This is an extract from the book “We Thought We'd Be Back Soon. 18 Stories of Refugees 1940-1944” (compiled and edited by Dalia Stakė Anysas, Dalia Cidzikaitė and Laima Petrauskas VanderStoep, published by Aukso žuvys, 2017). The book is an impressive collection of reminiscences about emigration by Lithuanians to the West during World War II. The conversations with émigrés that are central to the book bring new knowledge about wartime reality and provide insight into the meanings of home and place, and the social impact of the geopolitical upheaval when the state’s sovereignty is annihilated.
We Thought We'd Be Back Soon

Juozas Meškauskas

I Left With Only My Suit

Juozas Meškauskas was born into a farming family on July 21, 1905. He completed his medical studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas in 1937; from 1941 to 1944 he was dean of the medical school at the university. In 1944, when the German army confiscated the school's medical equipment and evacuated it to Germany, he was granted permission to accompany the equipment on the train. He never returned to Lithuania. In 1949 he and his family arrived in Chicago, where, after passing the certification examination, he opened a private medical practice. Dr. Juozas Meškauskas was active throughout his life in Lithuanian Catholic and medical organizations. He died on October 21, 2010, at the age of 104. /Laima Petrauskas VanderStoep conducted the interview on October 9, 1996./

When did you leave Lithuania?

July 24, 1944.

Why did you decide to leave?

That's a rather complicated question. As the war progressed and the army of the Soviet Union approached, the Germans wanted to evacuate the equipment of our medical school. Kaunas was almost empty by then, the buses weren't running, but I still had patients in the clinic and was seeing them. A custodian at the medical school ran up and told me that Dr. Balys Matulionis, the Director of Public Health, and some German were waiting for me, since I was the dean of the medical school. I walked (the buses weren't running) to where I met Dr. Matulionis and a colonel in the German army whose last name was Sartorius. He told me that in order to keep our property safe they wanted to evacuate all the medical school's property: instruments, equipment, and library. I didn't want that and tried to explain there were no people left to pack all the equipment and books into boxes. He said that their unit had everything necessary, boxes and men, and that they would be at the medical school at 3 o'clock to pack everything up. And he said that they intended to take the equipment from the clinic as well. I managed to find several people, among them pharmacology professor Šaulys, then Dr. Vladas Kairiūkštis appeared and a custodian whose name I no longer remember. I asked them to hide our most valuable microscopes and other equipment the best they could. I myself participated in this activity. We carried the microscopes to the Forensic Medicine Department's auditorium where two cadavers had been kept for two weeks. Since it was summertime, you can imagine how it smelled. I was sure the Germans wouldn't stick their noses in there. We carried everything, the microscopes and the most valuable equipment, into that auditorium and hid them. We also carried some to the Anatomy Institute; since there weren't any cadavers there at the time, we hid the equipment in the empty cadaver boxes. I asked the others to continue the work and left them to carry on. I returned to the clinic and announced that our property there was going to be taken. We didn't have much equipment in the clinic—just a couple of microscopes that we took across the street to the Jesuit residence and hid them there. That's how we hid things as well as we could.

How much time did you have for all that?

Several hours, from about 10 until 3. At 3 o'clock, because that's when they said they'd be there, I returned to the medical school building. A German army unit arrived, maybe some eight or 10 men; they brought boxes into which they began to pack the equipment. I noticed right away that the equipment as such was of no interest to them; only the metal mattered. They were especially interested in brass, platinum, and copper. Whenever they saw any of those, they took the part without bothering to take the whole apparatus. Of course, they weren't able to take apart the microscopes. They took microscopes from the Pathology Institute, the Physiology Institute, and the Anatomy Institute. Not a single Lithuanian helped pack the boxes, only the German soldiers. They had said they would leave from the train station on July 24. It was July 22, 1944. I wanted to know where they were taking our property, and Colonel Sartorius told me they would take it to Trakėnai, where they would unload it. I asked him to allow me to accompany the shipment on the train because I wanted to know where it would be unloaded. I also asked him to allow my assistants to come along. Among them were Dr. Jonas Adomavičius, senior assistant at the Internal Medicine Clinic; the junior obstetrics-gynecology assistant Dr. Kyras; and Dr. Adomavičius's brother, Vladas Adomavičius, who was still a student then.

On the evening of July 24 we left the Kaunas station over the railroad's Žaliasis Bridge, which had already been mined. The train moved very slowly over the bridge on the way to Trakėnai. We passed Trakėnai. I asked the conductor why, and he told me there were no tracks there for stopping; the train couldn't stop and unload goods. We went on through Karaliaučius [then Ger. Königsberg, now Rus. Kaliningrad] and Marienburg [now Malbork, Poland] and reached the harbor at Danzig [now Gdańsk, Poland] in the course of a week. At Danzig harbor our property was unloaded into some kind of storage shed, and the man in charge told me that our "mission" was over, do as you please. Walking through the city square in Danzig, we heard over the radio that Kaunas had been taken by the Russian army. That meant there was no going back for us now.

So you didn't return?

I didn't return. [He then talks about earlier events.]

Germans had persistently tried to close the university the entire time, and had made a serious effort at it. After the Provisional Government was disbanded Dr. Pranas Germantas was appointed the Adviser for Education.[1] It was said that he sympathized with the Germans, that he had repatriated.[2] I'm not sure if he stayed because he had been studying there, but he was in Germany during the Russian occupation and showed up in Lithuania with the Germans during the war. Some of us were suspicious at first and thought he was a German collaborator, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. He was a "Žemaitis" [from the western part of Lithuania], a staunch Lithuanian, and persistently fought for Lithuanian interests in the area of education, for Lithuanian schools and universities—in Kaunas as well as in Vilnius. And the students organized petitions to keep the universities open. When closure was threatened during 1941-1942 in Kaunas, students presented a 650-page petition with 43,216 signatures to the Adviser for Education via the university rector. Students at Vilnius University collected 30,260 signatures on 284 pages and likewise presented their petition through their rector to Kubiliūnas, the General Adviser who in turn, presented it to the Adviser for Education. I don't know what happened later to these petitions, but the universities stayed open.

