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flourishes in Lafayette hills

Catholic Women of the Year lauded by Catholic Charities

CCISCO joins campaign urging lenders to restructure home mortgages

New superintendent of schools named

New documentary chronicles Soviet terror in Baltic republics and Lithuanian resistance

Students find inspiration for art
in new cathedral’s unique shape

Ten local non-profit groups receive major grants from CCHD

Chef to prepare four-course dinner
as benefit for Kitchen of Champions

J.S. Paluch Co. offers workshops Nov. 13
on various aspects of parish ministry

Scholarly works on Jesus offer complementary perspectives

Low-budget film a hit with marriage advocates

L.A. parishioner writes
‘talking Bible’ storybook

Oakland businessman named interim
president of St. John’s University

White House report aims to keep
inner-city Catholic schools open

Economy no excuse to delay solving health care crisis, CHA head says

Catholics, Muslims
to open new chapter
in religious dialogue

Honduran women travel to Mexico
in search of their missing relatives

OBITUARY: Brother Joseph Jerome Gallegos, F.S.C.

placeholder November 3, 2008   •   VOL. 46, NO. 20   •   Oakland, CA

Slave laborers were forced to work in Siberia where the winter temperature often dropped to 30-40 degrees below zero. Millions died of exposure and hunger.
All photos courtesy of Father David O’Rourke

New documentary chronicles Soviet terror
in Baltic republics and Lithuanian resistance

Click to see related story below:
Retired Bay Point pastor and
a Berkeley parishioner recall
Stalin’s rule of Lithuania

Two Dominicans spend years
building trust, gaining access
to historic records, photos

Most Americans know little or nothing about the half-century Soviet occupation of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Fewer still perhaps know of the Soviet use of terror, forced deportation, slave labor, mock trials, torture and execution as a matter of government policy in order to keep the Baltic nationals under their iron rule.

President Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania (left) stands with Dominican Father David O’Rourke, one of the two priest producers of “Red Terror on the Amber Coast.” Adamkus appears in the film and has endorsed it. Father O’Rourke is director of The Tatra Project (www.tatraproject.org), which provides educational resources and media on life under the former Soviet Union.

Dominican Father David O’Rourke, a canon lawyer for the Oakland Diocese and parochial administrator of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Point Richmond, is out to change all that. He and a fellow Dominican, Father Ken Gumbert of Providence College, have collaborated to produce a documentary film that they hope will reach millions of American viewers through their local public broadcasting affiliates.

The film, “Red Terror on the Amber Coast,” looks back at the Soviet occupation of the Baltic republics and the Lithuanian resistance movement between 1939, shortly before the first Soviet occupation began, and 1993, when the last of the Russian army left the country. The story is told largely through interviews with Lithuanians who lived through the years of terror, including former prisoners and the “Forest Brethren” resistance fighters who stood up to the Soviet oppressors.

The inspiration for the film project came together almost by accident. Father O’Rourke studied and taught at Lithuania’s Vilnius University during the 2000-01 academic year and helped set up a family life program for the local diocese. Walking through the downtown area one afternoon, he came to the former KGB (Soviet secret police) headquarters, which in the days of the occupation doubled as a prison where the accused were interrogated, tortured, and sometimes killed. Inexplicably, the building was not locked, and he wandered inside for an impromptu self-tour.

On the night of June 14, 1941, one out of every 100 men, women and children was deported in cattle cars from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Siberia. This is one of the few surviving photographs of that deportation.

“For two hours I went from cell to cell, alone and in absolute silence,” said Father O’Rourke. “It was one of the most chilling experiences of my life.”

At the same time, Father Gumbert was on sabbatical in Czechoslovakia, making a documentary on the Soviet takeover in that nation after the Communist putsch (surprise revolt, or coup d’etat) of 1948. (That film, “Saving Grace,” later won a 2005 Gabriel Award from the Catholic Media Association.) The two priests got together and began investigating the little-heralded genocide that took place in the Baltic republics.

