Lithuanian partisans captured by the MGB in the postwar period were sometimes turned into provocateurs or double agents – few could resist the intimidation and torture used against them in interrogations. Some collaborators were more thorough and enthusiastic in their work than others. Among them were Juozas Deksnys, described in earlier posts, and Algimantas Zaskevicius (reported to have contributed to the capture of 300 partisans).
But the most famous of them all was Dr. Juozas Markulis, who taught medicine at the university of Vilnius.
Markulis was born in the USA but returned to Lithuania to complete studies for the priesthood. He never took religious orders. He was handsome and attractive to women, and he shifted instead to officer training in the military and finally into medicine in 1940. He joined the LLA, an underground Lithuanian resistance organization in 1941.
The organization was smashed by the Soviets at the end of 1944, and its archives fell into their hands. Markulis may have been identified at this time – he certainly was turned at this time.
The partisan underground lacked intellectuals – many of the fighters were the children of farmers, and Markulis insinuated himself into a local regional partisan unit where he was much beloved and looked upon as a father figure.
Markulis had two strategies – to unify the partisans in the country and to convince them to move toward passive resistance, tactics that were beginning to work. He was convincing to the partisans and impressive to his MGB superiors, writing long and detailed reports that showed he had an excellent memory for detail.
Working under intense pressure, Markulis could not avoid making mistakes, and one of them was permitting the MGB to arrest Jonas Deksnys, who had been instructed by his brother to maintain ties with no one but Markulis.
Thus it became clear that Markulis was a collaborator and spy and Juozas Luksa himself went to Vilnius in 1947 to execute him, but Markulis escaped.
He lived in Leningrad until 1953, when the partisan movement had been destroyed, and then returned to teach at the University of Vilnius.
His motivations remain opaque. He died in 1988, just before Lithuania regained its independence. His legacy is a name synonymous with treachery – he is the Benedict Arnold of Lithuanian to those who know the story of the resistance to the Soviets.
While I had intended to begin this season with an entry about Robert Heingartner and the shape of my novel in progress, I stumbled across some more partisan biographies while I was in Lithuania last summer and found them too good to remain unremarked upon.
The four come from a book by Rokas Subačius called (in translation) Dramatic Biographies, detailing the lives of twenty-six Lithuanians during periods of first independence and three brutal occupations.
In a radio interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC radio this fall, I said I keep going back to Lithuanian sources because the place has life stories with very high stakes.
Some of the four biographies provided source material for Underground.
The first life described is that of Juozas Vitkus, code-named Kazimieraitis, who was the head of the partisan region of southern Lithuania. Although he did not write about his own life, he was described in detail by Adolfas Ramanauskas, code-named Vanagas, whose biography inspired parts of Underground.
Before WW 1, Juozas Vitkus should have emigrated as a child to America where his father had gone to find work, but his mother became sick on the way and was held back in London and the children were sent to an orphanage. His father returned from America to round them all up and then went back to farm modestly in Lithuania instead of going on to the USA.
Delayed by the war, Vitkus entered high school in 1919 at the age of eighteen. Lithuania’s independence battles were still going on, and he joined the army and was trained as an officer, serving as a lieutenant in battles with the Poles. He trained as a military engineer in Belgium and visited the Paris World’s Fair of 1937. He was a lieutenant-colonel by 1940 during the first Soviet occupation, but was not deported to Siberia like so many officers at that time.
During the German occupation, unwilling to work in an army subservient to the Nazis, he went into civilian life, meanwhile helping to create the LLA, an underground military school in the resistance.
When the threat of Soviet return became real, the retreating Germans agreed to train and arm about a hundred potential underground resisters. While biographer Subacius does not go into detail on this point, one can see where the story of underground fighters as Nazi sympathizers arises. Some took training and weapons from the Germans (and some were undoubtedly collaborators). However, the majority of partisans, as we know, were simply young men, mostly from rural backgrounds, fearful of the returning Soviets and unwilling to join their army.
Vitkus could not easily withdraw before the approaching Soviets because he had five young children. But after their second arrival (the first was in 1940), he found it difficult to find work under the occupation itself because no one would give a former army officer a job. He finally found work in the remote southern countryside as a bookkeeper, apparently intending to stay legal but out of the spotlight and thus less liable to deportation from a provincial village.
However, the partisan resistance as forming around him, and he could see the lack of military training in these informal groups. Most of the higher officers had fled Lithuania or been imprisoned, and Vitkus joined the partisans with the intention of raising their military training. He was the highest ranking officer from the formerly independent army in the partisan movement.
At this moment it is worth standing back from the life for a moment and watching how history played havoc with the best-laid plans. Vitkus, who chose the code-name Kazimieraitis, had no intention of resisting at first, but he felt compelled to do something for the partisans in spite of the fact that his actions put his family and himself at risk.
One of his first tasks was to organize the resistance and to enforce discipline, in particular on some of the criminals who drifted into the partisan movement in the early days. At least seven of them received death sentences for excessive violence in the resistance.
Vitkus’s bunker was at the confluence of two small streams that did not freeze over the winter, and the only way to reach the bunker door without leaving footprints was to wade in the shallow waters with rubber boots on the way.
Vitkus met with Juozas Deksnys, a partisan stationed in Stockholm who came back into Lithuania to check out the local situation. With him, he hoped to set up ties to the international community and to get help for the resistance.
Vitkus also helped organize the seizure of the town of Merkine, dramatized in my novel. The intention was to assassinate local collaborators. In that action two hundred partisans attacked the town with great initial success, but significant losses as well. By 1948, incidentally, the 47 whose names Ramanauskas could remember were all dead.
