Four Dramatic Biographies – Part One

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 Source of Four Partisan Biographies

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.

Talks, Blogs, and Reviews

In the new world of book promotion, I’m finding the mass media monolith (alliteration is irresistible) of a short seven years ago when I published my last novel has devolved into a beach of promotional shards.

The Old Book Promotion Monolith
The New World of Book Promotion Shards

I think I might even like this landscape better, but it certainly is different.

Rather than speak to a hundred book salespeople at a mini-conference, I am going from store to store for short morning chats before the doors open. While it’s great to meet the people who might choose to hand sell my novel, I feel like I am speed-dating a hundred individuals this month.

When it comes to a blog tours, I stumbled across a joke I had missed when I was interviewed on Steven Beattie’s That Shakespearean Rag. I asked him how it was possible that the Canada Council could be funding blog tours when there are no expenses involved in that type of promotion. He smiled and reminded me the news item had run in the Quill and Quire on April 1. I realized I had missed the joke.

That interview was quite wonderful, at least partially because we talked intensely for an hour and Steven wrote the profile. Much harder are the new style interviews in which the host blog poses a series of questions the author should reply to. These types of interviews do provide a lot of space for an author, but I find I keep searching for ways to talk about my book in a manner I haven’t used before. I’m writing my own profile again and again, which is somewhat harder than merely talking about it again.

Perhaps it’s good to stretch this way.

Of course, one can’t help but be a little repetitive. Amusingly, I have noticed on my Facebook page that the number of “likes” is very high when I link to early interviews and reviews, and much lower later on.

No complaints. It’s wonderful to be out and noticed for one’s work, but one gets noticed in a different way now.

I’ve been very lucky in my reviews so far, having been covered in the National Post, The Vancouver Sun (with a reprint in the Montreal Gazette) and the Toronto Globe and Mail. That last review by Donna Bailey Nurse was particularly insightful.

Newspaper reviews are, of course, the remainder of the old monolith.  But TV and radio shows about books have fallen on hard times. There are far fewer of them. Lost in the last few years were TVO’s Imprint, Newsworld’s Hot Type, and CBC Radio One’s Talking Books. Thank God for the ones that remain, namely Shelagh Rogers’s The Next Chapter and Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company.

And what of the contact between writers and readers? The late Paul Quarrington told the story of stopping at a strip mall to buy worms for a fishing trip, only to see someone reading one of his novels on the sidewalk. He approached the man and said he was the author of the book. The reader looked up skeptically from the book and said, “No you’re not.”

The Lands Between – Part Two

Alexander Prusin’s The Lands Between is a study of the lands between Germany and Czarist and Soviet Russian from 1870 to 1992.

The map above, of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, loosely covers the area that both he and Timothy Snyder write about.

I’ve discussed his particular take on the postwar anti-Soviet partisan resistance in that area, but let’s step back now in order to get a sense of his overview.

He wonders why this area was so violent between 1914 and 1953. In effect, this shorter period covers the time of the fight for independence in those lands, as well as the independence period, and invasions from Germany and the Soviet Union and the Holocaust and the resistance after WW2.

The places were most violent when they tried to break away, and they were unstable because of ethnic tensions and economic backwardness.

Although he is not entirely in favour of the imperial regimes before WW1 and the Soviet Union after WW2, Prusin seems to imply that at least these lands between were less violent then. This assertion seems odd to me, given that the German and Czarist (later Soviet) forces were the ones that initiated the violence in the first place. At times, he sounds like he is blaming the victim, although it is certainly true that victims can also be perpetrators.

He is certainly right that the religions professed in the area were Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Uniate, Jewish, Karaite and other sects, and languages were as many or more. Before WW1 in Lithuania, the government activity happened in Russian, culture in Polish, some business and most Jewish home life in Yiddish, and farm and peasant life in Lithuanian.

These lands were multicultural avant la lettre, but not in a good way, according to Prusin. Current expressions of multiculturalism are usually deemed as positive. In the place and time described, the different confessions and linguistic groups cooperated when times were good, friction turned to fire when times were bad.

Interestingly, Prusin accuses the state of being the prime instigator of violence by encouraging latent hostilities. He does not exclude Soviet and German states, but neither does he limit the blame to those two.

And controversially, he says that large-scale collaboration was required to make the German and the Soviet occupations work. I have italicized the second part of the last sentence because traditional understanding of the term collaboration in the West put it solely in the Nazi camp. Prusin is saying that one could collaborate with the Soviets as well. There is nothing new in this understanding in the East, but it might be new to Westerners.

Prusin also states that the local population had no control over political and social processes.

One item that Prusin finds consistent is that Jewish communities were singled out as targets in the Czarist, independence, and wartime periods.

Particularly in the first days of the Holocaust, Prusin sets out this scenario: As the Soviets retreated under the German attack in 1941, they instituted a scorched earth policy and began mass executions of prisoners, usually local elites (teachers, politicians, policemen the Soviets had arrested earlier). These massacres were carried out in a gruesome fashion.

As I said to a friend of mine, people have just begun to understand about Katyn – they are just beginning to know that there were many more murders like that one, and they remain unknown in the West.

Due to the Soviet violence (and the mass deportations of just a week before), says Prusin, the German were greeted with genuine enthusiasm by non-Jews. Then the mutilated bodies of the former Soviet prisoners became public knowledge, and vengeance was twisted to be visited upon the Jews. However, violence upon the Jews was also initiated in places here there was no Soviet violence. Furthermore, nationalists envisioned a fight against communism as a fight against the Jews, and so we end with mass killings of Jews by many, many local German collaborators. Most active among them were policemen and others who had been imprisoned under the Soviets or lost relatives to them.

This point reinforces Timothy Snyder’s thesis (in Bloodlands) that the violence was worst where German and Soviet regimes overlapped.

In the postwar era, peoples and borders were moved to make homogeneous areas. The removal of multiculturalism, as we understand it, led to stability (not a solution we like to think about in multicultural Canada).

The violence in that part of the world, says Prusin, was so bad because it was initiated by the state and exacerbated by popular participation. In other words, it was total war.

Prusin states that things have calmed down in the region, but there are still dangerous historic legacies. First, the new countries (Baltics, Poland and Ukraine) have attempted to define themselves in terms of territory, ethnicity, and citizenship as they did after WW1. Indeed the Canadian writer, Anna Porter, has pointed out that the right wing is rising in central Europe, and signs of right-wing extremism are rising in the borderlands as well.

Second, the entire area is dependent on Soviet natural resources. Therefore, although the states are democratic and independent, they are torn between the globalization of the West in the EU and subservience to the East’s oil and gas.

The place remains inherently vulnerable to outside forces.