“We were given full access to the country’s film and photo archives,” said Father O’Rourke. These archives included photos of the Forest Brethren, victims of the oppression and Soviet propaganda films.

Getting the people to tell their personal stories was far more difficult, he said.
“I did not know Lithuanian, and I actually worked in the KGB archives for several years before the people were willing to discuss matters with me,” he said. “They were not ready to trust an American coming in from the outside because there were so many American carpetbaggers in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union that it took them awhile to realize that my intentions were not exploitative. That took several years. Even as a priest, I was seen as an American first.”

It was a common saying among the slave laborers on the railroads that for each railroad tie that was laid, one slave laborer died.

It was not until 2006 that the two Dominicans — Father Gumbert, the filmmaker, and Father O’Rourke, the writer — were ready to return with a camera crew for the videotaped interviews.

“It took a long time to write the film,” explained Father O’Rourke. “The film we have was not what we started out to do four years earlier. We started out to tell a story about the “partisan” resistance, but as we began interviewing people we found that the “partisans” were just one part of a much bigger story about the Soviet use of terror as the key element in state-sponsored control.”

A history of oppression

The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were among several nations that gained their independence from Russia after World War I ended in 1918. In late August 1939, Germany and Russia signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact — sometimes called the Hitler-Stalin Pact or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — a mutual non-aggression agreement that pledged neutrality should either nation wage war against a third party and secretly divided Poland, Finland, the Baltic states and others in the region as German or Russian “spheres of influence.”

The move was a surprise, as Nazis and Communists had clashed in the past and remained mortal enemies. Within a week of that pact, on Sept. 1, Adolph Hitler’s Germany attacked Poland from the west; 16 days later, the Soviets invaded Poland from the east.

The KGB placed the bodies of executed partisans in public, then watched for reactions of shock and grief in order to discover family members who were then arrested or their farmsteads burned to the ground.

By mid-October, the Josef Stalin-led Soviet Union had forced Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to sign agreements allowing the Soviets to set up military bases and place tens of thousands of troops in each of these countries, ostensibly to defend the Baltic republics from potential aggressors in the now-raging war.
Soviets invade Baltic nations

In June 1940, nearly simultaneous with the fall of Paris to Germany, the Soviets invaded and occupied all three Baltic nations with a combined force of a half-million troops. Powerless to defend themselves, the three states allowed their armies to be disarmed, made additional concessions, and were forced to participate in sham elections that installed communist majorities in their parliaments. These parliaments then petitioned for and were granted annexation to the Soviet Union.

The deportations and genocide soon began with “decapitation,” a policy that called for the arrest and deportation or execution of the nation’s political, social and cultural elite. Ordinary citizens were also targeted. The worst of it was a massive sweep orchestrated on June 13, 1941, in which tens of thousands of Baltic civilians and their families were arrested.

Herded to the railway stations, the men, women and children were separated and packed into cattle cars destined for any of the more than 400 forced-labor camps, collective farms, prisons and inhabitable places of exile in Siberia. Many would die there of abuse and starvation; most would never return.

It was those in leadership whom Stalin was primarily determined to eliminate, “anybody who was a custodian of the national sense and national identity — teachers, scientists, artists, philatelists,” said Father O’Rourke.

If the elimination of cultural leaders and mass deportations by rail car are reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s tactics during World War II, it is no coincidence: Hitler learned how to carry out a genocide by observing Stalin’s methods over the previous decades in Russia.

“Hitler was very derivative. He was not very imaginative,” said Father O’Rourke. “Everything he did he learned from Stalin.”

A heavy toll

Within a year of the Soviet occupation, nearly 125,000 Baltic men, women and children had been killed, conscripted into the Soviet military, or sent to the labor camps; among these were approximately 60,000 Estonians, 35,000 Latvians, and 30,000 Lithuanians. By war’s end, an estimated 780,000 Lithuanians had been killed, deported or displaced.