Even in 1946, the noose was tightening. After the Merkine action, a captured partisan was tortured until he revealed Vitkus’s bunker. Although Vitkus was not caught, two other partisans were killed and their documents discovered, including Vitkus’s diary and a list of sixty supporters, who were subsequently arrested.
The partisans fought on, but the losses were great. Through 1945 through June of 1946, Vitkus lost 250 shot, 236 arrested, and 213 partisans who opted to take amnesty. Only 300 were left in his area.
After a massive partisan execution action against spies, the resulting MGB combing of the forests stumbled across Vitkus while he was washing his clothes by a stream. He defended himself with a pistol, wounding two soldiers, but was wounded in turn by a grenade and taken alive. The MGB did not know who they had. They beat him during interrogation, but he died of his wounds without giving out any information.
His body was dumped in the marketplace in village of Leipalingis and left there until the MGB discovered who they had killed. Then the body was taken away and buried in a place that remains unknown to this day.
When I was in Merkine again this summer, I visited the partisan monument where he and dozens of other fighters are commemorated. It lies very close to another monument to red partisans and Red Army soldiers, as well as the site of a holocaust massacre.
Underground is dedicated not only to men like Vitkus, but to all the others who died in the forests as well.
With my novel, Underground, launched into the world, it is time to think of the next novel, which I have been hankering to get to.
There will still be a lot of talking about Underground and the partisan war because I have media appearances and festivals to attend in the fall, but just now I can get into the research on the new novel and expand the pages of the new book that I have already written.
The new novel’s working title is Fear no Fall – this is a thematic guideline for me, taken from John Bunyan, although I am not sure I will want to keep the title in the end (I lean toward Things Fall Apart as well, but it has been used so often).
He that is down needs fear no fall,
He that is low no pride…
The novel will be set in in the murky world of espionage and counter-espionage among the Russians, Poles, Germans and Lithuanians from 1921 until 1923, when it still seemed like a determined man might seize a nation, or create an empire. After all, D’Annunzio was the poet who seized Trieste, Pilsudski the socialist bandit who became the father of Poland, and Lenin the failed seminarian (released from a German jail) who created the Soviet Union (with a little help from his friends).
My main character might open by saying something like this:
I was a self-made man who was building a self-made world without any of the hypocrisies of the past. After the old world collapsed, all we needed to do was hammer out the rules for a new one and play by them, and we’d build a better future. If our enemies would let us. If they didn’t, we’d have to outsmart them.
While I have done a lot of research and I have the story roughed out in my mind, I continue to read background in Lithuanian and I stumbled across a remarkable memoir by a writer who is entirely unknown outside Lithuania, and probably barely known within it.
The book is called Aš Apsisprendžiu, written by the late Tadas Ivanauskas (1882 – 1970), who came from the baronial ruling class of of Lithuania in the czarist period and lived through dispossession in the Lithuanian independence period and then repression in the Communist era.
Through all this, he managed to be one of the men who created Kaunas university and was what can only be called an ecologist avant le mot, while at the same time a biologist, hunter, and prose stylist.
His ruling class was destroyed, so he is interesting as a representative of the Polish-Lithuanian rulers, (repressed under the czars) whose stories are not well known.
For example, in the period after the 1863 uprising, Catholics were forbidden to buy land. The regime hoped the Lithuanian/Polish ruling class would eventually have to sell to Russians (Orthodox Christians) and disappear. In Ivanasuksas’s family, the Lithuanian family manor lay near Lida, which was Polish between the wars and Belorussian after 1945. They dud not sell, but were driven by the reds during the revolution.
Ivanauskas describes his childhood in the manor with a richness of detail I have not read since Ceslaw Milosz’sNative Realm. With great charm, he describes the interior of the manor where they huddled around the ceramic stove while outside the birds could be seen pecking dried seeds from the pods of tall grasses sticking out of the snow. He describes characters such as “the smoker” who lived in the smokehouse while the meat was being prepared and smelled of smoke all day long. Young Tadas wandered out into the fields like some kind or Wordsworth, all clean and curious in nature. Outdoors-men of the time were hunters, and he became one too, in particular looking to find birds to shoot and mount for the manor room devoted to stuffed animals.
He did not do well in high school in Warsaw because he missed his home so much and detested the forced religiosity of the place, but he prevailed in St Petersburg where he studied science and eventually created a thriving business in providing universities and museums with skeletons and various other specimens required for the study of biology.
Why does he matter?
First, the gorgeous detail in the work is not to be missed. But beyond that, he represents what was swept away by the revolution.
Furthermore, he is interesting because he represents a place and time where language did not determine nationality. Most locals considered themselves Lithuanians, but the upper classes spoke Polish (and Russian with the government) and the lower classes spoke Belorussian. There were some Lithuanian speakers, but one had to travel some distance to find their villages.
But why does he matter to my novel? Because his is the world that existed before my spies try to make a new one. He is one of the ones who will lose (but arguably gain as well by adapting his skills to the new world.)
The prose is so good, that his story of the family boys travelling by cart with their uniformed driver and the dogs to a distant estate for a few days of hunting rivals the prose of Tolstoy’s hunt scene in War and Peace.
And yet the man was a biologist! So much talent to spare. So much beautiful writing hidden in the shadows. He’ll be a big help to me.
In the following weeks, I’ll talk about a few of the other books that I am using. The heart of the matter wil of course lie with Jonas Budrys, his espionage memoir called Lietuvos Kontrazvlagyba, but there are many other excellent sources.