddled together inside the cart.

I’m 18 again and just a few hours earlier, while I was working at the Kaunas post office, I took a peek at some very official documents that had arrived. They are the dreaded deportation lists to Siberia and our family’s name is on one of them. I run home as fast as I can and blurt out this vital information to my family.  Without delay, we throw as many belongings as we can into a suitcase each.

It’s a hot day in June 1944 and now we’re fleeing Lithuania by crossing into Germany via the townships of Kudirka and Sirvinta. We stop to rest our two horses in Instermag. We can’t stop for long and then we have to travel onwards, until we find ourselves in East Prussia, where we’re taken in by a kind farmer, Herr Schmidt.  We sleep in his barn but in the morning, we all have lice. Everyone’s itching and cursing like mad. Dad, my brother George and I decide to shave off all our hair.  Mum just washes hers as much as possible in the stream nearby.  There’s no soap.  We make do.  On Schmidt’s farm there are two POWS who work alongside of us doing farm work. We get paid with food and shelter in their barn.

The grapevine provides us with valuable information. From other refugees, we learn that the Russian army is creeping up right behind us. Dad’s an ex Lithuanian army Lt Colonel and he knows that we can’t stay here any longer.  People advise us to travel through West Prussia, then cross into Pomerania. As long as we keep one step in front of the approaching Russian army, we will be safe.  When we get into Jastrow, the officials take away our two horses, telling us they’ll pay us AFTER the war ends.  Now that’s a laugh, who knows where we’ll be or whether any of us will still be alive by then? To compensate, they give our family official papers to travel on by train, that is, if one ever comes.

We sit there huddled on the platform, exhausted and terrified. The Germans won’t let anyone on. But Dad, being an experienced army man has a few tricks up his sleeve.  At nightfall we sneak below the platform and hide behind the wheels of the last train carriage. My parents are middle aged, but the urge to survive at any cost, kicks in. When the guards go off for a smoke, we take the chance and haul ourselves into the last carriage.  By now the weather has changed and our feet are frozen.

When we arrive in Schonedemunde, we manage to get on another train to Greitz via Berlin. In Greitz we have relatives, my aunt Mary and our cousin Algimantas. Unfortunately, Mary is injured during one of the bombing raids on the city and dies of her injuries. We have to bury her and leave  Algimantas to fend for himself. He reassures us that he’ll be fine and not to worry.

Next we arrive in Ingolstadt. There the Germans try to haul us off to Dachau. We manage to escape this horrible fate, by Dad telling them in his perfect German, that we’re here to stay with relatives. As soon as it’s dark, we hurry out of there and find ourselves in a small village, where an old lady called Eglė lets us stay on her farm as long as we fix her windmill. Everywhere there’s utter chaos because we hear that the Germans have lost the war. No one is in charge. People run to save themselves and their families in any way possible. There’s a lot of looting and stealing.

At last the American army arrives. They want to repatriate us back to Lithuania.  We aren’t that stupid, despite all their assurances, made via the Russians, that we’d be welcome back home without any reprisals. We know our history. The Russian invaders have always been well known for their brutality, right throughout the ages. Dad knew he’d be executed and the rest of our family sent to Siberia. He had to serve in the czar’s army in WWI, he knows firsthand, what the Russian army and KGB are capable of.
We are lucky to find ourselves in a DP camp in a pretty town called Eichstätt. That’s where I meet Valdas Adamkus who would  later become one of Lithuania’s  presidents and Gabrys Žemkalnis, whose brother Vytautas Landsbergis would become the first president of a newly independent Lithuania in 1991.

In Eichstätt, I was able to finish high school and I was accepted into Eichstätt University to study philosophy or medicine. I really wanted to study medicine, but at that time DP’s like me, were being offered assisted passages to migrate to America and Australia. My parents wanted to get away as far as possible as they’d encountered the effects of Berlin Blockade and it looked like the Russian tentacles were spreading across Europe.

I listened to Dad’s advice and so April 1948, when I was 21, along with other men, including Gabrys Žemkalnis and Reverend Dauknys, we set sail for Australia on an American ship called the General Sturgis.  It was a sad 22nd birthday on the ship without my family. On 15th May 1948, we finally docked in Sydney.  There, along with other men, I was taken to the Bathurst Military Barracks which had been turned into a DP camp, housing refugees like myself. It was freezing in June, and we only had a thin blanket on our bunk beds. Later, I was transferred with other men to the Walter Morris Timber Mills in Adelaide, South Australia. It was a back breaking work. Later I was sent to Queensland to cut sugar cane and then came back to Adelaide to work on a farm at Tailem Bend. Afterwards I started work as a ganger at the railway yard at Mile End.

I started to worry about my parents and my younger brother George who had been left behind in the DP Camp in Eichstätt. Luckily, I was able to sponsor them out to Australia and had to be the guarantor for their welfare.  You see, in 1948, my parents at 52 were considered too old to immigrate to Australia which needed young people to work on the railways, the Snowy Mountains Scheme and other post war projects, and at 16, my brother George was considered too young. In 1949, the rest of my family were allowed to join me, but they were sent to the Bonegilla Migrant Camp in Albury, NSW at first.  Later, they were transferred to Adelaide where I found them jobs on the railways. In 1950, I met my future wife Liuda Giniotytė and her family who were from Palanga.  The same year my brother met Nijolė Plokštytė, but my parents would not give George their consent for him to marry Nijolė till he was 21! They had 2 sons; Victor and Andrew.
Alfredas and Liuda on the wedding day

In 1951, Liuda and I got married and afterwards, we all pooled our money to buy a house at 96 Childers St in North Adelaide. Our daughter Jura was born on 1952. In 1954, my parents and my family bought a house at 4 Henley St Torrensville. Unfortunately during that same year, I had a horrific motorbike accident on the way to work as a ganger with the railways.  The surgeon did not set my broken leg very well. I was out of work for a year.  Later, I was transferred to work in the Accounts office at Mile End, as I couldn’t work as ganger after my accident. We were lucky that my parents Ona and Marijonas Vitkunas were able to help us out. Our son Rimas was born in 1958. Four years later, in 1962 we were able to buy a house at 24 Bagot Ave, Mile End and that’s where our youngest son Robert was born.

Post script: Alfredas Vitkunas was one of the original dancers  in the Adelaide Lithuanian dancing group,  served on many committees within the Adelaide Lithuanian community, acted in the acting group, sang in the choir and for many years, was in charge of the Adelaide Lithuanian Museum at Lithuanian House in Norwood. In 2004, Alfredas was awarded a Padėkos Raštas (Certificate of Thanks) for his museum work, by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.

1 comment:

Jurate Vitkunaite-Reilly said...

Thank you for posting this. Keep up your valuable work with the history of Adelaide Lithuanians.