In June 1941, Hitler’s Germany sent 4.5 million troops to attack Russia and took control of substantial territory, including the Baltic states. Some Lithuanians backed Germany for pushing out the Soviets but soon found that the Nazis also had genocidal designs. Most of the remaining Jews were killed or sent to concentration camps.

After the Soviet army repelled the Nazi forces and reoccupied the Baltics, there were further repercussions against Lithuanians suspected of having supported the Germans. This time, however, there was substantial resistance: A ragtag band of some 100,000 Lithuanian “partisans” called the Forest Brethren who operated out of a network of forested bunkers waged an impressive rebellion against the Soviet army and the KGB secret police.

Although a fifth of these partisans were killed and most of the rest captured and deported, they gave inspiration and hope to Lithuanians longing for the return of their independence.

Religious and ethnic repression continued for decades, although little word of it went outside the country save for an underground magazine, “Chronicles of the Catholic Church in Lithuania,” which was sent to a select mailing list at irregular intervals. It documented ongoing instances of arrests, human rights violations, deportations and atrocities.

The perils of forgetting history

The Soviet system collapsed in the late 1980s, and the Republic of Lithuania officially regained its independence in March 1990. The Soviet occupation, however, continued: The last tank rolled out of the country in 1993.

Still, Father O’Rourke and many Lithuanians are concerned that those days of Russian dominance of the Baltic states could return. The recent Russian aggression against Georgia only serves to reinforce that concern.

“The Russian tanks are only 40 miles away from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius,” said the Dominican. “As [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has made clear, they want to come back, and there’s talk of them reincorporating Belarus as well. Russian imperialism is not dead.”

Some fear the reversal could come from within as well. “Lithuania has an election coming up in November, and the Russians have been pumping huge amounts of oil money to support pro-Soviet candidates,” he said.

“There is a fear that they could elect a pro-Soviet candidate to be president. It happened once before, and he was impeached after two years.” That was Rolandas Paksas, who was voted out of office by parliament in 2004. Among the charges against him was his questionable ties and leaking of classified material to a Russian businessman who had heavily backed his presidential campaign.

The current president of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus, appears in “Red Terror on the Amber Coast” and has endorsed the film. He has said he would have it broadcast on national television.

Getting the program onto television in the United States is more challenging, but Fathers O’Rourke and Gumbert have made it available to PBS stations nationwide and hope at least to have it shown on public television in some of the major metropolitan areas — with the help of Lithuanian-Americans everywhere.

“The Lithuanian people I’ve shown the film to are very moved that their story is finally being told,” said Father O’Rourke. “They have the sense that no one knows what happened to them and no one cares.

“They were abandoned and left alone, betrayed by the West,” he added. “They’re afraid it will happen again, and they want people to know what’s happened to them, so as not to repeat it.”  

Retired Bay Point pastor and a Berkeley
parishioner recall Stalin’s rule of Lithuania

By Gerald Korson
Voice correspondent

The years of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania (1939-1993) are part of the personal history for hundreds of Lithuanian-Americans who today reside in the greater Bay Area, including the Diocese of Oakland.

Father Theo Palis

Among them is Father Theo Palis, the retired pastor emeritus of Our Lady Queen of the World Parish in Bay Point. A native of Geruliai, Lithuania, he was already pursuing his priestly vocation when, within the first year of World War II,the Soviet Union annexed and occupied the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.

“I was in the seminary already, studying philosophy, and they kicked us out,” Father Palis said of the Soviets. “A year later, Hitler suddenly attacked Russia and beat back the Russians.”

The German army soon began rounding up Jews, executing them in mass graves; tragically, some groups of Lithuanians did the same, reportedly angered that some Jews, who had been afraid that the Nazis would invade the country first, had welcomed Stalin’s Red Army and thus were seen as Communist sympathizers. By 1944, the tide of the war had turned again as the Soviets beat back the Germans and reoccupied the Baltic states.

The young seminarian escaped to Germany in order to continue his formation for the priesthood. By that time, he had just one year to go before ordination.

