In an uncompromising novel, post-war Lithuania receives its due
Antanas Sileika and I must have been reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin at about the same time and for more or less the same reasons. It is a formidable work of history that deals with the deliberate mass murder of civilians in the territory that covers eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics—the “Bloodlands” of Snyder’s title, the borderlands of Sileika’s novel Underground. It is an area where about 14 million people were killed by a variety of methods, including starvation, shooting, beatings, torture and freezing to death on the way to labour camps in Poland or the gulag. Contrary to the remembered image of the Germans’ planned, mechanized genocide of the Jews, most of the killing in the East took place at close quarters: human beings killing other, defenceless, often naked, human beings, without horror or even regret. This is the setting of Sileika’s novel, Underground.
It takes place in Lithuania, a country so often ruled by foreign powers that it usually existed only in the memories of its stubborn inhabitants. Along with the conquering armies of Teutonic knights, Swedes, Russians, Napoleon’s armies, Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen and the Soviet armies, came death. “Death came by this way very often, fording the river Nemunas to kill again and again.”
The novel begins during a brief respite between killings—the period between the two world wars—and continues through the time the West assumed the Second World War was over and everyone could return to rebuilding their lives. Germany was provided with the Marshall Plan and a chance to rise from the ashes once the Nuremberg Trials were over and the Allied armies withdrew. But east of what became known as the Iron Curtain there was no such tidy end to the calamities of the preceding years. Here, the Nazi killings were followed by the Soviet killings. It took the West some years to realize that the lands they had so lightly conceded to Stalin were ruled by thugs answerable to a homicidal madman.
Underground’s hero, Lukas, is a literature student at the university of Kaunas when the Reds take over. The country is terrorized by Soviet demands for food and ideological conformity. The Chekist enforcers—members of the ubiquitous secret services—are aided by an increasing number of collaborators who join up in hopes of personal benefits or fear of the consequences of refusal. The only resistance left in Lithuania is the partisans. Lukas joins them partly to take care of his otherworldly seminarian brother. During the months that follow, Lukas adapts to the harsh life of the forest bunkers, the hunger, the knowledge of being hunted, but his brother does not. While Lukas becomes a crack shot and a useful member of the group, his brother determines that he could not kill even if his own life depended on it. As it turns out, both of their lives depend on killing and only Lukas survives.
One of the defining themes of the novel is the justification of violence. How far should a moral person go to defend himself and those he loves? The debate between the brothers remains an open question but, ultimately, the young seminarian chooses not to raise his weapon to return fire. Lukas plans and executes the multiple killings of drunken Chekists and “slayers,” guests at a fake engagement party. Ironically, he falls in love with the young woman who is his partner in the partisan executions, marries her and would settle for a normal life, except that the engagement party has made such folk heroes of the young couple that even travelling together would be lethal.
All they can hope for are snatched moments of happiness that end in the tragedy of Elena’s death. I don’t want to reveal the whole truth about her death; suffice it to say both Lukas and the reader believe she has been killed.
Lukas is sent to Sweden to deliver letters to the Lithuanian government-in-exile, the pope and various western governments. He is shocked to find that life goes on in relative comfort in Stockholm and Paris, that people sit in sidewalk cafés and drink coffee from small china cups while only a few hundred kilometres away his friends’ decomposing bodies are displayed in town squares as a warning to citizens. It is the same astonishment that Polish poet Czesław Miłosz felt when he wrote that the man of the East could not take Americans seriously because they had not undergone the same experiences. After escaping to Austria in December 1956, I remember my surprise that people could take hot showers and go to the opera in Vienna while Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian revolution. I was stunned by the seeming indifference of newspapers and still hopeful that “the Americans” would come to the rescue. That same sense of irrational optimism that “they” would come to help kept so many Lithuanian partisans fighting until their deaths.
It took the arrival of the Polish pope for anyone in Rome to express much interest in the countries behind the Iron Curtain, and western governments, as Sileika points out, had nothing to gain from supporting a ragtag underground army of resistance fighters. For most of the post-war years, they assumed anyone opposing Stalin must be a fascist and their intellectuals were sympathetic to communism. Even now, as I read Bloodlands, and Tony Judt’s magisterial Postwar, it is difficult for those of us from the East, to understand the willful ignorance that prevailed in the West until the late 1950s.
In Underground, another Lithuanian who has tried to interest western governments in the struggles on the other side of the Iron Curtain explains: “The world looks different from this place. You’ll see. The first thing you have to learn is that everything important to you is unimportant here. Nobody knows who you are. Nobody cares. The ones who do know about you sold you to Stalin.”
While he does fall in love and marry again, Lukas, a hero on the immigrant lecture circuit, fails to adapt to life in the West. He is haunted by memories of Elena and his old comrades. Like so many who had fled to the sparkling cities of the other Europe and the United States, he felt like “an anachronism.”
By 1950, when Lukas returns to his homeland, the partisans have all but disappeared. The resistance that had once numbered in the thousands is down to a few men who cannot or will not give in. The rest have been killed, taken to Siberia or joined the Reds. The population, as that of the other Soviet-ruled lands, has been frightened into silent, taciturn acceptance. The partisans are now just stories of another era’s heroes and great deeds. As Lukas says toward the end of the book, “we killed so many, and what good did it do us?”
He appears to answer his own question at the beginning of the chapter entitled “Canada–Lithuania August 1989”: “The old stories stayed underground in Lithuania, and others like them in Estonia and Latvia, in Poland and Ukraine and other places. As for knowledge of them in the West, they were forgotten in the malls, suburbs and high-rises of America. A generation of immigrant children grew up and joined the mainstream, forgetting.” Well, not quite, as the thin threads that connect to those old stories pull the new generation back to the past and, in the end, even the questions about Lukas and Elena are finally answered.
As for Antanas Sileika, a child of Lithuanian immigrants, he has written a tough, uncompromising book and brought those forgotten stories back to life.