On August 25, 1942, Dr. Germantas, the Adviser, was ordered to summon the university administration and appear along with them before the Gestapo, so we went there. If you're interested, the following people gathered [reads aloud]: "Present at the Gestapo office were Adviser for Education Dr. Pranas Germantas, five Vytautas Magnus University senators, Rector Juozas Zupkus, Dean of the School of Medicine Juozas Meškauskas, Dean of the School of Structural Engineering Stasys Kairys, Dean of the Philosophy Department historian Zenonas Ivinskis, Secretary of the Senate Jonas Grinius, and Vilnius University Vice-Rector Domas Krivickas." The meeting was chaired by Dr. Müler, the Gestapo representative, who urged us to comply and encourage students to join the Arbeitsdienst [work groups for forced labor that supported the war effort]. We employed all sorts of arguments to show that it was necessary to keep the students in the universities. I was the last to speak, saying we needed physicians because it was wartime and that meant infectious diseases and so on, and we do not agree to this. Then Müler grabbed the weapon on his belt and said all higher educational institutions are being closed, all the professors and members of the university senate in the room are being arrested, and only Councilor of Education Dr. Germantas is free and able to go home. Germantas came up to me (we somehow got along well) and asked, 'How can I help?" I replied, "If you can, tell my wife where I am now." And then they put us all into a covered vehicle and took us to the hard-labor prison. We spent a week there in that prison. We sat in the prison, and they didn't do anything to us. They would bring us soup and bread, and we sat there. The students found out about it—in both Vilnius and Kaunas—and began to organize. The Germans became aware of this and didn't want such a public disturbance, so they let us go after a week. We were summoned again by Dr. Jäger, the Gestapo commandant. He gave us a lecture and said, "You can go home, but you have to prepare to help us win the war."

Can you explain why the Germans wanted to close the universities?

They wanted the young people to join the Arbeitsdienst, the work groups, and later they would incorporate the work groups into the army. Manpower was important to them. That was their primary motivation for closing the universities. First the war had to be won, and later the educational system would be reorganized. The universities continued to function. In August 1942 the Germans demanded that the Adviser issue a decree that those born between 1921 and 1924 would not be accepted to the university but had to enroll in the Arbeitsdienst. We tried to get around that decree every way we could: we kept admitting students and the universities stayed open.

How did you avoid complying with the decree?

We ignored it, simply ignored it. Relations between the Germans and Lithuanians deteriorated during the occupation, and during March 16-17, 1943, 16 individuals were arrested in Kaunas, 24 in Vilnius, 5 in Marijampolė, and 1 in Šiauliai. Altogether 46 professionals of various fields were arrested, among them 4 Advisers, 5 university professors, 4 high school principals, as well as others. From the medical school faculty, Docent [Associate Professor] Dr. Antanas Starkus was arrested. All the people arrested were taken to the Stutthof concentration camp. During the night of March 17, German police occupied and searched the university facilities, including the School of Medicine; they took over the building and closed its doors, prohibiting anyone from entering. We tolerated that closing for about a week or 10 days, but then we opened the doors and resumed our work. Other university departments observed the closure; the medical school absolutely ignored it. I signed students' course-record booklets and continued meeting with students. I asked all my professors to continue working, giving lectures and examinations—to continue functioning. I have here, for example, the course schedule for the spring of 1944 with my signature as dean.

And how did the Germans react to that?

They tolerated it. But when the fighting got closer and the Russians got closer, many Lithuanians began to flee to Germany, to leave. But documents, permits, were required to cross the border, and they were issued by the Zivilverwaltung [Ger. civil administration] in Kaunas. I requested one also, but I wasn't given a permit to cross the border. I couldn't leave.

When was that?

In the spring of 1944.

So that spring you began thinking about leaving?

Yes, having finished that semester, when everybody was fleeing I also wanted to go, but I didn't have a permit. It's interesting that when I did get out it was through a completely different kind of permission—from the military. That spring I didn't have a permit, so I was worried that I wouldn't be able to cross the border into Germany. And I became especially worried because when the Germans had first invaded, Russian secret police files of various professionals were found. A policeman, a patient of mine, brought me my file. In that file there was an entry stating that my family and I were to be deported in the second mass deportations. So it was hard for me to remain in Lithuania because I knew that I would be deported.

Coming out of the medical school, I ran into Dr. Pautienis on the sidewalk. He asks, "How are you?" I say, "Well, not so good; they won't let me leave. I applied for a permit to cross the border, but they didn't give it to me." He replies, "Wait, let's go." The Gestapo had established their headquarters in a two-story building on Kęstutis Street. We went up to the second floor, where there was a bench by a window; he says, "Sit down here." Then he went off somewhere. A few minutes later a German, a Gestapo official, came out, asked me my name, and after about 10 or 15 minutes brought out a permit.

So it was clear that the Zivilverwaltung, the Gestapo, and the German army operated separately. One didn't give me a permit, another gave me a permit, and the third gave me another one. They each operated on their own; one hand didn't know what the other was doing. So we left on the train.

(...)

Translated by Marvin (Vin) Katilius

Edited by Birutė Vaičjurgis Šležas


[1] The German occupying regime installed Lithuanian Adviser General Petras Kubiliūnas with subordinate Advisers to head departments which previously had been government ministries. See Historical Note.

[2] People who could claim German ethnicity were allowed to go to Germany after the first Soviet occupation in 1940.

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