The devastation of war

It was a difficult trip. He and a fellow seminarian rode bicycles to catch a train heading east and south, joining the overfilled passenger cars, standing on the steps and hanging on to the rails for dear life. They went from station to station — Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad), Berlin, Leipzig, Bamberg — sleeping on floors, dodging German police, often passing near and through areas still aflame from the devastation of war.

Finally arriving in Bavaria, he met up with a German professor and chaplain who helped get them admitted to the seminary in Eichstatt. He was ordained there in 1945

“I served in a parish in Bavaria and was also a chaplain at the displaced persons’ camp in Dinkelbühl, near Augsburg,” Father Palis told The Catholic Voice. “I used to go there on Sundays to say Mass and hear confessions.”

He did not try to return to Lithuania at that time. “Germany was my home already,” he said, “so I stayed there.” Not that it mattered: A year later, his hometown of Geruliai was leveled to make way for a new collective farm.
Father Palis eventually made his way to the United States, serving for a time in Michigan and Oregon before coming to the Bay Area. He was a member of the original diocesan clergy when the Diocese of Oakland was established in 1962.
None of his immediate family suffered deportation, but Father Palis was not able to return to his homeland for 45 years. “When [Soviet Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev gave freedom, I was able to go to Moscow and Lithuania,” he said. He has since been back several times to visit his sole surviving brother — Justenias, a longtime high school chemistry teacher — and the graves of his parents.

Danute Januta, who attends Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley, was just 2 years old when her family fled Lithuania in 1944, just as the Germans were retreating and the Russians were returning for another reign of terror. She has no personal memories of her home country, but she has learned much from the recollections of her parents, relatives and others who lived through it all.

“My parents left Lithuania in 1944 with me, their precious photo albums, some food and clothes, some of which were later bartered for food,” Januta told The Voice. “The refugees expected to return to their homelands to rebuild when the war was over, but the Nazi-Soviet pact erased that possibility.”

Januta’s family spent some time in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany, where her younger sister, Giedra, was born two years after their escape. The family finally was able to emigrate to the United States in 1950 and settled in Los Angeles four years later.

“Ours is not a unique story: It is common to many thousands of families who fled their homeland and then could not return,” Januta said. “Though many of my friends were only kids at the time of our arrival in the United States, the words ‘huddled masses yearning to be free’ has plenty of meaning for us.”
That phrase from the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty provides an apt description as well for the Baltic state residents who stayed behind.

Januta’s family was not spared the trauma of having loved ones sent to labor camps. “One of my mother’s brothers, Jonas, was deported to Siberia, to a place called Karaganda,” she said. Karaganda, then a coal-mining outpost but since abandoned, was located seven miles north of the city of the same name in present-day Kazakhstan. “He continued to live there after conditions improved and might have formed a second family there.”

Finally home

Separation from their Lithuanian homeland was difficult. “One thing I remember so well is that my mother, Ona, suffered for years after leaving Lithuania from not knowing if her mother was still alive,” said Januta. “Only after Stalin’s death [in 1953] did people dare to start writing each other and try to reconstruct friendships and relationships, using the most careful of language, fearing to cause harm to the addressee, because of the political paranoia still very much alive in all of the Soviet-occupied lands at the time.”

After Januta’s father died in 1999 at the age of 96, she and Giedra took his ashes to his birthplace in Kudirkos Naumiestis and interred his ashes in the cemetery alongside his parents and siblings. They did the same for her mother, in her home village of Pikelionys, when she passed away in 2006, also at 96.
“She met up with her mother only after death,” Januta said. “My mother never visited after Lithuania became independent — partly because she was sedentary, partly because of health, and also maybe to keep the land of her youth unchanged in her memory. She did write thousands of letters over the years… not only to her three brothers and one sister while they lived, but also to their children and even her two best friends from teachers’ college.”

Januta said she had the “good fortune” to meet many of her mother’s correspondents during her visits to Lithuania, the first of which took place in 1974.

Making those connections “filled a real emotional need, common to many displaced persons of my generation,” she said.

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